Words and photos: Tim Coghlan
Actors and boaters Tim and Pru are not the only ones to make Great Canal Journeys. And whereas those engaging octogenarians have now retired from the fray, Sculptor – the octogenarian historic narrowboat owned and operated by the Canal Museum at Stoke Bruerne – is once again out and about, now that Covid restrictions have been lifted.
Its travels in the last 12 months stand equal to those of many a narrowboat enthusiast. And they were all meticulously logged by devoted volunteer Kathryn Doddington, whose aunt was one of the wartime canal volunteers – the ‘Idle Women’.
As a warm-up, Sculptor came for the mini Braunston Historic Narrowboat Rally on September, 5, 2021, where it found itself in the company of six former working narrowboats. All went well and Sculptor returned to Stoke Bruerne to prepare for the big one, the run up to Northwich on the River Weaver where an extensive programme of overdue repairs – held back by Covid – would now be carried out at Yarwood’s Yard.
This is only yards from where the boat was built by W J Yarwood & Sons Ltd in 1935. Little survives of that once great small ship and narrowboat building yard, but the dry dock does. It is located under a railway bridge, which probably accounts for its survival, and it is now operated by Mike Carter, one of the great experts in these matters.
On October 31, 2021 – when most boaters are thinking of closing down for the winter – volunteer Rob Westlake, 71, and a crew of two from the Canal & River Trust set off from Stoke Bruerne, heading north in all the hours of daylight left. Their route took them up the Grand Union to Braunston, then north up the Oxford and Coventry Canals to Fazeley, then up the Trent & Mersey to the Anderton Lift and on to the River Weaver and Yarwood’s Yard. Here they arrived eight days later on November 8, having beaten all the stoppages. Their one concession to comfort was staying the nights at pre-booked hotels, where they could also enjoy dinner and breakfast and most of all, that bath.
The works, including blasting the hull back to bare metal, required repairs and a full repaint top and bottom, were finally completed, and by July 2022 the boat was ready to move to specialist repairers at the CRT yard at Ellesmere Port for further works to the keelson and more.
By then the Anderton Lift was pronounced out of service, so it was necessary for Rob and his team to take Sculptor down the Trent & Mersey and then a short run up the Manchester Ship Canal, locking up to the yard and canal museum at Ellesmere Port, where the repairs could be seen by visitors as real living history.
In all, Sculptor was there for some eight weeks. Then on October 16 it was time to begin the even Greater Canal Journey south to Stoke Bruerne ‘by another way’. First there was the sentimental journey down the Shropshire Union, where post-Second World War, Sculptor had been given a new 40-year lease of life as a canal maintenance boat until 1985. (It was then decided to make it a working exhibit for the Canal Museum at Stoke Bruerne, having first been refitted to its original build at Ellesmere Port.)
There then followed a dog leg up the ‘Wolverhampton 21’ and through the middle of Birmingham, then out on the North Stratford Canal, where a team of volunteers were waiting to ‘fly’ them down the Lapworth Flight.
This marked the end of the CRT crew, volunteer lock keepers and hotels. Rob Westlake and friend Alyn Jones took over, sleeping on board in the old way, but eating their dinner ashore in the places where they tied up. There were hardly any other boats now moving and the pair of them had to manage the Hatton Flight on their own, and likewise pretty well all the wide locks back to Stoke Bruerne.
Sculptor arrived at Braunston Marina on the late afternoon of October 25, where we provided a mooring and our shower facilities. Rob was complaining of some engine problems he was experiencing with the c1960 Lister HA2 engine – but I thought it was doing pretty well and could limp back.
But we arranged for our neighbour Paul Renshaw, who specialises in vintage engines, to come and look at it the following morning. By midday the boat was okay to get going and by the following evening it had emerged at the southern end of the Blisworth Tunnel, ready for the well-planned celebrations the following morning.
A regional BBC TV crew on hand to film Sculptor’s return had decided they wanted the articulate Kathryn Doddington to front it – with her fine canal pedigree of that Second World War auntie and her strong New Zealand accent. So in the finest tradition of what you see is not necessarily true, once the camera team were ready, Kathryn reversed Sculptor back into the tunnel, assisted by Julia Morgan – from Australia and now working for CRT. Now it is a strict CRT rule that its boats are always double-crewed, but after the first take, it was decided that Kathryn would look better steering the boat on her own.
For the retake, Julia had to hide in the hold. It gave the dramatic effect required, Kathryn resembling a canal Valkyrie as, with speed and fixed determination, she then steered Sculptor back to its old mooring, outside the museum – just a little short of a year after it had set off. And there to help tie the boat up was Rob Westlake, who didn’t seem to mind. Yeah, he’s a good bloke, is our Rob!