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Conservation Manager Profile - Adrian Stone

26 July 2011

If you've got any bent bits of oak, Adrian Stone would be very pleased to hear from you.  He's already got a small collection of offcuts from branches that people have donated, still with the bark on - L shapes good for making knees, the  occasional deep V a potential breasthook - but he's going to need more.  A lot more.  Adrian is a boatbuilder to his fingertips - one of which was lost to a planing machine in his youth - and a believer in using grown timber when he can find it.  His current job title is conservation workship manager at the Winderemere Steamboat Museum, where there is much conserving, repairing and restoring to be done.

The museum, currently closed for redevelopment, is home to an extraordinary and nationally important collection of around 40 vessels.  It's centred on lake pleasure steamers of the late 19th and early 20th century, but its boats go back to a dugout bog boat of around 1320 and forward to a Chris-Craft and assorted speedboats and hydroplanes.  There's an 1870 Windermere ferry and an 1830 sand barge from Coniston, both in very decrepit condition, out in the undergrowth of the grounds.  Beatrix Potter's clinker rowing boat, with rattan upstands around the stern, however, is immaculate.  She sits indoors, in part of the original museum, next to a gun punt and a Rob Roy canoe, above a wet dock which contains Esperance, a 65ft (19.8m) private lake steamer from 1869, recognisable as the original of Captain Flint's houseboat in Swallows and Amazons.

The collection was assembled over many years by a local builder, George Pattinson, and rather ran away from him.  After his death, it posed an inheritance tax problem for his family, resolved when the Lakeland Arts Trust, which already owns a number of museums locally, stepped in.  By this time, the condition of many of the boats had deteriorated considerably, and the museum buildings themselves were in poor shape.  So it was closed to visitors, and a large industrial shed put up in the car park, in which the majority of the boats, their engines and boilers removed, are now stored, in temperature and humidity controlled conditions.

It was at this stage, in late 2009, that the trustees decided to advertise for a boatbuilder to oversee the restoration of the boats, with a view to getting some of them back into active service, while stabilisng the condition of those destined for static display.

The person they chose was Adrian.  Brought up in Falmouth, when he left school in the early 1970s he wanted to go into an apprenticeship building wooden boats.  "There was no specialist yards locally - the only one I could find in the UK was RJ Prior at Burnham-on-Crouch, so I spent a year there, working at weekends on Thames barges in Maldon.  Then I went back to Mylor, where I had to learn dredging for oysters on the engineless smacks - it gave me a real passion for gaff rig.  I completed my apprenticeship at Falmouth boatbuilding school, where I was trained by a wonderful old boatbuilder, Wally cocking, who was 92.

"I was advised to go to Cowes and work for Souters, building cold-moulded racing yachts.  I did a sandwich course on yard management, then started my own business in Cowes, restoring boats and building clinker West Wight Scows in silver spruce."

Adrian's restoration jobs included Banshee, the steam yacht (CB194), the Looe luggerOur Boys, and significantly, Kelpie.  "A big part of my life.  Brian Keelan, her owner then, was a really nice guy.  I compeltely rebuilt her when I was 23 - my one regret was that when I laid the teak deck, I laid it in the modern way, at the owner's desire, with curved planks rather than the traditional fore-and-aft style with the plank ends cut into the covering boards."

Eventually Adrian's business moved him more into a management role, and less hands-on.  "I wasn't happy finding nice woodwork for other people to do."  The time had come to renew his lease, or not, and "even then I saw which way the economy was going".  It was his wife who saw the ad - in Classic Boat - for this job.  "I'd never had a job interview, I didn't even have a CV, but I promised her I'd come up and give it a go.  They said, to and have a look at our boats.  As soon as that shed was opened I wish I'd taken the interview more seriously!  It was like Howard Carter looking into Tutankhamun's tomb."

Adrian started at the museum in February last year, and spent the first 12 months, as he says, "thinking about the boats - I didn't cut a piece of wood".  Each boat now has a detailed conversation management plan, they have been sorted into an order of priority, and work has begin on the first one.

This is Osprey, a 1902 45ft (13.7m) steam launch.  "I chose her because she'd been messed about with quite a lot," says Adrian, "and people said there was not a lot of her that was original.  We counted every nail and frame, and in face she's 75 per cent original.  She's a picnic boat, fairly lightly built, built of teak, with full-length planks to the curve of the stern - phenomenal boatbuilding.  She's built on a mix of grown frames and steam-bent timbers, and the gunwale is not continuous - it runs just between the grown frames, and the rubbing strake is just attached to the gown frame, which increases the hull's flexibility when it meets the quay."

At some stage Osprey had been driven into the shore - her stern area has been damaged and badly repaired.  Some of her frames have been scarphed, but with a fore-and-aft join.  Adrian prefers over-and-under, in line with the curve of the hull.  Where they've been changed he's through-bolted them for the time being.  "It means we can give them a turn occasionally to adjust for movement of the hull - we'll rivet them eventually.

"It's a matter of understanding the design and then putting in the stiffening needed to get the 'Board of Trade' survey," he explains.  The museum has a file of information on each boat, including photos, letters and other documents, plus documentation on local boatbuilders.

As well as local-grown oak seasoning in the yard, there is a huge stock of old timber that can be swapped between boats to achieve appropriately aged repairs.

Pooled Expertise

"I thought I knoew a bit about conservation till I came here," admits Adrian.  He's keen to develop "transparency and a sharing of views".  He sees the project as "a great opportunity for raising the bar, achieving the highest standards, getting professionals to pool their expertise, and setting up apprenticeship courses."

He's already working with some top names, including Martyn Heighton of National Historic Ships, John Kearon of the Asgard in Dublin and steam specialist Roger Mallinson.  Thames boatbuilder Colin Henwood and boat collector Bill Rose have contributed advice, "and there are a lot more highly skileld boatbuilders out there I'd like to bring in."

Meanwhile, the museum is in line for £7.5million Heritage Lottery Fund grant to redevelop the site, including a conservation workshop where visitors will be able to view the ongoing work of Adrian and his team.  The plan is for it to reopen as a museum in 2015, but meanwhile Osprey should be back in the water offering trips by next spring, and a small-scale programme of bookable guided tours is already in operation.

As for Adrian, "I wanted to work more hands-on, he says, "and with a professional team, and that's exactly what I've got here."

This article was taken from Classic Boat, August 2011.

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