Barge comes back from the past


Britain’s last sailing ship: the Thames barge CAMBRIA, which is being rebuilt thanks to a lotto grant of nearly £1 million, will, with the exception of her bottom boards, need every inch of her wooden hull replaced.

Time was when you would see the hulks of abandoned sailing barges scattered along the sea-walls of the Thames Estuary with big, square holes in their bottoms. Because the air never or rarely got to this part of the hull they were frequently cut out and used again.

On Saturday I climbed down into CAMBRIA’s shell for the first time since 1970 when her skipper, the late Bob Roberts and I discharged her last freight: 100 tons of cattle feed at Ipswich Dock. Back then Bob was depressed about the future of the barge and had even considered scuttling her out in the North Sea.

But now the thrilling news is that she will definately be sailing again. So far 17 floors have been replaced as shipwrights have started in the middle ‘box’-section and will work outwards towards her sheer and bow. In three years time when shipwright Tim Goldsack and his five-man team have finished their work, CAMBRIA will be re-rigged at her berth in Faversham, Kent.

She couldn’t be in a better berth: Maldon in Essex would have been another option, and many a sailing barge restoration has successfully taken place there. But old Bob would not have approved as, to him, Maldon was the Mecca of the barge ‘enthusiast’ and even one of CAMBRIA’s current restorers said to me: ‘Rather too many experts there’.

No Faversham has the feel of a working port about it and shipwrights there work on other craft as well as barges which is healthy. Even the oak for CAMBRIA has been donated by Angela Yeoman from her local estates.

‘It’s like an archaelogical dig,’ said William Collard, project director, of CAMBRIA’s restoration. Her lee-board winches, mast-case, halyard and brail winches have all gone ashore for shot-blasting and re-painting. Her iron work is being restored. Her cabin – like that of the CUTTY SARK – has been gingerly taken apart and moved into storage until it is time to replace it. But unlike CUTTY SARK, CAMBRIA will actually go sailing again and is one reason she is attracting such interest. Already the Cambria Trust have been obliged to pledge a visitor centre at Faversham and the town will also set up a school for shipwrights, naval architects and marine engineers thanks to the resurgent interest in such occupations that CAMBRIA’s restoration has sparked off.

When finished CAMBRIA will sport solar panels which will help power a small generator which in turn will be used for an electric launch, carried in the old barge boat davits, to help her into tight berths. MCA inspectors have already been down to visit the barge as coding is being applied for so that she can be chartered by interested parties when she is not being used as a floating classroom for youngsters learning about the importance of the London and Medway rivers, and the Port of London Authority and Medway Ports Authority docks.

‘When the MCA man arrived he asked us why we could not fit an engine as it would make his calculations possible,’ I was told, ‘ we had to explain that the whole point of the barge’s restoration was because she was the UK’s last sailing cargo vessel!’