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Through the Quay Hole at Mercia Marina

PUBLISHED: 10:29 16 August 2013 | UPDATED: 10:47 16 August 2013

Ian and Allison Birks

Ian and Allison Birks

rebecca soanes photographer's copyright

Derbyshire’s waterways are quietly bustling with boats as more and more people seek ways to escape the rat race. Most of us probably spare no more than an occasional passing thought to the canals and rivers that sit largely hidden behind trees and beneath bridges. But you may actually be surprised by what, or who, you find there.

It may be news to some but Derbyshire is home to Europe’s largest inland marina. With a capacity of around 600 boats, Mercia Marina, near Willington, South Derbyshire, sits in idyllic peace and tranquillity just a stone’s throw from the busy A50/A38 road junction.

Unless you are driving your car along Findern Lane between Willington and Findern village, or following that minor route a further couple of miles into Derby, you can easily be forgiven for not knowing Mercia Marina exists. Yet, at more than two-thirds capacity, the 74-acre beauty spot that was created nearly five years ago from a former lake and quarry, is the frequent haunt and resting place of hundreds of boat owners. So who are these people?

Our perceptions of a typical narrowboat owner may conjure up Rosie and Jim-style images, or pictures of ageing hippies or nomads who are snubbing their noses to modern life. Some boat owners may indeed fit that description, but today they are certainly the minority. Today’s waterways are in fact overflowing with people from innumerable diverse backgrounds, from airline pilots to nurses and office workers, from the very young to the very old. They are normal people, like you and me. Well, almost... It may be fair to suggest that the very fact they have opted to spend much of their time living on a boat, means there may be certain eccentric tendencies within the boating fraternity.

A handful of moorers at Mercia Marina kindly invited us behind the scenes to get a glimpse of what life was really like on board their floating palaces. As a result, we discovered some quite colourful characters living on our watery doorstep – many of whom enjoy often weird or wonderful jobs or pastimes.

Hayley Powell

At just 23 years old, Hayley Powell is certainly one of the youngsters of the boating community at Mercia Marina. But she is also one of longest-serving moorers there, having owned her boat for more than four years.

It was the idea of freedom and peace that led her to buying her boat at the age of 19; and the basic way of life has kept her grounded with nature, allowing her to switch off from what might be an otherwise hectic life. Hayley has forged a successful business (called Forever Forged) as an artist blacksmith since graduating two years ago from the University of Derby. She creates functional artwork and large art sculptures out of metal – her latest is a five-feet-tall chicken for Betty’s farm shop in Willington. She also loves ‘playing’ with steam engines, yet it is the abundance of wildlife at Mercia Marina that gives her most inspiration for her sculptures.

When she’s not attending steam rallies or coming up with new ideas for her ironwork, Hayley also spends her spare time playing guitar and enjoying barbecues with her boating neighbours.

Tips for would-be boaters: ‘Keep a good look-out for wildlife, as you never know what treat might be about to sail past your window.’

Ian and Allison Birks

Ian and Allison Birks, who both put their ages at ‘50-something’, decided to retire from corporate life and take to the water full-time once their three daughters had all left home 10 years ago. Their current boat, Nobby (named after an Otterhound dog they once had), is the third narrowboat the couple has owned. Ian and Allison commissioned the building of Nobby with a view to live and cruise on it throughout the year. They eventually chose Mercia Marina as their main mooring base largely due to its central location for cruising the rivers and canals of England and Wales.

Their joint interests include the great outdoors, their dog Katy and being active members of the National Trust, English Heritage and the Historic Houses Association. Ian has also written two books about the quirkier side of life on Britain’s waterways: Shuffling Along a Ditch and Whatever Floats Our Boat are both available on Amazon Kindle.

Tips for would-be boaters: ‘Get out and about and talk to those already living their lives on the water... and read everything you can on the subject.’

Stephen and Jayne Pigott

Stephen and Jayne Pigott (both over 60) have owned their boat for less than two years – but water has featured prominently in their lives for far longer than that. Stephen is a retired employee of the Maritime & Coastguard Agency and, although Jayne’s former job as a PA is not particularly water-related, they actually began their married life together on board oil tankers as part of Stephen’s job.

It was the sense of peace, simplicity and freedom of life on the open water that spurred Jayne’s eventual desire to recreate those early days on a more permanent basis. The clue to their yearning for peace and tranquillity lies in the name of their boat, Dolce Far Niente, an Italian phrase that translates as ‘Sweetness of Doing Nothing’. Yet, as Stephen and Jayne freely admit, with all the work to do on board, this lifestyle goal is still to be achieved. They nevertheless find time to pursue their hobbies; Stephen is a keen guitarist and, as well as enjoying making tapestries, Jayne is learning to play the penny whistle.

Tips for would-be boaters: ‘Try before you buy! Be realistic about what you really use at home as you will have to downsize if you change your house for a boat.’

Susi Coleman

Love has been very much in the air for Susi Coleman (56) since she first came to Mercia Marina less than two years ago. Susi, a former Police Community Support Officer, and her partner, garage and repair business owner John, began commuting to Mercia from their Wolverhampton home when they took on the running of the marina’s Still Waters shop in 2011. She has loved every minute serving customers and arranging social activities, though her new workplace was clearly not quite close enough to the water as, within months, the couple had bought their own boat as well – which John romantically named ‘Susi’.

The love story doesn’t end there though. During the marina’s Jubilee celebrations last year, John bent down on one knee, placed a Hula-Hoop on Susi’s finger and asked her to marry him. She quickly accepted and they were married in the summer – fittingly holding their wedding reception at the marina. And Susi even received a more permanent engagement ring to replace the Hula-Hoop.

Tips for would-be boaters: ‘Just take the plunge (so to speak!) and go for it! It’s the best decision I ever made.’

Dave Mackenzie

Dave Mackenzie (63) is more commonly known as ‘Dangerous Dave’ by fellow boaters and staff at the marina. But there are no sinister connotations attached to the nickname – it’s merely a name that stuck after Dave accidentally stepped on a fellow boater’s prescription glasses. Dave is actually quite proud of the name and admits that he is ‘a bit clumsy’ – which has led to a few little accidents in the 18 months he has owned his boat ‘Ruby Jack’.

Ruby Jack is named after his Labradoodle, Ruby, and Dave’s previous dog, a border collie named Jack.

Now retired, the former hospital building services engineer and marine fitter doesn’t miss his work; in fact, despite the odd accident, he’s never been happier since opting for a life on the water.

Born in Plymouth, Dave has lived in various parts of the UK, including a lengthy stint in the Scottish Highlands, where he honed his craft as an amateur landscape painter. Now, he finds little time for painting, but he does enjoy his latest pursuit – internet dating – where he has been surprised by the number of women his age who want to meet other single people like him.

Tips for would-be boaters: ‘Get a quality, second-hand boat.’

A life on board

As you can see, life is far from dull on Derbyshire’s waterways. Perhaps the warmth and eccentricities of the characters you meet on the region’s canals, rivers and marinas explain why so many new boaters become completely hooked once they’ve dipped their toe in, as it were. Mercia Marina is celebrating its fifth anniversary later this year – and its moorers will no doubt make it a party to remember. Members of the public will be able to join in the celebrations in September when a special fifth anniversary open weekend will be held on 7th and 8th September. For further information, phone Mercia Marina on 01283 703332 or email info@merciamarina.co.uk. For further information on photographer Rebecca Soanes go to www.rebeccasoanesphotography.co.uk

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