From humble origins transporting flour to a heroic role at Dunkirk, the Gainsborough Trader was labelled a 'colander' and earmarked for the scrappage yard when she found a new lease of life as a houseboat. Sixteen years on, now beautifully restored, she's on the market and could be yours for £349,950. We meet the couple responsible for the boat's change of fortune.
In 1994, Jay and Dawn Jones-Cooper took on the Gainsborough Trader. It was a project that would become a labour of love, and that would lead to a dream home - and an unlikely qualification in welding.
Jay begins, "When we met, Dawn asked me what I wanted to get out of life. My reply was 'to be able to sail off into the sunset'. At the time I didn't know we would end up taking that literally. We didn't plan to buy the boat, but when we came across it, we couldn't resist.
"We were naive. We didn't realise the scope or the scale of the project. We thought it would take us six months to renovate, and that we would turn it around in that time, no problem. In fact, it took us three years."
Jay and Dawn completely gutted the interior of the boat, and even did all of the welding themselves – or rather, Dawn did.
"We knew one of us would have to go on a course," says Dawn, "so we flipped a coin for it. I lost."
The boat may be a beautifully restored and fully functional home now but she has had many guises, beginning life in 1931 as a coastal flour barge, sailing from the north of England to London.
Requisitioned by the Ministry of War Transport during World War II, the boat arrived in Dunkirk during a bombing raid on 31 May 1940. At first, she was used to ferry soldiers from the beach to larger boats during the evacuation, before being ordered to pick up 140 men and take them back to England. She was the last vessel to leave as the German army advanced.
Post war, she also served as the Southampton to Isle of Wight postal boat for a while, and was then used as the Isle of Wight Post Office.
After years of service, the boat was sold in 1986 and had three or four private owners before Jay and Dawn.
"When we found the boat," says Dawn, "she was about to be scrapped – she was being described as the 'colander' because she had so many holes in her. We feel we saved her – gave her a new life."
"We have all the mod cons you could need, including an Aga – it might weigh half a ton, but the boat weighs 55, so it's not a problem.
"People ask us 'how do you get your water?' and I reply 'I turn the tap on. Why – how do you get yours?'. While we're moored, the water is plumbed in."
Nothing beats the boat in spring and summer, they say. Dawn explains, "It's like al fresco living. The deck is almost like an extension of the kitchen in summer. We put the hammocks up on the deck, and lying out there our only concern is who's going to make the next pina colada. We feel very lucky."
And in winter, the boat's polished wood interior gives it warmth. "People suspect it's difficult to keep a boat warm in winter," says Jay. "But we've got heating, just like everyone else."
"It's properly insulated," adds Dawn. "We should know – we did the insulating!"
And the negatives? "I guess the bad bit is people's preconceptions of 'boaty people'. But I don't think it takes long before people realise we don't fit that stereotype."
"I think people are very, very surprised to see we live a lot like everyone else," adds Jay. "We just float a bit."
So, why are they selling up and leaving their floating life?
"We never planned to sell," they say. But the idea of a new life, the good life, in France slowly convinced them – although the initial intention was to take the boat along.
"We wanted to buy half an acre of land in France, where we were going to keep chickens and grow vegetables, but we ended up buying 12 and a half," says Dawn. "And a vineyard too. There's a river running along the bottom of the garden, where we were going to moor the boat. But we soon realised it would landlock it because of a number of tight bridges on the river."
"We feel that wherever it is, it should be used as a home and a boat, not just sitting moored somewhere," Jay continues. "That is not what the boat should be about – I always think of it as our leisure and our pleasure."
Dawn says, "We've always loved being able to sail off. When the tide is right, we just say 'come on then, let's go'. Left, right, or straight on – it doesn't matter. That's freedom.
"It took us a year to make the decision to sell. It was a very difficult decision to make – we thought we'd be on the boat for the rest of our lives."
The Gainsborough Trader is for sale through Chesterton Humberts. It is on the market for £349,950.
The deck is almost like an extension of the kitchen in summer. We put the hammocks up on the deck, and lying out there our only concern is who’s going to make the next pina colada.