Thames Sailing Barge “British Empire”

About 15 years ago I got involved with a group of people intent on restoring the Thames Sailing Barge “British Empire”. For various reasons the endeavour didn’t work and the idea folded. At the time I distinctly remember visiting the barge at Battlesbridge and being able to walk on the deck, albeit treading carefully around the rotting wood.

I was greatly saddened today to return to Battlesbridge and to find the British Empire rotting and completely forgotten behind the main car park for the antiques centre. There is now no noticeable deck left and the hull is so rotten it would take a complete re-build to make anything of the craft. It looks as though it is now used as a skip for rubbish, mainly car tyres it seems, from the antiques and craft centre. Looking down into the hull of the boat was heartbreaking; the rotting deck completely broken by the rubbish hurled indiscriminately into her. She is now a rubbish tip rather then the hard-working vessel she once was.

An excerpt from the pages of the Mersea Museum website reads:

“BRITISH EMPIRE was built 1899 by Stone Bros., Brightlingsea Bros at Brightlingsea for Henry Howe of Colchester and in her earlier years was employed in taking hay to London. Official No. 109616. She was Colchester based throughout her working life and an engine was installed in 1951. She continued in trade until about 1955 when she sank loaded off Brightlingsea, her skipper at the time was Ray Green. She was raised and sold to Brown the Chelmsford timber merchant for use as a lighter in Heybridge Basin when the register was closed 3 Feb 1955. She was sold and rerigged 1978, but has finished up as a hulk at Battlesbridge.”

With the article there is a photograph of her as a Stackie being towed downstream at Colchester.

And now she lies forgotten and rotting beside a busy car park in Battlesbridge. I would guess the majority of visitors to Battlesbridge Antiques Centre have no idea of her existence just out of sight beyond the car park wall.

On the Thames Sailing Barges website, she is the only vessel listed without a photograph. That’s not to say she is the only barge that has rotted out of existence, but I had kind of hoped that one day someone would come along and rescue her for her name alone. A pipe dream perhaps; she would take more than extensive work to restore her now, she would almost have to be built again from scratch.

It was my involvement with the people who wanted to see her restored that got me more and more interested in the Thames Barges. I live near Maldon and they are an intrinsic part of the locale. They can be seen sailing up and down the Blackwater almost every day, apart from the spectacular sight of them moored at the Hythe in Maldon – something the majority of visitors to Maldon will be familiar with.

The British Empire was registered in Colchester and no doubt worked out of there most of the time, but she would have visited Maldon and surrounding farms and villages because that’s what they did.

For anyone who will have sailed on one of these marvellous vessels it is an unforgettable experience. With a draft of 6 feet and the ability to be sailed by ‘one man, a boy and his dog’ they were marvels of their time indeed.

There is another photo of her moored at Battlesbridge in better days here

Dartmoor

Dartmoor was amazing; spectacular and wildly beautiful. We arrived with the best weather you could imagine for March. Nights were cold, mornings were foggy and days were hazy in the distance but unseasonably warm.

Walks along the Teign Gorge and around Fernworthy Reservoir immersed us in Dartmoor but not as much as I would have liked. The wildness and the loneliness are dramatic and compelling. People lived up here until quite recently; we passed the remains of a farm that was only abandoned in 1950-something. There were no roads, no electricity or gas and no running water. Self-sufficiency was paramount and necessary.

Castle Drogo and Belvedere Tower (Lawrence Castle) were very impressive and Max and Angie’s wedding at Lawrence Castle was one of the best days I’ve spent with people I don’t know.

We met some lovely people in pubs and tea rooms and visited the Drewe Arms in Drewsteignton; a pub that was frozen in time about 40 years ago. The landlady retired at the age of 99 and died in 1994 at the grand old age of 101. CAMRA designated it a Heritage pub and said it should remain as it is ever after. The chip sauce made by one of the young barmaids was awesome.

A Church and a Community Shop

While we were in the Museum of Power we picked up a leaflet about the local community shop in Langford. It’s housed in St. Giles’s church! A local lady entered a competition a few years ago answering the question, ‘If you had £10,000 for your local community, what would you do with it?’ Her answer was to open a community shop in her local church. She entered on the last day of the competition and won. When she was told she had won she had to go to the local vicar and tell him what she had done and ask if he was prepared to house a shop run by volunteers in his church. Luckily he said, ‘Yes’.

The shop was manned by a salty old dog with a long white beard and a hat with a feather in the front. It turned out he’d been playing the fiddle with the Morris Men when they played outside the Chequers pub about a week ago. He made us a cup of tea and welcomed us in. The shop is in what looked like the vestry, complete with cassock hung at the back (I presume it was the vicars as it didn’t have a price label on it). I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a selection in such a small place – anything from polenta to tapenade, shoe laces to chocolate moulds, mushroom ketchup to coconut milk (3 varieties as well as coconut cream). It was a veritable Aladdin’s cave.

While we shopped we were regaled with tales of dunking sponge fingers in champagne on a French submarine and how the Victorians had extended the Norman church and left evidence of what it had once looked like. Another customer came in and we looked up politely and said, ‘Hello’ and went back to shopping. For some reason I looked up again and realised I knew the lady and hadn’t seen her in years. We did the, ‘How lovely to see you’ and ‘It’s been years’ and ‘John’s having treatment’ (I didn’t ask) and caught up with each other to the amusement of Jock (the salty old dog).

The church itself is fascinating and we did The Grand Tour. It was the only Norman church to have two rounded ends to the building at one time. The Victorians extended it at one end to square it off and added another extension to one side and a tower. On the squared extension floor they marked the curve of the old wall with tiles. On the outside wall they left an open area to reveal the start of the curved wall. At the other end of the building they placed a glass panel in the curved wall revealing the Norman stone wall under the rendering. The crypt, we were assured, still had some space left and was opened at various times of the year for viewing.

Things Done and Things To Do

Much has happened since my last entry here. Stephen moved in on December 14th as planned and we have now unpacked and sorted a large amount of belongings. It’s amazing how much you can squirrel away in a small space. There are still some boxes to unpack and things in them to find homes for but the house is more of a home than a storage warehouse now.

Moving day went without a hitch and we watched the 2 guys with the van as they carried and moved impossible weights on their own, despite offers of help from us. ‘You’re alright, we’ll do it’, was their response each time we said anything. When they’d finished unpacking we were left standing amongst a pile of boxes that filled the lounge, knowing that the boxes in the lounge were going to have to be unpacked into the lounge somewhere. Upstairs was a similar scenario; boxes everywhere and a home to be found for it all. It felt a bit daunting.

3 months on and we seem to have slipped quite naturally into living together. There are still things to iron out but all-in-all it feels like it’s always meant to be. We have things planned for the year already; Shakespeare at the Globe, some of it in Swahili and British Sign Language, camping on Dartmoor …. in a tent, the Genius of Illumination exhibition at the British Library, and Shelf Lives: 4 Centuries of Collectors and their Books at Cambridge University Library. That will be among frequent bike rides, walks on the sea wall, gathering furnishings for our Moroccan Bordello and sorting out the garden and the play room. Oh, and gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes, which seems to happen quite a lot.

I’ve also taken on the role of Chair for Maldon Art Trail. I’m still new at it but have a great committee who are all dedicated and enthusiastic. Watch this space.

Uncle Fred, Paras and Badgers

It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind of a week in one way or another. My Uncle died last Saturday and it will be his funeral tomorrow. There has been lots of to-ing and fro-ing and telephone calls and a lot of sadness. He would have been 85 this week and in March he and my Aunt would have been married 60 years. It feels like they were cheated out of that milestone. The Paras are sending a standard bearer, which my Uncle would have been immensely proud of and which is going to prove a choker on the day.

Lots of memories have been coming to the surface for me and a very comforting feeling that my Dad has been shining through me for my Aunt’s sake and for mine. For a man I knew for less than a third of my life he seems to be exerting a big influence right now. I feel like I’m there for my Aunt on his behalf and acting for him in this troubled time. He was their best man at their wedding and he’s present now too.

I keep remembering other things in my life too. It’s funny how one set of memories can set off a train of others.

Some things from about 1985/86:

–       Being stung all over my head and round my ears while mowing grass in the churchyard at Stow Maries with a petrol mower. I think the bees in the hives at the bottom end of the churchyard took exception to the petrol fumes or to the noise and came out to protest. I fell over as I ran away flapping my arms to get them off me.

–       Lying on my side and on my back painting in the names of the fallen on the War Memorial in Wickham Bishops because they had worn away over the years. I was using black enamel modeller’s paint, probably Airfix, and had trouble deciphering some of the names. I was on a back to work programme with the Job Centre at the time and got paid extra for attending community work. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I remember people stopping to talk to me about what I was doing, including a woman on a horse who showed interest too. It struck me at the time that I was doing something that meant a lot to people in the village and that there would be people who remembered some of the names on the memorial.

On our way home from Mum’s last night we made out a small animal in the headlights ahead of us in the road. At first we both thought it was a rather corpulent cat waddling along in the road. It turned out to be a badger running lazily down the middle of the road. We braked sharply and it carried on running, looking over its shoulder at us and used our lights to find its way into the verge a little way further on. Apart from being bitten by a badger some years ago, I’ve never seen one so close. It was also a first for Stephen.