I had a coffee this afternoon with a man who is proving to be a bit of a thorn in the side of Bath and North East Somerset Council. Or should it more accurately be – a bit of a Dutch barge in the middle of Pulteney Weir. One of the most photographed iconic spaces in our World Heritage City.
Charlie Dancey is on a mission. One that has involved him in steering his floating home – a Dutch barge called Northern Sun – into the middle of the weir in front of Robert Adams’s fine Pulteney Bridge and parking it with a grappling hook.
‘If l was doing this just to spoil the view it doesn’t seem to be working,’ said Charlie between sips – having rowed across the river in his canoe to meet me – ‘ because everyone is taking photographs of me and waving too. A friend of mine said l should have brought a really tatty boat up here so that it would really annoy them but actually l am not that sort of person.’
Charlie’s ‘beached’ barge is his most direct action so far in drawing attention to what he says is ‘the dereliction that is facing a fantastic old industrial premises called the Newark Works in Bath which is the last remaining workshops of the great crane firm that was Stothert and Pitt who built cranes that are sitting on docks all over the world and in these sheds which are beautiful, magnificent and irreplaceable.’
Charlie thinks the disused factory is a ‘fantastic site which has a great big quayside and offers the opportunity of opening up the south bank of the river.’
He is happy with other developments along what is known now as Western Riverside including housing and some industry.
‘ They think they can attract some sort of Silicon Valley activity with hi-tech modern businesses and more housing. These are all good things but these developments are being built on top of real brown-field sites of no value at all. South Quay, as l call the Newark Works, is a wonderful piece of our heritage and l have been badgering B&NES Property Services Department for the last five years to take over the site and manage it as a community effort. To clean it up and get the quayside open.’
Charlie says the site could offer car parking for up to 80 cars to take some of the pressure off the parking situation in Bath. ‘We’d manage it – with someone at the gate and security lighting – and if we charged people £25 a week for that – which is a very good deal for parking in Bath – just do the maths!’
Charlie has ‘invented’ the name ‘The South Quay Community Arts Project’ as a title for a group of people who want to take over the site. ‘ l wanted a title that just expressed the intentions of an organisation that might end up as a company or a co-op.’
He says he is inspired by a Bristol cooperative called Artspace Lifespace which is an artist-led initiative that recycles vacant, under-used and problem properties into thriving active creative resources.
They work in partnership with building owners, property developers and the local community to secure and re-use interesting, unusual and often difficult spaces as vibrant multi-use art venues.
‘Let’s have our own community-driven thing. Ultimately l see the site looking just like Bristol Docks – but a little version of it.’
Charlie has lots of ideas about making space for entertainment, cafes, an industrial museum and rooms for the City’s Archives. There would be room in the factory sheds for farmers and antiques markets and even roller discos! He also wants to re-use the old Destructor Bridge, next to the Recycling Centre, which is scheduled for demolition soon.
‘They want a proper two-lane bridge to the Western Riverside development which makes sense but l want to take the Destructor Bridge and, instead of scrapping it, move it down river and lets connect Green Park to the new south bank.’
Charlie didn’t think it would cost much to secure the site and make good things like guttering and security. Fifty to one hundred thousand pounds. ‘We would create a business plan and bang – off we go!’
The Newark Works have been a bit of a battleground for differing future visions for some time. Former mayor and Larkhall Councillor Bryan Chalker is a keen supporter of turning them into a Museum of Bath.
When it comes to the big money Charlie Dancey says they would have a good case for getting support from the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership who had designated this so called ‘Bath ‘City of Ideas’ Enterprise Area’ stretching along the river corridor as a key zone for economic growth.
So how long will the barge be ‘spoiling’ the view at Pulteney Weir? ‘Until they talk to me,’ says Charlie. ‘I have sent emails, l write letters, l drop into the office with proposals but nobody from Property Services will talk to me so now l have gone to Jo Farrar the Chief Executive of B&NES.’
He has written to her and made it clear ‘ that l think the property has been woefully mismanaged and neglected and feel they could even put an enforcement order on the Council for failing to maintain a Grade 2 listed building.’
Until Charlie receives official word he says he is staying put. His barge is not damaging the Weir he insists. ‘ Although there is this hilarious thing. I am moored on a grappling hook and a very thin line which is just holding the Northern Sun in the middle of the weir. I have to stay around her because if something like a log floated down the River Avon it might knock the grappling hook off and then the boat would start to drift.’
Bath and North East Somerset Council have insisted the Newark Works site is a key part of the city’s new enterprise zone and would play a ‘crucial part’ in Bath’s future.
We must wait to see what happens next.