On seeing trees in woods, and wood in trees.

Saturn restoration

Back to reality. April 22 saw a second delivery of timber to Malcolm Webster’s yard at Malkins Bank for the rebuilding, restoration, replication (choose your own word) of the 1906 Shropshire Union fly boat Saturn, due to be completed in 2005. This project is up and running, and is already substantially supported by the HLF (see the web page www.saturnrestoration.org.uk  for more news) and although the launch date may seem ages away the critical seasoning countdown has already begun.

Time, tide and natural seasoning wait for no man, even an impatient boatbuilder (but then no really good boatbuilder can be impatient… ) The first delivery of Saturn wood arrived in December last year, but it was only after inspecting that first consignment that this second could be sensibly ordered. The trees are bought as butts, in the round, and although you can make an educated guess you only finally discover what you’ve bought when it is sawn into planks, shakes here, a bad knot there. Then you can re-order for the shortfall. In amongst the two inch planking this time was a massive four-inch thick slab destined to be sliced down the middle for the keelson, the central stiffening internal keel of any narrow boat, and possibly the most important structural member of the whole craft. Getting that monster off the lorry trailer is illustrated here.

Two days in April just one day apart, a perfect illustration of the two contrasting ends of the modern wooden canal boatbuilding spectrum. On Saturday the theory, the discussion, the hunt for money to keep boats and business in existence, whilst on Monday it was sawdust in the eyes and several tons of oak planking levered, skidded and rollered off the delivery wagon, wheeled into a boatyard where it will rest for a couple of years, preparing itself for a long (one hopes) and illustrious future. Saturday the seminar and a headache, Monday ropes, levers, gravity and backache. Life’s rich pattern…

The conference at Ellesmere Port was hugely encouraging, a big group of like-minded people called together to discuss the historic boats document that has been developed over many months of discussion and consultation by Tony Conder, curator of the National Waterways Museums. This document is intended to be the backbone of a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a substantial grant to restore and maintain a core collection of historic inland waterway craft in perpetuity. First of course one has to agree the core, to decide as a group which are the most important vessels in each category, which few out of hundreds are worthy to be counted as the National collection. This is frighteningly difficult, but it is seen—and it was agreed at the seminar—that it is crucially important that the boat restoration lobby speaks with one voice, that “we all sing from the same hymn sheet” as several speakers put it. This is to be the basis for a bid for millions of pounds over many years, and for many of the big boats under discussion this may indeed be the last chance for their survival. Happily the spirit of co-operation amongst all the participants seemed to be total. Very encouraging.

All this timber already represents a big investment, both of money and commitment. It was not such a problem in days of yore, when wooden boatbuilding was part of the slow moving continuum of canal transport, when five or ten years was just a relatively short period of time in the expected life story of a boatyard. With that old-fashioned expectation of continuity, and the big machinery to handle them, the foreman could buy in any local trees that might be suitable for use sometime in the future, at whatever bargain price he could negotiate. It was capital well spent to have a few trees planked and stacked to season because it was bound to come in useful sooner or later, and the drier the better. But today, with major rebuilding jobs few and far between, a stack of seasoning timber represents a large outlay of money not earning a modern return on capital, taking up valuable rental space. Thanks to the Lottery Fund we have been able to get this relatively small five year restoration plan underway. Now for the big one, now for the several millions needed for the core collection.

Tony Lewery
The Brow
April 2002

wooden boats at Ellesmere Port
wooden barge
unloading Saturn timber
unloading Saturn timber

unloaded Saturn timber

unloading Saturn timber
unloading Saturn timber

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