Once upon a time (quite a long time ago), I had a permanent mooring at Aynho. And, coming free of charge with this mooring, was our very own self appointed security guard in the form of Steamboat Tony.
I (along with a lot of others) have many, many fond memories of this man. He was an extraordinary character with a huge heart and personality to match.
Having said all that, the first time I met him, he called me ‘darlin’ and it put my back right up! I thought he was being way too over familiar, sexist and rude… but it didn’t take long for his true nature to shine through and we soon became good friends.
The Thrush Steamer
Steamboat Tony (Tony Bryant) got his name from a wonderful project of his own making. He built his very own wooden steamboat – The Thrush Steamer – completely from scratch. It was an amazing feat. He spent a year or so cruising the canals with his steam boat. When I met him, the Thrush Steamer was moored in the car park at Aynho (where she ended up staying for several years) near the caravan where Steamboat Tony had decided to live as a security guard.
Inside The Thrush Steamer was a huge complicated steam engine. It took up nearly the whole of the inside of the boat… along with the space to store the fuel needed to run the engine. And then a spectacular 1950s kitchen unit, which seemed like an extraordinary choice of furnishing, but it held Tony’s stuff very stylishly.
“I spent many happy hours helping Tony when he was building his steam engine. I would drive him here and there to get parts or just get busy with the tools. I was in a pretty dark place at the time and there was never any side with him. Never spoke ill of anybody. I love him to bits. A great friend to many of us.” [Julian]
“I travelled with him once from Langford Lane to Allens lock and it only took 10 hours. The Thrush was working on steam and wood in the boiler which I now know is usually coal. When we set off I was concerned we had no reverse but I didn’t realise it would be going so slow that it didn’t matter!” [Tim]
Type ‘Steamboat Tony and Thrush Steamer’ into Google you will find plenty of images. Here is a link to a couple of great YouTube videos which give a lovely insight into the man and his machine. There are more so please seek them out.
Stories of the man, the legend and the friend Steamboat Tony are many! What follows is a small selection of some of them.
If you would like to add your own please do put a comment to this blog.
The cooking pot
Tony had a theory that as long as the pot stayed on a stove somewhere that you could just keep filling it up with whatever you had to hand. As he didn’t have a stove in his caravan at the time, the pot – a large black enamel affair with a lid is how I remember it – used to travel between boats, and it was also a great excuse for Tony to invite himself to supper! I am afraid that I was afraid of that pot, it filled me with horror! I never did eat from it … although it visited once or twice to sit on Daisy’s stove. Plenty did eat from it though and they live to tell the tale!
The towpath allotment
Tony was a great advocate of growing things and eating off the land. He especially liked free food picked from hedgerows or road kill off the road. He maintained it was possible to eat without ever having to buy food, you could find what you needed if you just looked for it. One year, Tony decided that we should make use of ALL of the land along the towpath and a project involving pretty much everyone was born.
Whether we liked it or not, vegetables were planted in and around the ditch which ran alongside our boats in every available space! It felt a bit odd to be planting stuff next to someone else’s boat at the time, but the way these things worked, the plants soon became useful food and vegetables grown were available to everyone who wanted them. I remember that there was a LOT of potatoes! (Tony enjoyed chitting them).
The road kill meals
One time, I was walking through the car park at the wharf when Steamboat Tony came rushing at me with a Sainsburys carrier bag full of fur and hooves… god it was a massacre! A poor muntjack deer had just been run over (well, he insisted it was recent) and the body parts were in the bag he was offering me. My task was to cook it so he could eat it for supper later.
I decided cooking it was already enough of a job so I told him if he really wanted me to do something with it then he would need to present a more ‘oven ready’ version of the deer to me. Preferably without fur or hooves attached.
He dutifully brought me the same bag a bit later on with a deer’s worth of meat in it. I hope I can say I did it justice with a venison and shrewsbury sauce recipe by Delia. Luckily Craig and Jim were free to come and help eat this meal too as there was a lot – the four of us made a good dent in it!
“memories of him and Doc (they were as thick as thieves for years) skinning, jointing and barbequing road kill in the car park will be with me forever” [Paddy]
The self build still
“I’ll never forget the time big Tony came to the workshop looking for copper pipe to make a still. I duly gave him some and off he went. Later on that afternoon I was on my way out to do a job and I stopped by his boat to check how he was getting on with his still. He told me it was ready, and to come by and sample some of the fruits of his labour on my return.
A couple of hours later I returned from the job and curiously went to find Tony to see how he had got on. As I approached, he appeared with a measuring jug full of clear liquid, saying that the still had worked well. He then proceeded to pour some into a mug and offered it to me. I took a sip and it was very strong and had an odd taste to it.
When I enquired what liquor he had used to produce this unique spirit he pointed to a barrel sat on the bank. On closer inspection I found a label on the barrel which said John Smiths best bitter and it was out of date by a good few months!”
There was never a dull moment when he was around. I still miss his crazy ideas!” [Matt]
Anyone who was on the ‘visit’ list for Steamboat Tony knew that his preferred tipple was vodka and it was just better all round to keep a bottle in stock. He liked to have a few … until he was, in his words ‘set up just nice’ – He was a born entertainer but he would never outstay his welcome. When the time came, he would say his goodbyes and amble off into the darkness. Always a perfect gentleman.
“He had a full life. At 16 he worked his passage to America, lied about his age and experience to get a job as a cook, went on to be a Nas car mechanic, ran with the Hells Angels for a while, during which time he got into something that meant he had to spend some time in Mexico. He never drank anything unless it had vodka in it.” [Paddy]
The boat roof
The reason Daisy has a green roof is because one of the last times I saw him, I asked his opinion about what colour to paint her roof while we discussed the vaguaries of light colours (good to reflect heat in the summer but bad for keeping clean) and dark colours (bad for absorbing heat in the summer and oppressive to look at – Daisy’s roof was black at the time).
He responded “Why is grass green? It’s got to be green like the grass hasn’t it? A natural colour – you won’t be too hot or too cold with that colour”… Genius! So obvious when you think about it!
While we are on the subject of Daisy… she wouldn’t be here now if it wasn’t for Steamboat Tony. I had left her to take Tisbury for a walk one day, forgetting that the door to the fire wasn’t quite shut. Steamboat Tony stopped her from burning down completely by breaking in while I was out and shutting the door. (He broke in through my back hatch too while I was watching him once … I still don’t know how he did that either!)
A kind man
“Out of all the memories that I have, it is one of a kind man. This is the one I remember the best” [Matt]
Tony, if you’re out there, I hope you enjoy this. And thank you.