Childhood boat memories called Rona back

April 2017 - By Peter Underwood

A childhood on boats brought Rona Hawes back to the canals and a business using her experience and skills in jewellery – and so far it seems to meeting her the expectations of her memories.

Rona Hawes, 61, lives on 'Unfazed' a 10ft x 60ft wide beam boat with her partner Alan Price, 57 and she says: “I'm the maker and he is the enabler!

We asked to to talk about what led to her boating business:

“This is my story about how I came to be living on a boat. We're continual cruisers because our intention is to see as much of the UK canal system as possible. In actual fact we move when the water tank is getting low, after about 10 days.

“I was born on a little 40ft boat on the River Lee at Broxbourne. Apparently there was no engine or electricity, relying on tows to move about!

“Our second boat was on The Thames, that one had an engine. We moved into a house when I started school at five.

“Then when I was 10, my father needed to be nearer London again for work. So, for three years, we moved onto a 72ft narrow boat with a residential mooring on the Basingstoke Canal. At that time non navigable,above the next lock up from us.

“I have some lovely memories from these times. As a little child I remember squeezing my soft toys out through a small gap in my window, which meant my Dad had to row after them in the dinghy. And later, the cat chasing birds and squirrels but ending up swimming again.

“Not surprisingly I always wanted to live onboard again.

“After a long marriage and a divorce, I met my partner Alan only three and a half years ago. We met through our motorbike club as we both have and love bikes.

“Imagine my surprise when he was bidding surreptitiously on a fire damaged narrow boat on our first date! Mind you with no finances to restore it if he'd won.

“He moved in with me just 6 months later to see how it went. After his mother died leaving his Dad full of regrets and the pension law changed we thought this could be our chance to move onto a boat.

“We did a lot of research, but still ended up buying the first one we saw two years ago. It needed a lot of TLC.

“Fortunately Alan had been a caravan engineer and car mechanic, so embraced the work with gusto. Six months later we'd made the boat suitable for living on the cut (off grid), finished our jobs, rented out the house and moved onboard with my nine year old scaredy-cat.

“That sounds easy but was a very stressful time. We certainly took all our friends by surprise! Some say I had water on the brain!

“When working, I was a retail jeweller and qualified gemmologist. For about eight years I had been running a pearl threading and handmade gemstone bead jewellery business alongside working part-time, so I wondered if I could sell my jewellery from the boat or to shops along the way.

“I joined several social media groups and found out I needed a licence to trade. I applied in February last year and was accepted very easily and quickly.

“We then set about sourcing and making displays for the jewellery. I wanted secure but unusual cabinets outside to compliment trays inside the windows.

“Alan found lightweight carcases which we painted, roofed and with help from my picture framer friend, made glass doors and closures. These have given a very eye-catching display that's easy to store inside.

“The advice on the trading groups helped with information of good trading places while we were travelling down the Grand Union Canal. I booked into a RCTA floating market in the Paddington Basin in June. This was good because it gave us a focus and a destination.

“However we did slightly underestimate how slowly a canal boat travels though, especially with all the locks on the GU and ended up a little pressured.

“I was frantically trying to make lots of stock for the London market, which can't be done on the move. Beads would be all over the place and anyway I couldn't leave my poor man doing everything.

“Also setting up to trade at weekends meant only two or three days left in the week for travelling from Northampton to London in six weeks.

“The Paddington market was great fun and very successful. It was quite surreal being in the centre of London real estate on our lowly boat. We met several other traders and had some lovely social evenings.

“Trading brings a welcome social aspect to boating life. People using the towpath are surprised to see a jewellery shop. It gives them the opportunity to ask lots of questions about living on a boat, preferably while choosing something to buy! Boating neighbours often come along for a chat too.

“Everyone is intrigued by our 1,000cc motorbike on the bow. It's called a Fazer which is how the boat name came about. Alan adapted an engine crane to lift it in and out of the boat. So he often chats to the men while the ladies gather round to choose jewellery. A good sales ploy!

“We don't expect to make a living from selling jewellery, it just gives us extra money for flexibility. Fortunately the rent from the house covers our basic costs.

“The business is getting busier though with online interest generated from trading. I also have the facility to take cards, using a card reader to an app on my phone via the mi-fi system onboard.

“I source my stock from trade suppliers, which is all delivered to my son's address back in East Grinstead. We make regular trips back to collect parcels and post.

“There are lots of organisations that help with trading. RCTA is the main one that also liases with C&RT on our behalf to great effect. We choose places to trade where footfall is high, but with the occasional organised event if it fits in with our cruising.

“I must admit we have to do more planning than we thought, especially to find water and rubbish points. I would like more facilities to recycle as these are few and far between, somewhat going against our aim to live an environmentally sympathetic life.

“Our choice to buy a wide beam for space, limits us on where we can travel. This was a compromise of which we were aware. However, we will have her lifted out and transported by road across the narrow locks around Northampton, so that we can travel on the northern canals of the system.

“We've been onboard now for 18 months and trading for a year of that. It's a lovely life, harder than living in a house, but worthwhile in so many ways.

“We can't see ourselves going back to a house for a long time. Oh yes, the cat has also settled well and gets off for short walks around in each new place.”

Photos: (1st) Rona Hawes lives on 'Unfazed' with her partner Alan Price. She says: “I'm the maker and he is the enabler!", (2nd) Ready to trade, (3rd) Examining the goods, (4th) A rural lifestyle, (5th) Rona ready to trade, (6th) Keeping the stock dry.

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