21 June 2008

Hire love

As I’ve reported elsewhere in this blog, much of my early boating was done courtesy of Weltonfield Narrowboats. I can still remember that back in those quondam days, Weltonfield was a member of the Blue Riband Club, a loose consortium of independent hire companies drawn together by shared standards of boating and service excellence. I looked them up today to see if the Club is still going and was a little saddened by the fact that, yes, it still exists, but that now there are only two member companies – I seem to remember eight or ten members in my youth, but for the life of me can’t remember the others. Could anyone without an addled brain perhaps remember and let me know?

However, it was nice to reacquaint myself, albeit virtually, with the Wyvern Shipping Company and Countrywide Cruisers, who have an aggregate 80 years’ hiring experience between them. They should really write a book, they must have seen it all by now. Even nicer to see that at least one has maintained its original livery, with Wyvern’s nostalgic blue and red giving me a touch of the old ‘recherche de temps perdu’. Where did it all go? I see that CC have moved on from their rather tasty banoffee number and are now decked out in a fetching shade of aquamarine and cream. Of course, one thing led to another and I spent this morning wracking my brains as to who else was about when I was a lass and is still plying their trade to this day, and who has gone to that great hireboat graveyard in the sky (I thought that was Charity Dock. Ed).

In some ways, little has changed. The hire fleets are still dominated by Alvechurch, Anglo-Welsh and Black Prince. Alvechurch has stayed true to its very rakish green, yellow and burnt umber paint scheme with the characteristic Cyclops window always casting its beady eye at you as you approach. Anglo-Welsh seems to be having a BW-inspired ID crisis, switching from blue to green and back to blue, having given up completely on 70s beige and mud (that was a good move) although not forgetting their brief ‘red period’. Black Prince, of course, have never been black. Today they are cherry red, blue and cream while in the earlier Rimmer era, they were a rather startling blue and yellow, with a black prince logo chappie on the side. Weren’t they known as the ‘yellow peril’ back then? Or the ‘blue peril’? Or maybe ‘the yellowey blue or bluey yellow peril?’ All I know is you tended to get out of the way when one of those high beaky Harborough Marine prows came whistling round the corner.

Personally, I found the only peril really lay with those black and burgundy Bugattis of the Grand Union, the Weed boats. The Weeds were from Concoform Marine and I’ve never seen hire boats shift that fast. We were once hit by one on a bend and it left a three inch deep dent in the bow, such was the momentum-driven impact. One also zoomed past us moored up at Braunston and it ripped both pins clean out of the bank and drew us into the middle of the cut. I was too absorbed with my SuperNoodles at the time and didn’t notice until I came to step outside and found water either side.

It’s good to see people like Rose Narrowboats, Clifton Cruisers, Canal Cruising Company, College Cruisers, Clubline, Middlewich Narrowboats, Shire Cruisers and Chas Hardern still around – and still proving that smaller specialists can succeed. But I wonder whatever happened to the likes of Gordons Pleasure Cruisers who worked out of Napton? They seemed to be everywhere at one time, their distinctive white and blue boats having an almost Canaltime ubiquity. And English County Cruises? Dartline? Brummagem Boats? Braunston Boats? And goodness knows how many more I’ve forgotten. Time for someone to write the definitive history of the hire trade, don’t you think?

I’m reminded of past times every so often when I see the unmistakeable lines of a Harborough Marine boat that’s now in private hands. There’s one just round the corner from us that’s been done up in ‘peril paint’ – maybe as an homage to the old BP? - and it looks cracking. In fact, every one I’ve seen is immaculate and lovingly tended, and I reckon that they have a bit of retro style these days. They do say, if you wait long enough, everything becomes fashionable again...although maybe not my purple corduroy dungarees with patches on the bum.

P.S. Gosh, this took me back! I'm indebted to http://www.asmith.org.uk/ for the following:

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