What we can all learn from Bristol’s Boaters

What we can all learn from Bristol’s Boaters

underfall yardI’m new to boats. Two months ago my partner and I got our hands on a lovely but neglected narrowboat. In my investigations into what boat life would be like, I was daunted by the constant repairs that boats demand. But this has been one of the best parts – it’s meant a change in lifestyle to ‘making do and mending’, and getting creative with re-use. There is a lot we can all learn from Bristol’s boat-dwellers, makers and fixers.

old tools at underfallUp until this point, my concept of ‘reclaiming and reusing’ materials was limited to trendy urban ‘up-cycling’ – where fairly useful things become stylish accessories. Boaters, on the other hand, will use rubbish to meet their most basic needs of shelter, warmth, staying afloat, not getting electrocuted etc. Here are some examples:

  • A beer can becomes a cover for a flue pipe so you can have heat in the winter
  • An old gas canister made into a stove
  • A broken ladder made into a gang-plank with some scrap aluminium

So the first thing I think we can all learn from Boaters is how to see the value in seemingly useless things. Not just in their ability to be turned into ashtrays or wallets or shoe-racks, but to realise that our lives can actually be supported by bits of rubbish if need be.

With our boat in the state it was in (dubbed ‘the Crusty Chrysalis’) everyone had an opinion on how something could be bodged, and could produce some evidence of how they’d elegantly avoided buying something new on their own boat.

“You gotta be a bit cute with things mind, on a boat”, I was advised by Peter from Oldbury as our boats bashed together in the swirling waters of a lock on the Kennet & Avon. He proceeded to show me  how he’d woven together strips of inner tube to fix his engine and control.

While Glen, from Dorset told me how he had swung by his local go-carting place to get their knackered tyres, used with old climbing rope as side fenders to preserve the hull.

To give you an extreme example: Before buying the boat, we went to get it checked out with the owner, Joe. Among other things, the surveyor predicted that we would inhale black smoke and die if the exhaust was not immediately replaced. Always suspicious of shelling out for new parts, after five minutes Joe presented us, beaming, with a ‘mended’ exhaust involving a bent paper clip and an empty strepsil packet, and we were on our way.

Now, I’m not saying that this was an ok long-term replacement (it really, really wasn’t), or recommending that anyone attempt to fix a life-threatening problem using detritus, but you’ve got to admire the creativity. I’m convinced that Joe is one of many undiscovered geniuses who have turned thrifty boat-bodging into an art-form-cum-competitive sport.

Joe was somewhat legendary in the marina because of his persistence at re-use. These kinds of stories have great milage at the pub. They’re more valuable to boaters than land lubbers because you’re always thinking about how you can manage to stay afloat, especially if you’re miles from a chandlery or have an old banger like ours. The lesson from our boat DIY holiday was clear: The more of an artful bodger you can be, the more rounds will be bought and the more friends you’ll have. Not to mention the more rounds you’ll be able to afford to buy.

copper conducterRe-use on waterways is not just to do with saving money or even for environmental reasons; it’s because (whether we realise it or not) sharing and re-using knowledge has social value – it makes you a great neighbour, friend, or lock-sharing companion. Not to mention it’s really satisfying.

But I don’t see a reason why we can’t practice this more regularly on dry land as well; with homes, bikes, clothes, gardens and more. Sure, people do it – but boat-life takes artful-bodging anecdotes to a whole new level – meeting basic needs as well as sharing knowledge and skills with each other.

I wanted to be involved in the Sharing Communities project to help create spaces in which we meet one another, hear each others’ stories of artful bodges and encounter each others’ creativity.

Since my trip I’ve been meeting Bristol’s own boat dwellers, menders and cruisers to find even more imaginative re-purposing of all kinds of items. We’ll be showcasing these at the Underfall Yard in September and October.

Come get inspired by the imaginative re-use here in Bristol, and meet others who love to tinker, bodge and mend! Boaters and landlubbers alike, see what tips you can pick up.

By Isobel Tarr

Island Life- a lesson in imaginative re-use

Island Life- a lesson in imaginative re-use

We had a great week on St Agnes, Isles of Scilly, 28 miles west of Land’s End in Cornwall. It’s a tiny island with nothing to do except look at the sea and rocks, visit the many secluded beaches, swim, sail, eat and drink and weather watch. For an instant switch off from the stress of work you can’t beat it!

Our Kitchen

But this trip has highlighted how inspiring the place and it’s people are when it comes to re-use, and because of Sharing Communities and my Bristol Re-use investigations, this trip I found myself thinking how much my attitude to waste has been influenced by coming here for the past 28 years.


Being accessible only by water (unless you’re Prince Charles who arrived by boat but left by helicopter from the meadows while we were there) means that islanders have to think carefully about imports and exports, and that includes waste, which has to be buried, burned or composted within the islands. Recycling has to be sent to the mainland.

beach plastic 033It’s a good job there’s a long culture of re-use and re-making. Some items excitingly arriving from cargo washed up on those wonderful secluded beaches. The most famous example is Beady Pool on Wingletang (yes, those are real names of real places) after a Dutch cargo ship was wrecked nearby in the 17th century.

I don’t think any ceramic beads have been found for the past few years, but it may be no co-incidence that St Agnes has produced several jewelry makers. Most well known is probably Fay Page with her beautiful silver shells, who has emigrated to St Martins, but more interesting in terms of re-use are Rebecca Smith who has created some glorious pieces from beach-combed glass and Emma Eberlein, who highlights the presence of plastic in our seas by creating jewellery using small treasures washed up around St Agnes. Emma also paints beautiful images of island wildlife, such as agapanthas, on driftwood.

grasses 069

Aside from our scrappy old camping kitchen, pallets and other waste wood have been used to create furniture for homes and businesses throughout the island. Waste items have also been used to build boats and convert old buildings. And, of course, the cats needed a playstation!


Back home at Spike Island I’m looking for inspiration from our floating community. Examples are dotted all over the harbour and we are seeking stories and photographs to share with the public. In partnership with the Underfall Boatyard, sound designer Elizabeth Purnell and BLINK Giant Media we propose to turn the yard’s information kiosk about their ‘adaptive re-use’ renovation into an occassional ‘story-telling hut’ in September and October 2015. Banners will show examples of ingenious ways in which boaters have re-used- they often have to make-do and mend while afloat- and voices of re-users will emanate from the kiosk.

We’re also inviting you to make tiny boats from corks and waste wood from the yard for a magnificent mini-flotilla in the Autumn.


We hope to inspire land lubbers to re-make some broken stuff instead of buying new- pretend everything arrives and leaves your home by boat!

To find out more and get involved in any of our activities ‘like’ us on facebook or e-mail annahaydockwilson@icloud.com

Bristol Re-Use Network – so much more than ‘make do & mend’

Bristol Re-Use Network – so much more than ‘make do & mend’

food re-use
Food provided by Fareshare, otherwise destined for landfill!

It’s good to recycle your unwanted stuff but in spite of an increase in the city’s recycling, we are still sending ever more to landfill.

So, what is happening? Are we all having a mass de-clutter? Are cellars and lofts around the city being emptied as I write?

I suspect the real answer is that we’re simply buying more new things and not re-using what we already have. Re-use involves a fraction of the energy of recycling, which involves breaking down the item into raw materials and creating new items.

By far the best way to re-use if you really don’t want something anymore is to give it to a charity shop so they can make some money out of it’s re-use. Giving to friends or neighbours is also great. Keep it as local as possible. But, if like me you have that pile of things in your head, physically scattered around the house, that are just too worn, stained, broken damaged or strange to give away what hope is there?

Helen from Kecks demonstrates some of her skills with a t-shirt

Welcome to the Bristol Re-use Network, coordinated by Jessica Hodge from Resource Futures. I went along to an event last week and there were some amazing organisations and individuals who have been actively working on re-using a wide variety of everyday and not so every day objects. Here are a few of the network members I met

  • The Bristol Bike Project repair and relocate unwanted bicycles
  • Kecks Clothing upcycles clothing for women and men. Helen can make a bag from an old t-shirt in moments with no sewing!
  • Sew Bristol might just be the answer to what to do with my well loved, can’t throw away, clothing with its holes and ink stains!
  • Sofa Project collect unwanted furniture and resell it cheaply
  • Paper Arts opens up new opportunities for our community to make a living through creativity
  • Fare Share South West work with the food industry to minimise waste and redistribute food to people in need
  • Hands On Bristol is a collaboration between the Bristol School of Architecture, UWE and the community to enliven spaces
  • The Cloth Nappy Library pretty much does what it says on the tin
  • Baby Bank Network redistributes all that baby stuff that swamps us- how I wish they’d been around a few years ago!

There are many other, more well known members such as Bristol Textile Recyclers, Bristol Wood Recycling Project, Emmaus and The Childrens Scrapstore. Bristol Re-Use are investigating sites where lots of projects could be grouped together.  We could take our unwanted things, or rubbish, as an alternative to the dump, and even shop for ‘new’ things while we’re there. What a great idea!

Planters by BWRP
Planters made by Bristol Wood Recycling Project and assembled on Cumberland Piazza by community volunteers

Get in touch with Jessica if you run a re-use business, charity or project have some ideas about creative re-use or just want to find out more about re-use.

I was truly inspired and am germinating several ideas for projects, although I still haven’t found anyone to take my old jewelry! If you are an artist working with re-used materials or would like to, email me about some further opportunities.