Category Archives: History

Britain Afloat: meet Jimmy Lawrence

Britain Afloat is on BBC One London and South East on Friday, 29 September at 19:30 and on BBC Two on Saturday 30 September at 20:00. It will also be available on the iPlayer across Britain for 30 days thereafter.

My thanks to Paul Tambini for the heads up…

So Long, farewell

So Long, as she is now, photographed by Christopher Sainsbury

Journalist Paul Sullivan has been making enquiries about a sailing cutter that was moored on the marshes at Lymington and which recently disappeared, pretty well without warning, as far as most people were concerned. Here’s his story:

For half a century, an old clinker-hulled boat moored out in the salt marshes near Lymington in Hampshire was a familiar and cherished sight for locals, and a fascinating discovery for visitors. But then, suddenly, she vanished. This is the story behind the mystery of a missing landmark.

She sat in the middle of the narrow channel known as Oxey Lake, on the seaward side of the sluice gates at the ancient salterns just outside Lymington, tucked in behind the Isle of Wight, away from the shipping lanes, the broiling waters around the Needles Channel, and sheltered from southwesterlies.

She was a century-old sailing cutter, supposedly built at the Mediterranean Fleet’s yards in Alexandria, Egypt, to a Royal Navy blueprint first drawn in Nelson’s time.

At 32ft in length, she was originally a two-masted lug-rigged harbour supply boat, but from the 1970s converted to a ketch, but now moored fore and aft in Oxey Lake, owned by a reed-cutter called Norman, who lived on board.

She’d settled into this sedentary life, offering cramped but cheap single-man’s accommodation in return for his enthusiastic if less-than-Naval guardianship. Tarpaulins across the boom kept the rain out of her cockpit and her white hull got an occasional touch-up, but most importantly Norman’s occupancy was life-preserving – the night-time heat of a Calor stove and sooty oil lamps was just enough to keep the damp at bay.

In her silent moored solitude, under huge skies, she became a landmark, a sight to be discovered by the summer people, on foot, in plastic kayaks, along the rail of the Wight ferries or from the sparkling decks of company yachts. Passing runners, dogwalkers and birdwatchers fixed on the flight pools might barely gave her a glance, but at a still dawn or twilight, you could pause to study her silhouette and her perfect reflection on the water.

Before that? She’d had a hard working life, it’s said: lashed to the deck of warships, sent off to haul back supplies from bays and shallow harbours. She had no home: at each harbour boats like her were usually exchanged for another similar vessel that would ferry out the supplies and be hauled up to take her place.

So she passed from warship to warship, with no captain’s log to record the passing. Someone might know more, of course, but Norman, if he knew, usually said nothing, though sometimes among friends and fellow drinkers at the Thomas Tripp pub he would paint heartbreaking scenes of her chopping through fractious seas littered with the great allied fleets off Suvla Bay, taking the boys in to Gallipoli.

There were other stories too but, really, who knew? Whatever the truth, by the late 1950s, she found herself in a civilian yard in Southampton, on a fleet disposal list, a curiosity tucked in behind the surplus torpedo boats and dented landing craft.

Norman bought her, worked a re-fit of sorts, added a proper cabin, laid new deck, repaired repairs and, with help, re-rigged her as a ketch, then took her to Lymington, and then Oxey Lake, and lived on her.

But then, just in the last year or so, he left. Although the reed-cutting finished by the end of the 90s, Norman was allowed to stay on the mooring into his retirement, hauling back and forth between bank and boat in a little tender for shopping and trips to see family, and to go to the Thomas Tripp for sometimes risky Saturdays at the bar from which he’d return on his bike after midnight, slow and tottering along the bank in the darkness, quietly cursing and searching for invisible ropes.

Those who knew kept an eye on the boat and on him, but he was strong and strong-minded, and determined to stay. For his family it meant years of concern until a mild stroke a few years ago swept away his objections to leaving. In the end, a compromise was reached: Norman moved onto a fibreglass cabin cruiser with curtains at the old Dyer Brothers yard in Southampton.

The yard offered good access and other boats, electricity, heating, and the unexpected pleasure of soft carpet under bare feet. At night there were far fewer visible stars, but there was hot water and headroom.

Meanwhile, the cutter waited, out in the salterns, her hull settling in the mud. The violence of her past – the groundings, the gales, the collisions, the boots and bullets, the bangs and scrapes – many were hard and damaging, but they were working injuries, things to be itemised, repaired, replaced and attended to. But now with no work and no plan, the damp went cold to her core, unchecked. Light fingers of dark rot caressed her keel, searching for a hold.

The talk in the Tripp was of something crueler. Gribble worm eats at the frame of a wooden boat, they said, weakening the joints, slowly letting the mud suck the keel down, locking it in a greasy embrace strong enough to let a rope and a hard tow rip her in two. Could be she’ll stay there, they said – who’d want the risky job of moving her and be left with nothing but responsibility for the clear-up and the bill.

Still, they said, you’d think he’d have cared more, not just left her. Just bar talk, perhaps, but each drinker felt the irony of her coming fate, in the sucking, stinking blue-grey mud.

And then she disappeared.

The news seeps back in to the town, from a morning jogger, from a couple just back from walking their retrievers – that old boat is gone, with just the tender left on the bank. It’s weird, they said, like seeing a well-known painting with the subject rubbed out, like someone had taken away Tesco’s or the war memorial overnight, so familiar it takes a while to work out it’s missing.

Bit by bit, by word of mouth, by phone, by text, email, people asked about her, realising they don’t even know if she had a name. (Norman had privately christened her So Long, though 2850 Alx is what the Navy stencil-cut into her stern.) She is missed, loved. People want to know where she is, where he is, what happened. Over a week, the story unfolds.

-oOo-

At early light, Norman was back, finally. With a friend, and with the cabin cruiser pushing against a bitch of a tide for most of the trip they’d nosed in to the mouth of her channel, come along her port side. Working quickly and efficiently, quicker than he’d thought, they’d tied a line to her bow, cut the mooring ropes. Norman stayed on her, the friend on the cabin cruiser eased her around and pulled just ahead. Gently throttling forward, the towline rising, tightening, feeling into the load. There was a moment – and then she moved easily, eagerly, the unlikely pairing cutting smoothly out into a calm, biddable sea, a light wind, clear and bright.

Those few who saw, working out early along the Solent, peered through cabin glass, slowing their engines, turning to stare at her fine white hull, rocking masts, quickly understanding the cabin cruiser’s rude proximity, the nature of this voyage.

At a pre-arranged point, another cabin cruiser with big twin engines, a neighbour from Dyers, took over the tow, taking the speed up to 6 knots. And Norman stayed on her, for nearly eight hours, as this strangely unmatched little flotilla of three slowly disappeared east.

Now she’s back in Southampton, out of the water, properly laid up for winter for the first time in decades, unrigged, de-masted, shored up securely in the busy little Drivers Wharf yard on the Itchen, just down from Dyers, where there are workshops filled with noise and skills and tools and knowledge.

Craftsmen’s eyes have looked her over; their hands have rubbed along her sides, studied her shape, assessed and itemised her needs. Norman couldn’t leave her; he is still strong, focused, and making plans. Next year he’ll be 80, though she’ll be well over 100. She waits, warming gently in the sun.

Copyright © Paul Sullivan, 2017. All rights reserved. Photos © Christopher Sainsbury, 2017

Thanks Paul and Christopher! Here are some more of Christopher’s photographs:

Barges on the telly: Jimmy Lawrence and Nick Ardley on BBC2 TV 29th and 30th September

Jimmy Lawrence talking about life on the barges

I gather that the first programme of the new BBC2 series Floating History of Britain goes out on the 30th September, and that it is to be about Thames sailing barges. I’m told it will include material from this year’s Thames Match.

I told also that the BBC Breakfast show on the 29th September will include an interview with legendary barge skipper, sailmaker and wonderful raconteur Jim Lawrence together with cruising sailor, long-time barge hand and author Nick Ardley, whose young life was spent on the barge May Flower.