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Opera North - The Little Greats

The Man Who Makes Canal Boats

4 August 17 words: Georgianna Scurfield

When I picture myself retiring, I imagine an armchair, a cuppa, and Countdown on the telly box. Maybe I’ll have a hobby: card making or gardening; nothing too strenuous. What I definitely don’t expect to do is start a business making narrow boats. But that’s exactly what James Blackburn has decided to do in his twilight years. Yep, he’s decided to make two of ‘em a year. Just because...

illustration: Natalie Owen

James creates his floating homes at a workshop in Newark. It’s here, under florescent yellow lighting, that he spends his days sawing, sanding, carving, varnishing and crafting each boat. With twelve already in his portfolio, I visited him two weeks from finishing his thirteenth. As I looked at the boat towering above me on dry land, it was hard to imagine where you’d start.

“A lot of people say ‘I wouldn’t know where to begin’. You actually work your way from the base; from the bottom of the floor, which has to be ballasted out with bricks. You put in four-to-five tonnes of bricks right at the bottom, and then you put your softwood bearers to take your floor. Then you put your floor in, and a chap will come and spray-foam the insulation in a day. It’ll suddenly change from being a very dark hole to a bright, white-foam interior.”

Turning this bright, white interior into a home is where James’ skills shine the most. Every inch of space within a narrow boat has to be utilised and carefully planned. A settee turns into a dining table and chairs, and the dining table and chairs turn into a double bed. It takes skill, planning and patience, as well as a seriously keen eye for detail; and not the kind found on every job application ever.

James has a passion and love for his craft. “Although I was qualified as an engineer and spent twenty years in engineering, I’ve always favoured woodwork. I’ve done it ever since I left school; woodturning or making furniture for the home.

“I absolutely love it, and I really look forward to coming here. In fact, I lie awake at night and think ‘What am I going to do tomorrow? Oh, I know, I’ll make the steps for the bunks. I’ll do this, that and the other, and I’ll make the dining table.’ Or it could be the electrics, or the plumbing. And it changes, each boat has been quite different. I just really enjoy doing it.”

The boat he’s currently building is a bit special. Instead of watching as it glides off into the sunset with its new owner, this boat is for James, his wife and his family to enjoy themselves.

“I always preach that when you’re buying a boat, you want one that is universally acceptable. But where I’ve differed on this one to all the other boats is that I’ve put an intermediate bunk room where the grandchildren can sleep, so you don’t have to go to bed when they do. I quite like the look of them; they look rather comfortable.”

It takes James six months to complete one boat. “There’s not much pressure when you’re on a six-month work cycle for completion. The day is your own; you can work as long as you want, you can wrap it up if it’s cold and miserable, and you can call it a day when it starts to get dark and the lighting isn’t good. Then you make it up later on in the year. It all comes together.”

The most difficult and nerve-racking part for James is getting the fourteen-tonne vessel to the water for the first time. It involves cranes, a super strong river bank, and more adjustments when it gets into the water. “You really don’t know what’s going to happen. You only have two controls: backwards and forwards. We had two boats that went backwards instead of forwards. We soon changed that.”

What is it about the British waterways that are so appealing? According to the Canal and River Trust, there were 30,000 licensed boats on British canals in 2014, and that number is projected to be on the rise. Of those, 7,800 are permanent residence. Which, to put into perspective, is about the same as every person currently living in Carlton relocating and taking up a life on the UK’s waterways.

Given the housing struggles of young ‘uns in recent years, you might think they’d all decide to live on much cheaper canal boats, but this isn’t a trend that James has noticed. “I think a narrow boat comes into people’s lives later rather than earlier,” he says. “It’s normally a retired person who’s just going at their own pace and wants something to do. It keeps them active. And you really are kept active too, doing the locks and stuff; it’s not just plain sailing.”

In England and Wales there are currently 2,000 miles of waterways to cruise along, 1,569 locks to get through, 53 tunnels, and 3112 bridges to cross. This vast and intricate map of waterways started to form in the eighteenth century, transporting coal and textiles more easily. It was in 1796 that The Nottingham Canal was opened, the fifteen-mile long canal, connected the River Trent to the Cromford Canal which was pretty busy with coal traffic at the time. While this was being constructed, the Trent Navigation Company was busy building the Beeston Cut to bypass the River Trent from Trent lock to Beeston. Fast forward 200 years and the Beeston Cut is all we have left.

There is something appealing about these routes; whether you’re walking them with your dog or chugging along the water, they’re a part of Britain, as James explains: “The beauty of the British canals and the canal system is that you normally get a view, because the canals follow the contours of the land. You’re always hugging a hillside or something. The French have dug their canals quite deep, so you’re going along like you’re in the fens where the boat is well down and there’s no view at all. You have to wait until you get to a town where it’ll open up.

Sat sweltering in my office chair, getting excited at the prospect of sitting on some grass while I eat my lunch, it’s hard not to be envious of the summer that James and other boaters are enjoying. Those water paths framed by green trees, the nonchalant quacking of the ducks swimming beside you and the ability to just sit back and enjoy the world as it floats past...

 

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