‘It’s all here on the water’: how Britain’s canals became home to bakers, blacksmiths and florists

Stuart Fenwick – Bria Studio

When Stuart Fenwick first moved to London seven years ago, he spent a lot of time on foot exploring the capital’s towpaths. His wanderings prompted a recurring dream in which he ran a floristry studio aboard a narrowboat. “I’ve been working with flowers since I was 15 and I’ve always wanted a shop, but could never really afford it,” he explains. “The overheads in London are just too high and unfortunately, retail floristry has been in decline for a long time.” Fenwick found the solution in Bria – a 42ft narrowboat that roves the city’s waterways.

Aged 15, Fenwick took a Saturday job in the florist next to his grandparent’s haberdashery in Morpeth, Northumberland. His father was a hill shepherd in the Cheviots and his mother worked in the haberdashery. “I think growing up on a farm gave me this huge love of nature, while the haberdashery taught me to appreciate fine details,” he reflects. His upbringing also instilled in him an appreciation of independent businesses and British-grown produce, which is why his own designs use only British-grown flowers and foliage.

Bria can often be found moored within cycling distance of Covent Garden Flower Market, where Fenwick travels most mornings to select flowers for the arrangements he creates for weddings, events and editorial shoots. “With the winter lockdown and the cold spring, I have only recently been able to properly start trading again,” he says, having spent the winter repairing his back deck and stripping the engine room while making occasional dried bunches of dried flowers for passersby. “I had my first wedding since before lockdown in mid-June. Hopefully it’s a sign of more celebrations to come.”

Pre-pandemic, Fenwick also hosted workshops aboard Bria. “I’ve always taught that working with flowers and working with your hands is good for your soul and good for your mind,” he says. “I think a lot more people have realised that this last year.” Next year, once the winter repairs are complete and the growing season begins again, Fenwick plans to travel to the Lake District, visiting flower farms along the way and selling his floral arrangements to the communities he passes through.

“The entire floristry industry is really supportive – we all help each other out, and the same is true of the canal community. I grew up in a tight-knit farming community. When I moved away, I really didn’t expect to find that same sense of community, but it’s all here on the water.”
@briastudio; briastudio.com

Pedro Barrios – Lilla Flicka Bakery

‘When people see us, they can’t refuse to buy something’: Pedro Barrios, Lilla Flicka Bakery. Photograph: Maria Bell/The Observer

Pedestrians peering through the window of Lilla Flicka will see a table laden with freshly baked bread, croissants, muffins, scones and cakes. “The display is nothing fancy,” says boat owner, Pedro Barrios. “Taste is more important than aesthetics for us.”

Barrios runs a micro-bakery aboard his narrowboat, Lilla Flicka. It’s a weekend operation that begins on Friday morning and continues through to Sunday afternoon. During that time Barrios makes 40 loaves a day, 50 croissants, dozens of scones and muffins, and always an orange and polenta cake. “I sometimes do savoury things, depending on how I’m feeling,” says Barrios. “And I might do empanadas, but for now, there’s no reason to do too manydifferent things: everything I bake, people seem to like.” Between batches, he’ll snatch two or three hours’ of sleep, but otherwise he is on his feet in the kitchen for 48 hours straight: “It’s quite hard work, but for some reason, I really like it.”

Barrios moved from Chile to London at the age of 29 with the intention of studying. When he failed his English exam, he found work at a bakery in Stoke Newington. “It changed everything,” he says. “I decided not to study – it was too expensive – and I carried on baking there for five years.” Unable to afford London rents, he moved on to a narrowboat called Que Sera with his wife, Mercedes. When she became pregnant, Barrios decided to give up work for a year to spend time with his wife and newborn daughter, Matilda. “I carried on baking bread for myself, and I’d make maybe eight loaves for other boaters,” he recalls. “They always sold out so I started to bake more and more.”

After a year, the couple were able to invest in a second boat so the business of baking could be separate from their home. The “floating bakery” is fitted out with two commercialgas ovens, and is always full of bags of flour: British Shipton Mill for the bread, French Foricher for the pastries. “My wife is a baker too, but there is not room for two people in the kitchen, so she helps with selling when she can,” Barrios explains.

Throughout lockdown, Lilla Flicka was moored on the edge of Springfield Park on the River Lea in Hackney, east London. Now the restrictions have been lifted, they have resumed their roving trade along the river, travelling between Hackney Wick and Hertford, posting their whereabouts on social media. “All of our customers come back,” explains Barrios. “Even when we decide to moor somewhere that’s quite remote: when people see us, they can’t refuse to buy something.”
@lillaflickabakery

Brian Greaves – Artist blacksmith

Brain Greaves on board his red canalboat with his business sign on top
‘I’ve been told many times how much people like the tinking sound of a hammer on soft metal’: Brain Greaves, blacksmith. Photograph: Maria Bell/The Observer

Brian Greaves, 59, was “born within 10ft of the water” in a house belonging to British Waterways. The back wall of the bedroom he was born in formed the bank of the Leeds and Liverpool canal, where he now holds a continuous cruising licence.

Greaves recalls spending his weekends opening the lock for passing barges, whose inhabitants would throw coins or Mars bars in his direction as payment. He trained as an engineering machinist in Skipton for five years before enrolling on a blacksmith course in 1982. In his late 20s, he purchased his first narrowboat, Emily, on which he has lived with his wife, Jane, for just over 30 years.

Emily is a 50ft, engineless “butty boat” permanently attached to a 20ft boat tug named Bronte. Bronte was purpose-built by Greaves over three years and completed in 1992. Greaves had worked for a decade as an engineer, but had been searching for a way to become self-employed. He wanted to go back to blacksmithing – so he built a forge into the bow of Bronte.

Greaves has been an artist blacksmith for nearly 30 years, shaping decorative objects that have been fired at temperatures of 1,200C. (The forge is fueled with a special coke called Smithy Breeze and the temperature is controlled with an air blast.) “I’m careful not to moor next to houses,” he says, “but I’ve been told many times how much people like the tinking sound of a hammer on soft metal.”

The objects he makes are sold directly alongside the boats and include a range of fluid, finely tapered candlesticks, fireside companions and decorative sculptures that are inspired by the dark and sinuous waterways on which he lives and works.
briangreaves.com

Sylvie Doleman – Holm Oak Trading Co

Sylvie Doleman on Holm Oak, filled with the zero-waste refillable produce she sells
‘We always knew we wanted to do something a bit different’: Sylvie Doleman on Holm Oak. Photograph: Maria Bell/The Observer

“I moved straight from my parents’ house on to the boat,” explains Sylvie Doleman. “People are always saying, ‘You don’t have much room’ – but this is the most room I’ve ever had!” Doleman, 25, moved on to the 55ft narrowboat with her boyfriend, Ben, last September. The couple bought Holm Oak in 2019 as an empty shell and spent a year fitting it out themselves. “We always knew we wanted to do something a bit different,” Doleman recalls.

Prior to living on board, Doleman made and sold upcycled accessories at craft markets across Derbyshire. She now sells her wares from the boat. “Ben is a joiner, so we’ve been able to adapt the design of the boat to suit our needs,” she explains. “There are hanging rails fitted into the boat, and bespoke shelving that can be dismantled and packed away underneath our solar panels.”

When the winter lockdown forced Doleman to cease trading, she invested in a range of zero-waste refillables including washing-up liquid, laundry detergent, fabric conditioner, body wash, shampoo and conditioner, which she sells from the side of the boat. “It’s something we always wanted to do – lockdown pushed us into doing it sooner than planned,” she says. In just six months, Holm Oak has built up a loyal customer base. “We have people moor alongside us to refill their bottles, which is quite cool,” explains Doleman. “Some boaters will buy six litres of refillables from us – enough to last them until the next time they see us. Others might be passing by with young children, and they often stop, which is a good thing. It gives them the opportunity to explain the impact of plastic on the environment.”

The couple post their whereabouts on Instagram and have covered the Trent and Mersey canal, the Staffordshire and Worcester canal, the Shropshire Union and Llangollen canal in just under a year – pausing for up to a week at a time to set up shop. As well as providing goods to other boaters, the couple are happy to be bringing eco-friendly products to communities that don’t yet have a refillable option. “Often, the locals are really grateful to have us pop up. Otherwise they’d have to travel into cities to find something similar. This way, we’re able to make a zero-waste alternative more accessible for more people.”

As well as selling refillables to regulars, Doleman sells handcrafted gifts to holidaymakers on hire boats. “The shampoo and conditioner bars are always popular and the upcycled scrunchies do really well,” she says. “And toothbrushes! We sell a lot of bamboo toothbrushes. People are always coming on holiday without their toothbrushes,” she laughs.
@holm_oak_tradingco

Paul Partridge – Baked on Board

Paul Partridge, smiling and passing a pizza in a box through the hatch of his narrowboat
‘At the height of the first lockdown, we did 100 pizzas in four hours’: Paul Partridge. Photograph: Maria Bell/The Observer

“At the height of the first lockdown, we did 100 pizzas in four hours,” recalls Paul Partridge, owner of Forget-Me-Not, a 53ft barge that sells stone-baked pizza along the Shropshire Union canal. “We’re one of three or four barges selling pizza on the network,” says Partridge. “But thankfully, we’re the only one in the northwest…”

Baked on Board started trading in 2018, although Partridge’s fascination with the waterways began in childhood – “It just took me 40-odd years to actually get around to doing something about it.” Previously, Partridge worked in the hospitality industry in Cornwall, often living above the pubs he managed. “For 30 years, I felt as though I was always at somebody’s beck and call,” he explains. “That’s just the nature of the business. Here, on the canal, I have complete peace and the quiet. I can just wake up in the morning, decide where I want to go and take my house and my business with me.”

Partridge had hired a boat on the Shropshire Union Canal for eight consecutive years before deciding to permanently live and work onboard. He admits he struggled at first to shed his possessions in order to embrace his new, transitory lifestyle. “But now, I couldn’t ever imagine living in a house again,” he says. “I don’t want to give this up. Not ever.”

His research led him to a company that makes portable pizza ovens from reinforced refractory clay. He approached a boat builder he knew of, and asked him to put the two together. “Watching this three-quarter-tonne oven floating in mid-air was probably the most nerve-racking experience of my life,” he recalls. The oven was safely installed in the well deck of Forget-Me-Not and pizzas have been flying out of it ever since.

There are eight pizzas on the menu, which have been given names such as The Navigator Margherita, The Fiery Lock-keeper and Chain-locker Chicken. Baked on Board currently trades Thursday-Sunday, 4-8pm. Partridge serves about 50 pizzas each evening; at weekends, it’s more like 100. “We manage to do an awful lot in a remarkably small space,” he says.

Last year, with lockdown restrictions in place across the canal network, Partridge set up a regular route between Nantwich and Chester. By advertising his whereabouts on local Facebook pages, he has picked up a loyal customer base. “Pretty much 90% of the people who are on my list for the next three days are repeat customers,” says Partridge. “That includes pedestrians, fellow boaters, canoeists and fuel barges, who all moor alongside to collect their pizzas.” He continues: “There are some people who call the canal system ‘the linear village’ and it’s absolutely the right description, because everybody here is genuinely helpful. We all look out for one another.”
@pizzabakedonboard





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