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A lifetime spent crafting wooden boats by hand
Published 12/11/12

A BOATBUILDING business in Hambleden has celebrated its 30th anniversary by releasing a book about wooden craft.

Colin Henwood, who runs Henwood & Dean from Greenlands Farm in Dairy Lane with his wife Lucie, wrote Head, Heart, Hand to reflect on some of the most memorable boats that he has made during his 35 years as a craftsman.

The book is beautifully illustrated with photographs by Michael English.

Mr Henwood says it was difficult to choose the highlights of his career, which are accompanied by photographs by Michael English.

“There are so many factors that make a boat special — it’s not just the physical appearance of the boat,” he says. “I really wanted to explain exactly what we do here and the people who were involved along the way.

Mr Henwood, 56, failed his woodwork O level but enjoyed making things throughout his childhood and beyond.

He says: “When I was a child my father and I built dinghies and my whole childhood was spent mucking about in boats.

“We were very much a family who made things as we found it much more interesting than going out and buying something from a shop. I remember getting an old canoe, repairing it and then using it in the river.

“For me, it is about craftsmanship, working with a natural material to create beautiful things and working with your hands. Making things is a very important thing to me, although we also enjoy using our boats as well.”

The Henwoods have many boats of their own, including Gillian, which features on the front cover of the book and has a particularly special connection to the family as it is named after Mrs Henwood’s sister, who died during its restoration.

The traditional Thames double skiff was salvaged from a Pangbourne boat yard after Tony Hobbs, of Hobbs of Henley, decided to sell some property and asked them whether they would like anything from the site.

Mr Henwood says: “It’s a very, very special boat to us and has become even more special this year as it was one of those selected to be in the Thames diamond jubilee pageant which was, for us, a very special thing to do.”

His wife is not involved in making the boats and runs the marketing side of the business but she appreciates the process.

She says: “You discover so much about a boat’s history when you are restoring it — you can almost hear the boatbuilders of 100 years ago. There is great sense of tradition and history.

“Since I’ve known Colin my love of boats has grown and I am happiest on the river. Colin’s quite the sailor. I think I’m very lucky to be married to someone who can restore and give me such beautiful boats.”

Mr Henwood moved to Henley after growing up in Somerset and Cornwall in order to pursue a career in boatbuilding.

He says: “If you want to be involved with wooden boats the tradition is in the middle Thames. If you want to work to a very high standard, the Thames is a really good place to be.

“The river is an extraordinary thing to have on our doorstep. It’s very interesting and under-used but that is part of its charm — if it was as busy as the M4 perhaps it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

“We have a wild place, controlled by man but still a wilderness, running through the heart of this area which we can access so easily in a lovely boat — it is just extraordinary. You don’t have to travel to another country or climb a mountain.”

He worked for the Hurley boat builder and restorer Peter Freebody & Co under the late Peter Freebody for three years before setting up his own company with business partner Robert Dean in 1982.

Mr Henwood says the time he spent at the Freebodys helped him develop as a boatbuilder.

“They have had an extraordinary influence on the Thames,” he says. “When you look down the river at Henley Festival or Henley Royal Regatta there are so many beautiful boats and that can easily be attributed to the Freebodys — not that they made every boat but they inspired the whole resurgence of classic boats.

“When I started my business it was sort of a naive thought that I could do it myself because I am not naturally a businessman, I find it really hard going. I don’t enjoy that side of it, making things is what drives me on.”

He is thankful for the support of other leading lights in the field, including Mr Hobbs.

Mr Henwood says: “He has been so generous. He is one of many people who have been really pivotal in the development of this company.”

Mr Dean decided to leave the company in the Nineties but the men parted on good terms.

“I’m very proud that we never fell out as most partnerships end in acrimony,” says Mr Henwood. “Although he wanted to go on to do other things, we kept his name because he deserves that.”

Mrs Henwood says she and her husband work well together, fulfilling their different roles.

She says: “We really respect each other’s skills and we have a very similar approach to the business. We try to give a really personal service and do the very best for everybody, whether it’s a minor repair on a little dinghy which has been in someone’s family for generations or somebody who wants a new boat built — we treat everybody the same.

“I think we are extremely lucky that 99 per cent of our customers remain good friends. Boats become part of their owners’ family and by extension so do we. It’s a really wonderful relationship.”

The couple’s children, Megan, 24, and Joe, 19, are both musicians and enjoy being out on the water. Joe has recently finished building a working recording studio made from straw.

Mr Henwood says: “He’s only 19 yet he’s built it himself with the help of his friends. It’s a proper studio, which is fantastic. It is lovely that he has realised how much he enjoys working with his hands.”

The boatbuilder does not anticipate giving up work any time soon.

He says: “The end game is not retirement and a fat pension — that is a different world to the one I inhabit. For me, the end is having the time to restore our own boats and use them. We have amassed a number of boats which we call our retirement projects. I don’t think you can be a craftsman to a high standard if you don’t like what you do all day. If you don’t enjoy it you are in the wrong business.”

lHead, Heart, Hand (45) is available from www.henwoodanddean.co.uk and Richard Way Books in Friday Street, Henley.

Published 12/11/12

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