“This is now a more expensive job than the engine would’ve been to repair, but I’m in too deep. Not gonna give up till it’s useable as a day-to-day method of moving my home.” Words of determination uttered from the mouth of Tom – another thought-provoking individual that fits squarely into the definition of my year long project. I’m becoming a magnet for such encounters, or maybe it’s just that my eyes are attuned to what’s around me? After all it’s not as though I’m holding open auditions. However, if I was, then supermarket carparks would be a likely stage. I met the owner of a much loved Morris Minor, that graces the cover of My Cool Classic Car, in a Tesco carpark of all places! Moments later and our paths would have never crossed; I’d have missed young Budd returning home after picking his Nan up from Bingo – months of research wouldn’t have delivered a car and owner more suitable. I guess the unplanned nature of such encounters underlines the essence of the project; meeting people and just engaging in conversion – only to find out they’ve a story to tell.
Anyhow, I digress – back to the matter of Tom. I’ve little brand loyalty, so this time I was flirting with Aldi. As I strode into the store I noticed a classic steel framed bike lashed securely to an immovable object. It was cool looking, battered skateboard deck as a pannier, Spokey Dokes and a few other ‘new-age’ accoutrements on the bars – a style of bike far removed from the kind you’d see around town. The sole purpose for my visit needn’t get in the way of matching shopper to owner. As I ambled up and down the aisles my eagle eyes quickly ruled out most; apart from one. Please don’t come down on me harshly with my blatant stereotyping that follows – especially when it's one of my ‘please avoid’ mantras. In this situation I seek a pardon, because my motives were positive. Ample beard, hair in man bun and one trouser leg rolled up to a length that dictated he was very likely from the fixed gear frat. This chap certainly wasn’t from these parts – a stranger was in town. Before the locals got wind of his arrival, potentially driving him out of town with pitch forks, I made my presence known. I enquired if that was indeed his trusty steed outside? Sure enough it was and, whom I now know as Tom, proudly explained his rig and confirmed he wasn’t from these parts. He was just travelling through en route to Hackney and as soon as his home, a pedal power narrowboat was ready, he’d be on his way.
Whoa there! I suspect it wouldn't be just the likes of myself that would let that statement go unchallenged? Bike, narrowboat, pedal power – amber nectar to my ears. To my amazement Tom was indeed attempting to detach himself from the necessity of fossil fuels and further embrace his love of cycling. To further reinforce his eco ethos he informed me that rather than fixing his broken engine, he’d actually punted the 10 tonne narrowboat from Rickmansworth to a marina just outside of Harlow. An invitation was gratefully accepted for me to attend the inaugural sailing, pedalling or whatever the term should be of Blackthorn – his boat.
Sure enough, several days later I was kicking the tyres (if it had any) of a steel frame bike welded to the stern. The tiller, actioned by the handlebars, was no less than a sturdy branch from a Blackthorn tree – a nice nod to the boats name. The gearing involved was mind boggling! He duly explained the intricacies of the mechanics, however despite my full attention it was just white noise. I just politely nodded and interjected comments at moments when I knew I wouldn’t make an arse of myself. No instructions exist for such an endeavour; he’d got this far purely with his expertise as a cycle mechanic. To the best of Tom’s knowledge no one had attempted to propel a vessel of this size purely by human power. Likely for good reason, but no reason insurmountable enough for Tom not to give it a try. As Tom carried out a demonstration a wealth of fixed cogs, chains, monstrous 60 tooth chainrings, derailleur and a brass propeller whirred in unison – albeit on dry land.
This kind of contraption, although extreme to many, was just the next stage of evolution for Tom, who described his childhood (with his three siblings) as unsupervised feral kids surrounded by a fence. His formative years were spent in South London and considering the close quarter existence of said living, his childhood garden was of a square footage that afforded a sizeable chunk to be designated for the kids enjoyment; epic levels of freedom to engineer hotchpotch bicycle contraptions that most other kids could only dream of. This freedom didn’t go wasted amongst his siblings; Toms brother became a well respected frame builder. Tom, in a former life, worked his way up through the ranks to a semi professional BMX rider. Notoriety ensued and he found himself adorning double page features in BMX magazines of the time. Yet Tom left this behind just as life changing opportunities where presented. The hedonistic lifestyle surrounding BMX’ing prescribed a far from level headed existence – one reason to abort. However, it’s hard to ignore that the notion of stability didn’t play a part.
Toms intense questioning of life and lifestyle became a struggle for his father – never more so than during his teenage years. Resulting in non physical confrontations and actions from his father that still, to this day, go without explanation. Encounters that no doubt attributed towards Toms necessity to keep on the move in a semi-nomadic way. Since leaving home he’s lived in squats, woodlands and shunned just about every prescribed notion of normality sent his way.
Tom continues: “Bikes seem to be the one thing that have stayed with me and that I garner respect from and repay to everyone I've met with the same ethos. For myself and others this kind of existence gives the freedom to control your movements in a way that can exorcise demons, or be a conduit for all kinds of self-government. Plus, for those who wear their hearts on their sleeves, it gives the ideal level of defence from the general flux of social structures. Years back I met a guy in Greece who's parents had both recently died. He’d basically built himself a trailer shaped like a coffin and went off travelling and playing his bugle. I fancied that kind of existence, so started to plan similar; it never happened. Too much BMX’ing, but my current existence is an extension of that original concept. Except now it’s 10 years on I've collected a lot of bike shite and a big steel boat.”
The essential repair work to the hull was complete; the time had arrived for Toms boat to be reintroduced to water. An audience of boat folk hastily gathered, as the crane operator took Blackthorn airborne and carefully lowered into the River Lee Canal. The onlookers weren’t in any hurry to disperse – after all it’s not everyday such a spectacle is on the menu. Much pointing and head scratching ensued by bemused boat mechanics who eagerly vocalised their two pennies' worth of unhelpful input.
The Grand Départ couldn’t be avoided any longer. I felt for Tom, no one want’s to fail with an audience. He made his farewells and confidently mounted the saddle. As he began pedalling a mess was certainly being kicked up by the propeller, resulting in forward momentum. However, sadly it wasn’t anywhere close to the scale he’d expected. No one could fault his determination, but no matter how hard Tom tried effort in wasn’t equating to sufficient outboard power.
The audience soon departed; no doubt moderately unimpressed – giving Tom the privacy to punt the boat out of sight. However, it was proof of concept and that it could and would indeed work. Several days later, after more more hastily made calculations and installed parts, Tom informed me that it was now indeed functioning superbly. And that he was heading, under his own steam, towards Hackney; where he soon hoped to setup his own bicycle repair shop aboard his much loved narrow boat.