Something New from Old

WordsRachel Maria Taylor
Photography Jody Daunton

Using inventive solutions Hamish and the houseboat community in which he resides build and restore houseboats by repurposing old vehicles and second-hand items.

Here the sea breeze meets with a dustier air, infused with the salt, silt and loose particles from the settled wood of the houseboat community. The wind seems to roam more freely in the ramshackle playground of grounded nautical oddities; the boats sit idly, content in their spots buddying up to the neighbouring vessels.

We amble along the towpath to be met with the majestic sight of Verda. Verda is Hamish's home. Our vantage from the path introduces her from the right-hand side revealing her obscure form: a bus sits on top with two large squarcles (3-D shapes that from one perspective look to be squares, and from another they are perceived to be circles; an invention of Hamish's) at the front, and as we continue to walk on she now stares at us head on with her arachnid eyes alight from the life inside. The sight of her ignites an energy, an excitement. The sheer visual feast causes my flitting eyes to move wildly to see the next unusual construct.

Hamish has lived here for twenty-six years. Amongst the greater Shoreham houseboat community of around sixty boats, Hamish owns eight. Yet his boats are different from the others. The core of the boats are old but they have plenty of life left in them. Hamish fuses and sculpts these tired vessels with new elements; the parts of other objects, vehicles, anything your imagination could anticipate. He creates something new from old.

“These boats have been here for ages. There were boats here before the war; we have seen pictures of them from 1934. They all got cleared off because they were seen as a target during the war. As soon as the war was over there was a great housing shortage and down here ended up with a lot of torpedo boats and ex-military boats. It's a regular museum this place. They all got sold off for pennies at the end, and with the housing shortage loads of people took to the water. It is one of the assets of this place; it holds a little bit of history and I am very keen on the historical side. Everyone else [house boat people] gets these great big barges but I like to keep these history boats going", tells Hamish.

Hamish

Along the wooden beams and jetties there is access to a bus door; the front door of Verda. Further down the jetty is Dodge, an occupied boat named after the Dodge fire truck that protrudes from its nose. Through the bus door the space opens up into a large room. The walls are made almost entirely of windows. Its innards gutted, the floor is lined with wooden panels and a washing line drapes across the room. Towards the bow a small set of stairs are hidden by a drawn curtain. There is the tepid smell of wood burning and the fire's glow bounces off the brightly painted orange walls. This coupled with the wooden surrounds assures a homely cosy feel, assenting to an ease and comfort.

Hamish is a well-natured gentle character with an eccentric appearance. We sit down 'brews' in hand, sipping slowly, too hot to drink. His gentle tone and southern accent stutters over plentiful information with short pauses for thought. He begins to unravel the stories behind his eventual life upon a houseboat, and one of such creative form at that. He begins with his education in engineering that led him to work on community-based projects in Fiji. He was constructing community halls and buildings for villages across an area the size of Sussex, and he affirms that it was these projects that lead him to be community minded.

“After I left Fiji I travelled in the Pacific for a while, and I ended up visiting a mate who lived in New Caledonian. He was working with fisheries and he asked me to build him a fishing boat. This gave me a taste for boats really."

Verda-kitchen
Verda-Lounge
Verda-Hall

A few years earlier whilst living in Brighton Hamish had stumbled upon a houseboat community during one of his long-distance walks. He returned to the UK at the news of his father's ill health, losing him shortly afterwards. Hamish's near homelessness upon his return was met with a solution when remembering the houseboats. He raced to Shoreham the next day and within the following weeks he had moved there to begin living amongst the houseboat community.

“I came back and I couldn't get any work as a civil engineer and became a carpenter instead. We also started running a second hand [1920s] furniture business, buying up wardrobes for sort-of 3 quid at the auctions and then knocking them out at 50 quid or selling the parts as fitted wardrobes. I was always using second hand. I have been using second hand materials ever since then."

He has a calm and patient personality, which in some part must be necessary to continuously maintain these aged boats. Hamish goes on to describe his affinity with the crafts and starts to reveal how they become creative outlets for him.

“It started with Venture. It's quite fun really; I was doing my bedroom up and I had a stairwell going up in the corner of the room that I wanted to build something for. I was thinking of things that were quite bland and boring and then I remembered an old rowing boat that my neighbour had given to me. I had a completely sleepless night trying to figure out how I could turn this rowing boat into a stair canopy. It gave me a different way of thinking of how to use components -– anything as building components. It's just use of shapes, and anything that you can use as shapes that is both aesthetically pleasing and actually performs a function. I must admit that the cars on the sides of the boats are mostly pure aesthetics."

“I had a completely sleepless night trying to figure out how I could turn this rowing boat into a stair canopy. It gave me a different way of thinking of how to use components – anything as building components. It’s just use of shapes, and anything that you can use as shapes that is both aesthetically pleasing and actually performs a function.”

His architectural enthusiasm creates a regeneration of inanimate objects that gives a new life to them, a new identity even. The life size pieces of work are not about creating giant pieces of art, but instead it is a medium to be inventive and innovative with creative solutions to building and maintaining the boats. The environment drives a perpetual creativity that, as Hamish says, leads to an alternate way of thinking.

“I prefer working with second hand stuff anyway; it's got a lot more life to it, it's got a history. This boat [Verda] has about 7 or 8 boats in it. You are keeping the energy in it, even if the boat doesn't survive in its entirety."

“I get slightly driven by doing the design, which is why I have eight boats now that I can't maintain. It's great but for the last two years I have been doing nothing but trying to make boats float."

The frantic fire is seen dancing through the little peephole of the burner. It is the centrepiece of the room and draws focus, which then drifts accordingly up the chimney made from what I can only assume is one of the old torpedoes. Behind, a piano sits in the corner, partially hidden in the dimly lit space. When questioned who plays? Steve, another of Verda's occupants, announces, “Hamish, and he'd be playing now if you weren't here." Hamish's timid silence turns modesty into near secrecy, “I didn't pick it up until late in life, I'm not blessed as one of life's musicians," he refutes. It is soon revealed, by the loquacious mouth of Steve, that Hamish is also the bell-ringer for the local church, a pastime he has had since childhood. When pressed further still Hamish mutters, '... and I played the penny-whistle and harmonica when I was travelling."

Landscape-Shoreham

Hamish's idiosyncrasies surpass his musical endeavours. One which manifests itself across of the walls of Verda herself is a curious collection of relics; animals found preserved in the silt along the river bed. “I have always loved skulls, skeletons, anything like that. I can totally understand why people find them grotesque but I find them quite beautiful." This disposition illustrates Hamish's mentality, which transcends through his outlook on life. He has an appreciation for the stories behind things and the energy that old things hold in their histories.

“I prefer working with second hand stuff anyway; it’s got a lot more life to it, it’s got a history. This boat [Verda] has about 7 or 8 boats in it. You are keeping the energy in it, even if the boat doesn’t survive in its entirety.”

Hamish's attitude to re-using items has made him mindful of sustainability. He now actively partakes in the local Transition initiative. He begins, speaking much more fluidly with an articulate indignation to explain the Transition Movement. His words, marked with passion are not distasteful or offensive but allude to a bewilderment of those incapable of conscientiousness to the community and the environment, and their co-dependent future. The Transition Movement according to the Transition Network is based around communities that have started up projects “as small-scale local responses to the global challenges of climate change, economic hardship and shrinking supplies of cheap energy. Together these small-scale responses make up something much bigger, and help show the way forward for governments, businesses and the rest of us."

Hamish also seeks to create meaningful connections between the residents of Shoreham by opening up the largest room of his home for community use, which includes twice weekly yoga, film nights, gigs, shows, and a once-a-month pub night. The community look after each other in times of hardship as well as the good times, as Steve says, “If anyone has any trouble in bad weather or a high tide everyone rallies round, gets down there and pulls together. That wouldn't happen on an estate."

Seemingly Hamish approaches his life, albeit perhaps subconsciously, with the propellant of his perspicacity moulded through an expanse of cultural experiences. He is full of life recurrent with youth and is a man driven by passion and an open-minded zeal. Both him and his boats are brimming with character and stories, from past times and present - from here and elsewhere.

www.transitionnetwork.org