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Chesterfield Canal Trip Boats

There is a long history of trip boats on the Chesterfield Canal. Here Rod Auton tells us about some of them.
 |  Katie Hogg  |  Retford

Seth Ellis is the current Chesterfield Canal Trust tripboat in the Retford area. Since the Covid rules were relaxed in mid-July, it has carried scores of happy passengers on charters and has run public trips from Drakeholes and the Boat Inn at Hayton. It often runs cruises on Sundays from the Chequers Inn at Ranby and will be in Retford for Heritage Day (September 11th). Look out for Halloween cruises and of course the ever-popular Santa Specials later in the year. All the cruises can be booked online via the Trust’s website.

Although Seth Ellis has been a popular fixture for many years in the Retford area, it is far from being the first tripboat on the canal. 

In the 19th century, there were packet boats that took people from Clayworth to Retford Market and back. There are several fabulous old photos of Sunday School outings in the 1900s with up to a hundred people on board old Cuckoo boats. In the 1960s various craft ran trips from Drakeholes and Alf Bailey’s Spitfire was often seen around Clayworth in the 1970s and 80s.

In 1981 the Chesterfield Canal Society, as the Trust was then known, obtained a boat that it named the Norwood Packet, which ran on the top pound of the canal at Kiveton for several years. This was well before the canal was restored between Worksop and Kiveton Park, so the top pound was really a long, thin, very unkempt pond. However, the trips attracted 280 passengers in the first full year. There were lots of problems, such as the boat being cut free from its moorings and the water level dropping because the reservoirs were too low, but the volunteers persisted, determined to demonstrate that the canal could be a useful leisure attraction. 

In 1986 there were major repairs including a new roof and it was moved to the Retford & Worksop Boat Club at Clayworth. This was because, at 8’ 2” wide, it could not get through the narrow locks further west.

In 1989, thanks to a grant from Bassetlaw District Council, a new boat was obtained, imaginatively named Norwood Packet ll. Both boats appeared at the Drakeholes Canal Day that summer, before the original Norwood Packet was sold to the Cortonwood & Elsecar Project Canal Group.

In 2004, the Trust decided to get a brand-new, purpose-built boat. The steel shell was constructed by Soar Valley Boats in January 2005. Then volunteers from the Trust did the entire fit out - they coated the hull with bitumen, loaded the ballast, did the wiring, installed the engine, fitted the panelling and seats, created a galley etc. 

Staggeringly, all of this was done in just over three months and the boat first went into the water in Chesterfield, where it ran trips at the Inland Waterways Association’s Trailboat Festival in May.

A week later, it was transported to Barnby Moor by lorry and put back into the water. It then cruised to the Hop Pole pub in Retford, which was its base until last year, when it moved to the Chequers Inn at Ranby. Very quickly a crew of volunteers from the Trust was assembled and the first public trips were running within a few days.

On July 26th, an official naming ceremony was held at Retford Town Lock, where Cllr John Carter, from Nottinghamshire County Council, presented the Trust with a cheque for £1,000, as did Cllr Terry Yates on behalf of Bassetlaw District Council.

In the intervening sixteen years, the number and range of cruises has expanded greatly. Apart from hundreds of charters, there have been public trips at various locations all the way from Kiveton Park to West Stockwith. Santa Specials have always proved incredibly popular with over 700 people carried in 2019. 

On five occasions, the Trust has taken Seth Ellis by road to Staveley to take part in Festivals on the isolated section of the canal in Derbyshire.

The crew has done several clean ups along the canal. These cover the towpath, but also the offside bank and rubbish floating in the water which is not accessible to anyone on foot.

The boat is named after the Reverend Seth Ellis Stevenson, who was the Headmaster of Retford Grammar School in the 1760s and 1770s. The original plan was to take the canal from Chesterfield to the inland port at Bawtry to meet the River Idle. The Revd Stevenson was instrumental in persuading the promoters of the scheme that the route should be altered to go through Retford and from there to meet the River Trent. (For the full story, see issue 21 March/April  2021 Made, p.30.) 

Since Revd Stevenson was responsible for bringing the canal to Retford, it was thought appropriate to name the boat after him. However, Seth Ellis rolls off the tongue more easily than his full name. Interestingly, boys by the name of Seth Ellis have been passengers on two different occasions. 

As you would expect, sixteen years of constant use brings some wear and tear. Apart from performing the routine servicing of the engine and reblacking of the bottom of the boat, at various times the crew has fitted a new floor, toilet, entrance steps and galley. The whole boat has been repainted several times.

It is licensed to carry up to 12 passengers. Hot and cold drinks are served from the galley. There is a toilet and central heating as well as large opening windows all around. A large cruiser-style stern makes getting on and off easy. There is a foredeck where passengers can sit outside.

If you charter the boat, which costs £60 per hour, you are welcome to bring your own picnic. Passengers may have a go at steering, under the supervision of the crew. 

From once being the new boy amongst the Trust’s tripboats, Seth Ellis is now the senior citizen. Hugh Henshall, based at Shireoaks, was bought in 2011, John Varley ll, based in Chesterfield, in 2016 and Madeline, based at Hollingwood Hub, in 2020. However, if you speak to any member of the crew, I’m sure that they would describe their beloved Seth Ellis as the original but still the best.

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