Life on the narrowboats
By Brett Birks
A small group of Halesowen residents now own one of the Black Country's most picturesque marinas. They tell us about life on the water and the work of Coombeswood Canal Trust.
"The single most important piece of advice I would give to anyone planning on selling their house and living on a narrowboat is this: get the wife and the kids and hire out a boat in March. Then spend two weeks on it. After that you'll either be committed to the lifestyle or heading for a divorce." - Jeni Hatton, 24th September 2008
One of the only views into Hawne Basin
Jeni Hatton is speaking from the comfort of her living room – in her narrowboat which is currently, and permanently, moored up in Hawne Basin, Halesowen.
Jeni, aged 62, and her husband sold their original Birmingham property ten years ago – "when we'd finally got rid of the kids". A drastic lifestyle change followed as they have spent the last decade living on their new, floating home.
Resident Jeni Hatton
"We were always boaters," she says. "We'd planned ahead for years that when the children – all five of them – moved out, we'd have this boat built and ready. We'd visited Hawne Basin many times and applied for residency here. That was ten years ago. We've been here ever since and will never leave."
Hawne Basin is owned by the members of Coombeswood Canal Trust and is surrounded by typical Black Country trading estates on all sides. Hidden away from the outside world, the basin is only visible from certain vantage points and offers a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of modern life.
In the late nineteenth century though, the basin was a hive of activity in what was then the Black Country's industrial heyday. Originally a railway interchange station, thousands of workers unloaded the millions of tonnes of steel and minerals that passed through the basin via water and rail on a monthly basis.
The canal running out of Hawne
In 1977, with the decline of the manufacturing industry, owners Stewarts & Lloyds closed the site and Hawne Basin was left to decline and decay.
Roy Kenn, 73, is a member of Coombeswood Canal Trust and considered the resident historian.
"The 1960s saw a rise in leisure boating," he says. "Very few people 'knew' about canals in the 60s – save for the original boat people who'd used them for work and transportation purposes. So these leisure boaters went exploring and discovered a vast network around the country. Some of them found Hawne Basin but couldn't do anything until it closed in 1977.
"After the closure it went to ruin. A group of us got together – the Coombeswood Canal Trust – and began to restore Hawne Basin. We originally leased it from Dudley Council but in 2007 finally raised enough money to buy it. We now own the site."
Life in the basin
The basin now houses a dozen or so families like Jeni's who have taken up permanent residency here. On any given day though there are upwards of 70 narrow boats moored up, and passing travellers are welcomed throughout the year to use Coombeswood's club house, seek repairs, refuel or just enjoy the relaxing, picturesque climate.
"Nobody knows we're here," says Roy. "We hear that all the time. We do have open days and hundreds of people pop in for a look around. They always tell us that they didn't even know about us. Everything you see – the club house, the facilities, everything – has been bought and built by the members. We are like a little village and totally self sufficient.
"The Trust pays for everything. We are totally subsidised by mooring costs, repairs and the things we sell like fuel. We like to think we're the cheapest marina in the UK though – the membership fee to dock here doesn't cost much. If passing boats come through in need of repairs there is virtually nothing that we can't do.
"The area is beautiful and there is more wildlife than you would imagine. Otters, water voles, kingfishers, buzzards, badgers, rabbits and herons. This year I actually saw a brown heron and they are extremely rare. There are 30lb carp in the water and huge pike along with many other fish. We don't actively encourage fishing in the marina but welcome it along the banks."
"We've all worked very hard on Hawne Basin and are proud of it all. Life here is a pleasure. We have regular parties in the club house, barbeques outside when the weather is good. There are the usual neighbor squabbles from time-to-time but the community helps each other out. We maintain everything. Crime is practically non-existent."
According to Roy, the Coombeswood Canal Trust is rapidly running out of things to do in terms of the restoration of Hawne Basin – a credit to their hard work at revitalising the area over the years.
"Work on the canal itself now is the main priority," he says. "We go up in teams once a month to clean it. You wouldn't believe what people throw into them. There is a stretch of the canal upstream that was sealed off years ago when a tunnel collapsed. It's a part that runs from Netherton to Selly Oak and reopening it would be good for the whole local canal network."
Canal restoration aside though, the members of Coombeswood Canal Trust continue to live in harmony in this undiscovered corner of the Black Country. It is, as Jenni ponders, a peaceful existence where 'moving house' is as simple as untying the mooring ropes.
Repairs on site
"We love it but the life is not for everyone," she says. "Often you do find that the men love it but women don't. When we sold up and moved here I had to throw out nine tenths of my clothes and belongings because there isn't the space. Imagine a woman having to part with her shoes!"
For more information about Hawne Basin and the Coombeswood Canal Trust, visit: www.hawnebasin.org.uk
last updated: 25/09/2008 at 16:17