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Horse-drawn barge business closes after 33 years owing to ‘entitled’ towpath users

One of the last horse-drawn barges in Britain has ceased business after “entitled” canal and towpath users made it unsafe to run.

Jenny Roberts had been offering trips on Iona, the country’s only vintage horse-drawn narrowboat, for 33 years but said for the last three years the job had been “no fun any more”.

“I am sick of the abuse,” she said. “I have had people swing round and say ‘what you are doing to that horse is disgusting, horses shouldn’t be slaves’ — they just have no idea what they’re talking about. Horses can pull 20 times the weight on water that they can on land and they would only go out on one, two-hour round trip in a day, and 40 minutes of that was spent waiting at the lock.

“I’ve had dogs flying at the horses, people roaring past them on their bikes, people walking up behind them and slapping them on the backside and I even had one of them try to shove one of the Comtois out of the way — which didn’t end well for them, they ended up in the hedge.”

Jenny has three horses trained to tow the barge, 23-year-old part-bred Clydesdale Buddy, who was due to retire, 10-year-old Comtois mare Alizee and six-year-old Comtois gelding Espoir. The job is ideally suited to “half-legged”, stocky breeds like the French Comtois; horses need to be around 15.2hh or under to tow the boat efficiently and fit under the low bridges.

The Godalming Packet Boat Co was one of only four horse-drawn barges left in the UK and the only one using an original narrowboat, built in 1935. The company had offered tourists trips along the National Trust river Wey and Godalming navigations until Covid-19 put a halt to operations earlier this year.

“I bought Espoir last year to replace Buddy, so I had been planning to carry on,” Jenny said. “The last two or three years the situation has been getting worse on the river with people using unlicensed paddleboards and inflatables and they don’t seem to realise a narrowboat doesn’t have a handbrake.

“I was running under Maritime and Coastguard Agency rules and with a passenger boat you’re expected to run a responsible and safe passenger service and that was getting harder to do. I’d already stopped running bank holidays and Sundays because the towpaths were too busy and Covid made me sit down and think about whether or not I wanted to start it up again. I had to ask whether I wanted to put the horses through it any more, they’re good horses and I didn’t want to spoil them.”

The 17-ton Iona has now been loaned to friends of Jenny’s who run horse-drawn Tiverton Canal Company barges on the Grand Western Canal in Devon, while the horses will remain in Jenny’s care.

“We had the mayor of Tiverton waiting for us when we arrived with the boat, and people with placards saying ‘welcome Iona’, so that was lovely,|” Jenny said. “Other than Tiverton there are only two other horse-drawn barges left now, The Kennet Horseboat Company in West Berkshire and another in Llangollen.”

She added that although she had received offers to take the horses, they were a “huge part” of her life and will not be going anywhere.

“Buddy is retired but the other two have plenty of life left in them and I will probably drive them as they are too wide to ride,” she said.

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Jenny took up the skill after her daughter had been working on the Iona and suggested she should buy it when it came up for sale. The boat was built by Harland and Wolff, the same shipbuilders as the Titanic, and, aptly for a horse-drawn barge, it was originally named Belloraphon, which is in the constellation Pegasus.

“Although I did know about horses, I didn’t know about boats,” Jenny said. “But it was the best thing I ever did and I had 33 years of fun with it.”

Jenny and her horse-drawn barge made numerous TV and film appearances over the years, including in an adaptation of The Railway Children and in an episode of Inspector Morse entitled When She’s Dead.

“I’ve taken the boat from London to Birmingham and back and we were probably the last horse-drawn barge that will ever do that. We went through Camden market and round the back of London Zoo and into the London Canal Museum to raise awareness and Buddy coped with it all brilliantly,” she said. “It’s all been very special but now it’s time to call it a day.”

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