Starling and Ethel at Work


Starling is an ex Cowburn & Cowpar motor-boat, built at Yarwoods in the thirties. Ethel is a Yarwoods built "Station Boat", which means that it was built for one of the railway companies, in this case, the L.M.S. Ethel was built as a horse drawn boat and has never had an engine fitted. She is towed behind Starling and, therefore is known as a "butty" boat. These boats are both resplendent in their Cowburn and Cowpar livery. Ethel, of course, was never a 'Cowpar boat but really looks the part.

These boats were owned by David Jones, a Lancashire lad, whose uncle actually owned and worked Starling in the fifties. David has written a few articles about his uncle and these have been published in the magazine of the "Historic Narrowboat Owners Club". Well worth reading.

We first loaded Starling in 2001 when she was on hire as a replacement for Ian Braines' Hanley, which had been damaged, together with Roach, in an accident at Bevere Lock on the Severn.

Ethel was first loaded by us in July 2002. Eighteen tonnes of metrically pre-packed fuel was loaded into Starling at Awbridge, and twenty tonnes of loose coal (Daw Mill Trebles) was tipped into Ethel on the way into Birmingham. The fuel was destined for various customers between Hockley Port in Birmingham, and Sharpness, on the Gloucester and Sharpness Ship Canal. Needless to say, Jenny had to bag the twenty tonnes of loose coal on the way!

Our first port of call, however, was a boat rally being held in Birmingham, as David had already booked the boats in before he knew that we needed them. This was fine by me; there are plenty of pubs around Brum, some of them even worth venturing into. Plenty of people to catch up with too.

The boats did look good, even though I say so myself, The motor-boat with side cloths up and the butty with loose coal in the hold - not a common sight these days. Brasses shining and cotton ropes scrubbed white too. Beautiful.

One consequence of being at the rally was involvement in the boat parade, a source of much amusement as you may imagine. Boats everywhere, everyone intent on doing their own thing, us with an un-powered boat loaded with twenty tonnes on the end of a 70 foot rope. No brakes! Public trip boats, and the waterbus on a tight schedule zipping about in-between the boats on parade, accompanied by lots of cursing provided further entertainment. One little amusing incident occurred whilst we were waiting under St Vincent Street bridge. The tow rope had slackened between the boats as we waited for the chaos in front of us to clear. When we resumed forward progress, the tow-line rose from the water with a supermarket trolley carefully balanced across it! Another feature of this parade was Lawrence Hogg's commentary over the Tanoy. He was positively orgasmic describing "the magnificent sight of a pair of loaded boats"!

After the rally we took the pair of boats from Birmingham, along the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. This involves navigating three long tunnels, one of which, Wast Hill, takes half an hour to get through. Jenny enjoyed these tunnels, steering the butty on 70 feet of rope with no headlamp! Not! After these tunnels we got to descend Tardebigge Locks. The "we" being Jenny and I, together with young Ian, although as Ian had jumped off the boat and landed with his foot in a pot-hole near the top of the flight, he was not much bleedin' use. This reminded me why I do not own a butty boat. Every lock had to be worked through twice, the butty being dragged down the entire lock flight by hand – needless to say, pulled by yours truly under a blazing sun. The trip was broken up, mind you, as we had some deliveries to make. They say a change is as good as a rest; I'm not so sure – humping bags of coal out of a boat's hold is not a first choice on a red-hot day.

Some of our customers definitely rely on deliveries by boat as they have no road access. Three of our customers on the Tardebigge flight alone fall into this category. This means that we have to convince them to have loads of coal at one go, as this canal, in common with most canals, is likely to be closed from November to March for maintenance. It must be said, however, that the British Waterways staff on this canal are extremely helpful and allow us passage if at all possible.


We have used Starling on many occasions as extra capacity is needed, with various steerers as well as David Jones. Richard Clapham, Ian Braine, Terry Bellamy, Mark Winks and John Anderson (with June) have all skippered Starling over the last few years on our behalf. Tales involving some, or all, of these people will (perhaps) be added presently. 

One interesting feature of Starling is that it has a slight vee bottom and rounded bilges, as opposed to most narrowboats which have flat bottoms. As a result, Starling is wont to roll quite alarmingly on occasions when underwater obstructions are encountered. It also enables Starling to wriggle through some of the bridge-holes that Roach gets stuck fast in whilst carrying the same weight of cargo. Quite a useful feature so long as the skipper on Starling remembers to wait with a tow-line!

One other important feature of Starling is its apparent inability to pass a canal-side hostelry without veering into the bank. Roach is fitted with a similar device!

Starling and Ethel have now passed into the ownership of Terry Bellamy, who, together with wife Tina, and son Nick, is keen to continue using them for carrying coal. © John Jackson 2014