I visited the “Purton Hulks” last week- it’s a graveyard for abandoned boats and ships and the largest in mainland Britain. Rather than leave the giants to the sea, they’ve been beached to help reinforce the riverbank between the river and canal.
Living on a boat myself, I have some pretty strong feelings about abandoned and decaying ships. In the same way that many people have a fascination with the beauty and sadness of derelict houses; they remind me that my home is essentially a shell of metal. Though when all goes well, homes are generally safe places to be, there is an added factor on a boat; the risk of sinking. It is rare but the awareness of its possibility is always there. Even now, my home is swaying slightly in the breeze.
When I moved my boat a few months ago, it was cold, drizzly, breezy and because of the torrential rain a few days before, the canals were brown and in danger of bursting their banks. I spent the journey feeling as though we were balancing on a very thin wire- the slightest thing that went wrong would screw us over completely. Lucky my boat is as stubborn as me and we limped into my new marina with a broken gearbox, ripped tarpaulin and dented chimney… but still going.
The most disturbing part of the journey wasn’t the 45-minute pitch black tunnel or arriving one morning to find that my engine wouldn’t start, it was rounding a corner to find the half-submerged carcass of another narrowboat. Smaller than mine, bright green and surrounded by a fluorescent “authorities aware” cordon, we moved around it in silence- well, except for my loudly chugging engine- and gave it a wide berth.
I was horribly reminded of films in which characters have to enter a city by passing the dead corpses of thieves or criminals as a warning. The last trip I made on her was four hours. On this four-day journey with a slightly ‘odd’ engine, sinking was a genuine fear and that dead boat creeped me out more than I expected it to.
I’d expected the Purton Hulks to be a creepy place full of looming shapes, maybe with extra strange things washed up on the shore- gifts from the tide. On a misty day it probably would have been; England has many different ‘moods’ and the weather makes places look dramatically different. This was a gorgeous sunny day with a warm breeze and a receding tide that revealed tasty squishy things for the wading birds to swoop down and eat. The only slightly weird thing had been the sound effects- because the shoreline is a literal stones throw from the canal and separated only by a thick line of trees, the voices of boaters on the other side seemed to be coming from all around and it took some getting used to! If you were there on a dull day and hadn’t realised there was a canal on the other side, it could have been very ghostly indeed!
There are 81 structures here but not all of them are visible. Some are completely buried in the sand and silt, some are only visible at low tide and others just look like weathered driftwood and rusty spikes sticking up from the grass. Still, you can see where they are- each boat has a plaque explaining its history- from decommissioning to horrific accident.
I’m planning to return to take photographs in the winter when things get frosty, and at low tide when I can see the hidden ones.
As the afternoon went on, I had to leave to catch a train. As I made my way back down the canal path, I found a beautiful little house right between the canal and river. It had a truly ridiculous wishing well with fish and bright sculptures. Though I had no change, I wished anyway: keep my boat sailing! It’s not much, but it’s enough.