Narrow Boats Ahoy

8th May 2015

As preparations for next weekend’s Rickmansworth Canal Festival enter their last few days, Clare Finney meets a man whose work will be widely seen – but barely acknowledged…

Back in 1997, diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia, actor Timothy Spall made two promises: if he lived, he’d buy himself a Rolls Royce and a narrow boat. A year later, during his near-miraculous recovery, he was true to his word. The first – a beautiful and utterly unreliable Rolls – proved successful only in so far as it got him the second. “I remember that day vividly,” recalls Jim Sparks of Alexander Boat Builders, the man who built Spall’s first narrow boat. “He pulled up outside in his old Rolls Royce Royce, a Led Zeppelin Tee-shirt on, and he had a good look round.” Jim nods approvingly. He’s not, I sense, a man to be impressed by celebrity; I suspect he was more taken by Spall’s appreciation of his own handiwork then he was of Spall’s quite considerable fame.

And well he might be: as a builder of barges for over 30 years, Jim has every reason to be proud of his craftsmanship. His commissions – not just from rich actors, but from all sorts of people looking to ‘escape the rat race’ of urban life – come entirely through word-of-mouth recommendations, and his dedication is renowned. If you’re wandering along the canal of a Saturday morning in Ricky, you’re sure to see one of his narrowboats idling noisily at a lock or moored up alongside a sputtering barbecue. You probably wouldn’t recognise it – but Jim would know one of his boats a mile off, as well as every one of his competitors.

“You can tell from the finish,” he shrugs, stroking the bare, shining stern of his current commission for a boat hiring company. Stretching the entire length of Jim’s industrial shed, it looms imposingly over us; narrow boats out of the water are tall. They are sinister, too. Something about the ghostly, unpainted grey steel, so far removed from the gilded, chocolate box colours we associate with canal boats, jars harshly. Yet as Jim lovingly points out the craftsmanship which defines his boats, I realise the true ‘colour’ of canal boats starts here.

It starts with some sheets of steel, sourced from a local supplier in Worcestershire where Jim is based: the Midlands has long been a boat building heartland, supplying most of our waterways. This, plus a surprisingly small battery of tools, is all it takes for Jim to build a narrow boat. The base is cut, the two sides and stern are welded and the prow – the front end of the boat – made from a further two sheets which are bent towards each other to form a V shape. “There’s no heat used whatsoever,” Jim says, alarmed, when I ask if it’s bent with heat. “Heat causes distortion, and you don’t want that. You bend it using a chain.

“An eye there, an eye there” – he points to one side of the bow, then the other – “and a chain attached to each eye. Then it’s just a matter of tightening the chain so the sheets bend towards each other.” These are tacked and welded to form the prow of the ship, though even with welding Jim must take care. Too much prolonged welding in one place will also cause heat distortion: Jim compensates by alternating between welding a small section on one side and then the other, so that the steel has a chance to cool.

This summary makes it sound deceptively simple: steel, tools, a lick of paint and off it goes to be decked out in fittings. Jim’s work is easily underestimated – and, indeed, when buying a narrow boat, most people are first and foremost concerned with the inside. Is there a power shower? A hot tub-cum-jacuzzi? Does it look pretty? “The quality of the steelwork and the shell gets forgotten,” he says quietly. “The quality of the boat to them is what they see on board, but the quality to me is this…” and he bangs significantly on his boat’s echoic sides.

The detail is everything. Just the look of the welding can tell Jim who did it, and how good the boat is. “Some boatmakers cut corners, use filler and so on, and it’s not the way.” A piercing, grinding noise fills the air at that moment, as Jim’s assistant wields the welding gun – and Jim nods approvingly. “I can tell from just listening what the welding is like. Everyone has their own style, and welds their own way.”

He hands me the gun, which looks like a water hose and shoots metal out like a retractable pencil lead. As it comes out, this metal is heated to melting point and welds the steel. This is for finer work; the other gun, its ‘lead’ considerably thicker, is reserved for the heavy stuff. Look at the upcoming canal festival’s boats through Jim’s eyes, and the welding, the shape and style of prow, the rivets (no longer needed now that boats are made of steel not wood, but still used for ‘trad’ effect) all point to whom the shell was made by and how it will ‘sail.’

He is a busy man. In the 30-odd years since he started out in the trade, the industry has been booming. While shipbuilding on an industrial level has all but disappeared from the UK, the builders of small, leisure boats in steel – wood continues, but it is rare, now, because it’s so expensive – continues to thrive. “It’s not a business to make you rich. I’ve not got money – but I’ve never been out of job, and that’s something,” he smiles, remembering. After all, when a man first asked Jim to build a narrow boat for pleasure, Jim quite reasonably thought he was mad.

“This was the 1960s. Canal boats were finished. Nobody used them for transport anymore,” he explains. Though once a vital means of ferrying goods and fuel cross-country, by the latter half of the 19th century the canal network had long been supplanted by trains and roads. They were derelict, dirty and largely avoided. Happily employed in his cousin’s steel fabrication business, 17-year-old Jim was as incredulous as everyone else when a customer asked the firm to build five steel narrow boats so he could hire them out to holidaymakers. “Well, ‘he’s bonkers… people aren’t going to have a holiday on the canal’, we thought back then – but we made them, and fair play to him, he made a go of it. Then another company came along…”

They kept on coming, he recalls. “Company after company – until one asked me and a colleague to go self-employed, building boats for them. I said, ‘Joe, how much work is there? Surely you’ll run out of space on the canal?’…” Jim laughs. In part he was right: official figures are hard to come by, but the Canal and Rivers Trust – responsible for two thousand miles of our water ways – estimate that there are 35,000 boats in their area, of which several thousand are concentrated around Greater London. Of course, the vast majority are in permanent moorings in the numerous, 250-boat-strong marinas that have opened up over the years, and as Jim points out: “there’d be a bit of a hoo-hah if they all suddenly wanted to up and move.”

Still the orders keep coming. Day after day sees Jim and his assistant welding and bending and cutting, climbing like The Borrowers up and down the little wooden ladders surrounding each boat. The more intense modern life becomes, Jim feels, the more people want to take to the waterways. “Living on a canal boat, it’s a world of your own. I’ve not got one myself – haven’t the money or the time – but my customers often invite me over.” It says a lot about the relationship between boats and their owners that so many remain in touch with Jim, sending emails, Christmas cards and invitations to stay, long after their finished boat has left Jim’s workshop and set sail.

It says a lot about Jim, too: his talent and his passion, self-evident in the stacks of books and images he keeps in his small office. “I really want to recreate this style,” he says, flicking through a book of photographs of barges and narrowboats in the 19th century. The scene is far cry from the canals today. Huge, coal-dusted families in ragged clothes, bursting out of the tiny cabin of a boat otherwise dedicated to cargo – yet below the piles of coal and their drawn faces, there sits a genuinely beautiful vessel. Stripped of today’s huge cabins, the sun deck, the flower garden, the hot tub and other accoutrements, I’m finally able to appreciate the aesthetics of a good shell.

“If I could recreate that in steel, I’d be a happy man,” Jim says, as we return to the workshop. Craig is still welding – and even with my newfound appreciation for the boat’s ‘skeleton’, it still looks somewhat forlorn. What is the best bit of Jim’s job, I ask, as he checks on progress. “Aside from the customers?” He thinks for a moment, then grins. “The painting. When you’ve painted the boat, and there aren’t any drips and you stand back at the very end and you think: she’s done now. That is a very good feeling.”

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