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The Bolinder Boatman
Last updated: 22.01.22
For me, The Bolinder Boatman is a real intriguing song about life on the canals of Northern England. The "Bolinder" I take to be the manufacturer of the motor engine propelling the barge along the waterways. I heard this song only once on Wally Whyton's Folk Music Broadcast in the early eighties and immediately taped and transcribed it. I noted that it was sung by a certain " Gary and Vera Aspey", my spelling being just a guess, a very unusual vocal duet for my taste, but very effective. Gary singing mainly well above his partner. The theme of the song leaves me desperate to know more, enquiries bring nothing and I'm left with the feeling that somehow I dreamt the whole thing up myself. I sing it at a chug-a-long pace appropriate to the leisurely progress of a narrow barge along the now disused inland waterways in England.
As a child, I witnessed quite a few barges, even horse-drawn ones, in the late forties on the canal not far from my home in Worcester and they always fascinated me. Coming from places unheard of, taking no notice of the places they pass through and then vanishing to mysterious destinations.
Since writing the above in 1998, I have recently (August 2001) entered into considerable correspondence with surfer Chris Bragg, a waterways buff, who has cleared up all my questions. Now you, dear surfer, will be able to find the lyrics (transcribed by Chris and myself - just click lyrics above) along with Chris's knowledgeable comments on the barge's itinerary so evocatively sung by Gary & Vera. Thanks a million, Chris!
In July 2002, surfer Jeff Dennison writes that "The Bolinder Boatman" was written by one Ian Woods, late of Frodsham but last heard of living in London. Ian Woods used to travel on working boats during the 1960's and 70's. Many thanks, too, Jeff!
Lyrics transcribed by Chris Bragg and Geoff Grainger from a recording by Gary & Vera Aspey

1. Now I've been a boatman for most of me life, I've travelled the country on through.
    Seen the grouse on the moor of Saddleworth Way, watched trains thunder past out of Crewe.
 With me Bolinder beating a steady old thump and there's smoke drifting out of the stack.
 We head through the Potteries then on up North, take a load on and then go on back.

2. I've loaded with pig-iron outside Bilston Town and coal out of Bridgewater's mine,
    I have legged it through Blisworth with ten tonne of salt, at Northwich dropped boatloads of pine.

3. I've basked in the sun on the Middlewich run and laid up when weather were wet,
    Run from Braunston to Lymm in wild winter gales in order to win a small bet.

4. I remember the day of the wagon and horse, unloading from ships under sail,
    Been from Somerset to London and then on to Goole, from there I crossed over to Wales

5. Now I am a boatman, of that I am proud, I've worked long and hard for me pay.
    With the cargoes she's carried the timbers now creak but the Bolinder's still pumping away.

Remarks by Chris:
Some of those places are:
Bilston - just outside Wolverhampton on the Birmingham Main
Blisworth - on the Grand Union, just south of Northampton - and Blisworth tunnel would no doubt require a good bit of legging [lying on one's back and propelling the barge using the feet]- not a pleasant thing from my experience!
Braunston - not easy to find! - on the Grand Union / Oxford Canal, between Rugby and Banbury.
Lymm is just south of Warrington on the Trent-Mersey canal
As it happens I think I went though many of them on my holiday a month or two ago [May, 2001], but not having taken the names in properly clearly didn't notice!We certainly noticed tonnes and tonnes of salt in the region of all the -wiches... Nantwich or Middlewich or somewhere - massive mountains of the stuff - quite a bizarre sight in the middle of Cheshire (albeit not very near Blisworth)!
Quite a journey indeed... and a rather bizarre one. I dunno if you can get from Somerset to London easily these days without going up the Severn estuary, when it's slightly larger than the navigable section further up the river. The waterways board don't show any obvious way of doing it, so that may be a no-go these days. However, Bath to London is straightforward, so perhaps if there are some navigable rivers between the two.
London to Goole would be via the Paddington Arm on to the Grand Union up to Leicester, on to the Nottingham & Beeston Canal and then the Trent Navigation and up the Sheffield & South Yorkshire Navigation.
Goole to Wales is easy enough, on the Aire & Calder navigation through Leeds Burnley & Wigan towards Liverpool, then a bit on the Trent & Mersey and over theLlangollen canal.
Maps of all this lot can be found at

     Title Performer
youtube15.jpg The Bolinder Boatman (3:17) Gary and Vera Aspey