“… and I saw a boat appear”

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

(from the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”)

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Following the trail of the Somerset Flatner, we discovered a set of plans to build it had been drawn up by enthusiasts at the Watchet Boat Museum. That was  how we ended up in Watchet, looking for the plans, and hoping also to see the real boat. After an interesting journey, getting to know a few more people along the way, we arrived in Watchet – possible birthplace of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. An interesting small town on the coast which that day was blessed with remarkable and irrational weather…

2:00 pm: the museum opens… and we get to enter this fantastic space packed with floating inspiration, independently created and curated by a passionate and inventive local group, Friends of the Flatner. Bruce, a founding member, kindly met us at the museum and we had our first tantalising glimpse into the world of knowledge the group have accumulated over the years. We begun to realise just how complex the project is – the boat we want to build, the “Flatner” is a whole spectrum of plan variations depending on their functionality, context and owner. A couple of hours’ explanation opened windows and even doors, to look at the making of this fascinating project. Finally able to explore its history in depth, and being able to touch and handle the actual boats, we started to see the boat take shape in our minds’ eyes.

 

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Thank you so much to Bruce, on behalf of the Watchet Boat Museum and The Friends of the Flatner. So much passion in one little shed – so much knowledge to learn from!

 

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A welly of water will do

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We were sitting in the library when the phone rang, books stacked about our feet and on the little side table. We had divided the morning between phone calls and local history books, on the trail of the elusive Parrett Flatner. So far we had three interesting photographs, and one promising conversation. Now on the phone was Ron Coombes of Bineham City Farm, kindly inviting us out for a look at his hand-built punt, recreated from the original specifications of Colonel Hawker

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Cycling as fast as we could in the baking sun, we made it out to the farm just in time to catch Ron on his lunch break. He took us out to the barn to admire the boat, a long, low craft built constructed from light timber and marine ply, painted a wintry pale grey. Holding his hand to the side of his Wellington boot to show just how little water was needed to float the boat, he described the extent of the Winter floods and the trips he’d taken wild-fowling with his dogs when the Levels were submerged.

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Standing by the boat with the sun at our backs and the cool musty smell of the barn before, our quest at last began to take on material qualities – the feel of the marine plywood, the weathered texture of the flaking paint, smells of straw and wood, oil, rust and dung. The swallows among the rafters and the wet nose of the dog gently sniffing about our ankles. This wasn’t exactly the boat we were after, but its flat bottom and homegrown feel gave us a taste of what we were after. Ron said the boat has carried them for miles across the floodplain, needing very little to keep afloat. Running aground on the mud, it takes only a quick shove to get going again. It seems an ideal boat for access and mobility in an unstable and unpredictable water-scape.

At the back of the house, another boat lay upturned on the narrow lawn, a battered fibreglass dinghy propped beside the rusting garden gate. Ron marked out the line for us, where the water had reached halfway up the  drive. The house, the yard and the cattle sheds were safe on high ground, but a boat was still a handy thing to have about.

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Cycling back, we stopped besides golden fields of sunbaked corn beneath an innocent blue sky. The smell of warm earth, tarmac and milky thistles revealed nothing to our of the wet, waterbound Winter months.

On the trail of the Somerset Flatner

The following text is reproduced from a forthcoming notice in the next edition of the Langport Leveller with thanks to Janet Seaton.

Artists Seila Fernandez Arconada and Jethro Brice are working on a project with community groups in the Langport area, to recreate this iconic local boat – a flat-bottomed craft valued for its stability in a changeable landscape. Please get in touch if you have information, stories or pictures relating to the traditional Somerset Flatner and its smaller cousins, the Turf boat, Withy boat and Flattie. We are interested in collecting local memories to flesh out what we know from museums and archives – and perhaps even finding an original boat in somebody’s barn!

For more information about the project please visit http://www.some-when.co.uk.
Contact us on somewhenproject@gmail.com

Mannering, J (2008), The directory of inshore craft: Traditional working vessels of the British Isles, Barnsley, Seaforth Publishing, [distributor] Pen & Sword Books Ltd

Mannering, J (2008), The directory of inshore craft: Traditional working vessels of the British Isles, Barnsley, Seaforth Publishing, Pen & Sword Books Ltd