Time and Tide

River Ardur, Shoreham, Sussex Portland Cement Company,

Perhaps it’s the time of year or the time of my life but this end of year column is a touch melancholic.

As so often before my subject is our disappearing waterway heritage, the seemingly inexorable decay of the boats and barges that gave the canals and rivers their spiritual vitality, their historic purpose and interest. The first three pictures were taken in September 1970 and show a barge hulk on the East bank of the river Adur in Sussex, just downriver of the old wooden toll bridge at Shoreham. She’s a bit rough to say the least, but was probably still floatable at the time with a bit more patching. In fact there was another one just above the bridge which was later recovered and taken down below the Norfolk Bridge just visible in the distance in the third picture to become a houseboat in Shoreham Harbour. She’s probably the one now called Mary on riverbank mooring number 5. Both barges were part of a fleet operated by the Sussex Portland Cement Co. for carrying clay and coal to the cement works at Beeding but most of the traffic had finished before the Second World War. I personally have a childhood memory of a similar barge being hand-loaded with ‘silversand’ directly from the riverbed just inside the harbour entrance at low tide about 1952 or ’53. It was then lightered up the river on the next tide, presumably to a builder’s yard somewhere. Thus the fate of this boat does hold a particular personal poignancy for me quite regardless of its historical significance.

Is it important or significant then? Ah yes, a good question, but by what criteria are we to make a judgement? Is it a beautiful craft, a graceful example of the shipbuilder’s art for example? Hardly-- it’s a slab sided square wooden box with pointed ends, although it does have a drift of sheerline towards either end. But it gains very few points for aesthetics I’m afraid-- perhaps a couple for chunky practicality. Is it important as a type then? Well, yes, judging by a skim through the available photographs it seems to be a representative of a type common to the south coast rivers Adur, Arun and Ouse, and further research might find similar craft using the Itchen and Southampton Water rivers in the past, so regionally it certainly is an important type. Nationally however it’s a bit insignificant. How rare is it as a survivor of its type? Well, that depends on how many there were in the first place. If it were the only survivor of a fleet of hundreds then it would be extra important, but as one of several existing examples from a small fleet its value would be relatively small.

The Adur barges were never numerous and as there is at least one and some wrecks further down the river our Toll bridge barge cannot be counted too high. There is also a complete though increasingly fragile example of a similar River Arun barge at the Ellesmere Port museum so this one can only be counted as medium-rare in that category. What about economically then, was it a vital part of the local economy? Not recently certainly. They just served the one works and lightened ships in Shoreham Harbour although they might have been an important transport route for the inland hamlets on the river in the distant past. But no towns or industries grew up because of them, no Stourports or Shardlows developed because of the barge traffic so very few extra points can be granted for economic importance alone alas. My old barge is not scoring well I’m afraid. Perhaps it is extra special in the way it is built then, the way it is constructed? Not really, it is just a simple hard chine carvel barge, a humbler version of all the Thames sailing barges of the whole South East corner of England, of which there are many preserved in sailing condition all over the place. So have I got to let it go into history, into decay and destruction despite my emotional and romantic ties to this piece of waterway history? Yes son, grow up!

Which, of course, is what is happening. The lower two pictures show the remains of that same barge thirty five years later, taken in September 2005 at the very top of the sort of spring tide that floated her there originally. There is still dignity in these old timbers, and romance too for the poetic mind, especially in conjunction with the sun bleached piles of the ancient wooden toll bridge nearby. But it is a passing picture, not a performance, and there is little chance of restoration or any sort of meaningful future for this one, little chance of remembering or re-creating a piece of important local history.

Does it matter? Now that remains with the locals I think. Having established that these barges were of regional importance it is surely up to some regional people to look after their local culture, if they feel strongly enough about it. If they don’t they will just become another brief footnote in a history book. All these thoughts are subliminally focussed on the future of that Arun barge mentioned before moored, or sunk, in the top basin at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire. She was saved from destruction many years ago and taken there to become part of an ambitious national collection of inland waterway craft. Unfortunately the museum has never managed to achieve commensurate national funding and a backlog of maintenance and restoration costs has built up to an alarming and perhaps insurmountable level. Meanwhile the barge gets inexorably older and more fragile, and the problem gets bigger. What is to be done? Is there anyone out there who can help? It seems to me that the only hope is to find a local South country team of people who care about their regional history, people who can drive the project forward with a blend of personal knowledge and emotional involvement as well as a commitment to waterway history. Without such a team I fear this now unique boat’s fate is doomed.

Tony Lewery
The Brow, Ellesmere
December 2005


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