It’s the oldest hire boat operator in the UK and now the fourth generation of the Wyatt family have started working at Canal Cruising Company in Stone.
Kimberley and Dominic Wyatt – the children of owners Peter and Karen – both started working at Canal Cruising Company this year – Dominic as an engineer, Kimberley in sales and marketing.
The business, which recently celebrated its 65th anniversary, was set up in Stone in 1948 by Rendell Wyatt (Peter’s grandfather) and his wife Jean. They’d been inspired by the 1944 publication of LTC Rolt’s seminal canal travel book ‘Narrow Boat’. After becoming friendly with the author, they formed the idea that there was a future in holidays on the waterways. No other company then existed.
The Wyatt’s 25-year-0ld son David – Peter’s father – had spent part of the Second World War on Russian convoys and was roped into the enterprise. Historic premises were obtained on a wharf alongside the Trent and Mersey in Stone – where Canal Cruising Company remains to this day – and the business was born on 12th January 1948.
So soon after the war, Britain was beset by shortages, especially fuel and construction materials. But Rendell and Jean managed to start building their fleet and they received their first clients that spring.
Karen Wyatt recalls the early days of the company.
“In those days the boats were made of wood and holes in the hull were a regular thing. We used to go to the Joule’s Brewery tip across the canal in Stone and collect bucketfuls of barrel corks to bung up the holes. They used to collect petrol in containers from a garage and transport it to the company’s A35 ex-GPO van; around 60 gallons every week until the changeover to diesel engines in the 1970s.
“Many a time David would return home after attending to a breakdown wringing wet having fallen in the canal because it was dark and he forgot which side the towpath was. Or maybe he had to get in the water to clear a prop. Or patch up a hole in a sinking boat.
“On one never-to-be-forgotten pitch black night we were pulling a stricken boat through a bridge hole without even the light of a torch. Suddenly, one of us put his foot on the bare bottom of someone prone on the towpath. You should have heard the screaming as the embarrassed couple made their undignified getaway!”
Fast forward 68 years and Canal Cruising Company is going stronger than ever, with a fleet of 14 boats and customers all over the UK and further afield. Recent bookings have come from the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany and other countries.
Many of the Wyatt’s customers today are second generation and even third – people who remember holidays on their boats as children, or whose parents remember being taken on the canals up to 60 years ago. And today, it’s a completely different world. The sophisticated, purpose-built narrowboats in the company’s modern fleet are as well constructed and fitted out as you will find anywhere.
You’ve probably seen them as you’ve walked down the Trent and Mersey in Stone, with their distinctive green colouring and names like Lilian Ginger and Eleanor Ginger. All the narrowboats are named after Wyatt family members from the last few centuries – the family have traced the Wyatts back to the 14th century. And the ‘Ginger’ boat family name – that comes from Kimberley’s flowing red locks!
Rendell Wyatt died in 1955, shortly before David’s son Peter – the current owner – was born. David retired in 1988, with Peter stepping up to run the company. Twenty-eight years later, he’s still going strong and now comes the fourth generation, as Dominic and Kimberley take their places in the historic family business.
So how does bringing another generation into the business make Karen feel?
“Old!” she says.