Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article More than a Mooring - Fox Narrowboats is the copyright of Jim Shead - The eighteenth of a regular series of articles on marinas and boatyards. First published in Waterways World March 2005.
Charlie Fox started his business in the town of March beside the Old River Nene in 1959. He had a little boatyard there where he built and hired out small rowing boats and canoes. Later he progressed to building larger craft and in the early 1970s he built his first narrowboat. The specification for this first narrowboat was drawn on the back of an envelope and the customer said "Can you build that for me?". This drawing showed the bows of the boat with the back sloping point that is now so distinctive of Fox built boats.
At this stage the business was situated in a residential area of the town and they had many complaints from neighbours about the noise from their narrowboat construction work. There was a danger that the boatyard would be shut down so Charlie suggested moving the business. He approached a farmer he knew about buying a field on the edge of March and applied for planning permission, which took 19 months to obtain and involved two public enquiries.
In 1979 Charlie bought a 22 ton dragline machine with a forty foot reach to dig out the marina. It could pick up over a ton of earth at a time. It was a requirement of the Middle Level Commissioners that the marina entrance should be fitted with stop planks and that there was a flood bank all around the marina as an additional precaution. For many years the stop planks were not used but recently they have been used two or three time each winter. They had built 39 narrowboats at their site in the town before they moved to the marina in 1980.
This is very much a family concern and I suppose that Charlie's two daughters (Paula Syred and Tracy Baxter) were practically born into the business. They now jointly running the company, leaving Charlie to take more time off, and their husbands both work as boatbuilders.
Paula came into the business in 1986 to restart the hire fleet with three boats. The narrowboat hire was originally started in 1976 after the imposition of a 25% VAT on luxury goods led to a decline in boat sales. They hired out their fleet of four narrowboats through Hoseasons. From around 1983 they had ceased running the hire fleet due to a fall off in demand. The number of boat passages through the Middle Level dropped dramatically during this period and the possibility of reversing that trend was a factor in restarting the hire fleet.
Tracy joined the business to take on the accounting role after having similar experience with other companies. In addition to the family workforce they have two marina assistants in the office and a long established boat builder who joined them in 1980.
The marina originally had moorings for 30 boats. It was then extended to hold 70 more and two years ago a further extension provided 30 additional moorings. They now have a potential for accommodating 175 boats including the hire fleet. They have seven hire boats at present. At one time they had nine but found they needed more staff whereas seven boats could be operated with significantly less people especially when they spread their starting times over four days.
Boat building is still an important activity and they build between two and four bespoke boats a year, depending on what other work they have on hand, such as maintenance and boat stretching. In January 2000 one of their boats was delivered to the Blackstone River Valley, Rhode Island. The Blackstone Valley Tourism Council commissioned the Samuel Slater as a millennium project and the area's new centrepiece for interpreting heritage, culture, environment, and recreation. It can seat up to 12 for river tours and can be chartered for up to four as an overnight bed & breakfast.
Marina facilities include a toilet and shower block, launderette, diesel, gas and pumpout. Three-quarters of the moorings have electricity (the supply needs upgrading before this is extended) and water is available throughout. They have a main workshop where they do all the woodwork and the steelwork is done under a gantry that has all the necessary chain hoists. The painting is done in the wet dock although there is a years waiting list at present. The slipway is equipped with a wheeled hoist that Charlie built in 1981.
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