The Great Ouse rises at Syresham in Northamptonshire and flows for 143 miles before entering the wash at King’s Lynn. The river has been historically important for commercial navigation, and for draining the low-lying region through which it flows; its best-known tributary is the Cam, which runs through Cambridge. Its lower reaches pass through drained wetlands and the Fens where it has been extensively modified to relieve flooding and provide a better route for barge traffic. In the middle ages St Ives became a centre for the wool trade, much of which was exported to the low countries using the river for access to the sea.
During my secondary school years and until I was conscripted into the RAF in 1950 the River Great Ouse was the centre of my world. Immediately after the end of the war I acquired a 27-foot Thames punt, built in mahogany, which had allegedly been damaged during an air raid in London. I believe that the boat cost £27, but I cannot now remember how I came by it. I think that it was through an advertisement in the local newspaper, the Hunts Post.
At that time, the lock keeper at the Staunch was one George Thorpe who lived on site in the lock keeper’s house. George was an easy-going sort of gentleman and virtually allowed us free reign. The punt was set on trestles in his garden, where the minor split was repaired and the boat rubbed down with sandpaper and revarnished. I recall that Don Radford (the father of my friend Keith) became adviser on this project.
As I said, George was a very easy-going type and later, when the river crowd had acquired dinghies he would just laugh when we backed the dinghies up to the top of the sluice gates and held them under oars in the water rushing over the top. Irresponsible, probably. Things changed when he was replaced by a retired Squadron Leader Morten who had connections to the Moore family, watchmakers and jewellers on the Quadrant, St Ives. He took the job very seriously and would rant and rave when we perform some of our antics near the sluice gates.
Typically, punts are propelled by sitting on the deck at the rear end and leisurely using a paddle and a particular stroke to keep the craft on course. I soon graduated to using the punt pole which could be used by pushing against the bottom of the river and then throwing the pole up and forward for the next stroke or, by wind milling. An expert in the latter method was Jack Dines the owner of the boat yard on the Quay. He had a heavy, unconventional, punt painted grey with a well in the stern deck for a Seagull outboard motor. To use the windmill method, he would stand amidships and as he recovered the pole after a stroke, he would rotate it and use the other end for the next stroke, and so attaining some speed.
Whilst the punt provided a lot of fun for an otherwise land-locked landlubber, it was hardly the epitome of a vessel for an aspiring sailor man. Elderly gentleman anglers used punts. So, it was with envy that I watched the activities of members of the Cambridge University Cruising club who had their headquarters on the broad stretch of river just above the bridge. The club used clinker built 12-foot National racing dinghies which were Gunter lug rigged, fast and manoeuvrable. I believe that they were called Bridlington one designs. These dinghies were fine in the fore end, but broad and flat at the stern which facilitated planing and a good turn of speed under sail.
One day, whilst at Dines’s boatyard on the Quay, a gentleman appeared and introduced himself as Percy Scotney. He introduced me to his son Alan, who was about twelve years old, and who would shortly have his own motorised punt. Percy asked me if I would keep an eye on him. How he knew me, or my name, I know not, but St Ives was then a small town. He departed, leaving Alan with me and the injunction to “Keep an eye on him, Billy”. That was the beginning of a lifelong friendship which ended only with Alan’s death in 2018.
The Scotney family, among other things, owned a large woodworking factory on London Road which had thrived through the war making ARP ladders and ammunition boxes. Alan’s motorised punt, aptly named “Dreadnought”, duly made its appearance and obviously cobbled together by craftsmen who knew nothing of boatbuilding or stability in the water. It was about 10-foot-long with a small engine, I believe a Villiers, under a box amidships. It was all angles, very tender, that is to say unstable, and care was needed when stepping aboard or moving. Nonetheless, it provided a lot of fun.
I cannot remember how the St Ives Scout Troop converted to sea Scouts but one of the scoutmasters, a Mr Saunders, had built a wooden framed kayak, covered with canvas and painted. This was before the days of fibreglass and kayaks were commonly built using this method. He loaned me the kayak and I spent many happy hours in all weathers randomly paddling on the Great Ouse.
The Sea Scout troop was separate from the main Scout Group and was led by one Glynn Haslop. Shortly after the troop was formed, five of us, led by Glynn went to Hartford near Huntingdon to take possession of a 15-foot carvel boat built in varnished mahogany. As well as stern sheets, the boat boasted two thwarts which enabled four to man the oars, two on each side. We rowed the boat back to St Ives, pulling it over the rollers at Hemingford locks. I have no idea how the boat was funded, or by whom.
When I return from my two-year stint in Aden in July 1953, I found that Alan had in the meantime acquired a neat little 12-foot clinker-built dinghy. Completely varnished, he called the boat “Omega” – but it was not his last boat. The boat had a centreboard and a standing lug rig. Alan was by now also the proud owner of a Morris Minor estate car equipped with a tow hook.
I had barely shaken off the sands of Aden when he announced that we were taking “Omega” to Horning for two weeks on the Norfolk Broads. Hardly a luxury cruise, a tent thrown over the boom, sleeping bag to one side of the centreboard casing and cooking on a Primus stove. If insufficient methylated spirits was used on the pre-heat stage then the stoves had a nasty habit of bursting into flames. Predictably we had occasion to slash the lacing on the rear of the tent over the transom and dump the flaming stove into the river. It was recovered.
A newcomer to the river crowd was Les King who kept his cabin cruiser at Dines boatyard. Les, who lived in Luton, would visit at weekends with his wife and small daughter. The boat, built on the steel hull of an ex-RAF bomb scow, became a sort of floating headquarters.
Another weekend water rat, perhaps two or three years older than I, was a chap called Sammy Searle. He was apprenticed to Allen’s, the marine engineers in Bedford. He had somehow acquired a 25-foot, clinker built, cutter style launch which ran on a four-cylinder inboard engine. I believe that it had been used as a tug on a gravel pit. During the week when he was away the boat was moored under the railway bridge near Enderby’s Mill. Invariably, it sank. Sammy would bail the boat, take off the magneto and cook it in the oven at home when, on reattaching it, the motor would run. I never understood why he did not take the magneto off before the boat sank.
As a sideline, Sammy also ran a firewood business. He would select large old trees and somehow convince the owners that they were over mature and posed a danger to a road, a powerline, or whatever. I particularly remember three giant elms on Meadow Lane being subjected to the treatment. The trees would be felled using axes and a two handled crosscut saw and then logged in the same way. We sometimes tagged along to help with the felling. Sammy also owned a curious 1920s vintage tradesmen’s van which he used to deliver loads of firewood to buyers – rather like butcher Jones’s van in Dad’s Army.
He would then demolish the stump using dynamite! I have no idea whether his possession and use of explosives was legitimate, but one day he arrived at Dines’s boatyard carrying a sack which he dumped in the stern of Alan’s dinghy, “Omega”. He climbed into my dinghy and asked us to row him up the river. In light of what followed, presumably he considered Alan expendable!
In a paddock just above the Hemingford railway bridge he revealed the contents of the sack which turned out to be half a dozen sticks of dynamite which were beginning to sweat and had become unstable. In the centre of the paddock he piled them into a pyramid, inserted a detonator and fuse, ignited the latter and we calmly walked back to the dinghies. This caused quite a spectacular explosion, leaving a small crater. When we returned to the paddock, we found a gentleman, a Mr Evans, a former RAF officer, who owned a fishing tackle store in Bridge Street, St Ives, examining the crater from which wisp of smoke or steam were emerging. He had been fishing nearby. “Cordite” says he. “Not so”, said Sammy, “cordite is a propellant, this was caused by an explosive”.
The next day I was at home when brother Ted visited, and mum asked him about the explosion which she had heard. Ted, who by this time, was in the Huntingdonshire Constabulary, said that it was someone blasting tree stumps over Hemingford way. I had to bite my lip.
About this time, the Cambridge University Cruising Club dispensed with the 12-foot Nationals and replace them with Firefly sailing dinghies. I heard on the river grapevine that some of the Nationals were for sale. Now, working at Cambridge, I had some money of my own and managed to buy one of the Nationals. Unfortunately, it was sold as a bare hull, no mast or rigging, and with slight damage on the right-hand side of the transom.
The transom was repaired and I decided to paint the boat white with a dark blue gunwale and sheer strake. Because it had been designed as a planing dinghy under sail, using a rudder, but with no skeg, it proved a handful to row or pull under oars. But practice makes perfect and I soon had the knack of it.
A few months later I was able to acquire from the same source a mast, boom, yard and rudder, complete with a sail. I cannot now recall what the dinghy and rig cost, but the sum would have been nominal.
During the summer of 1954 for boys, Scouts, from Sidcup in Kent arrived with two, two-seater, kayaks and pitched their tents at the staunch. They soon noticed the activities of the River Rats and made themselves known to us and joined in our activities. I recall that their leader was one Ralph Broad. They reappeared at Easter the following year and for some reason came to the notice of the local Constabulary who were concerned that the four boys were loose on the river apparently without parental support. Question, they admitted that they knew no one in St Ives except “Boatman Bill”.
It will be noted that lifejackets had not yet been invented and only became a profitable sideline much later – like bike helmets! Statistically, given the amount of time spent on or near the river, none even came close to needing the impediment of a life jacket.
In June 1955 I left for Kenya and that was the end of my activities on the Great Ouse.