Stormin' Norman: singlehandedly navigating the waterways, aged 86

Norman Woolley at the helm of his narrowboat on a canal

At age 86, Norman Woolley plans more adventures in 2022, singlehandedly navigating the waterways in the narrowboat he shared with his beloved wife - Credit: Archant

Norman Woolley lost Julie – his wife and crew – to cancer in 2013 but rather than give up their beloved narrowboat Bruin, he has trained himself to travel the waterways single-handed. In pre-lockdown 2018, when aged 83, he covered an astonishing 700 miles. And he has big plans for this summer, as Tim Coghlan reveals...

For someone now aged 85, Norman still has the water-bug in extremis. But it is fascinating that boating came into Norman’s life really quite late on, and then only by chance.

And this at a time when he was well on the way to his 40th year, when most sensible people have found their other interests.

Norman muses: "It may sound ridiculous, but when my first wife and I got married in 1962, we lived in Weybridge, and I didn’t even know the River Wey Navigation existed.
“It was only when we moved to West Byfleet that I found we lived not far from the Basingstoke Canal. My real introduction to it was when my golden retriever Haggis came back stinking from swimming in that derelict canal.”

Norman's early boating experiences
Prior to that, Norman’s first boating experience was mackerel fishing with his father during the war when he was on leave. Norman and his mother and cocker spaniel Bingo had been evacuated to Largs on the Scottish west coast near Glasgow, where they had family connections.

Another consequence of that visit was that Norman’s younger brother Ian, was born two days before D-Day. Norman’s father was a captain in the Royal Engineers, and went to France shortly after D-Day. He then followed the flag across northern Europe through to Berlin.

Here he spent the freezing winter of 1945-6 sharing a double tent with a fellow RE officer Captain Martin, outside of which they put up a sign saying Woolmar Hotel – a combination of their surnames. On one occasion when given leave, his father borrowed a motorcycle and rode back to England to see his young family. On another, he hitched an unauthorised ride with a rear gunner friend in the back of his bomber.

On VE Day, Norman was nine and a half, and now living in north London. He remembers the doodlebugs, and sleeping in the Morrison shelter, a metal cage next to the dining room table. “I’m part of history, and give talks on it at our village school. No one today realises just what we went through.”

Norman’s second boating experience came after the war, when the family settled in Eastcote at the end of London’s Metropolitan Line. His father’s money-broking City business had survived the war, and was now doing rather well, allowing him to hire a chauffeur-driven saloon car, which took them to Henley and back at weekends, where his father hired a slipper launch. "We had to do things in style!’”

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Norman was later to join him in the business, and prospered for some years.Years of no-boating then followed. But they were about to change during the school holiday of October 1974.

Norman's first narrowboat hire
Norman and his partner Julie – whom he was later to marry – had taken his four young children out for a drive along the River Wey above Guildford. Going past Farncombe Boat House, he spotted a sign offering rowing boats for hire. He thought this was a good way of getting rid of his children’s energies.

There and then, he hired a large rowing boat that could accommodate all of them and almost without help, the children rowed the boat all the way down to Guildford – five miles and two locks – and back. They came away very happy, especially as they each received a certificate and warm congratulations from the Farncombe Boat House.
Then, as they were leaving, Norman spotted some narrowboats for hire on a backwater of the Cut, which was part of the boat house. “We didn’t know anything about narrowboats. I said to Julie, ‘Let’s give this a go!"

So they took away some brochures, and hired one from them in November 1974, after the children had gone back to boarding school. Norman recalls: “We only hired it for about three days in the middle of winter.It was absolutely freezing, but the boat was lovely and warm with warm air central heating.
“We made every mistake under the sun. We got stuck on weirs, stuck on mud banks, you name it. But we were having such fun, and we laughed and laughed about it.
“We got as far as Windsor, and were so enjoying it, I rang the boat house and asked if we could hire it for a couple more days, and they said we were a couple of nutters, and could hire it for as long as we wanted. We had caught the bug.”

They hired from Farncombe the following summer, and then started hiring boats all over the canal system, including the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. This they did for many years.

“They were excellent holidays for the kids. They were working the locks and out in the fresh air, and didn’t half sleep well at night.”

Becoming a professional skipper
After the rowing boat incident, Norman also got to know Guildford Boat House, which was further down the River Wey, and nearer his house. “I sponsored a hire boat in their fleet, the Guildford Consort. This I had for about seven years, which gave us free holidays. I also used to help with the turnarounds at weekends, when I was still working in the City.

“So when I was made redundant on January 13, 1989, I went to see the boat yard manager and asked if he would take me on full time, which he agreed to do.
“I passed all the examinations to become a professional skipper, and skippered two of their restaurant boats, and the Porsche hospitality boat which I took to Henley.
“I also used to bring back on my own, the hire boats that had been left by their hirers for various reasons – mainly adverse weather conditions on the Thames.
“On one occasion I had to travel some distance to collect two in various places, so on collecting the second I tied the boats together – breasted up to give it its proper title – and brought the pair back on my own.
“It was magic, and taught me so much about single boat-handling, which proved an invaluable experience to me years later after Julie’s death, when I went boating on my own.
“The boatyard wanted me to become a manager, but I said no, I’d had all of that.Going to work there really saved my life, as I’d had the rug pulled from underneath my feet in what had once been almost a family firm.
“Then I thought, now hang on, I have no responsibilities, I have no targets to meet, I have no deadline, I’m just working in a boatyard. I’m just one of the lads.”

Norman Woolley at the helm of his narrowboat after just passing through a lock

Norman and Julie named their narrowboat Bruin after Julie's favourite bear - Credit: Archant

Buying and fitting out his first narrowboat
Before this, in the spring of 1988, when Norman was still working in the City, and seemingly unaware of the rising storm post Big Bang and Black Monday, he and Julie decided to acquire their own brand new narrowboat, which was to be built to the highest standards and to their exact specification.

The easy part was naming it. Julie was passionate about teddy bears, and Bruin was her favourite. So Bruin it was.
Thereafter the challenges began - choosing the best boat builder, boat fitter and engine, and then managing the project.

Like his father, in matters like this, Norman did not travel second class and he was meticulous in his research.
“We went round all the renowned boat builders before choosing Les Allen & Sons. We thought they were the best.”

Les Allen & Sons was a third-generation of boat builders, now based at Valencia Wharf, Oldbury, in Birmingham, a romantic sounding name for a rough and ready wharf on a canal arm, hidden behind a transport deport. In former times the company had built wooden working narrow boats until the 1960s. But with the advent of leisure boating, they had the foresight to change to steel and acquire the necessary skills.

“Bob Allen and his team of craftsmen built beautiful hulls. We just loved the shape. “We decided on a 58ft hull, which could go everywhere.”

But before commencing the hull construction, the interior layout needed to be planned and a boat-fitter selected.
For this, Norman chose Chris Lloyd who worked from premises at the wharf just above Shackerstone on the Ashby Canal.

“In those days, you bought your hull from one builder and then took it away to be fitted out elsewhere - unlike today when quite often the boat builder will do the lot.”

What Norman and Julie suggested to Chris was basically a hire-boat layout, which was all they knew. But he soon put them right. They were pleased with everything, except Julie was somewhat disappointed by the size of the galley, which was smaller than she had planned. This was because precious space had to be sacrificed across the interior in order to accommodate amidships the compartment for the Russell Newbery diesel engine which

Norman had chosen – that engine being in the very last batch to come out of the company’s factory at Upminster.
There was one concession to progress: “Although it was traditional to have the old fashioned pulley and wheels for the controls, I decided not to as it made the boat so much more manouverable.”

With the interior plan now agreed, Norman went back to Bob Allen on April 6, 1988, to agree the hull, knowing where windows and side hatch had to be cut.

“They were also very helpful at suggesting the hull shape, which I think was a work of art,” he said.
“Sitting in Bob’s chaotic office, with empty teacups everywhere, it was hard to believe that the man could be so talented and professional in his work.”

All was agreed and on May 1, the base plate was laid and the yard took delivery of the Russell Newberry engine. Thereafter work on the hull proceeded apace.

"We went up every week to watch the progress,” said Norman. “I have a habit of using the wrong words, and towards the end of the hull construction, I said to Bob, 'You haven’t fitted the adenoids yet'.
“And he looked at me as if to say, ‘You ……southerners.’ Then he said, ‘We are fitting the anodes next week.’ ”
After two and a half months, Bruin was craned in on July 15 into one of the two canal arms in the yard.

Once in the water, Julie poured a little champagne over the bow, before the rest was consumed by Woolleys and the yard team. Bob, in particular, enjoyed it – his wife was French, and he had learned to appreciate fine wines.

With engine now working but little more – no windows or doors, not even a floor to lie on, just a couple of sheets of blockboard on which to camp, plus a Portapotty and a Primus stove – the Woolleys set off on a four-day run to Shakerstone.

They were fortunate it was mid-July; the weather kind  and the run relaxing.

Bruin was to be amongst the last hulls Les Allen & Sons ever built. The company struggled on for a few more years through the 1990s recession, before it ceased trading in 1997 – with Bob blaming the EU Recreational Craft Directive paperwork.

Chris now began the fit-out, working with the hull in the open, on the water a few yards from his workshop. The boat only went into the covered tunnel for painting the gloss top coat.

Two canal boats on a canal heading away from the camera towards a bridge

Norman plans to be the escort boat for the eccentric Macmillan Nurses fundraiser Stuart Kettell - Credit: Archant

The first real trip in Bruin the Narrowboat
In late winter, on February 28, 1989, the Woolleys took delivery of Bruin and headed south. With no canal stoppages, they made their first run to Gayton Junction Marina on the Grand Union Canal near Northampton.
Here they left the boat, and went home for a break. In the spring, they returned and took the boat down the Mainline and onto the Thames.

“It was quite quick, as we didn’t have all those floating housing estates, that are there are today. We came out at Brentford and then up the Thames to a rally of the City Livery Yacht Club, where we were able to show off our new boat, on the stern of which we proudly displayed the club’s blue defaced ensign.’”

With Norman now redundant from the City, he and Julie were able to spend more time boating. “We had done the whole system in hire boats and now we did it in Bruin.”

For more than 20 years they enjoyed extensive cruising, latterly focused on the annual Russell Newbery rallies which were held across the network, and after 2003, the Braunston Historic Narrowboat Rallies.

They would spend Christmas and New Year on the boat, dressing for dinner, and then romantically dancing the night away in the saloon. Norman called it ‘the vertical version of the horizontal equivalent.’ Then in 2011, Julie was diagnosed with incurable cancer and given only two years to live.

The Woolleys were determined to make the most of it, cruising extensively, and managing to attend our 2013 Braunston Historic Narrowboat Rally, where I saw a very brave and beautiful Julie for the last time. She died in the winter of that year and was buried in a country churchyard near the River Wey.

“After Julie passed away I was determined to continue doing long summer cruising, which I soon realized that for the most part I would have to do on my own,” he said.

An early cruise involved the new access to Liverpool Dock. “I also passed through the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, which we had not done. However, for the Rochdale I persuaded my old friend Vince Locatelli to join me.
“He was navigation foreman on the River Wey for nearly 40 years. He used to build lock gates, and I thought ‘What a surname!’ ”

In his 86th year, Norman has great plans for 2021, including being the escort boat for the eccentric Macmillan Nurses fundraiser Stuart Kettell, whose madcap plan for this year - in July – is to walk the 100 miles from Braunston to Brentford backwards.

And be aware...walking backwards is slower and it will take ten days at ten miles a day. Stuart will be housed, fed and watered on Bruin. Norman will dedicate his involvement to Julie’s memory.

“Today I feel more at home and closer to Julie on Bruin than I do in my own house, as this was something we created together from scratch. I hope to go on boating on Bruin for a few years yet. I’m an optimist."
He added: ““To me the lock is always half-full.”