Stepping back in time on the Grand Western Canal
PUBLISHED: 11:33 09 July 2014
Phil Brind of the Tiverton Canal Co tells CATHY FISHER about three decades of his family owning and operating horse-drawn barges on the Grand Western Canal
Beside the quiet banks of the Grand Western Canal the Tiverton Canal Co. operates Tivertonian – one of just four remaining horse-drawn barges in the UK.
As well as horse-drawn barge trips visitors can also hire boats, drop into the canal gift shop or enjoy refreshments onboard the Ducks Ditty - a floating Cafe Bar.
The beautiful location has been used as a backdrop for numerous of TV programmes including an episode of the 1970s sitcom Terry and June which saw the unfortunate Terry end up in the canal.
In 2011 Tiverton Canal Co. received national attention when a photograph entitled “Pulling Power” of Taffy the Welsh Cob with the barge Tivertonian was announced as the winner of Countryfile’s 2012 Calendar Competition.
The Brind family has owned and operated this unique Devon attraction for three decades and celebrates the 40th anniversary of the horse-drawn barges in August 2014.
Current owner Phil Brind took time out to reminisce about the highlights and landmark moments that he and his wife Jacquie and their family have seen and celebrated over the last 30 years.
What are your earliest memories of the Grand Western Canal and Tivertonian?
I took my first trip on Tivertonian in 1983, when I was 18 years old. My parents were thinking about buying the business from its former owner Tony Stockwell who’d established the business in 1974. We travelled down to Devon to take a trip on the horse-drawn barge. My parents bought the business in 1984 and our first full season began in the summer of 1985. The first party we celebrated onboard Tivertonian was my 21st birthday which was a night to remember.
I grew up around boats, dogs and horses and have many childhood memories of narrowboat holidays and messing around on boats owned by my father and grandfather.
My mother loves horses and worked at Lamborne Race Stables as an apprentice before working with thoroughbred horses.
Tiverton Canal Co. (which was then called The Grand Western Horseboat Co) was the perfect business for them to buy.
How has the company changed under your ownership?
My wife Jacquie and I took over the running of The Grand Western Horseboat Co from mum and dad (Pat and Ray Brind) in 2006.
One of the first things we did was to get a licence so we were able to sell alcoholic drinks onboard the Tivertonian and Ducks Ditty.
During my parents time the Ducks Ditty was called the Tea Barge and was furbished like a 1950s style dinner with fixed booth seating. Jacquie and I modernised the Cafe, put in a bar and changed its name to the Ducks Ditty.
When my parents operated the business there were fewer tourist attractions in Devon and visitor numbers were generally good.
Throughout the 80s and 90s more tourist attractions sprung up and visitor numbers started dropping off. We had to think about diversifying and making our attraction more appealing to tourists.
In addition to our new licence we introduced a range of boats for visitors to hire.
Each boat is named after a Wind in the Willow character. We also started dressing our staff in traditional costume rather than branded T-Shirts. We felt that old fashioned dress helped to create more of an experience for visitors of stepping back in time.
The internet and social media have had a big impact on our business and have changed both the way we market the company and interact with our customers.
Local people and tourists who visit love talking to us on Twitter and Facebook. They thank us for trips they’ve been on and enjoy sharing their memories and posting photographs of their days out at the canal.
After we took over the business from my parents we realised that people were searching online for us as Tiverton Canal rather than The Grand Western Horseboat Co or even Grand Western Canal.
This led us to change the name of the business to Tiverton Canal Co.
Tiverton Canal Co. is well known by regular patrons for its horse riding dogs. Is it easy train them?
We’ve been fortunate to have had all our dogs as puppies allowing us to train them from an early age to ride our horses.
The biggest obstacle for a dog to get over is that it needs to learn to sit, in much the same way that a person would ride a horse. A dogs natural reaction to being put on the
back of a moving horse is to stand up so it can distribute its weight evenly across all four paws.
All our dogs over the years have learnt to ride horses but the whole thing actually came about by accident.
The first dog I owned ‘Megan’ who was given to me asa gift,had been weaned early and was very small.
She was too little to walk alongside the barge so I put her on the roof of the barge on top of a pile of blankets. The trouble was when I got off to walk with the horse she didn’t like being left on her own and would begin barking.
In the end I popped her on the back of the horse so she could be next to me. After a few weeks of holding her on and her bum slipping and sliding off the horses back; Megan worked out a way of sitting up straight so she was able to maintain her
balance. She actually went on to become a very adept horse rider and probably the best of all the dogs we’ve had, probably because she started at such an early age.
What qualities make a horse suited to pulling a barge?
People might think that any big horse can pull a barge but that’s not the case. A lot of different factors go into choosing the right horse for the job and all our horses have to be very carefully selected to ensure they have the right skills, temperament and aptitude for the task.
Canal bridges are traditionally low and towpaths narrow. This means that on many canals a horse would have to be chunky but not more than about 12-13 hands to be able to get under the bridges and stay on the towpath.
We’re lucky that the bridges on the Grand Western Canal are bigger than average so we can work with horses up to about 17 or 18 hands.
We also modify our tack to give us as much room as possible when going under bridges.
Certain breeds like Cobs or Shires have the right type of build but we also tend to look for horses with shorter legs. This is because in the rare event of them going into the canal its much easier for a horse with short legs to climb out than a horse with long legs.
Probably our most important consideration when picking a horse is choosing one that has experience of being around people and is used to pulling either a cart or farm machinery.
The safely of our customers is paramount so we must ensure that our horses love people and are comfortable with the job they are expected to do.
Have any of your horses had bad or funny habits?
We develop close relationships with all of our horses and find they all have different personalities, just like people.
We have had a couple over the years with more memorable habits. When my parents operated the barge they owned a horse called Ernie who used to suffer ‘wind’ much to the amusement of our passengers! He was known as Ernie (who pulled the Fastest Horse-Boat in the West), after Benny Hill’s 1971 hit Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West).
Then there was Gavin, a handsome Clydesdale who developed a liking of picnics and would steal sandwiches from unsuspecting picnickers on his way past.
We also had a horse called Jim who loved working so much he learned to open the gate to his field and would let himself out so he could trot down to the Canal Basin ready for action. Our recently retired horse Danny loved water and when off duty would often look for an excuse to be in the water rather than beside it.
There have been many events at the canal over the last 40 years. Do you have a personal favourite?
Its hard to pick just one as there have been so many memorable events and occasions that we’ve celebrated at the canal.
The Queens Jubilee Party at the Canal Basin in June 2012 sticks in my mind as a personal favourite. We had such amazing weather that day. There was a great atmosphere and it was lovely seeing extended families and friends coming together to share picnics and laze around on the banks of the Canal watching the world go by.
The recent Grand Western Canal bicentenary celebrations were also incredible and cumulated in a Sunday night illuminated boat parade by the Inland Waterways Association.
People were in high spirits and whole families turned out to enjoy the spectacle. During the last 40 years we’ve had many events but I‘ve never seen so many people line the banks of the canal as on that evening.
A very fond memory for my wife Jacquie and I was hosting a children’s barge trip for Children in Need in 2011.
We took children from CEDA and Orchard Saturday Club - local associations sponsored by Children in Need, plus Pudsey of course onboard Tivertonian and enjoyed a lovely afternoon barge trip. There’s a video of the day on our website.
What funny moments have you enjoyed during the last 40years?
Undoubtedly the funniest moments have always been when a member of crew falls in, and over the years we’ve witnessed all our family members and most staff take a dip at some point.
We even dunked our accountant and some family friends one time when the foot ferry they were taking across the Canal to get to our offices tipped up. Watching them wade across the canal was a very funny sight, but it was not at all appropriate to laugh of course. So sometimes we have to be very discreet.
The most entertaining conversation I ever had with a customer was an elderly American tourist who couldn’t understand the concept of a horse pulling the barge beside the canal so she kept asking me in her strong American accent “So how do you get the horse into the water to pull the barge?”
What does the future hold for Tiverton Canal Company?
Running Tiverton Canal Company is a lifestyle choice. We do it because we love it. It would be lovely to think that a next generation of Brinds will take it over when we retire but Jacquie and I are realistic that both our children are at the start of embarking on their own career paths; Becky our daughter as a veterinary nurse and Tim, our son who is studying computers and graphic and 3D design, and is current looking for work experience. Both work part time supporting the business particularly at busy times.
Our focus is on maintaining an attraction that is becoming increasingly rare and unique in the UK.
We are keen for more people to hire and experience Tivertonian for private events and parties.
We have disco lighting and a music system on board so we can cater for all sorts of private groups whether they want a quiet day trip or lively evening party. Unlike hotels and bars where invited guests can wonder off or uninvited guest can wonder in, we find that parties aboard the horse-drawn barge have a great atmosphere and intimate feel about them.
Following on from the bicentenary events this year we are in the processing of planning an annual event at the canal basin which local people can enjoy.
For news, views, photos and videos find us on tivertoncanal.co.uk, Facebook and Twitter.