Noise of the Cuckoo is returning to canal

The Cuckoo boat is brought by tractor to its new location on the Chesterfield Canal
The Cuckoo boat is brought by tractor to its new location on the Chesterfield Canal
Have your say

Cuckoo boats were once a unique but familiar sight along the Chesterfield Canal.

From the 1770s right up until the 1920s, when the last ones were made, their design did not change.

Volunteers from the Chesterfield Canal Trust

Volunteers from the Chesterfield Canal Trust

They were unique to the Chesterfield Canal. Never equipped with engines, they were still horse drawn up until the end of their commercial use in the 1950s.

The last Cuckoo boat known to be in existence rotted away more than 20 years ago. It was called Dawn.

That was until now.

For four years, volunteers from the Chesterfield Canal Trust have used traditional hand tools to build the first Cuckoo boat for more than 80 years.

The newly built Cuckoo boat on the Chesterfield Canal

The newly built Cuckoo boat on the Chesterfield Canal

The idea for the New Dawn Project was developed in the early part of the 2000s.

Much research was carried out by volunteers to help draw up a list of all the timber which would be needed.

The list was then published in the trust’s magazine, in spring 2004, and sponsors were found for every piece within a few weeks.

Seven-and-a-half tons of fresh Lincolnshire oak and boat-skin larch was then bought and stored in a secret location to season. An appeal also went out for traditional hand tools of the type used a century ago.

An agreement was reached with British Waterways to do the work in a corner of Shireoaks Marina and construction started in 2011.

The work was led by David Bownes, who has a vast knowledge garnered by talking with working boatmen from the Chesterfield Canal.

He was involved with working on Cuckoo boats as a young man, so was one of the last people alive with real working knowledge of their construction.

And he was honoured with a lifetime achievement award from the trust this year.

Rod Auton, from the trust, said: “It has taken four years to complete the boat. Some of the planks, or strokes, that make up the sides are 27 feet long, 10 inches wide and two inches thick.

“They had to be planed exactly and then put into a home-made steamer for several hours before being bent into place.

“There are 90 planks along the bottom. Each one had to be planed precisely and they were then fixed into place by 360 home-made nails, each nine inches long and hammered upwards.

“Vast quantities of old rope, tar, pitch and linseed oil have been used to make the boat watertight.”

Following completion of the work, there was a hiatus to get the red tape completed.

Some organisations were baffled because they had no experience of new, wooden, horse-drawn boats. Simple things like insurance took a long time to be sorted out. There was also a long debate about how to accomplish the launch of the 70 feet-long boat, which weighs nearly 10 tons.

Volunteers floated the idea of using a crane, the obvious method, but feared the boat might break in half. A cradle could be made, but this would be expensive.

Finally, it was agreed to launch it down a slipway with a specially lengthened trailer.

The front of the boat was lifted a few inches by crane and the trailer was slid underneath. Extensions were put on to the trailer then the rear of the boat was jacked up to until it was sitting straight – a process which took several hours over the course of two days.

There followed 20 minutes of a tractor manoeuvring the trailer to reverse down the slipway until finally the moment of truth arrived.

The boat slowly entered the water, started to float and eventually slipped off the trailer - a perfect launch.

A mooring has been secured at Shireoaks Marina and the boat was named at Worksop Water Day at the Lock Keeper Pub on Saturday.

The boat will be financed by a group of supporters. If you would like to be involved or want further information, contact Michael Edwards on 01246 477569 or email

The Chesterfield Canal

The canal, known locally as Cuckoo Dyke, opened in 1777, linking the River Trent at West Stockwith, Nottinghamshire, with Chesterfield, more than 40 miles away, via Staveley, Killamarsh, Worksop, Retford and near Bawtry.

It was built to export coal, limestone and lead from Derbyshire and iron from Chesterfield to further afield.

It was even used to transport the stone used to build the Houses of Parliament, which had been quarried in North Anston, Rotherham.

The canal started to struggle following the opening of a railway line parallel to the route in 1849, before subsidence led to the closure of Norwood Tunnel, near Killamarsh, in 1908, leading to parts of the canal falling into disrepair.

Since 1989, 12 miles of canal have been restored, along with 36 locks and 11 bridges. Two new marinas have also been built.

The Chesterfield Canal Trust, which is working to restore the canal, says: “We have only eight miles left to restore. Detailed plans already exist for every bridge, lock and aqueduct on this stretch. The trust is currently running a campaign called Closing the Gap in order to achieve this aim.”

For details, see {|Chesterfield Canal Trust