Reliance on dry land.

Preserving wooden barges, reliance, Dapdune Wharf, River Wey, Diligence, Perseverence

What’s the best way to look after an old wooden barge, to ensure that it stays in existence into an indeterminate future? The answer is simple, but expensive. You put it indoors somewhere, dry it out very slowly replacing the moisture with a permanent preservative and keep it in a very strictly controlled stable environment,-- for ever. Simple, but very expensive in land and buildings and running costs, never mind the costs of professional conservation, both initially and ongoing. A bit boring though isn’t it? What about the people, the boatmen and barge builders and the job that it did, the reason that this simple scruffy old barge was important in the first place. Oh Lord! You want me to preserve the whole shebang, the boat and a whole slice of social and working life as well? Ah-- well now, that’s extremely difficult and even more expensive. Is it even possible?

There is some mutual incompatibility here. You cannot use things and preserve them at the same time—you’re wearing them out, however slowly. Most things can be repaired or replaced, like for like, but that is not preservation in the purest sense, that is the practical compromise we make to keep alive the practises of the past. There are bonuses to this process of course, continuing a tradition, re-using the same skills for the repairs as for their creation, but that too depends on careful research and the dedication of the conservator/repairer. But it is still a compromise between preservation and practical reality. However, what you cannot do is do nothing. Doing nothing is not a preservation option, especially as far as old freshwater barges and boats are concerned. They are rotting away before your eyes either quickly or slowly, whether you like it or not, and conservation, preservation or destruction decisions have to be made. You even have to run fast to stay in the same place.

This downbeat line of rambling has been focussed by a visit to Dapdune Wharf in Guildford on the River Wey, home to two of the four surviving wooden barges that were built for this river navigation by the Stevens family on this wharf during the first part of the twentieth century. The wharf and the navigation is now run by the National Trust and it shows both in the corporate ‘style’ of the presentation at Guildford and the standard efficiency and old fashioned courtesy of the whole operation, very largely staffed by volunteers like most of their sites throughout the country. There’s a ticket office, a tea room and shop, exhibition spaces, a trip boat, lawns, car park and picnic spaces all focussed around one barge, the Reliance hauled out on the slipway. But she’s not there for repair—this is her permanent display position, chocked up on massive custom made oak trestles with steel girders running between them to keep her straight. Someone clearly made the decision that this uncompromisingly dry-land berth was the best way to preserve her for posterity. And to reinforce the permanence of this decision they have cut two doors in the side of the hull so that the public can walk through the hold and look into the cabin without climbing ladders. Now, this is all in direct opposition to my long-held principles about the importance of historic boats being kept in working condition and kept in the water but the sad experience and evidence of what is actually happening elsewhere is forcing me to reconsider my attitude to the whole business.

I said Dapdune Wharf was home to two barges but the second one actually belongs to someone else, the London Docklands Museum I believe, and is just kept at Guildford as the most relevant place to moor her. But in practice she is not on display but bolted to two massive steel piles in a fenced off spot completely inaccessible to the public. On the day of my visit she looked fine but enquiries revealed that it was only two weeks before that a valiant bunch of N.T. volunteers had spent two days scrubbing off the disgusting all-over layer of dirt and green slime that had made her an embarrassment to the whole site for months. Meanwhile the Diligence is up a creek in the Kent marshes and the Perseverance lies sunk and increasingly derelict at the Boat Museum in Ellesmere Port in Cheshire, along with too many other boats and barges awaiting theoretical restoration funds which will never realistically be enough. Against this depressing backdrop the continued existence of the Reliance is a bit of a beacon of hope. The place is not perfect by any means—too clean and institutionalised and lacking in atmosphere—but the boat continues to exist and gets regular maintenance, and the public get to see it and experience a good part of the story. With my purist reservations on hold I recommend a visit if you are in the area. It closes at the end of October for the winter months but opens again in March. Check the National Trust handbook for full details.

Tony Lewery
The Brow, Ellesmere
October 2005

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