By Tim Coghlan
PLANS and preparations are well under way for what will be the 17th annual Braunston Historic Narrowboat Rally & Canal Festival, held as always in the last weekend in June - this year 29 and 30.
For many years, this popular and much-loved event has been by far and away the largest gathering of former canal working narrowboats anywhere in the country. Last year 83 of them attended, coming from all corners of the canal network. And over 7,000 enthusiasts came to watch the spectacle of the famous daily parade of boats - some from as far afield as Australia, Canada and the United States, providing a welcome boost to the local economy.
To keep this annual event special, there is a focus on alternate years between the large surviving Fellows Morton & Clayton (FMC) fleet - as featured originally in the first rally in 2003 - and all the other fleets with Braunston associations - Samuel Barlows, Blue Line, Nursers, Willow Wren and the Grand Union Canal Carrying Company. The 2019 rally will again focus on the FMC fleet.
The original plan for this year's rally opening was to parade the last surviving steam narrowboat President and its butty Kildare - now owned by the Black Country Museum, and operated by a group of enthusiasts, the Friends of President. However, President is still in the long process of having its boiler renewed, and associated with that, raising the £60,000 needed to do so, and will not be in action again until far later in the year.
But there is still plenty to celebrate. In particular, attending the rally will be two surviving FMC motor-narrowboats which are both celebrating their ninetieth birthdays - the Panther owned and operated Coventry Canal Society, and the Python which is owned and operated by the Chesterfield Canal Trust.
They have trod a similar path. They were both built as Josher motors at the same time in 1929 by W J Yarwood in Northwich. The yard had the habit of giving an initial to each batch of boats, this being P - and boats named accordingly - hence Panther and Python. They both served in the FMC fleet until it was nationalised as British Waterways in 1947. In the 1980 both boats were reduced in length to 53' and converted into canal maintenance boats by British Waterways. Many years later, they were both acquired by their respective canal enthusiast groups, who have lovingly restored and maintained them. They are now still used in part for their respective local volunteer canal maintenance works, as well as for promoting their canals, and for educational purposes.
In the now well established tradition for the celebrity-opening of the Rally, at 11am on Saturday 29 June, this year's celebrity the current Chairman of in the Inland Waterways (IWA), Ivor Caplan will steer Panther into the marina and declare the rally open. He will be followed by former IWA Chairman Audrey Smith OBE on the Python. Both steerers will be in traditional boatmen costume. They will each receive a little help from a steerer from the respective canal societies. Their entry will be accompanied by a fine peel of bells from the steeple of Braunston's church - known as the Cathedral of the Canals. And from the quayside the stirring sound of the Daventry Brass band. The traditional theatrically-spectacular opening should make for a splendid start to what will undoubtedly THE canal Rally of 2019!
The rally's location is at the heart of the canal network, in the beautiful setting of the historic Braunston Marina and the canal and village at Braunston. But what is special for boaters and visitors alike, is the ability for the historic narrowboats to parade in a sort of figure of 8. It provides a challenge for the steerers, especially those towing a butty boat, and a spectacular sight for the visitors to see and photograph from so many vantage points, including the famous beer tent - the Wet Dock!
All historic FMC narrowboats will be moored in the old Oxford Arm in the marina. Other historic narrowboats will be moored out on the mainline, thanks to the support of the Canal & River Trust. Most of the historic narrowboats will participate in the famous daily parades. The event is open to all historic narrowboats.
The rallies over the years have proved inspirational in the restoration and ongoing maintenance of the diverse surviving fleet of historic narrowboats. Over 150 of them have attended various rallies over the years, with some not seen before already booked in for this year.
Besides the historic narrowboats, other attractions will include the famous Braunston beer tent - the Wet Dock, plus fast food and fun. Music will be provided by various folk and R&B groups. On the quayside will be an array of various Morris Dancer groups. There will also be a return visit from the itinerant theatre group, Alarum Theatre.
To help cover the infrastructure costs and to add to the public interest, trade exhibitors are invited to attend. Canal societies with whom the marina is associated are also invited - being offered free marquee or outside space.
There will be an admission charge to the public of £20 per car. All profits will be donated, as usual, to canal and local causes, the main recipients being the Coventry Canal Society and the Chesterfield Canal Trust.
Since its small beginnings in 2003, the Braunston Historic Narrowboat Rally has become THE premier rally and festival on the English canals. Its successful formula is now much copied, with similar events springing up all over the canal network. This is good for the canals - but the Braunston Historic Narrowboat Rally remains the best, with by far and away the most historic narrowboats and visitors in attendance. Here's hoping we see you here.
The Braunston Historic Narrowboat Rally & Canal Festival is sponsored by Braunston Marina and Towpath Talk, with support from the Canal & River Trust.