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Lily on the Staffs & Worcester Canal 1998Her 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.

The traditional ice-breaker in this photo has been modernised and is self powered with the addition of a cabin at the rear where the engine would be housed.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.

Lily on the Staffs & Worcester Canal 1998When 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?