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Waters Under The Bridge

Alan Firth, Canal Artist – 1933 – 2012.

Alan Firth – the ‘odd lock’ artist. Tim Coghlan recalls the life and works, and his own personal memories, of canal artist Alan Firth who died recently after a long illness.

There is one signature painting by Alan Firth that really has most of the elements of his canal artist style, technique and licence – his well-known painting of Bearley Lock on the South Stratford Canal. The high-rising lock, lying alone and isolated in the middle the countryside, a half mile north of the Edstone Aqueduct, is the only one on that canal that is not linked to a lock flight, and with it a barrel-shaped lock-keeper’s cottage. Regardless of its correct name, it was just known to the working boatmen as ‘Odd Lock’. Alan Firth was also a loner, and the ‘Odd Lock’ name had its appeal. As Terry Stroud, the main distributor of his works commented to me following his death, ‘I probably sold more of his works than anyone else, and met up with him on a number of occasions, but I really knew very little about him as a person’.

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Bearing Gifts

Tim Coghlan relates the story of an old narrow boat named Balthazar, and its fascinating connections to the famous author Lawrence Durrell and the 1930s Bloomsbury Set.

After twenty years and more of selling narrow boats on brokerage, I am still surprised from time to time by what comes along, and the fascinating stories that the owners have to tell about their boats. After all, even today you have to be somewhat different to be a canal boater.

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Das Narrow Boot

Tim Coghlan tells a tale of how two old friends from the German Merchant Navy, both qualified marine engineers and surveyors, came to have an English narrow boat built. A boat which became the star of the 2010 Crick Boat Show.

So just what brought Germans Gunter “John” Magiera and his friend Harald to the English Canals? John was most forthcoming, “I had known Harald since 1970 when we met in the German Merchant Navy, and although in the years that followed I had never married, he had, and I also became a very close friend of his wife and family. Together we had been to several different places and in 1998, we decided impromptu to try a narrow boat holiday on the English canals. And that’s how it all started. “We chose to hire from Valley Cruisers near Atherstone, one of their 70 footers, named Colne Valley – I remember well its creamish livery, and with its advertised 8 to 10 berths, there was plenty of room for all of us aboard these high quality boats.

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Dover and out!

Tim Coghlan says a sad goodbye to retiring boat builder, Dave Thomas who has been a welcome fixture at Braunston for over twenty years.

The collapse in narrow boat building has taken its toll on some established boat builders and, it is with much personal sadness that I record the recent closure of the Braunston Marina based David Thomas Boatbuilders. The reason for this is that Dave had no new orders for hulls, which he had always seen as his indoor winter work. He hasn’t built a hull since the beginning of 2011 – a training narrow boat for Rugby based Willow Wren Cruisers. And that will now prove his last. Dave has for some time supplemented his work with repairs and overplating to older narrow boats, which has been invaluable to us with our services to our moorers and ‘matters arising’ from brokerage surveys of older boats. However that work meant working outside, the boat a few feet above ground on a cradle. At times it also meant lying on the ground, which was fine in summer. Now with masses of this work – narrow boats don’t die – but no other work, and with winter in hand, at 62, he had decided it was time to hang up his welder.

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Farewell to ’Diesel Dave’

Tim Coghlan recalls the life of Dave Odell, Braunston Marina’s charismatic marine engineer, who recently died in tragic circumstances.

Dave Odell, known to one and all as Diesel Dave, was a great canal character. He is perhaps best remembered for his winter barbieon-ice in the great freeze-up of January 2010. There he sat in the middle of the Lower Reservoir some yards from his boat, in silent splendour all on his own, beneath his Tony Hancock hat, cigarette in hand, and tinnies chilling on the ice. Even his two faithful spaniels had more sense than to join him. His friend Paula took the memorable photograph of this contended soul from the safety of his boat. It made the local newspapers and then inspired a visit from the regional BBC TV.

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Running Scared – back on the big screen

In the autumn of  2011, almost exactly forty years after its release in 1971, and after an extensive search with many people involved,  possibly the last surviving copy of this long-lost canal-thriller was finally found somewhere in America. The movie was then shown by the Braunston Cinema Club in early December to two packed houses at Braunston Village Hall, in the presence of  its co-star Gayle Hunnicutt. It was a cinematic  night to remember. Tim Coghlan was there…

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Bringing the dead wench to life

Part 1 – Tim Coghlan takes a lighter look at his chance involvement in the filming at Braunston of the Inspector Morse canalthemed episode The Wench is Dead – and its unforeseen consequences.

My first encounter with the Morse circus – for circus it was indeed to prove – was on the morning of Tuesday the 23rd September, 1997, a sunny early autumn day. One of our staff came into the marina office to report that a couple were seen wandering around the yard, taking lots of photographs, and showing a much greater interest in the place than your average tourist. It was somewhere near the low-point in my fifteen-year battle with the local district council over the marina and our plans to expand the moorings. Already four Braunston parish councillors, including one who was also the district councillor, had been banned from entering the marina through solicitors’ letters, because of taking unauthorized photographs to be used for purposes I saw as potentially harmful to the marina. My first thought on hearing of our latest visitors was, ‘Here we go again!’

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Bringing the dead wench to life

Part 2 – Tim Coghlan recalls the two days location on the canals at Braunston for the filming, in June 1998, of the Inspector Morse episode, The Wench is Dead.

It was a long day, with much progress backwards, as the canal at Braunston returned to the mid-Victorian era. From early morning the travelling circus had begun to arrive at its temporary base camp on a field nearby. First and perhaps most importantly it was the tea wagon, which soon proffered the welcoming smell of bacon butties. Then there arrived a multitude of vans, converted old buses, new smart buses, carts, carriages, and horse boxes emptying their contents to munch the grass and sniff the clean June air. Then old cars for grips and the extras, and all those who did filming for love. Then, later, the new smart cars of the men who held the strings. The field began to take on the air of a fairground that it would resemble for the two days of filming to make at best five minutes of prime time television. Only the previous weekend the field had been rented for parking for the 1998 Braunston Boat Show, and the farmer must have been wondering at his luck. That show had been opened by Inspector Morse author Colin Dexter on the main prop for the forthcoming filming, the converted historic butty, the Barbara Bray.

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Bringing the dead wench to life

Part 3 – David Blagrove recalls his role in the filming of the Victorian canal scenes in June 1998, converting three old working butties into four even older ones, and moving them to far-flung locations, for the Inspector Morse episode The Wench is Dead.

Back in 1998 I was running South Midland Water Transport Ltd and the fleet then contained three vintage butty boats, all ex-Fellows, Morton & Clayton Ltd. (FMC). Their dates of construction ranged from 1897 to 1921 and they were all in good structural condition, having been rescued from virtual dereliction by the Company Chairman, Malcolm Burge. Two boats, Australia and Fazeley, were in regular work and the third, Sunny Valley, was kept in reserve. Fazeley worked from Stoke Bruerne in the fuel retail business during winter and in general cargo carrying during the summer months, paired with motor boat Clover, while Australia was on loan to Alan and Trish Akhurst, paired with their own motor boat Archimedes, also in the fuel retail trade.

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