The Day I Met The Wirral Community Narrowboats (I even saw their bottoms!)

Wirral Community BoatsLast week, as we were cruising through Chester, we stopped at Tower Wharf to take on water. Next to the water point is a wonderful Dry-Dock (known as the Graving Dock) which is thought to date from 1798, possibly the oldest canal dry dock in the country. I went to have a nose, see if anybody was in there, and who should I find but the Wirral Community Narrowboat Trust boats “Over the Rainbow’ and “Pot of Gold”.   Well, I couldn’t miss a chance like this, so I introduced myself, and asked if they would mind if I had a cheeky look around.

It just so happened that Simon Tomlinson, the current chair of the Wirral Trust was one of the volunteers working on the boats that day; though Roger Murch and Geoff Fairhurst, who were working industriously on the blacking, mentioned that he hadn’t yet picked up a paintbrush (I think he was on tea duty!) Simon was more than happy, with the help of Mike Friend (the Trusts’ Maintenance Coordinator and engineer) to take me on a guided tour of both boats, of which these chaps are justifiably very proud.

We walked around “Over The Rainbow” first – she’s only a year old, but you could be forgiven for thinking she was brand new. Simon told me proudly, “She carried the Olympic Flame last summer you know!” It’s a fantastic vessel, a lovely open front deck, with fold up seats and drop sides for wheelchair ramps, plus a wheelchair lift to make getting in and out of the huge saloon easy for everyone.  The interior looks at first glance like a huge open space with a really well equipped kitchen at one end. Then Mike demonstrated the fold up tables that lined both sides, which can be put up and down in any sequence that is appropriate.  There is of course a wheelchair accessible bathroom, and even though this is a day boat, there is a shower in the bathroom, just in case. There isn’t access to the back of the boat for wheelchairs, as it is designed for skippered trips, but the extended open bow means there is plenty of space for everyone to sit out and enjoy cruising through the countryside.

Next we clambered aboard “Pot of Gold”. This boat is suitable for extended cruising, including overnight stays, and to say that the interior layout is brilliant would be doing it a disservice. They have thought of everything! There are wheelchair lifts at the front and back. There is a hoist to help people into bed. The dinettes are fixed and easily make up into single bunks, and if you have extra people in your party, then adding a high bunk above each dinette takes a matter of moments, with a clever system of poles that slot into place with ease – though I couldn’t see this demonstrated, as the poles were drying having just been painted.  The bathroom facilities are, of course, easily accessible for wheelchairs; another fabulously well-equipped galley and the piece de résistance – the steering. There is of course a traditional tiller, but there is also a joystick control, that can be used by anyone. You don’t even need hands to use it, an elbow, a chin, or even your nose will work just as well. It’s on a stretchy cable, so you can tuck it wherever is comfortable and easy to reach. This is a boat built with everyone in mind, totally accessible for all.

Sharing the canals with everyone

And volunteers maintain all of this. Fundraising, done by volunteers, paid for the boats. The skill and dedication that is bought to the operation by the volunteers from community in which it is based is astounding. I asked the question, “What do you guys get out of this?” And the response from each was that they get to share their love of the waterways and boats with people to whom they would be completely inaccessible otherwise. That’s what a community boating project is about it seems, the wish to share the joy of our fantastic canals and rivers with everyone. Absolutely everyone.

By Corinne Thomsett

With thanks to Mike Friend (Maintenance Co-ordinator & Trainer), Simon Tomlinson (Current Trust Chair), Roger Murch and Geoff Fairhurst

More great photos on Flickr.

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