This is the Barbara McLellan. She’s a 65 feet widebeam boat currently owned by the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust (KACT) and housed at Bradford on Avon wharf. During the season, you can charter the Barbara McLellan for parties and suchlike; or you can simply take a trip aboard along with fifty other contented passengers.
According to Bryan, who’s the KACT branch chairman, there’s a possibility that the Barbara McLellan was once a restaurant boat in Poole before being purchased and bequeathed to the Trust on condition they offered some free trips for certain groups, which they do. At the moment, the boat is in the process of undergoing its annual deep clean so I have the opportunity of being aboard with Bryan who’s telling me all sorts of interesting things. Actually, I have something that I think is quite interesting to tell Bryan: despite being a huge fan of canals, this is the very first time I’ve been invited aboard any type of canal boat. It’s hugely exciting but somehow, before we’ve even started the interview, I seem to have been recruited as a potential crew member for the new season.
Also aboard, are Deborah and Tony who are in the process of training to be Boatmasters. Every now and then, Bryan sets them another task and, along the way, asks a few challenging questions. Barbara and Tony have years of experience on narrowboats and have traversed many of England’s canals. However, being a Boatmaster involves far more. For a start, they have to take fire safety and water safety courses and be registered first aiders. Further, the amount of legal knowledge required seems daunting. Actually, as to the untrained eye, nothing on the Barbara McLellan is currently where it should be, finding the relevant information appears a bit problematic this morning. I have faith in these two but what do I know? They’ve got to sit an external examination set by the Marine Coastguard Agency.
Bryan, Deborah and Tony are all volunteers. Regular Donald readers will know that I like to be a little light-hearted with most of my weasels but it’s hard not to take these folk seriously. They give hours of their time and energy to making the canal the wonderful place that it is and are gracious in passing on their knowledge to one who knows nothing – me. And today, I also have my first chat with one of that rare species, the full-time paid employee.
Ian is not in a cage. I am in the cage looking out but more of that another day. Ian’s on the towpath with his measuring stick. He can measure widths and lengths.
‘What do you measure’, I ask?
‘Oh, anything really. Bridges, banks – whatever needs to be measured’. Behind all that wire and hair, there’s a bit of a twinkle in his eye. I discover that Ian is a canal inspector. He works for the Canal and River Trust, walking the towpaths with his beady, twinkling eyes alert for trouble. He tried retiring a few years ago but hated it. After that, he tried coming back on a part-time basis but that didn’t really suit either so now he’s fully employed once more. Ian lives on a barge on the Bridgewater and Taunton Canal where he’s normally based. Currently however, he’s seconded to the Kennet and Avon. He tells me a story about his own canal.
The Bridgewater and Taunton, a mere 14 miles in length, is one of the shortest canals. Despite linking two towns, it’s apparently very rural and olde worlde. So much so, that it played an important part in the television production of Wolf Hall. The stretch shown in the photograph (courtesy of the Bridgewater Mercury), was used to represent the channel leading from the Thames to the Tower of London along which Anne Boleyn travelled to Traitors Gate. Ian was in the support boat as filming took place during a murky dusk. An atmospheric mist was rising from the waters of the canal which made the producers very happy. Suddenly, something else rose without warning from the depths – the historic remains of the inside of a washing machine.
Ian roars, then looks at me more carefully. ‘Do I know you from somewhere’, he asks unexpectedly?
‘I walk along the canal quite a lot’, I suggest.
‘Oh that’ll be it then’, he says. But he doesn’t look very certain. I adjust my crown.