One of UK’s oldest horse-drawn barges forced to stop river trips

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The owner of one of the country’s oldest working horse-drawn barges has been forced to stopped her river trips after clashes with ‘snowflake’ canal users.

Jenny Roberts, who owns Iona, has closed the Godalming Packetboat Company after 35 years, citing criticism from people using the towpath.

Her horses, Buddy, Alizee, and Espoir have been retired and the Iona, which was built in 1935, loaned to the Tiverton Canal Company on the Grand Western Canal in Devon. 

Jenny Roberts, who owns the Iona barge (pictured), has been forced to stopped her river trips after clashes with ‘snowflake’ canal users

Iona arrives on the Grand western Canal Tiverton. Owner Jenny Roberts and new custodian Philip Brind

Iona arrives on the Grand western Canal Tiverton. Owner Jenny Roberts and new custodian Philip Brind

There are now only three locations in Britain running horse drawn barge trips – Llangollen, Newbury and Tiverton, and apart from Iona all the boats are later built replicas.

But Jenny says that ‘snowflakes’ who do not understand the nature of the business have accused her of animal cruelty.

And clashes with people who refused to step back to allow the horses to pass made journeys too stressful.

Iona as a working barge in 1965/6 at Norbury junction  in Staffordshire

Iona as a working barge in 1965/6 at Norbury junction  in Staffordshire

The large number of people using the area for recreation, playing on inflatables and maneuvering boats about in the water, and crowding the towpath, means she can’t operate her boat safely.

‘No-one is sadder than me because I have been doing it for 35 years.’

‘It’s been getting worse over the last couple of years,’ she said.

‘All passenger boats can only operate under Maritime and Coastguard Agency rules and we have come to the conclusion the River Wey is no longer a safe environment to run a horse drawn boat.

Jenny Roberts starting her journey being towed from Godalming to Reading, where IONA was lifted out on to a large articulated lorry

Jenny Roberts starting her journey being towed from Godalming to Reading, where IONA was lifted out on to a large articulated lorry

Her horses, Buddy, Alizee, and Espoir have been retired and the Iona, which was built in 1935, loaned to the Tiverton Canal Company on the Grand Western Canal in Devon. Pictured: Iona is taken out of the River Wey

Her horses, Buddy, Alizee, and Espoir have been retired and the Iona, which was built in 1935, loaned to the Tiverton Canal Company on the Grand Western Canal in Devon. Pictured: Iona is taken out of the River Wey

‘There are now an unprecedented number of unlicensed paddle boards and inflatables with inexperienced people on them.

‘This is just an accident waiting to happen, when trying to dodge them with 17 tons of narrowboat that does not stop on a sixpence.

‘The towpath is very narrow with high undergrowth on both sides and it is getting increasingly difficult to get the National Trust to do anything about it.

‘With large numbers of speeding bikes, runners, dogs off leads and people with pushchairs, we are also suffering a fair bit of verbal abuse, the towpath has become totally unusable for a horse.

Jenny says that 'snowflakes' who do not understand the nature of the business have accused her of animal cruelty. And clashes with people who refused to step back to allow the horses to pass made journeys too stressful. Pictured: Iona begins its journey to Tiverton

Jenny says that ‘snowflakes’ who do not understand the nature of the business have accused her of animal cruelty. And clashes with people who refused to step back to allow the horses to pass made journeys too stressful. Pictured: Iona begins its journey to Tiverton

‘It is the end of an era and a sad loss to Godalming. I can’t run safely and if I can’t run safely then I can’t run,’ she said.

Jenny said that, while people who were too impatient to stand back quietly and wait while the boat passed are nothing new, it’s the number of people who confronted her each time she took Iona out that became the problem.

‘I get people shouting things like “that’s really cruel, what are you doing to those horses?”.

Horse-drawn barges became the preferred transporter of goods and raw materials when suppliers realised a horse could pull between 30 and 50 times more weight on a barge floating on water

The life and times of narrowboat Iona 

Iona was built in 1935 at Woolwich on the Thames by Harland and Wolff for the Grand Union Carrying Company.

The vessel started out life as the ‘Bellerophon’, a cargo carrying narrowboat.

At 70ft long and 7ft wide, she is the maximum size for boats navigating inland canals and could carry up to 35 tons of goods.

She was worked as one of a pair of boats – the unpowered ‘butty’ towed behind a motor boat – trading for most of her life between London and the Midlands.

She carried coal south from pits in Warwickshire and Leicestershire, returning north with imported goods: wheat, steel, lime juice and timber.

In 1960 she featured in the film The Bargee starring alongside Ronnie Barker and Harry H Corbett.

A few years later she was retired and converted to passenger carrying on the Shropshire Union Canal, pulled by a horse in the old-fashioned way.

In 1984 the business was sold to the present owners and Iona travelled south to her new base here at Godalming, at present the most southerly point of the whole British waterway system.

Iona is also on the National Historic Ships register.

‘But they don’t understand – it’s an easy pull for a horse. I could pull that boat, it’s on water so it’s not heavy.

‘It’s much easier for the horses than somebody riding them. It’s far less strain. These are big heavy horses that’s what they are bred for.

‘People come up beside you on their bikes, ringing their bells, people’s dogs come flying at you.

‘Joggers don’t hear you when you ask them to keep away from the horses because they are wired for sound.’

‘There are too many people along the towpath now and they are so impatient.

‘Someone even tried to push one of my horses out of the way. He got both hands on the horse and tried to push him. He ended up with his earphones in the hedge and threatening to report us.

‘If you get stressed the horses get stressed.

‘I love my horses to bits and if anybody accuses me of being cruel to them it really hurts.

‘There comes a time when you think you just can’t do it anymore.’

The Godalming Packet Boat Company had become famous over the years with coach parties travelling from all over the country to enjoy a trip on the river.

The two-hour trips which ran from Easter to the end of September would take visitors from the wharf at Godalming to the weir at Unstead.

Jenny’s horses became stars in their own right over the years too with appearances in television programmes including Inspector Morse and The Victorian Farm as well as in the 2000 film version of the Railway Children with Jenny Agutter.

Iona herself has a long and interesting history: built in 1935 by Harland and Wolff of Woolwich, she has served as an industrial workhorse across the years.

She has hauled coal, steel and even lime juice in her time.

‘It’s a bit of industrial heritage,’ added Jenny. ‘I have had 33 years on that boat, I know every single inch of her.

‘She’s a piece of industrial heritage and I have found a good home for her.

The Godalming Packet Boat Company had become famous over the years with coach parties travelling from all over the country to enjoy a trip on the river

The Godalming Packet Boat Company had become famous over the years with coach parties travelling from all over the country to enjoy a trip on the river

‘She’s going to some very good friends of mine so I shall still be able to see her.’

Phil Brind of the Tiverton Canal Company said: ‘I’m very excited the owner of this very valuable, historic boat decided she wanted it to go to Tiverton.

‘Iona is unique – the last of her kind.

‘All the other horse drawn barges still working were built as replicas at a much later date.’

Horse-drawn barges helped revolutionise industry but also led to their own demise 

They were once the main arteries of the nation, helping Britain rule the new world of industry.

Nowadays, people are used to seeing diesel-powered canal barges leisurely sailing up and down our waterways, offering a unique form of mobile home.

But before the steam train changed things forever, canal barges caused their own revolution, by changing how coal, steel and other materials moved around the country. 

Before the widespread development of the canal network, most goods and raw materials were hauled by horses and mules that were pulling road carts.

A horse-drawn barge moored on the Oxford Canal in Warwickshire, June 1936, as an LMS train full of cargo speeds past

A horse-drawn barge moored on the Oxford Canal in Warwickshire, June 1936, as an LMS train full of cargo speeds past

This became more problematic when the volume and weight of the cargo began to increase at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

A strong horse was only able to pull around one tonne of coal or iron ore along a road using a horse-drawn cart. 

In need of a solution, suppliers realised that a horse was able to pull between 30 and 50 times more coal or iron ore on a barge that was floating on the water.

Because canal systems are usually in flat areas, and are not troubled by tidal changes or a current, the work was deemed safe for horses.

Although some companies chose to use gangs of human pullers instead of horses, most boat haulage companies preferred to use horses instead. Horses were less expensive than a team of men.

These horses needed to be stabled and fed, but costs were generally low once a suitable animal had been purchased. 

This boost to productivity helped kick-start Britain’s heavy industry, and unfortunately for canal haulers helped in the development of the steam-powered train. Demand would eventually move towards this faster form of transport.

Even after the widespread introduction of steam and motor boats horse-drawn craft continued to operate and compete with them until the middle of the twentieth century. 

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