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

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.



Every Wednesday between mid-morning and mid-afternoon, Hotwells resident, Mike Timmins sets up FABRICation on the ground floor of the CREATE Centre. His aim is to share his experience of the textile industry and lifespans of textiles, highlighting environmental, economic and social aspect of production and waste.

Fabrication1 Mike says: ‘Producing and using textiles can have many effects on the environment, ranging from pollution from pesticide use on sheep to excessive use of water for growing fibres like cotton, and from producing scrap fabric during clothes manufacture to excessive transport of part-finished garments as they are sent round the world for different parts of their manufacture.’

‘The FABRICation initiative addresses many aspects of textile production, fibre use by manufacturers and end users, and eventual disposal. Emphasis is given to the sustainability agenda, but also described are some less-known textile terms, and examples of interesting or historic textiles displayed. The contents of the display boards will change from time to time.’

FABRICation is a live activity, with projects in progress using waste textiles to produce useful and attractive items. These projects include cushion covers, wall hangings, tea cosies and the like, and will vary each time that FABRICation is open.

The aim here is to raise awareness of sustainability matters in an enjoyable and creative way rather than have any appreciable effect on the vast amounts of textiles sent to landfill in the UK.’

When I went to visit Mike, as well as reading all the information on his beautiful display boards, I learned that if we don’t weather proof the fabrics we put in our black boxes they will end up in landfill. Apparently it’s expensive and wastes energy to dry the fabrics before (usually) shipping them overseas to be re-used or recycled. So, if those fabrics are unsuitable for charity shops, be careful with your weekly recycling- or let’s find a more local solution!

Pop in and have a chat with Mike. Activities will vary from week to week, so there will always be something different going on!

CREATE Environment Centre, Smeaton Road Bristol BS1 6XN

For further info view FABRICation’s Textile sustainability and Lifesteps FABRICation

T: 077 1234 2333 (Wednesdays), E: mwtimmins@gmail.com