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Characters of the cut

Julie Webb meets the boating couple whose blogs have attracted quite a following.

READERS who have come across Allan and Debbie Jones and their dogs (currently Jessop - "boating without a dog just doesn't feel right," says Allan) may have done so either through the website detailing their waterway adventures, which attracts a million hits a year, or through towpath chats prompted by Keeping Up's distinctive red and black livery.

Their previous boat, Thistle, started the red and black tradition and had a past as colourful as her paintwork. "After hiring for years," said Allan, "we'd spent so much we could have bought our own boat - so in 1987 we did. Thistle was originally Worcester, one of Anglo-Welsh's first boats, set up on a marine mortgage and registered as a 42ft ship: "When she was sold, she had to be declared 'sunk, complete with all guns, ammunition and appurtenances' in order to change the name. They even rang the Lutine bell!"

By the time Allan and Debbie bought her, she was 18 years old and had been actually sunk, as well as being registered as a 50-seater restaurant, and lengthened. "It was done amateurishly," said Allan, "with a bow so massively high you could frighten people in tunnels, and slightly twisted so she was totally predictable in reverse - she always went round in a circle! But we loved her. She was what we needed."

Allan grew up in Carshalton, Surrey. "One of my earliest memories is rowing in the park with my parents," he said. He was seriously bitten by the boating bug at eight, learning to sail on holiday in Devon, and discovered canal boating through friends at Bristol University, where he studied electrical engineering. "One of our early adventures involved the Foxton flight. When we got there the water levels were wrong, and no sign of a lock keeper, so we set about filling and emptying. Suddenly we heard a shout: the lock keeper was sitting on a JCB in a side pond, surrounded by water!"

Such is their commitment to boating - they cruise six months out of every year - that Debbie spent her honeymoon on a hire boat with several other chaps as well as Allan. "Men weren't allowed to hire on their own then, so I was the token woman," she said. "In 1976 1'd reserved a double berth on a midsummer trip with my boyfriend. In the meantime I'd stopped living with him and Allan had proposed." (They met at a radio amateurs' competition.) "We arranged the marriage to suit the trip."

Retro technology

Children followed (Vicki and David) and then grandchildren, all of whom they've introduced to the canals - at five months old in Vicki's case.

Drawing on their experience of hire boats and Thistle, Allan and Debbie had some innovative ideas in mind when, in 1991, they commissioned Stoke-on-Trent Boat Building to construct the 67ft Keeping Up. One of these was separate gear and throttle levers: a unit from a twin-engine Italian hovercraft did the job.

"It's retro technology," said Allan, "with fine control at low revs." They also requested 12mm steel baseplate - to withstand shopping trolleys on the Llangollen which meant no ballast was needed, giving extra height inside.

"She's done about 25,000 miles. We've taken her everywhere she would go, apart from the Wash and the Thames estuary. We'll make a point of doing an adventurous passage but we're well prepared."

The Severn is a favourite. "We were the first on to it after the 2007 floods," Allan said. "The smell and the debris were terrible. At one of the locks there was a pontoon with a toilet on it upside down in a tree! "We moored at the Coalhouse in Apperley, to what was left of their jetty, and had a wonderful evening - we were appointed official beer tasters. We worried what people's reactions would be who'd had their houses flooded, but they said 'We see you as a sign of returning normality: That's the only time I've ever been seen as a sign of normality!"

Other exciting trips on the Severn, including Sharpness to Portishead, voyages to little-visited waterways such as the Witham Navigable Drains in Lincolnshire and a foray on to the tidal Thames during which they received a gun salute passing under Tower Bridge (it turned out to be the Queen Mother's birthday) are all documented entertainingly on the website.

You can also read about their trips on unusual craft abroad, such as the 1880s steamer replica travelling the Swedish Gota Canal on which Allan wangled a stint at the wheel, and cruises in Egypt, Russia and the Antarctic.

They never tire of Britain's waterways though: "We've been down here" (the Oxford, where I met them) "20 or 30, maybe 50, times. You can do the same stretch over and over again and keep on enjoying it; the scenery's different, the wildlife's different and the people are different. And everything drifts past you slowly enough to take it all in but fast enough to be constantly changing."

 

This article was first published in the September 2017 edition of the canal newspaper "Towpath Talk" , and is reproduced here with their permission.

 

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