Mercia Marina and Griffin Narrowboat Holidays
PUBLISHED: 00:00 07 October 2019
nigel powlson / ashley franklin
Nigel Powlson visits Mercia Marina and meets a couple who’ve moved there to set up an award-winning canal business
It's easy to see why Mercia Marina has become an established visitor destination when you see the swans gliding between the colourful narrowboats watched by coffee drinkers on the shop-lined boardwalk.
Some people love it so much that they buy a narrowboat or lodge and move in for a permanent change of lifestyle. Others take a walk along the canalside, a pleasure boat trip or simply eat, drink and do a bit of shopping.
The Beetroot Tree Deli and The Willow Tree Tearooms both offer outdoor seating with views across the marina basin from opposite sides. Other shops, such as Zing, Blue Water, White Finn, Merchant's and Twigg Home, offer contemporary and designer homeware, fashion brands, jewellery and quality gifts. Meanwhile, The Boardwalk Bar and Dining offers traditional dishes with a twist and The Lotus Indian Kitchen serves street food, grills and curries with an authentic taste of the sub-continent. The lotus is the national flower of India, and as a water plant, is the perfect symbol for this marina restaurant.
For its tenth anniversary last year a new sculpture was commissioned for the marina which now sits proudly by the water just in front of the excellent Bluebird Gallery.
Simon Gudgeon's 'Bird of Happiness' was cast in bronze and is an impressive 7ft tall, weighing around 400kg.
It fits in beautifully at the marina which attracts an abundance of birdlife. This success has been recognised by the presentation of Gold Conservation Awards by David Bellamy. The marina opened in September 2008 in the 24-acre Willington Lake, surrounded by another 50 acres of countryside comprised of dog-walking fields, a wildlife lake and holiday home development.
In building the marina, twelve islands or promontories were added to the natural contours of the lake, creating a green oasis for people and wildlife alike. This was enhanced by an £85,000 planting scheme, featuring wildflower banks, reed beds, semi mature trees and native plants.
For boaters, the layout of Mercia Marina is akin to a series of small marinas joined by wide expanses of open water. After 11 years the marina is continuing to grow and thrive.
Jules Aucott, Operations Co-ordinator, has worked at the marina for the last eight years.
She said: 'It's a lovely place and there is always something happening. We are currently on another phase of holiday lodges going in. The boats are now well-established and we have residential planning permission for 260 boats so we have a real community here. We have 580 boats altogether with the others being leisure or commercial boats. We have 28 lodges at the moment and planning permission for around 20 more, some of which are rented out for people to take holidays here.
'We have a lovely mix of businesses with two tearoom/coffee shops, a pub-restaurant, an Indian restaurant, boutiques, a jeweller's, an art gallery, a convenience store as well as the boat sales.
'There is plenty for people who want to come for the day. We have published a walks leaflet with routes that start and finish at the marina but also take in sights around the local villages.
'There are several other businesses that have their offices here as well and on site more than 300 jobs are based here. The marina itself employs between 15 and 20 people and all the retail businesses have their own employees so it plays a big part in the local economy.'
Mercia Marina is situated between the Derbyshire villages of Willington and Findern. It is only one mile from the A50 and A38 and six miles from Derby city centre (you can follow brown signs from Willington).
Go to www.merciamarina.co.uk or call 01283 703332
Griffin Narrowboat Holidays
Dan Griffin knows at least one great reason to take a narrowboat holiday. 'There is no such thing as a bad canalside pub,' he says. 'They just don't exist. They are all so welcoming.'
Dan should know, as he and his wife Mary-Ann have started their own business at Mercia Marina offering everyone a chance to take a trip along the picturesque canals, taking in the countryside and stopping at the odd hostelry or two along the way.
It's the pace of life (4mph is the speed limit on the canalways of England) and the chance to pilot your own vessel that draws in the customers who are helping make Griffin Narrowboat Holidays an award-winning success.
For Dan and Mary-Ann it was about the chance to control their own destiny and to start a business that fitted in better with bringing up their two children.
Both civil servants working in Sussex, they originally looked at starting a bed and breakfast business, but once they got a taste for life on the canals, they changed tack and came to Derbyshire to start a new phase in their lives and careers.
Mary-Ann says: 'It was moving to Derbyshire and walking along the canals and seeing the narrowboats that made us think we should do this - and it's just such a lovely part of the world, isn't it?
'And canals are a living part of history and people love spending time on the waterways.'
Last year, boating tourism sales contributed over £6bn to the UK economy, a 68 per cent growth since 2013, so Dan and Mary-Ann knew they were entering a growing market, but it was still largely a step into the unknown for the couple.
Mary-Ann says: 'We had holidayed on narrowboats in the past but had never owned a boat, so it has been a big learning curve and we didn't rush into it. I got my helmsman's certificate and we have made sure that we are doing everything safely and as well as we can possibly can.
'It took us two years of planning and a lot of reading before we started.'
Buying a boat was the next step which led to them acquiring Silver Ann 2 - a name they inherited with the vessel.
'It's bad luck to change the name we were told,' says Mary-Ann. 'If it had been something terrible, we might have altered it, but we liked it and have stuck with it. She was the right boat for us to start with - 40 foot and perfect for novices. She has a nice feel to her.'
Mary-Ann says that Mercia Marina always looked like the best base for the fledgling business. 'They take seriously the environmental aspects and that appealed to us and there is a great sense of community. It felt like a good fit.'
Pretty much anyone can learn quickly how to control a narrow boat, with a bit of tuition from Dan and Mary-Ann.
'Before they arrive, we ask people to fill in forms and let us know what experience they have had,' she says. 'If you are a novice, we send you out some videos done by the Canal and River Trust. When you arrive, we spend an hour and a quarter explaining how things work and I will take it out of the marina, onto the canal and let you have a go. Only when you feel comfortable do we hand it over.'
Dan says: 'It's not difficult. That's the beauty of it. Some people think it might be intimidating but once they give it a try, they quickly realise that it's not. It's not like driving: you don't need a licence and a lot of tuition.'
The couple leave instructions on the boat and you can also give them a call once you are out on the canal to get more tips.
The Trent and Mersey Canal is nearly 100 miles long and runs from near Preston to Shardlow and it would take up to two weeks to do a full circuit.
Dan says: 'It comes out onto the Trent at Shardlow and all being well you can go up the Beeston Canal to Nottingham or join the Grand Union Canal which goes down to Loughborough and Leicester. If you go past Burton, you can go southwards on the Coventry Canal. Fradley Junction is a big meeting point. This stretch is fantastic, Burton is a proper canal town, the history of Shardlow is fascinating and so little has changed.'
And then there are all those great pubs. 'Like the Dragon at Willington,' says Dan. 'It's only five minutes up the road so we tell people it's perfect for your last night's stop as we are on the doorstep and it's fantastic.'
Britain's canals have undergone a transformation in recent years, whether that's in cities or the countryside.
Dan says: 'In the 1980s, canals were seen as full of trollies. Birmingham's canals are now beautiful, as is Castle Wharf in Nottingham. A lot of money has been put into it.'
Mary-Ann likes nothing better than to be out on the canal: 'I love being out in the countryside - it's such a relaxing way to tootle about and see the world. There are simple pleasures - such as spotting the flowers growing by the side of the canal, or a kingfisher.'
Despite the business only starting this year, Griffin Narrowboat Holidays has been shortlisted in the Best Tourism Business category at the 2019/20 Rural Business Awards, held in partnership with Amazon.
When setting up their boat hire company Dan and Mary-Ann made a conscious decision to make it a sustainable business and it is also dog-friendly.
This resulted in an award from Green Tourism earlier this year. Mary-Ann says: 'We were thrilled to receive an award from Green Tourism in recognition of our efforts to make our accommodation environmentally friendly but now to be also shortlisted for a Rural Business Award in our first-year trading is just wonderful.'
The couple have made a conscious decision to keep their environmental impact down to a minimum and will calculate their carbon footprint on an annual basis and will use a carbon offset project to account for emissions from the boat's engine.
Mary-Ann says: 'We want to switch to bio diesel and that's something I want to explore over the next 12 months. We would then pretty much be carbon neutral which would be lovely.'
After such a good start the couple are glad they have taken the gamble and started a new business and lifestyle.
Dan says: 'It was Christmas a couple of years ago and Mary-Ann suggested it and I think she expected me to say "no". There have been a few moments when we have stopped and thought "How did that happen?" but no regrets so far.'
'There's always a reason to say no,' says Mary-Annn, 'but if you do this bit and the next bit then eventually you get there.' u
Dan and Mary-Ann Griffin: 07927 089002