Working Lives

Changing times at Cox’s boatyard (1970s-2018)

Location: Barton Turf

Eric talks about his life with boats and the history of Cox’s boatyard on Barton Broad, Norfolk

In my early life my father was a great sailor. He used to sail a lot of the little dinghies around the Broads with his brother and then he taught me how to sail in the good old Mirror dinghy and we actually built one ourselves. We went to the sea scouts which was based down at Brundall on the River Yare where we improved our sailing and we were canoeing as well around on the Broads and the marshes. We also went to Great Yarmouth and Gorleston Sailing Club where we were sailing on the sea as well and keeping the sailing and canoeing as well.

Back in the 70s where we had some really hard frosts and hard winters the broad at Ranworth froze so much that we could actually skate on it and there was two years on the run where my father took me and my brother and my sister and we were skating on Ranworth Broad along with a lot of other people as well.

In the 70s when the RSPB were just taking over Strumpshaw Fen and I was down there with Mike Blackburn clearing the marshes for the birds and I was a young RSPB person then and then also in the scouting years we did volunteering down there where we would help build some of their hides and now it is a thriving RSPB reserve.

Joining the YTS and early career

I’d always been interested in boats and it was part of my life. I loved the water and I loved the Broads and when I left school I then got a YTS, which is a Youth Training Scheme, in boat building and that’s where I started my apprenticeship and moved along working with boats and started down at Brundall.

We’d do all sorts of things: working on the engines, how boats are built; working on the wood. I was working in two hire yards but we were maintaining the boats, repairing them and learning how they were built and then also team building involved with it. It was an all round, one year, good apprenticeship.

From there, from my YTS I then went self employed and helped two Americans build a 60-foot wooden catamaran in Brundall. But then, from then after that I went to R Moore & Sons which is a boat building company at Wroxham where they build sailing dinghies. And they were mainly Wayfarers and Bosuns and Yeomans and that’s where I stayed for nine years. First of all building them and I moved into the office and I was selling them but then I was repairing a lot of them as well at the same time.

History of Cox’s Boatyard

Cox’s Boatyard goes back to the late 18th Century where the Cox family started the boat building industry and they were building wherries and repairing wherries on the public staithe at Barton Turf. And they had one small shed at that time which they worked out of but they mainly worked on the parish staithe which is the trading staithe.

It Cox Brothers’ Boatyard initially. It was just run by the Cox family. It’s gone through several generations. The yard itself: they used to make wherries. The last wherry, which was built at Cox’s Boatyard, was called Eithne which is not around anymore. And that’s where the actual family didn’t really want to start running it anymore and then they started leasing it out. And it was leased out to three or four different people. And the last people were Steve Rose and at that point Steve fell ill and then he passed it onto David Adler and the consortium.

Position of the Boatyard on the Broads

The position of the boatyard is very important. It’s right next to Barton Broad. Barton Broad is the second biggest broad on the Norfolk Broads. It was also where Nelson, Lord Nelson started to sail and learn how to sail. It’s connected by the River Ant which then connects onto the other system and we’re on the northern Broads. And way back in the war they used to land planes on Barton Broad and there are some: there is at least one wreckage in the Broad somewhere of an old plane.

Cox’s boatyard 1960 (picture provided by Cox’s Boatyard)
Cox’s boatyard 1970 (picture provided by Cox’s Boatyard)

Turning Cox’s Boatyard around

I got involved at Cox’s because one of the directors of R Moore & Sons was involved with the Cox’s Boatyard and he came along and asked me would I’d be interested in maintaining some moorings for him which, at that point in time, I thought, well I could move along in life and then from there I went down and went for a job interview and I got the job.

It was a turning point for me and a turning point for Cox’s. The boatyard had been run down by the previous owner who was falling ill and hadn’t really got much drive and the company was just about to go insolvent. And this point was when David Adler who is the chairman now had got together other local businessmen and women who wanted to form a consortium to take over the lease of Cox’s Boatyard and get it up and running how they used to know it years ago when they were children and sailing around.

They formed a consortium of eight businessmen and women who took over the lease from the previous people. And they renewed it and it was going to run for 19 years and this is where we started off turning the yard around and trying to make some profit to plough back into the business to keep it growing.

My job was to manage the business and to turn it around, to increase the moorings. The moorings weren’t being used to their full capacity. A lot of the marina was silted up and there were two brothers who worked there at the time. We then started off by trying to dredge the marina and to bring in some more work so we could make a bit of money. And then to plough that money back in again which was the consortium’s main objective: was not to drain the business out of cash but to plough it back in again to stop it going into commercial hands.

When I started there was just me and there was two brothers who lived in the village and that was just us three which started to turn the business around. Now, there are six people who work there now and two people in the office. So, in 20 years it has turned around quite a bit and is a thriving commercial business now.

The great successes we have is obviously the development of the whole business. It is moving forward quite quickly. We also have taken on a lot of apprentices where we’re very keen to teach the youngsters to keep the skills going forward. A lot of the apprentices we’ve had have won awards. We’ve had one which won Apprentice of the Year for his module for two years running. So our apprentices are doing very well.

Dredging and new workshops

Yes, as we initially, first of all we dredged the whole site and then we actually, gradually re-quay-headed all the banks to make them  usable which then virtually doubled the amount of boats that we had in the marina. And then from then we started on a big development where we got planning permission where we were going to replace some of the old falling down sheds into more modern sheds and workshops. We first started on pulling one small shed down and which had a soil floor and not many windows in it.

And we dug into a little basin and then we produced, we designed and built a closed loop wash down system where we harvest rainwater off our workshop roof. And that washes, we wash the boats which come out of the water but then we filter that water and we re-use it. This was designed by us and we did get a funding from the Broads Authority for it. But then after that we then built or we purchased a radio controlled boat mover to help us move the boats around. And then in 2013 and 14 we went on a big venture where we replaced our main workshop.

Since I’ve been involved Cox’s Boatyard has gathered pace and has increased its turnover. The customer base is enormous: we don’t just get boats from Norfolk. We now get boats from the Thames which come up which is a cheaper way for people to have their boats maintained. We also do a lot of work for the Broads Authority maintaining their boats. We do a lot of work for the Environment Agency, the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, Natural England and we’re all maintaining their boats, engines and trailers and we have contracts where we have to go out if they break down a lot.

If a boat does break down they do call us but it’s usually in daylight hours only and at weekend but we’re always there and people know where we are and if they’re in real trouble we’ll go and help them out. Even big motor boats break down. Everything’s got an engine. Nothing is totally sound nowadays days and we’re there to repair it and it’s usually something simple. If not, if it’s something major then we will still fix it.

Cox’s boatyard 2000 (picture provided by Cox’s Boatyard)
Cox’s boatyard today (picture provided by Cox’s Boatyard)

Increase in the number and size of boats

About 50% of the boat owners are in East Anglia and the other 50% are out of East Anglia. We have some people from Kent; quite a few people from London; in the Midlands and some from Somerset.

When we first started there were only approximately something around 50 odd boats in the marina. Now we are at 187 boats afloat and nearly about 100 on the bank. The ones on the bank do include little rowing boats and tenders and we do store them on bigger boats in our car park.

The size of the boats have changed as we’re sort of progressing. More and more boats are getting bigger. We do find that people start off with a small boat and then they’ll work their way up and get gradually bigger boats and more modern. But there are a large amount of people who always like the traditional wooden boats and are willing to keep them going. There’s a lot of man hours which goes into varnishing and painting them but there are a lot of people who like to keep them going. So, on the whole, boats are getting bigger and there’s more and more coming in.

The demand for berths is increasing. There is a great shortage of moorings around on the Norfolk Broads. It’s difficult to build more mooring because there is quite a lot of tight planning. And there aren’t an enormous amount of people who are investing in these big marinas. So, if you have a boat to find a mooring is quite difficult on the northern Broads.

Improving the water quality

Some of the most difficult times was when we were dredging the marina. We were dredging it when it was the winter time when the customers aren’t around and when you’re moving lots and lots of mud and it’s freezing cold the morale does go down a little bit. But we know in the summer the sun will shine and it’ll be disappeared and we’ll try and forget about it.

The Broad, Barton Broad was dredged. It was mud-pumped back in the Millennium, which was the year 2000. It took five years to actually mud-pump the whole of the Broad. The mud was pumped onto the land on the one side into big lagoons which drained. And then the mud was actually ploughed into the field. They actually reinstated the pleasure island in the middle of the Broad back which had just deteriorated through the birds just destroying the banks and this was an area where all the dredgers were coming from our yard because it was the only place where they could gain access to the river and the Broad. And it brought income in for us and it made the whole of the water area a lot cleaner and deeper and it allowed it to go clearer and the wildlife came in as well.

Since we dredged the marina the water is clearer because the sunlight can get down to the bottom. They also dredged Barton Broad which helped clear the water out. The water is a lot clearer due to a lot of water fleas which can hatch out and eat all the bacteria and this has now created sunlight into the river and it is getting a lot quicker, a lot easier, because there is more fish life coming through and there’s more wildlife as well.

In the Spring I regularly see kingfishers out of my office. We see marsh harriers and hen harriers flying around. We see quite a few deer which come into the marina walking around and we have seen, on several occasions, we see the otters coming in as well.

Bird nesting tables

We did get approached from Natural England: could we design some floating bird nesting rafts. We designed it out of GRP which is glass fibre. We designed it in such a way that it was predator proof from the land and the water so birds can nest on a gravel base which we put gravel inside these rafts and it’s imitating a sand beachy effect and the birds can then nest in there and know that their eggs are quite safe and not going to be stolen by little animals coming along to take them all.

There are several of the rafts around. We’ve been building them for quite a long time. There’s three of them on the Trinity Broads; there’s some on Barton Broad; some on Ranworth Broad; we’ve got some on North Norfolk; we’ve got several in Cambridgeshire and we’ve even got two down in Somerset. The two down at Somerset were specially designed so we could lower them down a little bit more by pumping water into the tanks: it was not for the terns, it was for oyster catchers which is a slightly different breed of bird.

The customers are Natural England, the Broads Authority and Wildlife Trusts dotted all around the country.

Once we supply them, we make sure they’re all alright and they’re set up right and they’re anchored in the right place and then it’s the customer which looks after them and attends to them once a year but we’re there for any more help for them.

The future of Cox’s Boatyard

The plan for the future of the yard is to carry on the development. We will be knocking down the last of the old workshops. These old workshops still have soil floors. And there’s two of them which we’re going to take down and form holiday homes above them but beneath them there’ll still be an area where we can store boats and keep them going so we can maintain them because our core business is boat rebuilding and boat repairing. We’d like to create more moorings but it’s going to be difficult cos we’re running out of land.

There’s not so many other boatyards around which are developing like us. In a boatyard there’s not many people. The skill to actually maintain a boat is difficult. To find the craftsmen is hard. That’s why we’ve trained them up so much and we find these little boatyards are actually winding down and selling their land for either just moorings or holiday homes. So the actual yards around on the Broads are decreasing and it’s only the slightly bigger yards which are keeping going and the people who want the yards to keep going as traditional are keeping them going. But other smaller yards are disappearing which is a great shame because there is enormous amount of boats on the Broads and it’s a trade we would like to keep going.

Eric Bishop (b. 1969) talking to WISEArchive on 19th March 2018 at Barton Turf, Norfolk

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