The Norfolk woman bringing boats back to life
- Credit: Denise Bradley
When Abbey Molyneux began researching the history of a vessel brought into her boatyard for repair she discovered her own great great grandfather had helped build it.
Boat builder Abbey came to Norfolk because it is famous for boats and waterways – but with no idea her remarkable skills ran in her family.
Her love of wooden boats began when she was a teenager. Staying with relatives on the Essex coast she spent so much time watching the traditional boat builders at work, and then helping out, that she was taken on as an apprentice. “The old boys took me under their wing,” she said. “And I was good at it!”
“A lot of people can’t build boats because they can’t see the curves; they try and measure everything. I can’t build a box with square sides but I can build anything that curves!”
After two years in Brightlingsea she moved to a boatyard in London to hone her skills, living in (and restoring) a boat on the Thames.
But, from the start, Abbey, now 30, dreamed of running her own boatyard.
The dream brought her to a barn on a farm in Dilham, near North Walsham. Inside are boats in various stages of repair ranging from what look like virtually hopeless cases, holed above and below the waterline, to gleaming beauties ready to be returned to the river.
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Queen of Light was built by Herbert Woods of Potter Heigham exactly 90 years ago, as one of the first luxury hire boats on the Broads. It had hot water, exquisite wooden furnishings and was quiet and manoeuvrable.
Abbey spent much of the winter returning her to her pristine 1930s heyday. Interiors have been lovingly repaired and coaxed to a dazzling shine with 10 coats of varnish. The exterior planking gleams with coat after coat of paint, portholes are polished, intricate wood and metal mechanisms glide and slide once again.
As she worked on Queen of Light, for owner Luke Paterson, who is also the landlord of her boatyard barn, Abbey researched the boat’s history – and came across a picture of her great great grandfather, John Fernley.
Although she knew a branch of her family had once lived in the county she said: “I didn’t think I had any connections up here. But whenever I have a boat in, I look into its history, and I found out that my ancestors were boat builders!”
Soon Queen of Light, built by John Fernley in 1932 and restored by his great great granddaughter in 2022, will be back on Norfolk water.
Abbey said it is often possible to tell where in the country traditional boats were made. “I used to take historic boats apart on the river Thames, and I could tell when they were built in Norfolk,” said Abbey.
But it is not just Norfolk boats she is working on. At the back of the boatyard is Marlou, once a sea-going ship, now battered and bedraggled, her wooden ribs held together by nails almost a century old. She was built in Southampton in the 1930s and has been brought over from Ireland for Abbey to transform, plank by painstakingly restored plank. Each one is recut, re-curved, replaced, re-painted as Marlou gradually regains her original grandeur.
As she tends to her fleet Abbey has devised some ingenious ways of working. When she needs wood to be waterlogged before she can shape it, she drops it in the nearby canal for a while. Just five-feet tall, she has bought a 1950s tractor to help hold long pieces of wood while she fixes them in place on bigger boats. She has also taken on a couple of part-time staff, who are now picking up traditional boatbuilding skills in the same way she did, a decade ago.
Since Abbey moved to Norfolk last year, to a caravan on the farm where she launched her boatyard, she has restored 12 boats, including one of the Dunkirk Little Ships which crossed the Channel in 1940 to rescue British troops. Another was for her landlord, Luke, who runs a glamping site on his Dilham farm. He originally bought 1962 wooden Wroxham-built hire cruiser Noisy Goose to convert into a quirky holiday let. Abbey’s restoration was so beautiful that Noisy Goose is back on the water.
Abbey grew up in Devon, where she was home-educated and spent a lot of time making things in the garage with her engineer father. After her introduction to traditional boat building in Brightlingsea she moved to London to continue her training with Dennet Boat Builders. Eventually she would love to have her own yard on a river.
For now she is happy restoring, piece by gleaming piece, some of Norfolk’s precious boating heritage. Mending hulls is her absolute favourite task. “It’s the making shapes in empty spaces,” she said.
One of the smallest boats in the barn is Crusader, a sailing dinghy, shining bright in coat after coat of blue and orange paint. She is not far from home. A generation ago the children of a local family learned to sail her on the tranquil North Walsham and Dilham Canal. When they grew up she gently decayed. “This one was a total state.” said Abbey, “Like one of those you find as a flowerbed!” Now she is ready for the family's grandchildren to learn to sail.
“But the more of a state they are, the better I like it!” said Abbey. She rescued a little 1950s Broads picnic boat from a bonfire pile and it is now waiting its turn for her attention. Abbey plans to paint it in her boatyard colours of orange and green and take it out on the Broads again.
She has been so busy launching and running her business, and researching and restoring beautiful Broads boats, that she has had no time to enjoy the waterways which brought her to Norfolk.
But she has booked a wherry trip for when her family visit this summer – and as well as telling them about her boat builder great great grandad, she will share another bit of boat history research which has revealed more Norfolk ancestors, including a wherryman.
This summer a boat rescued from the mud of Brightlingsea harbour will arrive in Dilham to join the craft beached in the boatyard barn. Abbey is particularly looking forward to working on the traditional east coast oyster smack as it is exactly the same kind of boat as her first ever restoration – which she has a picture of, tattooed on her back.
Boats really did get under her skin.
If you have a wooden boat project Abbey Molyneux, traditional boat builder, of Abbey Boat Builder, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 07772 737678.