Working Lives

The Wherry Yacht Charter Story (1950s-2019)

Location: Norfolk Broads

Peter grew up on the Norfolk Broads before starting his career on the railways at Wroxham Station. He later went on to teach at Cromer Secondary Modern School before collecting wherries. Peter is one of the founders of the Wherry Yacht Charter Charitable Trust.

Growing up on the Broads

I’ve lived in Wroxham since about 1950 when I was only seven years old, so it’s been very much part of my life. I’ve had the good fortune to live in a house that has a known river frontage as well and so I’ve know the river for a very long time. I was sent away to public school and so did not have a lot of contact with other youngsters in my area. If I could re-write history that’s one thing I would change but obviously one can’t. I still have lots of fond memories of my childhood and still live in the same house that I did as a child after inheriting it from my parents.

Sometimes people ask me when did you learn to sail and I’m afraid my answer is I wasn’t taught to sail or anything like that. My father had a sailing yacht and we had a little lugsail dinghy as a tender to it and I think he just let me go out in it. So I learnt to sail just by having a go basically.

Amazingly living by the river I actually, just a year or two before I left school, got interested in something miles away from the river. I got interested in railways and when I left school I went to work on the railway at Wroxham station. Initially it was meant to be only for a year and then I was going to go to university but that didn’t happen. Manchester is a long way away and it rained all the while and three weeks was more than enough, so I had a five-year career on the railways.

Working on the 1960s railways

I started as a booking clerk and I finished up as a relief station master. Unfortunately, I joined in 1961 which is exactly the same year as a certain Dr Richard Beeching joined and, although I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the railway and wouldn’t have changed it at all, it was the end of an era. The railways in 1961 were very similar to the railways in 1901, very little had changed. In 1965, when I left, closures were taking place left right and centre. It was a depressing industry to work in and many people in this area thought it was a dying industry as did the government I think.

Career as a teacher

After leaving the railways, because I had been involved in the local church and got persuaded to teach in Sunday school, I changed into that direction so I went into teaching.

I didn’t want to go away to college so I did my training at Keswick Hall between1965 to 1968. Most of the course was extremely boring but you had to do it to get your Certificate of Education which was enough for me to go and teach at Cromer Secondary Modern School as it was then. I had to pay for it myself because I was obviously a mature student then and had given up quite a reasonable salary at the time on the railways. So it was not an easy three years but I did it and started teaching which I thoroughly enjoyed. My main subject for teaching was Religious Studies.

I taught full time for 18 years. It got as far as 1986 when I had by then got involved with wherries and I couldn’t do both. So I then did another two years part time and then in 1988 I left although I maintained my links with the school at Cromer for another 20 years or so.

I do still come across a lot a of people that I used to teach and whenever somebody says ‘hello Sir’ or even sometimes ‘hello Mr Bower’, I immediately have to turn round and say ‘give me your name’ and I think almost certain then it was somebody I used to teach. It’s nice and lots of them have good memories of when they went on the Broads with me as well.

I was able to take pupils onto the Broads with me in the 60s/70s, when things were very different from now and education was a much wider field. It wasn’t just getting grade C’s in this that or the other that was the only thing that counted and because I took a less able group in their last two years at school we were able to do all sorts of things. Cromer High School was one of the first to send youngsters to How Hill, the newly established education centre, by a very forward looking education officer, Dr Lincoln Ralphs. From 1969, right through to 1983 every Christmas I took a group to How Hill for a week’s course and in later years took them there by wherry as well. And then of course How Hill shut in 1983 when the education people at the time decreed that it wasn’t viable. A new trust was formed, but we’ll come onto that later.

Working with wherries

I was interested in railways and one of the things I did in 1967 was to dismantle a signal box from Honing station and re-erect it in the garden here and we formed the Barton House Railway as well which is still running to this day.

The signal box at Barton House Railway. Photo: Barton House Railway

So I was sort of into things old a bit but as far as wherries were concerned, apart from seeing from time to time the Albion, very possibly the Solace, it was very very rare to see any other wherries. Once in the early 60s from my bedroom window at the top of the house here, I looked down the garden and I saw this highly coloured wherry mast going past under sail. I rushed down the garden and saw Hathor in all her glory sailing past and ever regretted the fact that I didn’t take the camera down with me.

I began to think that in the same way that things on the railway were disappearing rapidly disappearing, so it was similar with the wherries. So in the early 70s, I scoured the Broads to see if there were any other wherries left, because there were several at that time still being used as houseboats and so on. I saw an advert in the EDP advertising for £500 the wherry Sundog for sale in 1974. I did actually go and see the person who was selling it. She was in a very poor state and he told me that she’d broken her back and she was leaking badly. But he was living on the wherry Olive and he said, ‘I’m thinking I might be selling her later in the year.’ Olive then was basically all complete with mast and sail, or looked as if it was complete. I’d actually gone down there to Tunstall Dyke near Acle by boat, spent the night on the boat, next morning went back to see him and did a deal and 10 days later, I came and collected Olive and brought it back to Barton House.

I had never sailed a wherry before and the first time I had ever set foot on a wherry was that night. She’d got an engine so we brought her home under power and then sort of learnt to sail her by trial and an awful lot of error. I could write a book on how not to sail a wherry and what can go wrong.

That December 1974, would’ve been the first occasion I would’ve taken kids up to How Hill by wherry, on Olive. They were very excited by it. Particularly one incident when we went out for a sail in the morning and the wind was quite calm. We sailed up to Barton Broad and back again. Then the wind got up a bit in the afternoon and the kids sort of said, ‘Oh can’t we go for a sail again?’ So we decided to go off in the other direction towards Ludham Bridge. And I was, as I said very green then, I misjudged it. We were roaring up with the wind behind us towards the bridge and I yelled at them to start getting the sail down and as they did it, the sail started to rip from top to bottom; it was an old canvas sail. Naturally, they stopped. I had to scream at them to carry on and the sail literally did rip in half and yeah, I threw them ashore, with a load of lines and we pulled up about 10 ft. short of the bridge, quite frightening. First of my many frightening episodes on wherries.

But it didn’t put them or me off. Nearly put me off when I found out the cost of a new sail and then a couple of years later the cost of a new mast. Olive is still at the bottom of the garden. This became the beginning of a second lifelong passion, the first being the railways.

Building the collection

The next step was realising that on a teacher’s salary I couldn’t afford to maintain Olive unless she generated a bit of income. So the idea was to do a bit of chartering work and we started off by doing weekends and then weekends grew into some weeks during the school holidays and so on. In the late 70s I was doing more and more weekends and then the real life changer was in the early 80s when I was approached by a certain Barney Matthews who owned the wherry yacht, Lady Edith as called then, the Norada. I had met him once before when I brought the Olive. He came along and told me I’d bought the wrong boat and I should’ve bought his. Barney was a wonderful person but a very strong character and I had to point out to him that having bought one wherry I certainly wasn’t in a position to buy another one.

Barney was a local man but he spent his life working overseas and when he finally retired in 1983, he decided not to sell Norada and he did her up. He then approached me about doing charter work and we teamed up in 1983. Got on like a house on fire most of the time except when we were having fearful arguments but as Barney would say ‘Ahh purely academic, purely academic.’ In 1984 rumour had it that Martham Boat Building and Development Company had the wherry Hathor for sale. Barney and I had a discussion which went something like ‘I hear Hathor’s for sale. Well, we better have it.’ We went over and saw Gordon Curtis who was running the yard and did a deal more or less straight away. And in December 1985, Hathor ended up at the bottom of the garden. So from one wherry, the Olive, to two wherries, the Lady Edith who we renamed Norada when she was 75 years old in the late 70s, and then we had Hathor as well.

The history of Hathor

Hathor is unique on the wherries on the Broads. If you haven’t been inside Hathor my explanation will be totally inadequate, you need to go and see her. She was built for the Colman family when two sisters Ethel and Helen Colman who decided in 1904, that they wanted a wherry built. They’d had a younger brother, Alan Colman, who suffered from tuberculosis and what they used to do in those days was to ship them off Egypt where they hoped the dry clean air of the south would prolong their life. So in 1897 the family embarked for Egypt and sadly Alan Colman’s health was not improving. His dying wish was to see something of the Nile. They embarked on one of the dahabeahs on the Nile, which happened to be called Hathor, Goddess of Love, Joy and everything else under the sun. But when Hathor was moored at Luxor in February 1897 sadly Alan Colman died at only 30 years old. The family were there and it had a profound effect on them. So when in 1904 the two sisters were thinking of having a wherry, they decided to do it in their brother’s memory and so they called it Hathor.

Peter Bower and Barney Matthews on Hathor. Photo: Richard Denyer by kind permission of his widow Caroline.

It was constructed by Halls of Reedham, one of the finest wherry builders on the Broads but they commissioned Edward Boardman who was their brother-in-law and a prominent Norwich architect, to design the interior with Egyptian hieroglyphics. He was also the architect of How Hill House. He sent one of his employees, Graham Cotman, who I believe was related to the artist Cotman, to the British Museum to sketch the subjects in the Egyptology section there which were turned into architectural drawings. The interior of Hathor is absolutely unique because of how she is decorated. She’s got sycamore panelling which is a light wood, inlaid with teak which is a much darker wood, and its full of symbols, lotus leaves in flower and bloom. It really is really something quite special.

She is still in good condition. It was her turn to be done up on a slipway this winter and Dean, a young man who is operations manager here and is a superb craftsman, has done a fantastic amount of work on her. The interior was specially done up four or five years ago and Steve Darke, another local boat builder, did a tremendous amount of work on it then. When people come aboard to have a look at her there’s a really sort of wow effect because it’s just different.

Wherry Hathor. Copyright Karen Sayer.

Creating the Wherry Yacht Charter Charitable Trust

Barney and I formed Wherry Yacht Charter, a business very much in inverted commas because businesses usually make money and I would say we made the bread but we never made the butter to go on it. When we got Hathor as well, we worked very closely with the Broads Authority, who gave us a terrific amount of support both financial and in terms of activities. We did lots of sailings in conjunction with the Broads Authority. When discussing with Diana Shipp, who was in charge very much of the tourism side of things and the chief executive Aitken Clark, we formulated the idea of forming a trust because both Barney and I wanted to ensure that the wherries would be there for future generations to enjoy. When Aitken Clark retired, during the 90s, he said that in his retirement he would like to maintain his involvement with the wherries and so the Wherry Yacht Charter Charitable Trust was set up in 2002, with the sole aim of taking the wherries and preserving them for future generations to enjoy.

So the ownership of the wherries was transferred to the charitable trust and then quite amazingly, from three wherries we went to four, with the wherry yacht White Moth, when the boat yard at Horning was sold up. Most of the boats went to Martham and of course Martham is the other side of Potter Heigham Bridge and so White Moth wouldn’t’ve been suitable for going there. One of our trustees, Andrew Scull very kindly bought her for the use of the Trust and with eventual aim that she would become part of the trust.

So we then had four wherries and the good thing then was that this was in a low period because Barney and I had basically run out of money. The trust hadn’t been formed then and so during the 2000s as each wherry came up for its survey, we just didn’t have the money to do it. In 2009 the last wherry to sail Hathor, was laid up from September 2009. So for a couple years we had no wherries in commission at all. The trust had been formed by then and we got a heritage lottery grant but obviously we had to rebuild our base before we could do any work. So when in about 2011 suddenly the idea of being able to have White Moth appeared and she was still in sailing condition, we could use her straight away, that was really good because we can then start to generate a bit of income. So then we had White Moth and then even more surprisingly by the same process, with Andrew Scull, we got the Ardea as well.

History of the Ardea

The Ardea was the last wherry to be built of any sort at all in 1927 and she was built for Howard Hollingsworth who owned the store Bourne and Hollingsworth. A very rich man who lived in Lowestoft and it’s said that he commissioned the Ardea to relieve the depression in the boat building industry. He had this huge wherry constructed: 65 ft. long, that’s much longer than any of ours, to be built of teak which is the most durable, most expensive wood you can imagine to build boats out of for his own private use. She was commissioned in 1927 and Mr Hollingsworth had a dinner for all those people who’d worked on her, all the men who’d worked on the boat yard and at the side of everybody’s plate was a golden sovereign which again would’ve been a considerable amount of money.

Mr Hollingsworth had her for about 10 years and then she had one or two other owners. She was still sailing in the early 1950s but then was used as a motorboat and a houseboat until Howard Dunkerley came along who was going to work in Paris and wanted somewhere for accommodation. He had noticed lots of boats moored on the Seine and thought, I’ll see if I can find one in Norfolk. He saw the Ardea, took her across to France in 1959 and used her as accommodation. She wasn’t under sail then at all, she still had an engine and so she lay near the Eiffel Tower.

The story is that the Ardea was bought by a manager of ladies of the night but it was not used for that purpose, it was used as somewhere for her ladies to go and rest or so we’re told but that was only literally for a year or so. Then she went completely downhill but she was spotted by a certain Philippe Rouff, a Parisian who had a lot of interest in the rivers and canals of France. He first saw her in about 1971 and then a few years later he saw her again in a totally derelict condition. She’d been impounded by the customs and was just deteriorating. Anyway he bought her and initially lived on her, commissioned her for charter work and for years during his ownership, she travelled all over France all over the waterways of Europe. Probably the most widely travelled wherry in existence.

Anyway, Mr Rouff had always got a plan of getting her back to sailing order but sadly, he hadn’t got the money to do it and in 2005, he put her up for sail when she was bought by Phillip Davies. Now Phillip Davies had previously bought the White Moth and also established the Norfolk Broads Yachting Company boatyard at Horning. He bought Ardea for his own use, brought her back to this country, spent an enormous sum of money on restoring her, restoring her to extremely high standards and enjoyed a few, very few years of use on her as a private boat. Sadly, he died way before his time in early 2010/2011 something like that. His widow used her for a year or two but she’d got young children and it was just too much of a handful. So she got in touch with Andrew Scull again and again he very generously bought the Ardea as well and so now we have five wherries at the bottom of the garden.

Three Wherry Yachts. Copyright Broads Authority

Skippering on the Wherries

I have skippered on these wherries since 1974. In the early days I had various people help me with sailing the wherries and when I did weekend trips the charter party were the crew. When we started to work with the Broads Authority, we established the whole basis of crewing. In the early days it was Broads Authority staff and then we got volunteers. The situation now is that under the Wherry Yacht Charter Charitable Trust we formed a friends organisation and from the friends organisation we have a pool of crew members, so if people want to crew they join the friends and then we do training into crewing and we do training for people to become skippers as well and that’s basically where we get our crew from. Always looking for new recruits as well.

I’m winding down a little bit with regards to skippering. It was very important that when we put the programme together for the wherries that we had an educational programme and we decided that the best place we could do that was at How Hill because now in its second life, How Hill trust was formed to establish How Hill as a residential educational centre. So we had Hathor and some of the other wherries up at How Hill for a few days doing visits for youngsters and so on and I thought that probably the best use of Hathor could be to have her at How Hill and allow people to have a look round her. Last year and again this year, we’ve had Hathor moored at How Hill from the beginning of May to the end of September and throughout that period she is there for people to come and look round. At least twice a week the school parties would come and stay at How Hill, they come aboard they have a look round, have a little demonstration of the mast being raised and lowered which they really like. We do some day cruises as well at How Hill and yes, I am still involved in doing some skippering at that but I’m not now doing longer trips on the other boats.

The future of the wherries and the Broads

The future of the wherries and Broads is a very difficult question. If we could gaze into crystal balls and see the answer, we would act differently perhaps. From my own point of view, I think we have established that the three wherry yachts Olive, Norada and White Moth are the most suitable for doing charters, doing day cruises and weekend cruises. They’ve all got small electric engines, they’ve all got counter sterns where people can sit at the back out of the way of the running of the boat and they’re ideally suited to that. Hathor I think, I would like the see her becoming part of the Broadland scene at How Hill. I think How Hill is so special, it’s somewhere people want to see the Broads and to see Hathor that’s an added bonus.

The Ardea is a little bit difficult because she is restored to such a high standard we don’t really want the whole world trampling all over her and in many ways we would like to develop luxury cruises on board her, particularly day cruises. We did a couple last year with all meals provided and that seemed to go down very well. I think that by dividing up the usage of our wherries that way we can move into the future.

As for the Broads in general, I think the future is basically good: certainly the holiday industry has picked up which is very important for the area. We have to balance conservation with recreation. I think the Broads Authority needs to be a little more positive towards more of the historical aspect, particularly with regards to the wherries. I know they’ve got a difficult task but I think the overall view has got to be preserving the Broads as much as possible for future generations to enjoy and that really does involve the quietness of the Broads, the peace and the tranquillity. Somewhere that people can go, enjoy and relax.

Peter Bower 2019

Peter Bower (b. 1943) talking to WISEArchive on 28th February 2019 at Wroxham.

© 2019 WISEArchive. All Rights Reserved