That ship-looking thing?

Houseboats, living afloat, Shoreham Harbour

Houseboats. Now, be honest, what is your instant reaction to the word? Delight? Distaste? My own subliminal response is certainly a rosy glow of romance even though a lifetime’s knowledge of the reality should teach me a more mixed lesson. Almost needless to say that positive response was engrained in my subconscious at an early age and like so many other early impressions it needs a lot of later negative experience to shift it. But I did have a fairly powerful double dose as a youth, the books backed up by some reality. The books were the usual adventure stories where interesting villains and eccentric heroes lived on houseboats, followed up by the serious literary delights of Peggotty’s beach boat in David Copperfield (whence the title above) to the Thames houseboat of Gully Jimson in the Horses Mouth (also a great film if you can ever get to see it again).

The reality backing up the imaginative world was a few miles away in Shoreham Harbour, a fleet of assorted houseboats that lined the southern bank of the River Adur, some of them seeming impossibly large for the shallow ditches and creeks that they inhabited on the mud flats. They were part of a rather surreal landscape just after the war, staring seaward over a blank beach that had been cleared of anything that might have helped an invading enemy. But the development of Shoreham Beach as a desirable if rather bohemian place to live was under way and by the time I was a student in the late 1950s the Shoreham houseboats were certainly a haven for a number of odd free spirits, and a very tempting place to be associated with. In fact in one of my madder moments I considered buying an old Thames barge to live on for £60. The fact that it was sunk, and had been for some time didn’t seem to dampen my youthful optimism, and I think it was simply the lack of such a huge amount of money that saved me from disaster and early rheumatism. The barge was broken up shortly afterwards.

Family business has taken me back to Shoreham several times recently and a chance to imbibe the magic again. Happily the houseboats are still there, although reduced in number after some serious unpleasantness with the local council, egged on by new incoming house owners in the 1980s. But the situation has now stabilised and the existing houseboat owners have been allowed to replace some of the older boats with new craft, or rather with more old craft but new to Shoreham. This has gradually led to the creation of an extraordinary collection of historic craft in one unexpected place. Some of the very old ones from before the Second World War are still there, a schooner, tugs and a steam yacht, and an old torpedo boat from 1922 that skimmed over the water at 36 knots! But many of the wooden Gun Boats and M.T.B.s that formed the majority of the fleet in my youth are going the way of all old ships and are being replaced with an eclectic mix of craft, mainly steel, from all over the place. There are lighters and barges from Southampton and the Thames, and a couple of Dutch boats. There is a Yorkshire barge called the Tom Newbound that arrived after spending many years on the Thames, but most extraordinary of all, from my point of view, is the Guidance.

In 1972 in company with Edward Paget-Tomlinson I went to Goole to look at the Mayday, allegedly the last wooden sailing Yorkshire keel in existence, with a view to bringing it in to the collection of what would become the Boat Museum at Ellesmere Port. Sadly we decided it was far beyond our resources and she too was broken up. Thirty years later I am amazed and delighted to find the Guidance at Shoreham, afloat and really looking quite well. She is a wooden Humber keel at least 100 years old and was owned and sailed by Fred Schofield of Humber Keels and Keelmen fame in the 1930s.(pub. Terence Dalton 1988) True, she does now look something like a kid’s picture book version of Noah’s Ark, but that roof has protected her and I truly think she might be carrying a valuable cargo of knowledge into the future. What an amazing survivor.

If you can find a reason to be near Shoreham do make an effort to find the houseboats. Just ask for the footbridge in Old Shoreham and there they are stretching away to the west. If you can choose a high spring tide and a sunny day it’s even better. There is also a book about them recently published by the World Ship Society, Small Craft Group. It is called Retired On The River by Philip Simons & Nick Hall, and is available from Philip Simons at 25 Greenways, Highlands Road, Portslade, Brighton, BN41 2BS. I think it is £10 but send him a postcard first. More on houseboats next month.

Tony Lewery
The Brow, Ellesmere
February 2005

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