More Dehydrated History

Historic canal boats, canalboat restoration, canal craft conservation, Severn Trow Spry, Ironbridge, Blist Hill Museum,

A canal without boats and boats out of water – is this a good way to preserve and interpret waterway history? It may not sound very promising or atmospheric but, with reservations, they are doing an interesting job at Blists Hill museum at Ironbridge in Shropshire.

Nationally there is an ongoing discussion-cum-argument under way about the best way to preserve waterway history, particularly historic boats. Do you keep them afloat, flags flying, braving the elements, living a precarious working life fighting decay and wear, or do you immure them indoors somewhere, cacooned safely for future generations to study and emote with. If only there was a nice clear answer for all boats we could get on with it. Unfortunately the value of every worthy craft is complicated by a number of factors -- its rarity and originality, the materials it is made of, its present condition, size, historical associations and its potential use (to mention just a few!) Multiply all those variables by the different ways of dealing with them—conservation, restoration, reconstruction or replication and we already have at least twenty four different answers to choose from, still further complicated by how much money is available to do anything at all. Clearly, whichever option is chosen there are bound to be a number of people uncomfortable with that decision. Ironbridge now holds a great big example of that set of dilemmas, past, present and future.

The Severn trow Spry was built at Chepstow in 1894. By the 1970s she was the last trow in existence, the last survivor of a class of craft dating back to the seventeenth century, the indigenous working sailing barges of the Rivers Severn and Wye and the Bristol Channel. By the 1970s she was also derelict and the bold and expensive decision was taken to rebuild her to sailing condition. The hulk was moved onto the Ironbridge museum site and under a massive corrugated iron canopy this handsome ship was restored and rebuilt, an inspiring and exciting museum display whilst the work was underway over several years. The work was complete by 1996 and Spry was relaunched at Gloucester, towed down to Sharpness and went sailing the Severn waters once more, spectacularly and successfully. Her performance was recorded on film but after a short sailing season she was returned again to the museum to be laid up on dry land for the foreseeable future. That was the point that most of the grumbles of discontent were heard.

I have sympathy with both sides of the argument. On the one hand we have those who want to see her alive and sailing, demonstrating the real thing, being the real thing as far as possible with all the attendant challenges of crews, moorings, maintenance and the depredations of the weather. On the other there are those who feel she has done the most essential part of her research afloat and now seek to protect that huge outlay of money and timber into a very long distance future, keeping her safely immured ashore and under cover. Exhibit or tool -- dead or alive? We know from bitter experience that keeping a sailing ship in commission is hugely expensive in time and money and will necessarily mean the steady replacement of the original fabric over the years. Kept ashore and under cover, with minimal careful conservation she should stay near perfect for years, half a century even, and could then be brought out to sail once more for a generation as yet unborn. What would you do? Personally I’m glad that someone else has made the decision for me.

At Ironbridge they have shoved the Spry back in the tin shed she was rebuilt in and seem to have subsequently ignored her. The preservation conditions are pretty good -- out of the sun and rain with plenty of fresh air -- but her interpretation and display are minimal to the point of shabby. There are some steps and a viewing gantry so that the visitor can see just how dusty and unused she is, and some faded photographs and text about her restoration and her glory days of sailing less than ten years ago, but it is not inspiring. One suspects it is simply due to a lack of money rather than vision for creating an exciting display for such a huge single exhibit would have to be a massive undertaking. However, this graceful veteran deserves something a bit more imaginative, but she certainly deserves a visit.

Up at the top of the museum site is a short length of the Shropshire Canal kept in water, running along to the top of the impressive Hay incline plane. When the museum first opened a wooden icebreaker and the last surviving tub boat were kept afloat in this length but they are both now on the bank and under cover in what looks to be a custom-made tin shed set back from the towpath. Again the preservation conditions are good but unexciting. This does not matter so much for the tub-boat which is little more than a very old riveted iron tank which can be seen perfectly well from the ground but it is more of a disappointment for the icebreaker. I do not know the conservation or restoration history of this boat but she seems in extraordinarily good condition and it seems a pity that more effort could not be put into displaying her more satisfactorily and spaciously. But both boats are a delightful bonus to the canal enthusiast visiting this wonderful museum. Take the kids, or borrow some!

Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere, February 2006


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