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A Friend of President

'President' canal boat

Part 2 – Tim Coghlan continues his look back on twenty years of involvement with the last surviving steam narrow boat President, now in its centenary year.

The year 1991 had been something of a spectacular year for President, with the successful reenactment of a fly run from London to the first Braunston Boat Show – in which I was involved – being only one of its many appearances at various canal events, where this fine old narrow boat always seemed to steal the show. But there were mutterings afoot amongst the purists – that President simply processed and posed around the canal system. Some said it wasn’t even a real canal steamer. And perhaps its greatest sin was that the boat never carried – which with barely accommodation for steam coal and crew, would have been impossible beyond token gestures like that Brindley statue.

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A Friend of President

Part 3 – In steam narrow boat President’s centenary year, Tim Coghlan continues his personal memories – now returning to August, 1998, when he joined fellow Friends of President for a voyage down.

I have mixed views on Manchester. Brazen, brutish, and bleak – I have visited it many times over the years on a theme of ‘where there’s mook there’s brass’, but never in search for its beauty. In one famous divorce case, the great Mr Justice Melford Stevens said contemptuously of the luckless husband across the court, “He chose to live in Manchester, a wholly incomprehensible choice for a free man to make.” – and there he rested his case for the man’s ill treatment of his doe-eyed client. They sing sadly of the leaving of Liverpool, but no one has penned a parting word for Manchester – all seem only too glad to get away. And there can be no better way of doing this than joining fellow Friends of the historic steam-narrow boat President on Manchester’s only redeeming feature – the mighty  and magnificent Manchester Ship Canal. Like a giant umbilical cord it links that place to the Mersey, the wider world, and beyond that, to civilisation itself. (Editor: I like Manchester!)

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A Friend of President

Part 4 – In steam narrow boat President’s centenary year, Tim Coghlan continues his personal memories – concluding his voyage in August, 1998, when he joined fellow Friends of President for a run down Britain’s last-ditch attempt at canal building.

We soon arrived at Mode Wheel Locks, the first proper Manchester Ship Canal locks which historically also controlled the whole of the water for the Manchester Docks. On the Manchester Ship Canal itself, all locks are plural, as they are all double locks – one for large and the other for smaller vessels. As promised by the organisers the gates then remained open until the whole fleet of twenty-six boats had entered it. – though still the mighty lock looked half empty of boats. ‘You should have seen it on the way up. We had 66 boats in one of the locks.’ said Ron, ‘It was quite spectacular’.

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Working boats galore!

A look back at the June 2010 Braunston Historic Narrow boat Rally which broke all records…again!

We seem to have come a long way since our first Rally in 2003, when we were very pleased and indeed relieved to welcome 19 former working boats, mostly from the Fellows Morton & Clayton (FMC) fleet, to celebrate the re-restoration of the last surviving steam narrow boat President. This year’s final tally as now agreed between all of those counting ‘em in, was a record-breaking 92, making this the largest attendance of such narrow boats at any rally since the end of the working days on the canals. Indeed it is hard to imagine such a congregation of those working narrow boats ever, not even during the 1924 Boatmen’s Strike at Braunston nor the famous Easter stoppage at Buckby in 1910.

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The Canal Adonis The Idle Woman

Part 1: The water road to love

Tim Coghlan looks back on the life of the former working boatman George Smith, who died recently aged 97. He is best remembered for his short post-war marriage to the wartime Idle Woman Sonia South, which, in 1946, brought the pair of them to the forefront of the IWA’s campaign to save the canals, as the glamorous face of the working boatmen. Sonia dramatically left him in 1951 for the canal author and IWA co-founding member Tom Rolt. This profoundly affected George and led him to leaving his life as a working boatman only months afterwards. But to his end, in his own quiet and undramatic way, George maintained his canal interest. Forty years on he formed a new friendship with Sonia, when she sought his assistance with her book A Canal People, which today is already a canal classic. The book is discreetly inscribed, “For George and Anne”.

 

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Nene better!

After twenty-three years of trying to get to the IWA Northampton Spring Rally – always frustrated by the day-job – Tim Coghlan finally got there this year. But only because he had been invited to open it! Here he takes a lighter look at his first impressions of this very enjoyable cameo canal-festival.

There is a saying – perhaps made more appropriate in view of the Royal Wedding on the day preceding my opening of the three day IWA Northampton Rally – Three times a bridesmaid, never a bride! In my now rapidly approaching 23 years of running Braunston Marina, I have been involved in organizing nine Braunston Boat Shows and now the ninth Braunston Historic Narrowboat Rally. Regardless of with whom we have organized those events – and they have include the IWA – it has always been my task to find the celebs to open them, to brief them, and sometimes even writing their lines. They got all the glory for a ten-minute turn-up, when my team and I had done all the weeks and months of work. It all seemed so very unfair. But with my invitation to open the 2011 IWA Northampton Rally, it was at last my turn to turn-up and pose, and to say a few choice words. The bridesmaid was at last the bride!

 

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The OwnerShips Ice Boat Show – with added Blue Shoots!

Tim Coghlan tells the story of this year’s remarkable event – which, like so many previous OwnerShips Boat Shows, seems to survive all known winter perils

For the last three years in a row, it looked like Lady Luck had gone on holiday to somewhere warmer, leaving the OwnerShips Boat Show to face the full fury of the English winter. This was after 15 years of holding the event at Braunston Marina, in a seemingly unstoppable succession mild ones. In 2008, the event was preceded by ferocious gales and driving rain that nearly stopped the marquees going up. Then in 2009 the snow arrived on the night of the Wednesday before, and it dunked down, bringing the Midlands almost to a halt. The marquee lorry was due on the Thursday, but hardly got out of Peterborough before getting stuck on the A14. Everyone wondered if that was it. Another attempt was made on the Friday, and they got through and erected the tent on a base of four inches of snow. OwnerShips, it transpired, had chosen what was later officially recorded as the worst winterweekend in 20 years, with children seeing real snow for the first time in their lives.

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Tom Rolt – narrow boat man

At the invitation of Tom Rolt’s widow Sonia, Tim Coghlan joined actor and canal and train enthusiast Timothy West at the recent Cheltenham Literary Festival to discuss what was billed as ‘a celebration of Tom Rolt’s extraordinary life and remarkable achievements – engineer, prolific author and the man whose elegiac work Narrow Boat sparked the campaign to save Britain’s inland waterways…’ The event – a sell out with an audience of 240 – was the very first of the Festival. It was brought forward even earlier to 11.45 to allow Timothy West to get back to London to star that night  in A Number at the Menier Chocolate Factory. It was appropriate to remember Tom Rolt here in his centenary year – as he and Sonia had done much to save the Cheltenham Literary Festival from collapse in 1960 – one of many things he had saved, alone or with Sonia. To prepare himself, Tim wrote this paper, much of which was used variously by him in the panel discussion chaired by former ITN Newscaster Pamela Armstrong.

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“Apart from that, how did you enjoy the play?”

Tim Coghlan recently met George Smith, the now 96-year old former working boatman and briefly the first husband of Sonia Rolt.

Sometime in 1946, and with the war well behind her, the former Idle Woman and working boat-woman Sonia Smith received some exciting news when she collected her mail at Hawkesbury Junction, a focal point for the Midlands canals, lying as it did a little to the north of Coventry. There was a letter from an old girlfriend from her pre-war acting days, who had just landed her first big role in a West End theatre production. Would Sonia like to come to the first night, which was now only a few days away?

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