By Glynn Roberts
An untidy place. Baulks of timber lie around. Masts scratch at the grey sky, while gulls wheel and screech. Dogs cavort, cattle graze beyond the opposite bank. Herons, egrets. The kingfisher briefly dazzles, a seal comes up for air. 19th century wooden craft undergo restoration. Sunrise and sunset unimpeded by tall buildings.
Iron Wharf – Winter Dusk by Tony Smith 1974
But it could have been different: yet another soulless quayside development as are blighting our rivers, creeks and canals up and down the country, denying access to the public, censoring the sky. This could have happened to the Iron Wharf, but fortunately the owners take an enlightened view and the boatyard continues to thrive. Here are historic craft which, without the boatyard, would have to be scrapped or slowly die in some lonely salting.
Three floating drydocks attract barges from Essex, the Thames and Medway, prolonging the lives of these noble craft. Skilled shipwrights shape massive timbers to replace worn or rotten wood. Traditional materials are still used, though the chainsaw has replaced the adze (tool similar to an axe) as the favoured weapon.
Life at the boatyard runs to the rhythm of the seasons. Winter storms and darkness having been left behind, Spring unfolds, and it’s time to slap a bit of paint on the boat, get the engine serviced, check the rigging and book a date for launching. North Kent is particularly fortunate in that spring tides (the big tides following full and new moons) always occur in the early afternoons. And the early hours of the morning, when a northerly gale will occasionally visit us with a flood tide.
As Spring turns to summer, most of the boats ready to be launched are craned in, in a period of frenzied activity on the fortnightly spring tides. The tide will, depending on the boat’s draft, be usable for only two to three hours, so launchings and crane-outs have to be condensed into this period. The more leisurely yachtsmen, who delay their departure from the craning berth for no good reason, incur acid asides from the craning crew, polite enquiries into mental health, and finally a strongly worded request to depart. This latter usually does the trick.
Then comes Autumn. The increasing windiness leads to many a sleepless night as mariners worry about their boats hanging on a piece of rope in the Swale. Heavy dews, misty mornings with poor visibility. Boats are craned out of the Creek, hulls cleaned of barnacles, and the boats positioned ashore for their winter vacation.
‘Thames, Dover. North-westerly gale eight to severe gale nine, occasionally storm force ten in Thames later’. The winter storms are upon us. Wind howling in the rigging, trees bent and groaning. Cheap tarpaulins covering boats are shredded, masts send vibrations down to the hull, testing the wooden props that keep the boat upright. Then high pressure descends.
Frosty mornings of low sun, ice making chandeliers of dead summer weeds. A brief day, sun setting in a blaze of colour, the waxing moon rising over the hills to the east.
The Iron Wharf only came into existence as a result of overdue improvements to the course of the creek. The troublesome meander, shown in the 19th century maps, made it all but impossible for larger craft to reach the Port of Faversham.
The 1842 'New Cut' that straightened the creek at Powder Monkey Bay
Telford tendered for a straight canal from the Swale to the town, but his price of £27,000 was evidently considered excessive. So the creek needed to be straightened and deepened to facilitate the import of coal, this being the age of steam.
The Iron Wharf started, and remained, a coal wharf for a century, latterly owned by British Rail. The current owners, Peter Dodds and Alan Reekie, began their association with Faversham in 1973 by renting frontage from British Rail to moor their Thames Barges, ‘Mirosa’ and ‘Ironsides’.
Subsequently – Alan and Peter managed to buy the yard, scouring the dismantled rail lines for items of scrap metal to finance the purchase.
A boatyard needs a crane, to haul craft out for winter storage and to launch in the Spring. A lorry-mounted Ruston-Bucyrus 22 was acquired, to the delight of connoisseurs of classic plant: a robust reminder of an age when machinery had to be cajoled, with a delicate hand, into performing precision tasks. But the 21st century is upon us, and the new crane, a voluptuous machine of admirable jib length, is able to lift large craft at improbable distances, with a precision not dreamed of in years gone by.
And so to the customers. Boat owners are, by their nature, eccentric types. What sort of grown-up would spend weekend after weekend applying 32 coats of varnish to a wooden boat which would never float? A collection of dreamers, serious sailors, bores, and the occasional petty thief have traditionally made up the clientele. A mixed bunch, with differing aspirations: some dream of the Caribbean, some dream of the Swale, others of the French canals.
Iron Wharf looking back towards Faversham , the dry docks and the crane for lifting craft in and out of the water
It is a DIY boatyard. Some see this as a licence to commit appalling acts of vandalism on an innocent wooden boat, but such levels of incompetence are rare, and invariably lead to the boat’s slow migration to the graveyard. The graveyard is more a direction than a destination as abandoned projects are shifted, at intervals, inland from the creek, to their final resting place, the owners having given up in despair, become alcoholics, or have died.
But it has always been a friendly place, where fellow loafers and complete strangers, innocently walking by, are co-opted into shouldering lumps of timber and pulling on ropes. They always leave the yard the better for it, in spite of the attendant splinters, pulled muscles and liberal helpings of tar adorning their clothes.
Commercial fishing boats from Whitstable and Ramsgate are craned out for maintenance and repair, their owners usually understating the weight of their craft by a margin, causing the crane and driver to complain bitterly. The main attraction of Iron Wharf is, of course, the relatively low cost of cranage, but freedom to work on their boats with no restrictive rules is another powerful reason, Whelkers, oyster dredgers and trawlers all make their way up the creek, with a swift turnaround, to get back in the sea and earn money.
From time to time, when a craft has been detached from its mooring in the Swale as a result of a northerly gale, or has navigated the creek in an overly optimistic way, the Iron Wharf tug is dispatched on a rescue mission, often snatching the vessel from the mud with a long length of rope and plenty of revs. It might be thought more sensible to await the arrival of the next set of spring tides to mount the rescue mission, but other factors are involved. Whether the local looters have decided to give the craft a sporting chance or are slow off the mark, a period, usually three tides, will usually elapse before the stricken vessel is considered fair game. The rescue is rarely a gentle operation, but the alternative is far worse.
Another year draws to a close, and Covid has been a sharp reminder of how fragile our way of life is. But the tide continues to ebb and flow, boats sail down the creek in Spring, Smack and Barge races define the summer, and the boats come back to the Iron Wharf as an autumn harvest.
Rising sea levels next.