Lyneal Wharf lies on the Llangollen Canal which was part of an ambitious late 18th century plan to link the rivers Mersey and Severn, much of which was never built. The date of the wharf’s construction is not known, but we do know that this section of the canal was in use by 1806, and that the wharf was used as a depot for coal brought by canal for local distribution. The original cottage which forms the core of Wharf Cottage housed the wharf keeper and his family.
After WWII the wharf passed into private hands and for some 40 years became the weekend cottage and canal cruising base for John Heap and his family. He was a Macclesfield banker who was involved in the Heulwen Trust encouraged by the Prince of Wales, which on the Montgomery canal at Welshpool had launched one of the earliest boats designed for use by the disabled.
In the early 1980’s John Heap made the generous decision to offer Lyneal Wharf to any organisation that could encourage disabled people to use the canals, and that offer in due course arrived in Shirehall Shrewsbury. As Shropshire’s response to the Prince of Wales’ appeal to mark The Queen’s Silver Jubilee the Pines Trust had been formed to provide a holiday house and camping ground adapted for disabled people in a house of that name in Bishops Castle. That project was still in its infancy when John Heap’s offer arrived and so that had to wait its turn for attention.
But in 1985 after some initial exploration of the possibilities it was decided to establish a separate trust to promote use of the canals by the disabled, and the Lyneal Trust was born.
It comprised representatives of the disabled organisations and of organisations which it was hoped would be keen to provide practical and maybe financial support. Like the Pines Trust it was chaired by our current Lord Lieutenant, and with the blessing of the County Council was staffed by the County Secretary and County Treasurer.
Our first priority was inevitably to raise enough money to buy or build a suitable boat and to adapt Wharf Cottage and add to the accommodation on shore. It was rapidly realised that there was no boat to be bought “off the peg” that would be suitable for disabled use. The only other narrow boat in the field was at Welshpool and that was a day boat not a cruiser. The only cruisers were the broad beams of the Peter Le Marchant Trust in the wide locks and canals of the East Midlands. No-one was offering the kind of do-it-yourself canal cruising holiday that we had in mind, that would for example enable a family with a disabled member to have exactly the same holiday as any other, with the same interests, learning curves, problems, and excitements. We also wanted to enlarge the wharf’s capacity so that parties could have a shore base for a cruise or for day trips.
So with the help of experienced professional advice and the skills of the Stoke on Trent Boat Yard a ground breaking plan for a 70 foot cruiser was devised with a raised stern deck and wheel and tiller steering so that wheelchair users could take the helm. It had an hydraulic lift between stern and main decks, a wheel chair accessible shower and loo, passage ways just wide enough for wheel chairs, and bunks for 8 people as well as a fully equipped galley and saloon. All at a high and durable standard of finish, and all of which cost money.
At the same time the North Shropshire Council lent us their architect so that plans for the enlargement of the cottage and the building of two chalet bungalows and a games/utility room could be prepared and approved. The Shropshire Horticultural Society offered to make the landscaping of the garden their centenary project, a great many begging letters were sent off, and the money came in.
So much so that the contract for the boat could be placed in 1986. She was named Shropshire Lass and had her maiden voyage back to Lyneal in May 1987. On a splendid day in July she was commissioned by HRH Princess Alexandra, and we were off!
All the relevant Shropshire organisations had been alerted to our arrival on the disabled scene and so had every Social Services authority in the UK; so we were not short of customers. Most importantly we had found a first class locally based engineer to service the boat and be readily available in case of problems. We had also recruited a team of volunteers to meet and greet and to skipper day trips if required. Families and groups of all ages with every kind of disability came from all over the UK and quite often from continental Europe as well.
After five years experience we decided that there was enough demand for a separate day boat, primarily for county based groups but which could also supplement the Lad for large residential groups with a varied programme. So another round of design and fund raising lead in April 1993 to the launch by our principal benefactor of Shropshire Lad to the tunes of Rule Britannia and A Life on the Ocean Wave from the Lakeland School’s wind band.
Shropshire Lass I served us well but by the summer of 2007 she had done 20 years of hard labour and deserved a rest. So we planned a replacement to be built by the same yard on similar lines but with the benefit of our now considerable experience. The cost was met by a generous grant from a Shropshire trust and Shropshire Lass II was commissioned in July of that year.
We have had two more royal occasions. The first came in 2008 after 21 years operating during which we had catered for some 10,500 disabled people and their helpers. This was the Queens Award for Voluntary Service which we counted a considerable feather in our caps. The second was in June 2012 when the Trust had the great honour of having both our boats included in the Thames Pageant to mark The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Below is the current Chair of the Trust, Chris Symes’ recollection of the day.
“The Shropshire Lass and the Shropshire Lad set off from Lyneal Wharf on 29th April, in the most atrocious weather, on their three week journey to London. The Lass was crewed by three separate families, regular disabled customers of the Lyneal Trust, and the Lad was crewed by WIS (the Army term for Wounded, Injured and Sick soldiers). The boats travelled together to London, helping each other through the nearly 200 locks and lift bridges, and then stopping at local canal-side pubs (often at the landlord’s expense) and rattling the fund-raising tins amongst the customers, with the huge sum of £2000 being raised for Help for Heroes, the Royal British Legion, and the Army Benevolent Fund. The boats reached Limehouse Basin (where the canal network joins the Thames) in glorious weather which stayed for the rehearsal during the weekend before the Pageant. And we all know what happened to the weather then!
The following weekend the boats were moved down the Thames and moored in West India Dock for scrutineering and the final spit and polish. At 7.30am on Pageant Day, the boats came back out onto the Thames to head upstream to our mustering mooring at Chiswick and it was wonderful to see so many thousands of people already on the river bank, cheering and waving their Union Flags, and there were still another six hours before the Pageant was to begin!
We took up our position in the flotilla before noon to wait for the signal to start, which in our case was 2.28pm precisely, and off we sailed. The narrow boat squadron was towards the rear of the flotilla, following one of the music barges. By now every inch of river bank, every garden, every house, apartment and office was packed with (apparently) between one and two million cheering, singing, flag waving, horn tooting spectators, creating an amazing atmosphere. After just over two hours we passed through Tower Bridge and there on the left was the Spirit of Chartwell with the Royal Family on board, and the Queen gave us a wave. In return, we sang the National Anthem and waved our flags with all our hearts, and motored on through the avenue of sail.
Our day didn’t finish then as there were several hundred boats ahead of us in the flotilla and we had to take our turn in getting back into West India Dock, so we convoyed along, kept well in order by the Port of London boats and the River Police, finally mooring up at 9.45pm. Yes, soaking wet, cold and tired, but exhilarated by such an awesome, once in a lifetime, experience.
It was straight back to reality the following morning as by 7.30am we were moving the boats back into the canal system ready for their journey home to Lyneal, where they will return to their more sedate life on the Llangollen Canal.
On a personal note, the high spots of the day were firstly when we were motoring upstream to the muster point and sailed between the other boats already in place, particularly the Dunkirk Little Ships, close enough and slow enough to be able to talk to the owners. Secondly was the moment when we passed the Queen and Prince William lent forward and said “let’s give those Lyneal boats a special wave, I recognise them from when I did my helicopter training at RAF Shawbury and used to fly over them”. Of course, I might have been mistaken!”