Life afloat in heart of city

Don Barker took his home with him when he spent a year in London for the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths. Sharon Dale reports.

Don and Barbara Barker on their canal boathome at Strawberry Island Boatyard, Doncaster

London property prices are astronomical, so when work took Don and Barbara Barker to the capital for a year, they decided to take their home with them.

Meandering on the waterways at around four miles an hour, it took over four weeks to get there but the long journey was worthwhile. Their narrowboat proved the perfect pied a terre and even with diesel and mooring fees, it was far cheaper than renting a flat.

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The plan was hatched after Don was made the Prime Warden of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths. It is a great honour but the job involved attending up to four events a week in the City of London.

“We came up with the idea of taking the boat and it worked out brilliantly,” says Don. The main challenge was where to moor the Joe Gargery, named after the blacksmith in Dickens’s Great Expectations. They eventually found a berth at Limehouse Marina for £4,000 a year and a parking spot nearby for their car that cost £1,000.

Squeezing their belongings into the boat was another matter. The tiny wardrobe was nowhere near big enough to hold the suits and gowns they needed for the back tie dinners. Don came up with a clever solution and converted the open front end of the boat, known as the cratch, into a temporary tented wardrobe with hanging rails and a waterproof cover.

“We loved living on the boat in London. We went to some wonderful events in some of the city’s most amazing buildings like Mansion House and Rothschild Bank We also sailed up the Thames, though that was a bit scary as it is so busy,” says Barbara, a member of the Worshipful Company of Pattenmakers.

The couple bought the boat eight years ago when it was virtually new and remodelled the interior using Don’s practical skills, which encompass everything from joinery to ironwork. Scarborough-born Don, who comes from a long line of smiths, spent his first 17 years of working life as a design engineer.

“The blacksmithing started when we wanted a replacement canopy for our house in York. I made some fancy wrought iron brackets. Friends asked if I could make them some and it went from there. It was a hobby that took off. I had a small workshop in the garage at first and I ended up with so many orders that I left my job and became self-employed.”

With the support of Barbara and their two sons, he built a forge and a business supplying everyone from architects to bishops and billionaires.

“It wasn’t easy but I worked out we could manage on very little money. I had started growing my own veg and we had chickens. We told the boys we couldn’t spend much on presents for a while and we coped,” says Barbara, a former dressmaker.

Don Barker Blacksmiths is now renowned, and their work features everywhere from St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey to the Harvey Nichols café in Leeds and some of the country’s finest houses.

“Blacksmithing has changed since the day of the village smith doing everything from shoeing horses and making tools to pulling teeth out because he was the person with a pair of pliers.

“It was a dying craft by the 70s, but there has been a real resurgence of blacksmiths specialising in architectural and sculptural work,” says Don, who enjoyed fitting out his boat.

He modified the doors to make a walkway, before installing plate racks with bars to stop the crockery falling off and reworking the pull-out bed and wardrobe. Barbara used her artistic flair to decorate the Joe Gargery and her paintings feature on the wood panels. She also made all the curtains and trimmed the kitchen cupboards with lace.

The sitting area doubles as a home office and dining area with a table that folds and clips to the walls. There are slim shelves for cups of tea, lots of hooks and ingenious racks to hold paperwork and laptops

“They’re just wooden brackets and bungee ropes. They’re simple but very effective,” says Barbara, who also bought a bell from a German warship via eBay.

Warmth comes from an diesel-fired stove and a fan that sits on top. Most boat owners have a Caframo ecofan, which circulates the warm air without the need for batteries or electricity. As the stove heats up, the fan runs faster.

The boat is now back at its usual mooring in Doncaster and the couple use it as their second home with the occasional short sail out. Going to the capital was its greatest adventure and they took one route down via the Trent and Grand Union canals and came back through Oxford and up to the Pennines.

“The way down was fine, but coming back was a nightmare. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong,” says Barbara. “We were grounded, our propeller came loose and we got rammed by a hire boat. They can be very frustrating as they go so slowly and a lot of the canals down south are very narrow. You end up getting canal rage.”

It hasn’t put her off a life on the open water.

“We love the boat. It’s so cosy and peaceful plus you can’t have an argument on a narrowboat. There’s barely room for sulking.”

For more about Don’s work visit www.theblacksmiths.co.uk