Historic East Anglian sailing barge to become floating bakery
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
Thames Sailing Barges are fascinating vessels, there’s no doubt about that. Gracefully traversing the east and southeastern coastal waters and rivers of the UK, they have a rich and illustrious history that goes all the way back to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.
And one barge currently docked right here in East Anglia has just reached an important milestone – but shows no signs of slowing down just yet.
The Sailing Barge May has just celebrated her 130th birthday – and three women are currently undertaking the mammoth task of restoring her back to her former glory so she can be used as a floating bakery.
Helen Swift, Jane Harman and Connie Gadd are all barge skipper wives, and have known each other for years.
But it wasn’t until tragedy struck last year that the trio were brought closer together.
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In January 2020, Connie lost her husband Gerald to cancer. And in the process, gained sole ownership of Sailing Barge May.
Unsure what to do with the May, as it was in need of restoration and a safer environment, Helen’s husband Gerard moved her round from London to a berth at Pin Mill to enable the family to decide upon the barge’s future.
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Some months later, Helen contacted Connie with an idea to see if there was something they could do with the barge - and that’s how the idea of the floating bakery was born.
The Bread and Roses Barge will see Sailing Barge May act as a haven for women who can come aboard and bake bread together.
“Essentially, the idea is to offer May as a welcoming space to groups and organisations working to improve the lives of women and their families who have suffered trauma and are in need of a safe space to help move forward,” explains Helen.
“We hope the women who come aboard will build friendships and support networks along the way.”
With such a natural, historic link between baking and this particular barge, it only felt fitting that May carries this legacy on, even after all this time.
Sailing Barge May was built in Harwich in 1891 to carry grain and flour for the Ipswich millers Cranfields, and did so until 1964.
She was then bought by Tate & Lyle for use as a charter and promotions’ vessel. She was also used as a training vessel for apprentices, including shipping a cargo of sugar around to Cowes each year.
In 1976, Sailing Barge May was then transported to Canada for the Montreal Olympics. Since 2011, the May has been owned by Gerald and Connie, using her for charter until this year when she was transformed into The Bread and Roses Barge CIC.
“The ethos of it becoming a sourdough bakery in particular is that it’s a very slow and gentle approach to baking. We felt that tied in quite nicely with women and their families looking for a healing place to come to as they try to embark upon a different path in their lives.
“We’ll also have a big table on the barge, so once we’ve baked, we can all sit down and enjoy a meal together, getting to know each other and build those all-important companionships.”
The Bread and Roses Barge will be using flour from local mills - and the bread, cakes and biscuits that have been baked onboard will be available for collection when May arrives in various ports across the East coast.
“May will have a regular route throughout the year. This will allow us to engage a professional barge skipper and mate, and potentially run an apprenticeship scheme, as a full-time crew is now a rarity in the barge world.”
On Thursday July 22, May was moved from Pin Mill to the St Osyth Boatyard in Essex on her 130th birthday, taking a small detour past Gas House Creek in Harwich where she was launched on that date in 1891.
St Osyth Boatyard – which is owned by Jane and her husband – is where she will remain while restorations take place.
But how much work is needed on a barge that’s nearly a century and a half old?
“If we obtain the necessary funding, we are hoping to commence the restoration around the middle of 2022, with completion sometime during 2023. We can then get the rest of the project underway.
“There have been some restorations to the barge before, which have been fantastic, but there’s been a heavy-handed approach to it in some ways. We’re hoping to keep as much as possible from the original barge where we can.”
Throughout the duration of the project, there will also be ample opportunities for women who wish to get involved as well.
“We’ve already been approached by a number of female shipwrights, which will be great, and we’re also looking into training for the actual crew afterwards.”
The trio have submitted the first stage application with the National Lottery Heritage Fund for funding - and so far have already raised over £4,000 through community donations.
“If the first application is successful, it will allow us to run some pilot schemes before the project is complete.”
Various local community groups have already shown an interest in the Bread and Roses Barge, including MIND, and Ipswich-based women's refuge The Hope Centre.
“This is the first time a project like this has been run by women. It's generally a very male-dominated environment, so it’s been quite interesting.”
Throughout the May’s restoration, Helen, Connie and Jane are also looking to document the process for future generations by creating an archive and holding exhibitions.
“We have an opportunity to artistically record the next few years using video, sound, photography, paint, sculpture, ceramics, theatre - the list is endless.
“If this story inspires you in some way to create your own piece of art to add to our journey, please do get in touch.”
In addition, the three are also looking to record any stories of women who have been involved with barges throughout the years.
“And it’s not just ladies who worked or were involved on barges, but in the docks too – so if there are any women out there who have stories to tell, we’d love to hear from you.”