In conversation with Peter Freebody & Co

The temptation for any journalist writing a piece that touches on the Thames is to reach for inspiration to those two literary touchstones, The Wind in the Willows and Three Men in a Boat, such is the power of those two works in capturing the timeless appeal of the river.

Grahame has Mole and Ratty venturing out on a balmy summer's day to picnic, whereas Jerome’s three men are defeated in an attempt to open a defiant tin can. In those two contrasting episodes alone, the extremes of river life are presented; Arcadian perfection under an English heaven and sheer bloody frustration when things go wrong. 

Grahame and Jerome wrote of late Edwardian and Victorian times when the River Thames was becoming more a locus of recreation; the Edwardians took to the water in even greater numbers. Pleasure craft plied up and down to no greater purpose  than to provide an escape from the city and to look across riparian banks to the unspoiled fields of Blake's Jerusalem. Minds at peace under an English pastoral heaven. And, despite everything, remarkably, it's still there: the motorways and railways take their hurried course but the river moves at its own pace, timeless and immutable.

As the regulation of commerce afforded greater leisure time and disposable income became more dispersed, the choice of the Thames for relaxation was reasonably obvious. Its sinewy course from Oxford to the estuary runs through the heart of the capital and as London expanded to connect the outlying towns that served its needs for labour, those people naturally turned to it. What had once been the province of the few opened its arms to a burgeoning middle class more than willing to invest in craft that would provide independence as well as some small degree of separateness from the masses. Whereas the Thames had once been the conduit for trade and travel only to be supplanted by rail and then road, the birth of a new industry - the leisure industry - provided opportunities for new enterprise and for old industries to reinvent themselves, none more so than the boat builders.

Possibly no better illustration of reinvention and adaptability can be provided than the business of Peter Freebody & Co, that claims family connections to the river stretching back through the pages of English history. Located north west of Maidenhead overlooking a tangle of eyots, the business was established in the form it exists today in Hurley in 1963 under the stewardship of the late Peter Freebody. 

Given that boat building on inland rivers and waterways was a fast declining industry, it may be argued that a business philosophy that emphasised a commitment to principles of tradition and excellence, was both foolhardy and laudable. It was, no doubt, a gamble. But Peter, (according to the accounts of his family, friends and customers), was a man determined to impose his will and to leave a legacy. 

The loss of a charismatic driving force can be devastating to any business, large or small. The story of British industry after all, is littered with examples of companies that have perished once the founder was ennobled or died, hands still oily, gripping a capstan lathe. Peter's death in 2010 might have presaged uncertainty for the yard now under the direction of his son and daughters, particularly given the economic conditions. Happily, this is not the case at all.

Peter had established the yard's reputation for a commitment to preserving and creating craft that did not simply use the river, but served to enhance it. One does not need to be possessed of an expert eye to discern the difference between a floating gin palace and steam powered craft, Panama'd heads sheltered beneath a striped canvas awning. But it is the Riva, the Italian thoroughbred that sets hearts beating a little faster, where the yard found the perfect marriage partner. 

The Riva marque, like Ferrari, denotes beauty and elegance whilst wearing its charms lightly. The flared lines express a capability for speed without deeming it necessary to demonstrate anything quite so crass. Arguably nothing captured the hedonism of the1960s better than the Aquarama. But such boats are made of organic material and exposure to the elements and the Thames' ceaseless run to the sea, ensure inexorable decline. 

Peter Freebody's son Richard now assumes management of the yard and shares his father's love and commitment to the business. One would be mistaken to believe that this borne of a memorialising sentimentality. Romantic though the setting and the craft might be, this is an enterprise where prudence aligns itself with expertise and customer relations. Fashions change on the river too and whilst the historical associations do their part to maintain the profile and stewardship of classic craft, the would-be boat owner is faced by much to choose from. The yard knows it is necessary to meet customer needs and tastes, just as much as an industry operating in a service sector.

Whilst the number of people employed at the yard has fallen since the recession took hold, there remains a viable and sufficiently moneyed clientele to keep the yard's workshops full and busy. On a cold but bright January morning the yard too was full of boats seeing out the winter under canvas. 

Restoration is a partnership between owner and yard. This is not a matter for the faint-hearted; no survey short of taking a boat apart to expose its ribs, can hope to reveal its true state. An initial assessment of a scope of works will see the project begun, but it is after that, that the nature of collaboration begins, where the yard tempers the project with the client's wallet. The old definition of a boat being 'a hole in the water into which you throw money' will always hold true.

As one of, if not, the last surviving traditional boat builders and restorers on the river, the family business is contemplating expansion of its facilities and services to meet demand. A facility on the river east of Maidenhead offers the potential to expand storage of boats and to meet the needs of those who want their craft dressed and river ready, for a day out. 

Boating of this nature makes few demands of the owner beyond knowing the rules of the river and its appeal is not hard to comprehend. To travel unhurriedly up or down the river, locks and weirs permitting, is to travel through England's past which we all recognise our deep attachment to in some atavistic way. The Freebody family, with its claims of lineageal attachment to the river as ferrymen, transporters, boat builders and restorers through the centuries ensure that such a sentiment is not entirely fanciful. One fancies that generations yet unborn are destined to continue the tradition; wars and recessions do not destroy the river.