Is There Anybody Out There?
Canal Boat|October 2020
Is There Anybody Out There?
As the lockdown eased with canals partially reopened, Tim Coghlan collected a brokerage-narrowboat in Oxford and brought it to Braunston Marina. He recalls an eerie experience: the canal was almost empty of boats and boaters....
Tim Coghlan

They say things come to those who wait, but sometimes you have to wait a long time. I had been contacted in early October last year by Nick, the owner of narrowboat Melodeon – which was lying at Abingdon - with a view to selling it for him. The boat was a 40ft trad hull built by Colecraft in 1983 and fitted out by its team of true craftsmen, headed up by the legendary Lennie Beauchamp.

Despite the boat’s relative age – now over 35 years old – Nick assured me that Melodeon had been well maintained in an A1 condition since new – as had been proved by a recent survey. He was only the second owner, and it had been his for more than 30 years.

Now both their 80s, he and his wife could no longer cope with canal locks, which were getting tougher by the year, as maintenance seemed to slip in the priorities of the CRT.

Nick paid me the compliment of saying he had read several of my articles, including one in Canal Boat in which I had talked about my own boat - a 1991 45ft Colecraft, also fitted out by Lennie Beauchamp, and which likewise had had only two owners since new. We had never met before, but he told me that if there was any broker to sell his boat, it was me! With a compliment like that, I had to make the journey to go and see it.

When I first looked at Melodeon, I knew that all Nick had told me was true. It was like inspecting a much loved vintage car. No cost had been spared in the fit out. The cabin floor had solid American oak planking with blackened wood seams to resemble the deck on a yacht. The sides were of tongue and groove mahogany, and the ceilings likewise of Douglas fir. A new Isuzu 35hp engine had been installed in 2010, so that was up to date. The boat’s only failings were a primitive shower arrangement and a very basic small chemical toilet. Despite these shortcomings, we agreed to an asking price of £34,950 – way above the £30,000 ceiling I would normally have placed on a boat of that age in good condition.

Nick wanted a final two-week swansong cruise on the Thames, where the locks were still manned, and then for us to bring the boat to Braunston from Abingdon.

But in that brief time things dramatically changed. Heavy rains put the Thames on red alert, then there was an emergency lock closure on the Oxford, and then another on the Thames, then flooding on the South Oxford, and by the time all this had been sorted by mid-March, the Coronavirus had forced a total lockdown, which was not partially lifted till June.

We half-kept in touch, and then suddenly in June I received a call from Nick saying he and his wife were ready to bring the boat up to Oxford – a final halfway cruise. They could now get through, and the canals were open for us to bring it the rest of the way. We would meet above Osney Lock on the Thames.

I rang my friend Hugh, who immediately said he was game for it. He had crewed for me on and off since 1982 – firstly on my Contessa 32 cruiser racing yacht, including the 1987 Fastnet – and since I came to canals the following year, many hundreds of miles of cruising.

Like me, he enjoyed working the canals like the old working boatmen, going non-stop from five in the morning till nine at night. For long-day cruising in midsummer, with the canals in lockdown the conditions were perfect – though Hugh pointed out he had recently had his 75th birthday, and maybe we should take things a bit easier….

Our rendezvous with Nick was set for 4.30 pm, but with the roads empty from Braunston to Oxford, our taxi driver was to have us nearly there by 3 pm. I rang Nick and found that the Thames had been likewise empty, and he was already moored above Osney Lock. We agreed to meet up the moment we got there. It was something of a pit-stop, baggage onboard, a quick walk through with Nick, and we were off waving goodbye at 3.30 exactly – with, I noted, something of a tearful smile from Nick and his wife as their boating days slipped northwards away from them.

Nick had recommended we cut through Isis Lock and onto the Oxford Canal, only a few hundred yards away, as he did not know the condition of the two unmanned Thames Locks before reaching the Duke’s Cut – he had heard the electrification was not working and it was a case of ‘gates to manual’, and big stiff gates they were.

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October 2020