Otley gets its river boats back

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“I thought it was a good idea and thought someone should put the boats back on the river and so I said I would have a go.

There’s something rather romantic about taking a boat out onto the River Wharfe in Otley and, even though I’m far from adept at rowing, I have to admit it’s quite relaxing.

It’s a tradition which vanished from the town more than 15 years ago - recreational boating disappeared in 2001, ending an 80 year tradition. Many bemoaned the loss of the boats and blamed it on the exorbitant costs of health and safety.

The man who has fought to bring Otley’s river boats back, Chris Thornton, has put health and safety at the heart of the new venture, so when we turn up on the opening day, the river bank is busy with uniformed staff and there’s a rack of life jackets for children.

Indeed, Chris, 61, who runs Aura Jewellery, has slightly curtailed his original opening hours in order to ensure he meets the necessary requirements.

He said: “We have decided that for the remainder of this year we will just open weekends, including bank holidays, just so we can staff it properly and iron out any problems.”

At one time there were 40 boats and 20 punts on the river and I’d like to build it back up to that eventually.

Chris Thornton, from Aura Jewellery, Otley

On the opening day, however, people couldn’t say enough about the return of the boats, which have, at a stroke, recaptured a lost chapter for the town.

Chris said: “People were so complimentary, they were coming up and saying how wonderful it was that boats were back on the river and everyone who took one out had a great time.”

Making the dream into a reality has been a long slog for Chris, who first thought of the idea several years ago.

“It was about seven years ago,” he said. “I thought it was a good idea and thought someone should put the boats back on the river and so I said I would have a go.

“It’s been difficult, there are things like health and safety to consider and tings like that aren’t there for nothing, so we’ve put a lot into it.”

He has too. Not only do all under 14s need to wear a life jacket but there is a safety motorboat in amongst the rowers and pedallers, just in case anyone has any problems.

Judging by the opening day, the effort Chris and his crew have put in has been worthwhile.

“Every single person I spoke to said they enjoyed it,” gushed Chris. “The response from the public has been unbelievable. People were saying how nice it was to get back on that river.

“It is nice, too. You row up under the bridge, which was made in the 1700s, it’s all wooded along the sides, the Chevin is in the background, it’s wonderful.”

Taking the boats out does give you a different perspective on life. The difference is subtle, however: it’s more like sailing along a canal rather than walking on the path next to it. The former is more sedate, more tranquil and there’s an immediate sense of an elemental connection, to the water itself, the flow of the river and the flotillas of ducks and swans who make their home here. It’s the kind of experience we often yearn for these, when everything is so regimented and ordered.

As we travel (slowly, it has to be said) upstream and inch our way beneath the old stone bridge, we emerge on the other side, where both banks are wooded and the river snakes lazily round and out of sight and here, in the moment, there’s a sense of wonder and discovery, a kind of freedom which is hard to explain but which at the same time nourishes the soul.

Otley, with its rural setting and the imposing Chevin looming over it, seems like the perfect place for such a venture. River boats began operating here in 1926 and were operated by Tom and John Pickles, who lived in Bridge Avenue. The much loved boats were a traditional part of the park and attracted people to Otley from far and wide to enjoy a pleasurable day out. They were shut down in 2001 following the foot and mouth epidemic but mounting operating costs also helped seal their fate.

A petition to have the boats put back has been running for several years.

Chris, whose father, Derek was a royal marine, while his mother, Mary, worked for Lord Mountbatten during the 1940s, was born in Gosport but moved to Apperley Bridge, Bradford when he was six months old. He went to Bradford Art College and has worked in the jewellery business all his life. In his spare time, he also trains and races ‘trotters’, or harness horses, which is something he has done for more than 30 years.

He has worked in Otley since 2002 but at 61, he says he is looking forward to semi-retirement, with the river boats taking up more of his time. Indeed, he is optimistic it could be the start of a new chapter in the town’s life.

“Otley is thriving in my opinion and is getting better every day. If we get the lido open as well, that would be amazing. There’s a campaign group working to do just that but they need funding. They are trying to get a lottery grant. It will cost about £4m to restore it but they need about £55,000 for the feasibility study.

“We’re planning on holding a charity day to raise funds for them later in the year, all being well.”

He added: “The boats are great for the town. At one time there were 40 boats and 20 punts on the river and I’d like to build it back up to that eventually. This is something I’ve longed to do for a while, I’ve worked in the jewellery industry all my life and I’d like to move more into this, everyone who tried it couldn’t say enough about it.”

Our own jaunt up the river was pleasant enough. We took a rowing boat and within a few minutes got used to controlling it, at least enough to be able to navigate up and down and turn around. In 2015, Otley became the first town in the coutnry to list all of its pubs as community assets, it’s also become a mecca for cyclists and thanks to this new venture it may soon be famous for its waterways too.

FACTFILE

Otley Boats will be open only on weekends (including bank holidays) for the remainder of the year

Costs are adults £7, children (six-16) £4, fives and under free and dogs also free. Prices are per hour but boats can be hired for half-an-hour

Pedalos and rowing boats available

Boats originally began operating in 1926 - with over 40 boats at its height - but stopped in 2001 following the foot and mouth epidemic

See their facebook page by searching for ‘Otley Boats’

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