Chris Leah Describes Buying Lilith

Mosquito and Melford were a pair of floating Plywood chicken hutches. I travelled North on them up the Shroppie in September 1974. I’d left my job as a van driver and was planning to become a teacher. A college place awaited me but, unconventional as ever, I decided that instead of renting a flat, I would live on my little boats.

I worked down Northgate Locks and swung round the turn into Chester’s Tower Wharf Basin where I had applied for a B.W. mooring. There were no gaps in the craft lining the towpath so I carried on past the dry dock, under the turnover bridge and past a dark tarpaulin covered hulk that had most of it’s stern end missing. I briefly crossed my mind that the owner may have suspended the normal laws of physics to enable it to float. I tied my own unusual craft next to this vessel.

I had been watched as I whirred past by a small fair young woman holding a little child. They could have strayed from an Iron age re-enactment camp. As I knocked my mooring spikes in, her partner, who looked a bit like Charles Manson, came to ask how long I was staying. “Three years”, I stated confidently. “Oh” he replied “It’s filling up” and wandered away again.

This was the first indication that I got that there was something wrong in Chester. There was a war going on and I was to find myself caught in the crossfire for the next 18 months. Opposite my adopted mooring spot was Taylors boatyard. Lines of wooden cruisers and trip boats stood on blocks on the two slipways under the long roof supprted by ancient girders. The boatyard was silent as Taylors had gone out of business some months before. The area around the stables at the head of the top lock of the Dee arm was more animated. The horse drawn trip boat Betelgeuse was tied up there when it was not doing trips. The Chester Packet’s proprietors, Jim Marshall and Di Garland, lived aboard and the horse lived in a stable beside the lock. Alongside the bank was usually a shortened, converted iron joey called Eileen. Mick and Judy who lived aboard, ran a chandlery in the adjacent building.

Outside Taylors yard lay 3 wooden joey boats. Usually one or two were sunk. On the dry dock, Situated between the lock and the main line of the canal, there was an iron boat with its stern end cut off. The missing part was sunk in front of the dry dock gates. I later discovered that this was an unusual kind of composite boat built by Bantocks. The bottom and first plank were of wood and the rest of the boat was rivetted iron. From the dry dock there emanated smoke, bangs, grinding noises and the flash of arc welding. These were created by the inhabitant of another Grand Union butty which usually lay around the lock. He shared the back cabin with his elegant wife and two young children. The man was probably in his mid thirties. He could have been a movie star in the sort of films where there are lots of big explosions. He was forthright, energetic and loud. I will call him Zaphod as that seems an appropriate name*   .

Beyond the dry dock in the main basin were Zaphod’s sworn enemies, the pillars of the community on their smart steel boats. Another butty, Pictor , also lay there and this was lived on by Zaphod’s assistant who I think was called Mike.

Zaphod claimed ownership of the 3 wooden joeys as well as the Bantocks butty on dock and another one that was always somewhere around. He had moved these boats from the B.C.N. and was shortening and motorising the bantock boats for sale as pleasure boats. He told me that he didn’t know how to weld but that didn’t really matter. The part boat was sunk in front of the dry dock to make it hard to open the gates. There was also always a large hole in the boat on dock so that it would not float. Zaphod had never paid for a licence or a dry dock and did not want any interfering officials floating his boat off dock before he had finished it. He claimed that he could get away with anything on the waterways because he knew something embarrasing about a member of the Board.

Early in my stay I was invited into Zaphod’s back cabin. I spent a pleasant evening listening to tales of Zaphod’s clashes with authority and about struggles to get working boats back on the cut. After that I was a marked man. The atmosphere had become tribal and I had, as far as the pillars of the community were concerned, joined the camp of the undesirables tribe.

One day I rode down the towpath from the city centre and up the cobbly slope on to the turnover bridge. From there I could see that there was a group of men in suits round my boats. One climbed aboard and worked his way round the fore end. I rode down the curved slope on my Yugoslavian folding bike and pedalled up to them, demanding to know what they were doing.

The stout man climbed off Mosquito. He had got a wet foot because Mosquito, a catamaran with two sealed hulls and a home made cabin on top, didn’t have a lot of spare bouyancy. It tended to briefly dip a corner underwater if you jumped on it too hard. “So this is your boat is it” he shouted. “It’s not fit to be on the canal and I’m going to see to it that you never get a licence again”.

I had now met the local section inspector, later to become manager of the Llangollen Canal.

Shortly afterwards word reached me that Zaphod had dropped the price of his wooden joeys to £100 each, he had previously wanted £400. The reduced price made one affordable so I approached him about it. The boats had already been taken to the top of Northgate locks ready to be towed South to disappear into the B.C.N. I picked the one that I had noticed always stayed afloat. Despite the fact that I had already agreed to buy the boat Zaphod did a sales patter on it. He jumped up and down in the boat and it flexed alarmingly. “The strength is in the whip on these boats” he assured me. He kicked the side and the shearing splintered to reveal a hole, so he told me how easy it was to repair and how wood could easily be stolen from building sites so it wouldn’t cost much.

Pictor had been sold to John Batten to work with his motor boat Whitby and he was expected to collect his butty the following day. I handed over the cash to Zaphod and he wrote me out a receipt, I still have it. I arranged a mooring on a farm at Croughton (would you believe a mooring for a 70′ boat cost 50p a week! The licence was £32 a year). I tried to disguise the boat by painting over it’s markings and I crudely painted on it’s new name Lilith. My girl friend thought it was hebrew for a screech owl. Actually she was an ancient Assyrian goddess who was transmuted into an evil demoness in the Judaeo/Christian tradition.

Whitby and John Batten arrived, a tall viking like figure with long hair and beard. He agreed to tow Lilith to Croughton for a fiver. I went for my first trip on the boat that was to become part of my life. We swirled along the wide canal out of Chester’s suburbs and into the countryside of the Wirral. I had no means of steering but John had the boat on cross straps so she could not go far astray.

As far as British Waterways was concerned Zaphod’s luck had run out. The chief pillar of the community had written to the then B.W. chairman Sir Frank Price complaining about him. Blackmail was no longer of any use. All the boats ‘belonging’ to Zaphod ( I am dubious about his title to any of them) or any of his associates were condemned by British waterways surveyors ( the men in suits with cameras) and were supposed to be broken up. In fact they all vanished into other hands instead. Zaphod moved his family to Holland and started all over again. Mr and Mrs Manson took their tarpaulin covered boat , a josher motor, to Worsley and rebuilt the stern end. They made quite a good job. I was unaware at the time that Mr Manson, who always seemed quite pleasant, followed a nocturnal career as a burglar. He later gave this up when he joined a religious cult and they made him North west treasurer. A bad move on their part as he eloped with the funds. A bad move on his part as it would be better to steal from the mafia. Alas, the boat eventually became part of the Boat Museum collection and was broken up.

I met an old friend of Zaphod’s recently, one who always stayed on the right side of the law. I learned that he had had a long and eventful career as an international trickster and drug smuggler. When he had money he would buy a powerful motorbike and then crash it and spend ages in hospital before setting up more deals to get rich again. Now he is recovering from major heart surgery somewhere in Europe, and no doubt planning that last big deal that will set him up for retirement.

When my new licences arrived for Melford and Mosquito I was amused to see that the mooring site was listed as Tower Wharf Basin, Grand Union Canal. The stop put on my licence was ineffective because the people at Watford didn’t know their canals.

Zaphod Beeblebrox is a character in the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. An egomaniac intergalactic con man who could talk his way out of any situation. As soon as I heard this character on the radio I thought of the man from whom I bought Lilith. He only had the one head though ( at least, when I knew him).

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