A FLOATING HOME  (barge Ark Royal)
Ivor Jones

R.S.A. members sailing the upper reaches of the Roach on a quiet afternoon tide may like to be reminded that a few hundred yards below Stambridge Mills, near where the lane from the " Cherry Tree " meets the river, you pass the spot where was once berthed the barge "Ark Royal" described in one of the nicest books about sailing barges, "A Floating Home" by Cyril B lonides. 

In the years just before the First World War, Mr. Ionides bought a small trading barge and converted it as a home for himself, his wife and three young children, keeping the vessel rigged so that they could cruise the Thames estuary, laying up for the winter at whatever small Essex port took their fancy, from where he could commute by train to his business in London. 

The book, published in 1918, is referred to at some length by Frank Carr in his "Sailing Barges" in connection with the conversion of barges as yachts. Carr calls it "this delightful book" and it is indeed so. The barge was acquired at Greenwich and taken to the Crouch, where the conversion work was carried out with the owner doing a large part of the work himself. The total cost of the "floating home" was £375 19s (!), including the £140 purchase price of the barge and £4 2s 6d for "Disinfecting at gasworks". The most costly part of the work was raising the main hatch coamings to incorporate windows, executed by a local shipyard. After a first cruise to West Mersea and the Blackwater, the barge was sailed via the Maplin Sands into the Thames, where the family intended to take up their winter berth at Leigh. 

Throughout the book, the identities of places where the "Ark Royal" was moored are disguised under invented names; for example Leigh is called "Newcliff', but it is fairly easy to identify it from the descriptions of local topography and by reference to surrounding places given their real names in the book, such as Southend pier and Sheerness. The winter berth in Leigh Creek is described thus: 

"To the west of us was a sea wall, and behind it marshes stretching away into dimness; to the north was the railway line, to the south, first saltings and then the open Thames. At high water we could see all the ships. beyond the saltings; at low water they were hidden .from us. To the east there were gasworks, which we tried to forget, and the ancient end of the town with houses of many shapes and attitudes. One of the houses leaned over a quay against which smacks lay so close that you could have reeved their peak halyards from the top window …….I took a season ticket to London as the time had arrived for me to begin my new work. The station was about eight minutes walk from the "Ark Royal ".

Local tradesmen were engaged to deliver provisions, coal and water to the barge. At high tides supplies had to be left in a box placed on the sea wall. On one occasion, sausages were stolen by a passing dog which had to be pursued in the dinghy, and another time the butcher"s boy was blown off the ladder leaning against the barge"s side, resulting in the joint of meat becoming lodged in the mud. On dark winter nights, when returning from London, it pleased Mr. Ioludes to look out of the train window and see the warm glow from the "Ark Royal’s“ windows striking up into the blackness. 

At Easter the "Ark Royal" left the creek with its fleets of bawleys and cocklers and headed for the Swale. At Kingsferry, the bridgekeeper refused to open the swing bridge; his instructions being not to open for barges as they could lower their gear and shoot underneath, despite the fact that the "'Ark Royal’s” raised hatches made it impossible to do so. He was only persuaded to open the bridge by a combination of bribery and production by the owner of the ship’s papers, including an Admiralty warrant to fly the Blue Ensign and "one or two other imposing documents"". 

Later that summer, the barge cruised to the Colne and the Orwell. Manoeuvring the engineless barge through crowded anchorages must have been alarming to say the least, and a number of minor collisions occurred. However, the professional bargemen they met with were always anxious to help and give advice. Eventually, Mr. Ionides bought a motor launch with which to tow the barge. Unfortunately, the engine “did not generally achieve internal combustion" and the launch was christened the "Perhaps"". The children used to take the metal seals off the petrol cans and hang them on the engine as medaJs, in numbers according to the merit of its performance. 
The barge returned again to Leigh for the next winter but after Christmas Mrs. Ionides became ill with typhoid and had to be nursed for some weeks on board. Happily she recovered, but her illness produced in Mr Ionides "'an unreasoning dread of the place where she had lain ill. He therefore resolved to find an alternative berth for the next year. which is how the family came to settle in the Roach, referred to in the book only as "the Happy Haven". This is Ionides’ description of the approach to Stambridge Mill:

"To reach our port there are but two ways, one by water and one by land Are you coming by water? Then you must come in from the sea and take the young flood up the river past the low-lying islands; if the wind be foul you will have to wait for water according to your draft. With a fair wind come straight on past the village and the wood off which the smacks lie (Paglesham?), and past the church tower to the south (Barling). When abreast the creek leading to the red-tiled farmhouse on the starboard hand {Barton Hall) you will find the best water in the middle. Keep close to the point on the north side, and from there steer straight for the three great poplars you will see ahead until you reach another church among the trees on the north side (Stambridge). Then keep the hut on the point just open of the old water-mill.

But suppose you come by land. For two shillings you can be driven from the railway station out through the old market town until you come to an avenue of trees and a rookery. There you must turn off .the public road into a private road, and drive under the great trees which meet above, and down a lane of thorns until, suddenly turning a corner, you will drive alongside the river to a grassy quay where the "Ark Royal" is lying. You can go no farther for the road ends there. 

After all, you may say, there is not much to see. Only an old water-mill and three barges alongside it; the mill-house, and above it the mill-head spreading wide; our friend's house among the poplar; on the opposite shore a farmhouse where a barge is loading hay ; under the sea-walls on both sides fields dotted with cattle and white gulls; an unbroken vault of sky; and the shining creek stretching away into the ultimate green qf flat pasture lands. 
Such is a brief description of how to arrive at the Happy Haven, and what there is to see there. But wild tugs with steel hawsers will not drag the name from me. Those who want to live in .floating homes will search far to find a better berth.”. 

When "A Floating Home" was published in 1918, the family had been living at Stambridge for several years. It seems likely that the outbreak of war in 1914 had put an end to their cruising, but that they continued to live on the "Ark Royal" through the war and quite possibly for some time afterwards. CertainIy, Frank Shuttlewood remembered them being there, and the barge remained there as a houseboat for some years between the wars. 
It would be interesting to discover more about Mr. Ionides, and to know what happened in later years to the members of the family. As far as I can discover, he never wrote any other books. One of the reasons he gives for living on a barge is to economize on housing costs in order to eventually pay for his sons “education" but he also mentions that "a trusted family servant, Louisa, came to live with us", and it seems that his impecuniousness was relative rather than absolute. As he says at the beginning of the book, one advantage of living on a barge was that "no-one will know whether we're eccentric millionaires or paupers only just to windward of the workhouse". 
Anyone who reads "A Floating Home" can easily be envious of the idyllic life described therein. One gains the impression that the small ports visited by the "Ark Royal" bustled with sailing craft of all kinds, and that a good many quaint "characters" were to be met with among the barge skippers and smacksmen who sailed the waters. Although some of the places described in the book may still be recognisable today; there is no doubt the Essex rivers of that time might as well have been a thousand miles from London, and in a different world from those we know today.