Friday, December 02, 2005

Utility and elegance

Thames sailing barge
Thames sailing barge with sails furled, off Southend-on-Sea, Essex

Those who know the Thames estuary and the adjoining coastline - where I grew up - may recognise these flat-bottomed Thames sailing barges, widely used for both national and international trade right up to the early twentieth century. According to one source their voyages took them on occasion as far as South America, and certainly more frequently to the European continent and Ireland. And in the words of this website :

"A number of these vessels still survive in various roles, some fully active, others used as housebarges or are awaiting restoration, while many are rotting away, abandoned in creeks long ago."

S.B. Henry, River Thames, 2004
Photo, D Renouf : Thames Sailing Barge website

A barge running before the wind is a sight not to be forgotten, with its billowing distinctive russet sails (to lengthen their life these were treated with a combination of fish oil, red ochre and water or horse urine!) and harmonious lines. Even with the sails furled at anchor, the barge retains a spare elegance; aesthetics and commercial viability seem to be effortlessly combined in its design. Many of them bear names redolent of their era: Edith May, Marjorie, Gladys, Ethel Ada; or of their locality: Tollesbury, Wyvenhoe, Lady of the Lea. I love them. I love the fact that in spite of their grace, they were, and in some cases still are, proper working vessels that provided the livelihood for ordinary people, not playthings for the very rich.

I have a possible tenuous family interest. My great-grandfather was a mariner, a captain of a commercial vessel on the Thames in the latter part of the nineteenth century, carrying cargo between London, the Medway ports and the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Northern France). I don't know whether or not he was the skipper of one of these barges - but I like to think that he might have been. In any event, though, they would have been a very familiar sight for him. A more tangible connection is that these romantic, useful craft form a small part of my own memories and history that I revisit with a poignant pleasure.


Blogger MB said...

Enjoyed reading about these boats. Did you take that first photo, Mary? There is something about the quality of light in it, in the air and on the water, that reminds me of JMW Turner's paintings:
which I've always loved.

10:36 pm  
Blogger Sonia said...

I like to read these boats' history and familiar memories, too!

Thanks for the nice words about my husband's photos! He is very proud for your compliment!
Always is a pleasure to find your comment on my page.

11:53 pm  
Blogger zhoen said...

I agree, the first photo in particular looks like a time traveler's peak into the Pre Roman Britain. Very atmospheric.

Cool about the red sails.

11:57 pm  
Blogger Gemma Grace said...

Moose ~ Turner-esque was my impression of the first picture too. The quality of light is gorgeous.

Mary, your elegant post has unfurled my desire to experience a "barge running before the wind" in person. Beautifully written!

4:34 am  
Blogger Mary said...

Thank you all. Yes, the first photo is nice, and no I didn't take it, a friend did. I should really credit the photographer but a) he is out of the country and fairly uncontactable, and b) he would then find out about this blog. And the knowledge that he in particular was reading it would probably make me stop blogging!

I'll take the photo down in a couple of weeks perhaps - I actually think though he would be delighted that it has reached a wider audience.

10:04 am  
Blogger Dave said...

I love that term "the Low Countries" - sounds like where I spend at least part of my time. Usually during the small hours.

12:19 am  
Blogger Mary said...

Hi Dave

Yeah, Low Countries is archaic now really, but the term fits in the with the Victorian period and I just like it anyway!

Interestingly, the "Netherlands" actually means the same thing, and it also survives in the French name for the country, ie.Pays-Bas.

But I know what you mean about spending time there.

6:12 am  

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