Taylors Yard Chester
A transformation is taking place at Taylors Yard in Chester. The old Shropshire Union Canal Company dockyard has at last been let to a new tenant by British Waterways and a long overdue restoration and reclamation has begun. Good news then? Well, yes, but it is a process that is viewed with a tangle of feelings by some of us that have been campaigning for the preservation of this very historic canal boatyard for years and years.
Tidy up?! Clear out all the accumulated clutter of over a century and a half?! Oh no – some of us love all that atmospheric rubbish and rot, and all the secrets it might conceal! Well of course that is both ridiculous and untenable in the proper picture of survival and I freely admit to a heavy infestation of romanticism in my attitude but admittance doesn’t really relieve the symptoms, the sadness of time passing and history becoming less tangible. However a respectable future looks far more secure today than it did a few years ago and the restoration work is already impressive and inspiring.
The preservation campaign really got under way in 1997 when British Waterways announced some silly development plans for the whole place, glassing in the slipways for offices and knocking much of it down for car parking. Certainly something needed to happen for the site was getting very run down. It had been ticking over under the stewardship of the boatbuilder David Jones for years but it was an enormous space for what had become almost a one-man operation, and with no significant help from the landlords at Northwich the buildings were suffering. But they were fascinating buildings, almost organically grown and altered to suit the boatbuilding trade as it evolved since about 1840, from barges and narrow boats to elegant mahogany cruisers and rugged fishing boats. It seemed to me that those buildings – their materials and quality and their relationship to each other were in themselves a most eloquent essay about canal history and craftsmanship. Happily others agreed, and to most of us the answer was obvious – do it up and keep it as a boatyard. The integrity of the yard could be maintained by the continuance of its proper purpose, building and maintaining boats. All other options seemed to require unacceptable changes but it took fourteen years of arguments and time-consuming committees to convince British Waterways of this obvious fact. But it has happened at last and a new boatbuilder has moved in. Hooray they said, exhaustedly.
It is of course fourteen degrading years later, fourteen years of not letting it be developed out of existence but fourteen years of more damp neglect and leaking roofs. So the restoration and rebuilding will have to be fourteen years more radical on top of the thirty years backlog that needed to be addressed back then. This is a mammoth task but the new tenants, J.P.Marine, have already made a significant start. Huge amounts of rubbish have been removed, derelict boats disposed of and the elegantly roofed slipways have been reorganised and cleared. It is easy once more to envisage them in use as they were designed to be, as sideways slipways for full length working boats. The main workshop, the wooden building originally constructed as the steam driven sawmill has been entirely cleared and Acro props have been installed to support the sagging roof valley which was in imminent danger of collapse. At last one can see more details of the construction but the clearance has raised almost as many queries about its development as it solved. As the rotten floorboards have been removed or have collapsed so older brick footings have been revealed, and a stone lined pit and an unexpected culvert. What is their story?
It is exciting, but saddening too, for so many subtle details are now bound to be lost as the work proceeds. Old work benches have had to be moved, benches codged together out of old boat bits to suit the job in hand at the time, but codged together by craftsmen who understood empirically the practical requirements. It was a patina and quality that can never be reproduced artificially. Much of the floor was made out of old oak boat planking, complete with scarph joints which can never be replicated and various roof beams have been strutted and strengthened to support line shafting that drove long-gone machinery, all important small details that together were telling the bigger historic story. To push my essay analogy to an extreme it seems with hindsight that when Bithel Brothers put the contents up for sale in 1973 the place was like an encyclopaedia of boatyard practise. The buildings were in good heart, the tools were there, the timber, signboards, trestles, account books, plans and iron patterns for boat knees in the blacksmith shop. If only the whole place could have been put into preservation at that point what a wonderful resource we would have today. Well, of course, and the same nostalgic longings could have been applied to many other places and trades at the time. The difference is that that I and others were there, already recognising and mourning a very sad loss to canal heritage and none of us could afford to do anything about it.
As much of the old equipment was sold and dissipated so the story the yard could tell became patchier. Happily quite a lot still remained in place after the sale and the continuation of skilled boatbuilding and repair work under David Jones’ tenancy ensured some constancy and continuity in the purpose and structure of the yard. Perhaps not an encyclopaedia any more but still a good textbook, with plenty of poetry. However time and rainwater don’t respect that sort of subtlety much and the sort of extensive repairs that are needed now makes conservation so much harder. Pete and Yvette of J.P.Marine are keeping everything possible for later reinstatement and have positively helped and encouraged a band of enthusiastic volunteers to sort and document interesting details and old tools and equipment. It is an inspiring start but with the best will in the world we can only now be left with a nice poem with a lot of the words missing.
For my earlier reports from Taylors Yard please see Off The Main Line articles It’s a Broad Church, August ’08 and A Ton-Mileage Memory, November ’08. There is an excellent article about Taylor’s boatyard by Geoff Taylor in the new edition of the Waterways Journal Volume 13 2011 published by the Boat Museum Society at Ellesmere Port.