A RESTORATION project has seen a dilapidated 100-year-old wooden passenger boat rebuilt from scratch and officially relaunched in Stratford.
The Merry Widow was originally one of a fleet of small launches built to take tourists out onto Lake Windermere in Cumbria by the largest local boatbuilder, Borwicks of Bowness, in 1922.
She has now re-joined four other vintage wooden vessels made by the same boatbuilder now in operation on the River Avon.
The boat was unveiled at a special event held by Avon Boating to mark her 100th birthday with guests including Stratford mayor Kevin Taylor.
Dressed in 1920s boating attire, Nick Birch, managing director of Avon Boating, told invited guests he first heard about the Merry Widow’s existence early last year in an exchange with Robert Beale, an employee at Windermere Lake Cruises and author of a book about the boats.
He said: “I idly asked if he knew of any other small ex-Windermere passenger vessels in operation and he said there was one owned by the Bournemouth Boating Company at Christchurch on the south coast.”
After tracking down the vessel, which he was informed was up for sale and awaiting repairs, Nick’s heart sank when he first saw her.
“She was a wreck. The boat did not need repairing, but rebuilding from the keel up.”
The company commissioned boatbuilder Mark Rolt, who runs small family firm, the Bristol Classic Boat Company, to restore The Merry Widow to her former glory.
The painstaking process over eight months involved a complete reconstruction, strengthening the hull and restoring the original design of the cabin.
Work was completed in March 2022 and the vessel was delivered to Stratford where the team at Avon Boating fitted a new, powerful electric drive system. Re-licensed a month ago, The Merry Widow is now ready to carry passengers.
Nick added: “At 100-years-old she is an attractive and fitting addition to our heritage fleet of vessels.
“Fortunately for us these boats were exactly the right size for our waterway; not too high or wide to fit through our bridges, and not too deep to ground to the bottom.
“More importantly we like their quirky, old-fashioned look and believe they complement Stratford’s unique riverside setting.
“It is not often you have the opportunity to see through a project which you hope and expect will easily outlive you.
“I do wish to thank Mark Rolt and his team at Bristol Classic Boatbuilders and my fellow staff at the boathouse who wholeheartedly agreed to support and invest in the project.
“While not everyone goes boating dressed like me anymore, the charms of the river, and pleasures of taking out a boat are still very much the same, and it is our pleasure to remind people of how delightful it can be.”
Coun Taylor said he could not believe what had been achieved.
He added: “I love these boats and think their quirkiness is ideally suited to the River Avon here in Stratford. I can’t believe what the dedicated team at Avon Boating have achieved in restoring The Merry Widow in just under a year! It’s very inspiring.”
Glyn Slade, business development manager for Shakespeare’s England, added it was amazing to see such a boat brought back to life.