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One entrepreneur reveals how her boat finally came in

By Stephanie Bell

Personal tragedy and the Troubles led Lorraine Fox to leave here for a new life in London, where she ran a barge cafe. Now, she’s floating the idea back home.

Lorraine Fox is one of those determined people who will always find a way round any obstacle. It’s why, even after four long years of planning, she hasn’t given up her latest dream of bringing Northern Ireland its first floating sandwich barge cafe.

And she took a huge step closer to seeing her wish fulfilled last month when she safely navigated her barge into the Albert Basin in Newry.

With the help of members from the Newry and Portadown branch of The Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, it was a big moment for Lorraine as she steered The Sandwich Barge to what she hopes will become its permanent new home on the local waterway.

The IWAI believes that The Sandwich Barge is probably the first narrow boat ever to use the Newry canal as the traditional lighters were all wide beam barges.

Lorraine, who made London her home after leaving the province in 1985 to escape the Troubles, has run The Sandwich Barge for a number of years in the capital and thinks it's an ideal business for Newry with its historic but underused canal.

Originally from Kilkeel, the 47-year-old mum of four is once again hankering for home and has been determined to bring her unique floating cafe with her — although local red tape continues to hold up her plans to open it.

"It was quite exciting bringing the barge into the Albert Basin and I think it will be the first trading boat in Newry," she says.

"It's something so new for the local council that they don't have a specific licence to cover it – which is why this has been ongoing for so long. The point we are at now is that they are looking at how they can change the regulations to give me a licence.

"There's something about relaxing beside the water that beats sitting in an ordinary cafe.

"People tend to interact more when they come to The Sandwich Barge. Even in London strangers would chat with each other at my boat. I love seeing folk meeting and enjoying my food. A quick coffee stop becomes a real treat and that's great."

Lorraine's world was shattered when, as a young newlywed with two small children, she lost her 22-year-old husband to suicide.

Left to rear her children on her own, she has had it tough over the years but as a go-getter she has not let adversity stand in the way of her dreams. In fact, she believes the tragedy has helped shape her life.

As well as Ryan (27) and Jodie (26), Lorraine also has a younger son and daughter, Ruari (11) and Saoirse (9). She says: "When I was widowed the children kept me going. They kind of stop you from grieving and what happened also made me appreciate life a lot more and realise that it is so short.

"I've have had to learn resourceful living as I had a low income and didn't want to depend on the State for benefits."

Living beside Regent's Canal in central London for 24 years, she had the idea of her floating sandwich bar, but without any cash it seemed like an impossible dream for many years.

"Lots of people come down and sit by the water and walk their dogs along the canal," she says. "I just thought it would be a good idea to give them somewhere where they could have refreshments.

"I kept the idea secret for a long time because I couldn't do anything about it until I had finished bringing up the children.

"I had seen a Bacon Buttie Barge in Stratford-upon-Avon and that made me even more determined that it would work in Islington, where I live."

Eight years ago she took possession of her barge after hearing about one which a friend had as a holiday home elsewhere in the UK but no longer used.

She negotiated a loan with a close girlfriend which she describes as "a ladies agreement" to buy it and get it shipped to London.

The barge has since paid for itself and today Lorraine has paid her loan back from the money she made selling her delicious home-cooked fare.

Converting it into a cafe meant stripping it back to the bone and, again with no cash, Lorraine found a solution by rallying support from her local community.

She explains: "I had to gut it out, right down to the hull. I went round the building sites of London asking for materials they were throwing away and people were very helpful.

"I offered to make roast dinners for people in my local community in exchange for labour.

"I got it painted, decorated and plumbed by people in exchange for three good meals a day. We had the annual Angel Canal Festival coming up and I was determined to get it finished for that – and we did it."

She launched what was the first organic water cafe in London which quickly proved a huge hit.

Carefully sourcing all of her food from local suppliers, she earned the reputation for serving healthy, freshly prepared food using only the best quality ingredients.

In fact, the quality of her food is right at the heart of what The Sandwich Barge stands for.

She does all her own baking and in winter, The Sandwich Barge becomes The Soup Barge and oysters are also on the menu.

She explains: "In the winter, people walking their dogs in the cold want something warm and my soups are a bit different, like lemon and lentil. I do hot remedies for the winter such as Green & Black hot chocolate and also use a lot of energy food and pulses in my ingredients.

"My homemade cakes include parsnip and pear and it's all healthy ingredients which are put together for the equilibrium – if you take something that is grown above the earth and mix it with something grown below it, that gives you balance.

"My juices are all freshly squeezed by order and my sandwiches are made in front of the customer. All dietary needs are met and I offer gluten free, wheat free, vegan, vegetarian dishes and of course, food for meat eaters."

It's a standard she aims to maintain in Northern Ireland where she has begun the process of sourcing her ingredients from local farmers and suppliers.

She also hopes to serve up oysters and once enjoyed the rarity of finding a pearl in one.

"That was pretty amazing," she says. "I was closing up for the day, had bought some rock oysters and invited a friend to join me with some champagne.

"I handed her an oyster and when she opened it there was a pearl inside. Apparently there is nothing as precious as finding a pearl in an oyster.

"We did try and find out how much it was worth and we were told it could fetch up to £1,000. But the real value was in finding it and my friend just wrapped it up and stored it as a special treasure.

"I'm looking forward to serving the local variety in Newry and who knows. Maybe I'll be lucky and find another."

With most of her family living in Northern Ireland – she was one of 13 children – and her mum in Kilkeel, Lorraine, who's now single, has been ready to make the move back home for some years. She first applied to Newry and Mourne Council about getting her sandwich barge set up on the local canal four years ago.

Her idea was so unique to the province that the council was at a loss about how to grant a licence.

"They didn't really know what to do with it as the licences that do exist don't really cover a business of that kind," she says.

"They have been very helpful, but it is dragging on and now they have agreed to look at devising a new licence which I hope to get in the next year.

"I was one of the floating markets at the 2012 Olympics – one of 15 boat traders who took part, so during that time it all went on hold for a while but it's back on the agenda and hopefully we will get something sorted soon.

"In the meantime, I can apply for special events licences so I hope to open for Halloween and Christmas – and I am keeping an eye on any events coming up in the area which I hope to be part of."

Getting her boat home was another challenge. A lorry driver and crane had to be hired from Northern Ireland to come to London.

Due to the huge costs involved, timing was crucial as Lorraine needed to be sure both crane and lorry were there at low tide.

"We had a small window and if we missed it then it could have been a disaster. Fortunately, it all went to plan," she says.

A novelty for her is the fact that the boat has shore power in Newry, whereas in London she had to depend on solar panels and a generator.

Again friends and family have chipped in to help with the conversion work needed.

"It's been a long slow process and I've been coming back and forward during term breaks," she says. "Ideally I hope to have my licence sorted and be open for next summer, but in the meantime I will be doing any festivals and special events.

"Northern Ireland really is calling me back home after all these years.

"My family is there and I am a bit older now and would like to move back.

"I'm very passionate about it. The Sandwich Barge is more than a cafe, it's like a meeting place and a place to make friends."

The IWAI is fully behind Lorraine in her venture which will bring new life to the canal in Newry. Geraldine Foley of the Portadown and Newry branch says: "It's been a privilege to help Lorraine bring her boat in.

"To arrive into your home place in your own boat is a very special achievement and it was lovely to see Lorraine's family waiting on the quay."

Branch chairman Peter Maxwell adds: "The IWAI will support any project that promotes more use of the canal and we wish Lorraine every success with her new business."

You can keep up to date on Lorraine' s plans to open for local events at facebook.com/thesandwichbarge

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