Her name was Lily, at least, I think I recall her name was Lily but it was a while ago and now I’m not so sure. She was the last of a line, albeit not a very long line, of nautical females for which I had a temporary passion and one which nearly came to live with me until common-sense and practicality prevailed. She was a very elderly lady, her iron hull had been built in the 1890s as a canal ice breaker and she had survived from that era until her quirky cabin had been constructed some time in the 1970s, according to her owner.
Ice breakers were simple craft, usually just a plain hull planked over the top with an upright post at each end with a pole attached to the top of the uprights. A gang of up to 20 men would stand each side of this horizontal pole and rock the boat from side to side as it was pulled along by a horse, or many horses, on the end of a rope on the canal bank, the act of rocking breaking up any ice. It was very labour intensive as can be seen in this photograph (although this is of a powered boat) but essential to keep the vital waterway links open in the depths of winter.
I was attracted to Lily on two scores, firstly because of her historical importance, not many ice-breaker boats survive and it would be interesting to own such a craft; but secondly I loved her exotic but quirky body. Obviously built to the constraints of the hull, there were two cabins, a large one which occupied the majority of the rear, and a tiny fore-cabin which had two child-sized bunks fitted crosswise. Constructed from a multitude of odd pieces of miscellania, whatever was to hand, the craft had a unique appearance which appealed to my eccentricity and I could just see myself enjoying holiday-life in such an absurd floating oddity which was less than 30ft long. My intention was to ditch the modern(ish) outboard engine and replace it with a small single-cylinder inboard diesel engine from the 1950s which would give the distinctive perdonk-perdonk sound of a vintage engine. Yes, I know that would have taken up valuable space inside the boat, but the overall effect would be much better than an outboard perched on the stern.
When I was first introduced to Lily she was not for sale; I had met her owner and his wife with their family of numerous young girls whilst on a touring holiday with my friends who live on a narrow boat. We had been invited aboard to inspect his tiny craft and whilst I drooled over the insane eccentricities I heard myself saying that if ever he decided to sell to please contact me as I would be seriously interested. The telephone call didn’t come for about a year and when it did I was in a bit of a quandary, we had just discussed the possibility of the necessity of selling our large house in Southerndown and that is where I would have transported it to restore and make the alterations. Nevertheless I made arrangements to view and went along to look in detail at all the behind-the-scenes stuff I hadn’t seen on my previous encounter, looking for hull leaks and other nasty surprises that may be in store for me; there were none, apart from some minor body leaks her hull was sound.
I went away with a dilemma, through my narrow boat owner friends I was able to establish a few moorings where I could keep the boat but at nearly three hours away from home not much restoration was going to be done at weekends. In addition I really needed it to be out of the water to make the necessary alterations to fit the vintage engine, prop-shaft and rudder and with the impending sale of our large premises, where this work could easily be carried out, I sadly came to the conclusion this purchase was not to be. In the end, the sale of our house didn’t take place until six years later but I wonder what became of Lily?