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Memories from the 1960s

1960s History 1960s Memories 1960s Gallery

By John Turner

The origins of my interest in the Broads and Broads cruising began in the mid-1950s when as a ten year-old I moved with my parents to the beautiful Cambridgeshire Fenland village of Houghton which is situated on the banks of the River Great Ouse. This was and remains an idyllic spot. There is a large, black timbered watermill, weirs and a lock. Even in those days the Fenland waterways were a relatively popular cruising ground with boatyards operating Broads-type hire fleets based in Ely and Cambridge. I soon got to recognise the individual craft in these fleets and used to enjoy watching them locking through Houghton upstream and downstream. I can recall even at a young age my observing that not all the cruiser skippers were natural ones and I can remember seeing white paint and varnish from these craft being scraped against the masonry of the lock walls. I begged my parents to take me on such a cruise when I could try my hand a skippering. They never did, but they did the next best thing for me many years later in 1964 by choosing to spend our family summer holiday in Suffolk at Lowestoft and Oulton Broad. In the course of that formative holiday I saw the Broads for the first time and became determined to take a Broads cruise at the first available opportunity. My school friend was easily persuaded to join me and we used the Blakes catalogue I brought back from my holiday to identify the Kingfisher II for a two week cruise the following July. I recall vividly on first arriving at Wroxham Bridge in 1965 my thrill at how the boats seemed to be floating off the pages of the Blakes catalogue and how big the craft looked in reality compared to their postage stamp-sized catalogue images.

Booking my early Broads cruises was a very exciting experience and one always rich in anticipation. It involved a chilly new year Bakerloo Line Underground trip from my then home in Stanmore up to Central London and to Blakes’ booking office at 47 Albermarle Street, just off Piccadilly. For old times sake, I walked past there recently some 45 years later in the course of a day working in London. The office, street door and shop window are still there unchanged, albeit with different occupants pursuing a different business. I remember when Blakes were there that the window was filled by a lovely Broads tableaux of a large model cruiser, I think a Windboat, and a sailing cruiser set against a background of reeds and bulrushes. Inside were more model boats and enlarged, backlit transparencies of famous Broadland views. There was a wide counter on which were spread several copies of the current catalogue. The booking assistants used these to help their customers choose a hire craft for their cruise and to refer to their paper records of the availability of these craft as part of a very full proof manual, paper-based process. There were a few telephones in evidence, but no other equipment and no computers of any description. Thus began what felt like the seemingly endless countdowns to my cruises on Kingfisher, Broad Wave and Star Glory.

John Turner onboard Kingfisher II at Oulton Broad in 1965

John Turner onboard Kingfisher II at Oulton Broad in 1965

Depending on when this booking trip was made, it was either preceded or quickly followed up by a visit to the Earls Court International Boat Show at which Blakes and Hoseasons were always major, prominent exhibitors. Both agencies exhibited two or three newly built cruisers of different sizes and, usually, a sailing cruiser. They sometimes had Thames and canal hire craft on view as well as Broads ones. Their large stands were invariably packed with visitors and one had to queue up to view these craft at close quarters. The Blakes and Hoseasons brochures were handed out in their thousands. The stands were manned by people from the exhibiting yards and agency staff and Frank Brooker and James Hoseason were both very much in evidence, the latter two puffing away on their pipes. I remember very clearly Ernest Collins exhibiting their new Golden Emblem and White Emblem cruisers in 1965 and 1966. Eastwood Whelpton were at a couple of those early shows too, first with their radical new timber Spindrift class and then their big Tempest/Typhoon sailing cruiser. Over on the Hoseason’s stand I can remember being very impressed by Summer Craft’s beautifully varnished 35 foot timber cruiser, Gossamer Girl, and another late, beautifully turned out timber cruiser, Auraline, from Porter and Haylett. My last such trip to Earls Court was in 2000 when Southgates were exhibiting their handsome, newly-built sailing cruiser Lapwing.  I also recall one of the new Aquafibre 35 foot cruisers with the split sliding canopy being there then.

Going back to my first, 1965 cruise on Kingfisher II. She was built in the early 1930s and at just 22 feet long, she was a good boat for novices to handle too. She had a big balanced rudder and no skeg, rather like a sailing cruiser, and she could turn easily in her own length. I am pretty sure we used to turn her round in the middle of Upton Dike without having to bother to go down to the basin at Eastwood Whelpton’s yard. Below decks, her saloon cabin had standing headroom under the clerestory cabin roof and was mahogany-lined. The cabin had burgundy red curtains, a red candlewick bedspread over each bunk and a red linoleum cabin sole. It was very cosy. However, up on deck she had no windscreen, the only wind protection being available from the green vinyl fore, aft and side screens that rolled down from the cream lifting cockpit roof and which were secured by bungee hooks. Visibility under this contraption was pretty poor through the distorted perspex window panels, particularly in the rain, so we erected it only as a last resort and otherwise shivered in our summer clothing, especially when crossing over Breydon Water and cruising up and down the New Cut. That said, when moored the enclosed cockpit made the separate fore and aft cabins feel as one and gave rise, to me at least, to the most intoxicating cocktail of boat-borne fragrances which it is practically impossible to re-create nowadays. Dominant amongst these was that of slightly damp wood from the bilges, the whiff of Calor that is always present from around an LPG cylinder, the smell of vinyl from the aforementioned side screens and, best of all especially when cooling after a long cruise, came from the little side valve Morris Vedette marine engine a rich blend of the smell of leaded petrol, Duckhams oil and Castrol grease.

We were very proud of Kingfisher and rather hurt when one of the yard workers we met at Easticks said that she always made him smile when she cruised by reminding him of a floating coffin. Looking at the photographs of her today I consider he may have had a point, particularly when she is viewed from the stern. She did suffer subsequently from a real loss of dignity by being sunk, albeit briefly, by her own yard. We learnt of this misadventure when we were having Lock Shiel or Loch Tulla handed over to us at the beginning of a later Sixties October cruise. We asked the yard worker who was showing us the ropes whether Kingfisher was still in their hire fleet. He confirmed that she was, but confided to us that she had just been re-launched down their slipway after a major refit at the beginning of the season only to sink in front of their eyes. Apparently, it had quickly dawned on them that they had forgotten to re-install her Baby Blake sea toilet after overhauling it which caused a more immediate loss of buoyancy than if her sea cocks had been left open. I understand that she was quickly retrieved back up the slipway and made the subject of a long cleaning and drying out process. I am not sure whether they had managed to keep the nice Mr Winterbone, the yard MD, in the dark about this mishap. I last saw Kingfisher at Beccles in 1971. She was by then in private hands and had been renamed Beaune.

Kingfisher II moored in Upton Dyke in 1965

Kingfisher II moored in Upton Dyke in 1965

I noted the mention on your website of the cruiser Romany from the fleet of L.A.Robinson of Oulton Broad. I remember nosing around that very large and by then deserted yard for two or three hours on either my 1966 or 1967 summer cruise and indulging myself in a reverie about former hirers’ Broads cruises past. I found no one about the yard and since the doors of the big green sheds were unlocked, I slipped inside the first one and found it full of craft. The scene before me was like a vast, crowded stage set or large museum hall and quite awesome. The metal shed doors were clanking slightly in the breeze and I could hear the Oulton Broad wavelets lapping closely outside. A few sparrows were chirruping high up in the roof girders, but there were no other sounds to disturb the peace and tranquillity of the amazing scene on which I had stumbled. I was immediately confronted by the large profile of the sixty foot long Edwardian cruiser, the Enchantress, with her white enamelled hull with its clipper bow and counter stern, varnished wooden superstructure and stanchioned upper sun deck. I climbed aboard her easily from a trestle into her forward well and through the open door I entered her large, richly appointed saloon, the first sight of which must have thrilled her countless new hirers over the years. I worked my way aft past the individual white painted sleeping cabins; each with an electric bell connected to the crews’ quarters, and past a further cabin space housing a bath and marine toilet to the crews’ quarters themselves which also served as the galley and engine room. I believe the craft was originally built on the River Thames and had been steam-powered but that at some point she had been re-engined with the large grey, I think Thornycroft, petrol/paraffin unit that sat now dormant and dusty under a large wooden casing/table top. From what I could tell, the whole, large Robinson fleet was inside these sheds including the large 1920s/1930s Rangoon and Waveney cruisers, the elegant, streamlined Silver Swift class cruisers and the then modern-looking Finch class sailing cruisers. How I now wish I had sped back to my own hire cruiser to collect my camera in order to record permanently some images of this now slumbering, but still proud spectacle and to give an impression of the vision, ambition and craftsmanship that had created it over many years of hard work.

It seems from your website that you have an interest in untypical craft on the Broads. One such was the TSDY Bounty which was a familiar site on Oulton Broad for many years. She was the large, elegant single funnel motor yacht that was kept moored at anchor just off Truman’s Brewery and featured on quite a few Broads postcards and calendars. She was built in 1936 by Camper and Nicholson, measures 78’x15’x5’6” and was powered when built by twin Gardner 4 L3 engines. She is a Dunkirk Little Ship and was commanded throughout the operation by her owner who was a lieutenant in the RNVR. I use the present tense because, happily, she is still very much afloat, albeit in different waters, and underwent a major restoration in recent years at Berthon Boatyard on the South Coast.  I also mention Bounty because my friend and I were invited by her then owner, a Mr Mulliner, to look over her when we were moored at the Collins Pleasure Craft yard on Kingfisher. He sent his full time paid skipper over in the Bounty’s motor tender to ferry us over. We spent a couple of very interesting hours on board this beautiful vintage craft seeing, in the words of her owner: how the other half lived. I knew of one other Dunkirk Little Ship on the Broads which was the Hilfranor, a pretty 41 foot motor cruiser built on the Thames in 1936 and named after the owner’s three daughters, Hilda, Francis and Nora. She was kept moored at Cox’s Yard at Barton Turf over recent years, but I have not seen her lately.

We spent many happy days moored at Collins Pleasure Craft on these early cruises and were made to feel very welcome by the owner, John Collins, who had a fleet of well-maintained modern timber cruisers many of which were named after famous ballets. We had a grandstand view of Oulton Broad from our mooring and it was quite instructive to observe some of the misfortunes that could occur to hirers and their craft. One crew came alongside in some distress and had to end their holiday early having become victims of an infestation of blue bottle flies which had engulfed their cruiser after a careless previous hirer had dropped a container of fishing maggots into the bilges. The crew of a wooden Jack Powles Star class cruiser had managed to mangle her propeller manoeuvring at Gt Yarmouth Yacht Station and which had given rise to very bad vibration on the way down to Oulton Broad. The craft was slipped by Collins Pleasure Craft and Powles were summoned to fit a new screw which they did speedily and with surprisingly little complaint. However, their fitter, who we got to know well through our subsequent cruises on Star Glory II, speculated to us that the cruiser had probably been driven at full throttle throughout this particular cruise. We helped the crew of a Herbert Woods Queen of Light class cruiser re-float after running her long bow aground in shallow water by a jetty. She was stuck fast, but came off with no apparent damage after we rocked her through a wide arc as her engine went astern.

Star Glory II moored in Collins Pleasure Craft dock at Oulton Broad in 1967

T264 Star Glory II moored in Collins Pleasure Craft dock at Oulton Broad in 1967 - see more of John Turners 1960s photos

We were given a tour of this 42 foot wooden craft afterwards. She was rather like a Kingfisher writ very, very large. I was envious of her collapsing, fully glazed wheelhouse and I was very taken by her big green, quiet-running six cylinder Morris Commodore engine which was about four times the capacity of Kingfisher’s Vedette. We were told that one penalty of this impressive source of power was a very high petrol consumption and one yard worker at the time referred to the Morris Commodores as juice champers. There is an account by James Wentworth Day in his book Marshland Adventure, published in 1950, of an extensive, late Autumn cruise he took on the Mistress of Light and in which he gives a good description of the craft and his skipper, Donald Applegate.

The Queen of Light class seem to endure on and away from the Broads. In the latter case, I spent a pleasant day driving the Queen of Light herself on the upper Thames in about 2002. She had been expensively restored after being purchased for a nominal sum having been found semi-derelict and propped up by oil drums on Eel Pie Island. Her new owners had laid proper teak decking during the restoration which really suited her. I recall how well she handled and how beautifully she responded going astern in a very congested Thames marina. She still had her large ships wheel and close by on her cockpit bulkhead, still bore the little red tin Broads warning plaque: This craft must not be taken under Potter Heigham Bridge without the assistance of a pilot. This year, during a visit to Kent we saw the Princess of Light propped up out of the water at a small boatyard on the River Stour in Sandwich. Her topsides had been modified a little, but her hull looked reasonably intact. The Stour is very narrow and tidal at that point and very different from the craft’s former home cruising grounds.

John Turner 2011

A collection of photographs taken by John Turner during his holidays on the Norfolk Broads in the 1960s can be found here.