Now you see me…

Saturn restoration projeect, Shropshire Union Canal Flyboat

The deed is done, the die is cast and the Saturn reconstruction project is irreversibly under way. Saturn no longer exists except as a pile of old knees, a set of measurements and a committeeful of determination. There is a big empty space and several big piles of new wood awaiting their distinguished fate at the hands of the boatbuilder. There is also a very big pile of firewood awaiting a rather more tempestuous fate, the old Saturn broken up small enough to feed the fire of the steambox. It was an oft repeated phrase of the late Ken Keay’s that “it takes a boat to make a boat” - that there is just enough firewood in one old boat to generate the energy to steam the planks of a new one. It is fitting, if sad, that our traditional rebuilding of the new Saturn will need the traditional funeral pyre of the old one to recreate it.

In truth there are quite a few other bits as well but why was it necessary to go for quite such a radical policy of almost total replacement? It was still floating for goodness sake! Why not just repair it, patch it up, keep more of the original in existence? Reasonable questions, with a range of possible answers, but to explain our present policy we must work back from the future, from the intended end result. That intention, that ambition is to have in existence a full working example of a Shropshire Union Canal fly boat, a sound horse drawn wooden narrow boat capable of carrying the loads she was originally designed for, eight ton of cheese or eighteen ton of corn or limestone. Why? Because we think it is important that Saturn does carry cheese or limestone and that she should be seen and experienced as a complete historic transport unit, explaining the historic canal system by example. So, just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so Saturn’s timbers must be sound enough to do the real job in the real way. There must be no weak links built in to the new boat, no wood already on the way to being rotten.

O.K. but surely there must have been some good wood in the boat, something worth saving? It couldn’t all have been that rotten surely? No indeed, there certainly was some sound timber in her, some of it only put in seven or eight years ago. In fact she only continued to exist afloat because her various dedicated owners continued to repair and maintain her even if they were gradually losing the battle to stay in the same place. But that work has in turn led to two or three more difficult policy decisions. Some of the work, done with the best of intentions wasn’t actually done very well, and it is difficult to correct poorly sawn and fitted planks and incorrect fastenings. Add to that the fact that a hard life and nearly a century of repair work had pushed her out of shape considerably - measurements from her centreline taken during her deconstruction varied as much as two inches either side - and you can see more of the decision making problem.

This was then compounded by the thorny debate about what was ‘original’ and what could honourably be replaced or discarded. To a modern industrial archaeologist the answer is clear cut - from the moment that an object comes into preservation everything about that object is sacrosanct, everything is valuable evidence of its life up to that moment of conservation. Only that which absolutely has to be replaced for survival is acceptable, and the documentation of every change has to be very thorough. Fine, on that basis we could have preserved Saturn as another static exhibit but we couldn’t do any boating. Our avowed ambitions immediately pushed us to a less purist point of view.

We are “hoist with our own petard” yet again with our declared intention to restore the existence of a specifically Shropshire Union Canal fly boat - not just any old wooden narrow boat, not any old floating box for carrying coal, but a fly boat. These craft, especially as developed by the efficient Shropshire Union company were as cheese to chalk when compared to the general run of carrying boats, graceful and barrel sided with a very fine ‘run’ from bow to stern under the water, more fish than barge, and Saturn is a particularly fine and rare example. She was designed and developed at the peak of the canal age to travel easily and quickly, delivering high value cargoes to a strict advertised schedule. As such she was one of the flagships of the fleet, setting us an equally high standard to aspire to within the restoration project. Saturn has got to be an as-near-perfect as possible example to carry that historic standard into the future, a very long and honourable future we hope. So, for all these inter-related reasons we decided to go for the complete restoration/replication policy. Please wish us well and watch this space.

Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere, July  2003


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