Ian has spent most of his working life at Hunter’s Yard building, maintaining and repairing wooden sailing boats, for hire, using traditional skills and craftsmanship.
I grew up in Ludham and went to school in the village and then at Stalham. I was sixteen when I left school, did engineering for one year at college but then came back to wooden boats when I did three years as an apprentice boat-builder at Wayford Bridge near Stalham. I had a moped to get to work. Used to be freezing cold at times in the winter, and then I got a car. I didn‘t think I should come here [to Hunter’s Yard] straight away with father [Tom Grapes] being here. I learned about maintaining wooden boats and repair work to wooden boats. There were four or five of us. I did my apprenticeship with an elderly gentleman who’d done lots of boat-building and was getting to the end of his career so it was nice to work with him.
Starting at Hunter’s Yard
In 1981 when the position came up here at Hunter’s Yard I put in for it. Norfolk County Council had taken over Hunter’s Yard by then. I can remember I had to go for my interview at How Hill which they already owned. We used to have family holidays on the boats and that was where I learnt to sail. We used to take a boat, if there was one laid in and that wasn’t on hire, father was allowed to take it and we’d go down Hickling and he would take a sailing dinghy and push me out in the middle and say ‘Learn’, and you know, we had great fun.
So I’d grown up sailing their boats, and knew them well and because they have one of the best fleets on the Broads I knew it’s where I wanted to be. I didn’t have to ask too many questions about the boats and I’d got the wooden boat building experience, so you never know, but I got the job. As a rule there were three people working here, two outside in the workshop and one in the office. There were about 17, 18 boats when I started. We’ve been adding to the fleet as years go by. People offer you boats and we’ve built boats. When I first started I got the job of doing a lot of the varnishing. I got all the bits and bobs to do, varnishing spars, cabin tops, nothing too exciting, but as time goes by you start doing more and more.
We’d always start work at eight o’clock, through till five. You never knew what was going to turn up from day to day. You’d know what boats were going out but you could be called away at any time. In those days people always hired the boats for a week. We used to get to know the customers. They’d call up on the phone, they got to be friends. They almost had the same week every year. Now that all seems to have altered. People want short breaks. They book online. You don’t seem to speak to people any more like you used to. I’m not really very keen on the internet booking side of things or online booking as that’s called. They’ve got to speak to someone beforehand but there seem to be lots of different emails going backwards and forwards. Years ago they’d get on the phone, you looked at the chart, you said ‘yeah your boat is there, I’ll pencil you in and it was done. You’d get to know who they were and what they wanted. Now, I think we’ve lost that personal touch.
It can get very cold working here during the winter and we have had floods come through, into the shed. We’ve had three or four inches come right in here. During the October ‘87 gale, I remember, we had all the boats outside, ready to come in, and if you have a look up here you’ll see this post has got a lean on. The shed moved a little bit in that direction, so we need a gale the other way now to put it back. The boats were alright. We didn’t have too many problems, no actual boat damage. We did have one boat out at the time and I think they were glad to get back. We’re used to the water. Since I’ve been here we’ve raised the floor level six inches. In the Hunter’s time this shed was a soil floor and that one was a brick floor. Soil floors were good for boats because that kept more moisture and they kept the boats tight but not so good if you’re working on it.
The biggest boat we’ve got is 28 feet. They are particularly designed for sailing on the Broads. They will go into a tack and come out of a tack the same speed they went in. Hunter always built his boats very light so that they will sail. A lot of the other hire yards put the engines on, the diesel tanks, the bridges, but the more weight you put on the more weight you’ve got to get moving. A lot of people are often surprised when one of ours will sail past them and that’s mainly what it is, our boat is a lot lighter than the one they’re sailing. As a rule most customers are good at dealing with the variety of craft they’ll come up against, usually with hand signals or whatever. Most people get used to yachts after their first day on the water. There are definitely fewer yachts around these days. There’s not that many places now that hire yachts. Seem to be less and less people who want to sail, that’s the trouble. We are trying to encourage more people to come, particularly the younger generation through the schools. But I always think the world is such a smaller place now, they can go further afield can’t they?
Very little has changed on the boats. We do try and keep them as they were in the thirties. We are now going over to electric lighting and we’ve put an electric engine in one of the boats. We always had oil lamps before, but it’s getting very hard to get spares and also, if you get bad customers who burn soot you get a lot of black soot in the boat which is hard to get out. I’m afraid you do have to change. Some customers still come now and say “can we have an oil lamp back in?” so we have to try and put one back in for them. They like the heat that comes off of it you know, and I suppose just going back in time. The boats are all self contained. The smaller boats have a gas stove, a two burner and grill, and the four berth boats have a grill and an oven, all using Calor gas. They used to have primus stoves which I can’t imagine ‘cos I tried primus stoves and there tend to be a lot of flames. You do have to have the boats tested every year, the same as you would if you were letting a house, where you have to have a Landlords’ certificate, so somebody has to come in and test everything on the boat and say that’s okay to hire.
Hunter’s Yard for sale
In 1995 Hunter’s Yard was put up for sale by Norfolk County Council. We were just told that the yard was going to be sold, as a going concern, to the highest bidder. The boats were going to be sold, the yard was going to be sold and they were going to get out of it. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We were all a bit worried, you know. We didn’t particularly want to see all the boats split up, because that would probably be the end of some of them. The Chief Education Officer was very good at the time. He wanted to see it go the way it did but he couldn’t be seen to do so. He had to get the best price. In the end the Lottery came and spent two days with us and came up with the money. I think we put in for £140,000, to show that we could match what they were going to give us and they said ‘Ooh, no, that’s not enough’ and they gave us a lot more which was very good. If we’d had to borrow the money, the income wasn’t going to be there to pay it. Apart from changing the name from the Norfolk Schools Sailing Association to the Norfolk Heritage Fleet Trust, little else changed. We had to run the place exactly the same. We had trustees instead of Norfolk County Council, and to make their lives easier, they simply transferred our contracts to the Trust. That meant they didn’t have to pay any redundancies and we automatically started working for the Trust. We had different bosses. Most of them were keen sailors who wanted to see the boats stay as they were so we all worked together as a team, just as it is today. In the end it all turned out well.
Maintaining the fleet
Through the winter months we do the boat maintenance. The winter is short enough. You know, a lot of people go late into October but the boats sit about for a month until half term and things are getting damp and if you get frost you can get damage to the varnish which makes a lot more work. We’ve got no heating in the sheds so if they do get wet and damp we can almost get straight on working on them as soon as they come out. That’s something Hunter always did. He always said the third week in October the boats need to be inside and that’s what I carry on doing. Sometimes I get pressure, you know wanting to go later but at the minute I get my way! I do most of the sail repairs and awning repairs now, and, since father has retired, I’ve also taken on the sign writing. I do all the rigging as well, the ropes and blocks. It’s not particularly complicated, it’s just something I’ve always done so when father retired I automatically took it over. The sails used to be made out of Egyptian cotton but in about the ‘70s they went over to Terylene. As a rule Jeckells in Wroxham make the sails. I will put my order in at the end of the season for March delivery. They’ve been making these sails now for seventy years so they’ve got all the sizes. I just put the order in and they come. We did try some from down the south coast in Devon but I didn’t like them as much as the Jeckells sails, mainly because of the weight of the material. They made sails for sea sailing and they never seem to be able to get the weight right. They were always very heavy. Customers didn’t like them. When you had to reef that was a hard job to actually put a reef in so now I tend to stick to Jeckells. As a rule on hire, the sails will last about seven years so that ain’t too bad.
We now have five people working here, three of them trainees. For many years we had the same people working at the yard and suddenly we got to a point where everybody was retiring and nobody else was coming on. But things look pretty good now as we have the younger generation coming on. It is difficult to find young people because the Trust can’t pay that well and they need money for cars and mortgages, so they start with us and then they disappear which is unfortunate. They tend to move on to the building trade or fitting plastic windows. We’ve got two who are very keen sailors, so we’re hoping that they’ll sort of take over in time.
Being the foreman, I do less and less work and more and more organising, buying stuff and making sure that they have the materials to do the work, which is a bit of a change. A lot of the wood we use comes from this country and we like to get the oaks fairly local if we can. The mahogany is a different problem. We have to import that. Some of the logs are now getting so expensive. One or two of the other yards are stocking quite a bit so I think we‘ll just go and buy a board from them. The rep came not long back and I asked him what the cheapest log he had was and he said ‘£10,000’. You probably couldn’t use it for about seven years because it still has to dry so that’s a lot of money tied up, although that would be worth a lot when it’s ready to use. That would be about thirty feet by about three foot round in diameter. You need to stick it and let it dry so you’ve got to think fairly well in advance. We would store it in the shed here, inside. You usually put little sticks in between it so you can get an air flow so that dries slowly. I always want fresh sawn oak because we tend to do a lot of steaming with it, bending it with the use of steam. With it being wet all the juices inside the wood helps it bend so that we need as freshly sawn as we can get.
We still tend to use a lot of the old tools and equipment. I would say the glues and the materials we put in the seams have altered for the better. In between the seams we always used to use just normal linseed oil putty. Now we use a construction adhesive which actually glues both planks together although they can move. The putty used to get right hard and you’d get moisture in it until that swelled up again and the seams would go rotten on the planks. Now we’ve changed over to the newer products we never get that any more. Using these new products does make maintenance easier. I know we’re a Trust and we’re trying to keep things the same but you do have to move on to make life simpler. In the end, our job is to make the boats last as long as we can so we do the best we can.
Start of the season
The season starts at the end of March whatever the weather. The boats will always go in two weeks before that because that’ll take two weeks to put everything on board and rig them out and get them ready and then here we go. As a rule the boats are hired out from Saturday to Saturday, but we do lots of short breaks now, two, three days sometimes, so the boat can go out two or three times in one week with change-arounds during the week as well. We have all sorts of groups coming, lots of private people, church groups, religious groups. You ask if they all know how to sail! There’s a pause there! Mainly yes. We do ask for sailing experience and a lot of the groups bring their own skippers. If they can’t supply their own, we do have volunteers who can knock them into shape. We have had more problems with people thinking they know how to sail since this internet booking, where you can’t get to talk to people so much. We have had boats that have been smashed up. Usually we get damage with groups because they’re all sailing together. When individuals hire boats and disappear into the Broads they’re all miles apart but when a group hires, say, twelve boats, they all want to set off together, and usually that’ll be one of our boats hitting another of our boats, which we have to live with, I suppose. As a rule, most of the customers are very good.
We did have a group of Italians who were sailing through the new Breydon Bridge and they hooked the main sheet of the boat on the bridge so the tide dragged them through and they actually sunk. So we got the call to go down to Breydon and rescue them all and get the boat up. Once we’d got it up I had to carry on and take it to where they’d got to with the rest of the boats. What I always remember is that when we got it up the boat was full of little crabs so we had to clean them all out and get them off. But, as we usually do, we sorted them out and got them going again. No holes in the boat so it was just getting it up so that we could bail it out. That was the only trouble we had had with that group. These things happen, but they don’t come any more, that group!
During the summer one of our working days is Saturday so you’ll get a day off during the week and include Saturday in your working week. One of us tends to have the phone at the weekend so we’re on call in case of any problems. We’re not called out that often, only odd occasions. There isn’t too much to go wrong really. They can hit things or tear a sail. We have had sails torn where they hook trees but as a rule most things can wait until Monday. However, since the mobile phone, you get more people calling for silly things where you never would years ago. Then they would wait but nowadays with the mobile phone they just call for anything.
We don’t supply provisions. We provide the duvets, the pillows. On changeover day we all muck in. On Saturdays two pairs of cleaners come in. They do the cookers, crockery and bedding while we’re doing the boats and making sure that everything is okay. During the week when we get changeovers we tend to muck in ourselves and get it done. Everybody has a go at doing everything. You never know what you’re doing. It’s not like being stuck in a job where you’re doing the same things. My summer job is totally different to my winter job. I’m dealing with people in the summer and they’ve gone for the winter. I do like the summer but usually by the end of it you’re glad the winter’s here. You sort of get the batteries charged up again for the next year. It’s nice to see the boats when they’re finished and ready to go.
Today we still have school groups coming. Part of the money from the Lottery Fund is to be used to encourage youth groups to come. They get a reduced rate when they come, thirty percent off the current rates I think. We have volunteers who go out with them, or they bring their own skippers. Each year they come they slowly get better. They are all wearing life jackets when they leave here! But we’ve got no control when people have left. We always supply buoyancy aids.
The atmosphere at Hunter’s Yard hasn’t really changed over the years at all. Not at all. My job is to keep it as it was ‘cos that’s why people come here. If they want a whirlpool bath or whatever they can go elsewhere. We tend to always get keen sailors. Most people who come here will always remember it, they never forget.
The Hunters picked this place because you’ve got such a choice of directions to go out of here. When you leave here you can get to Thurne Mouth and you can go towards Yarmouth, you can go towards Wroxham or you can go towards Hickling and Horsey. So, you know, whichever way the wind is or the tide, you can decide.
Myself, I do sail and I used to take people out a lot. Since my new role I tend to let the younger generation instead. Quite often I’m also asked if I’ll go sailing on my days off, on Sundays, although as a rule I’m on call in case there’s any problems. But to be honest you tend to want a day to get away from boats.
I tend to spend a lot of time on the river. I also own a little piece of land down on the marsh here, so I spend quite a bit of time down there. At present a lot of otters have turned up. Quite often in the mornings I will come down and look out of the window and I have counted three or four sitting outside here. Kingfishers are doing well as well, depending on what fish are about. We often see kingfishers out here. The birdlife is as good as it’s ever been. There seem to be less moorhens and coots. I think they have suffered because of the increase in otters but generally there’s quite a good balance. The quality of the water is better than it’s been for a long time. I don’t think there’s as many hire boats as there were, perhaps ten years ago, when some of the bigger companies got involved and were really flooding the Broads. But you also need the system to be flushed, so the water goes in and out at Yarmouth. You need more rains to actually flush the system, I think that can help.
We spent our family holidays mainly on the Broads, and I used to like camping. Scotland is one of my favourite places. I haven’t been up there lately but that’s out in the wilderness, where I’m happy. It’s not very easy for me to take holidays. Since we’ve lost the elderly staff and got the youngsters I haven’t really been able to take a holiday. I daren’t leave them in the summer. There never is a good time to have a holiday. I asked Vicky the other day how many days have I got and she said ‘24 to come before April’ and I only had 25 to start with so that has been a problem for me. Hopefully I shall be able to get one or two off in the winter before we start up. We usually close for about a week over Christmas, depending how the days come. We come back as soon as we can after the New Year. We’re happy to have visitors at Hunter’s Yard at different times of the year. There aren’t many places in the country where you can come and look at boats like this.
Well, the rescue down at Breydon is one of my particular memories. I hadn’t been here long when the BBC turned up and wanted to film the Coot Club and The Big Six, so that was another one of my jobs. Looking after the BBC, with the boats, so they could film where they wanted to be. The yard was actually changed into ‘Rodley’s of Wroxham’. They’d been looking for a yard that they could turn back into a 1930’s yard and of course this was ideal. They hired a boat for twelve weeks and they had a cotton sail made and we had to make sure everything was 30’s so that was very interesting. We’ve also had Ben Fogle here, and Griff Rhys Jones, lots of different people. Not this summer gone but the one before I had to go up to meet Prince Charles and Camilla on a stand at the Norfolk Show. I talked to them about the yard. It’s been quite interesting over the years. One of our trustees is very keen and goes round the country giving talks about the Hunter’s Fleet.
I knew Stanley and Cyril Hunter. By that time they would have been quite elderly but I always knew them as ‘the boys’. Cyril worked here for a time in a sort of advisory capacity when the Council first took over. I can remember him more than (Stanley). They lived opposite and were easy to get on with. When he died I used to do jobs for his wife. They were very glad that the boatyard was saved from being split up.
I do like seeing people enjoy themselves. As a rule that’s when they come back. A school will go out, all disorganised, and when they come back they’ve all got their little jobs and they’ve had a great time and want to come back. I’m especially pleased if they’ve looked after the boat. Each Saturday when the boats come back we go over them; being a varnished boat you can touch them up, so if they’ve got any scratches that’s one of the jobs we always do. That’s what Hunter always did. So the next customer takes the boat out without any scratches on. You can also tell how much that’s been looked after. If they took the boat out covered in scratches what difference is one more going to make. We always do that and I think that pays. At the moment I’ve got no plans to retire. I could have retired at 55 with my pension but for now I’ve got my health and I enjoy what I’m doing. Nice to see the young ones coming on. Hopefully, they’ll take over gradually. I can’t see why Hunter’s Yard shouldn’t go on as it is. That’s what we need. At the minute things are going from strength to strength.
Ian Grapes (1961) talking to WISEArchive on 17th November 2018 in Ludham, Norfolk
Read Ian’s father Tom’s story about the early days of Hunter’s Yard under Broads Heritage, early days.
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