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Couple transform barge destined for scrapyard into luxury holiday let in Belfast marina

Gillian Campbell spent years renovating the homes she stayed in around the world with her husband David, an IBM vice-president. But after retiring back to Northern Ireland they embarked on an ambitious project... that at times left them all at sea. Stephanie Bell reports

A decaying barge destined for the scrapyard has been reborn as a chic new luxury holiday let for Northern Ireland. With stunning views overlooking Titanic Belfast and boasting two lavish "apartments" inside, Nolly now stands proud as a unique addition to the familiar seascape of yachts and boats in the city's marina.

The old barge was rescued a year ago and transformed by local couple Gillian and David Campbell, who live in Strangford. The couple enlisted a team of local craftsmen to carry out the painstaking transformation from rusted shell to sumptuous retreat.

It has been a long and challenging task but also a labour of love for Gillian, who had dreamed of owning her own long boat for over 10 years.

The couple have spent the past 25 years living all over the world with David's job as a vice president with technology giant IBM. In every country they lived, they bought property which needed renovating and Gillian has enjoyed carrying out extensive projects on the numerous houses they have lived in over the years - so the challenge of working on the barge was always going to appeal.

Gillian (53) and David (54) have three grown-up children - Natasha (26), Marcus (24) and Ellie (21). When David retired two years ago the couple decided to settle back in their native Northern Ireland and shortly after returning home Gillian began her search for a barge to bring back to life.

She explains: "We've lived in a few countries including America, Singapore and Denmark, and my favourite city by far was Copenhagen. I loved the long boats there and I used to peer inside and see how cosy they were.

"I always thought I would love to have one. When David retired we didn't know what to do, but we kept coming home to Northern Ireland and loving it. It had changed so much in the years that we had been away and we were really lucky to get a house in Strangford.

"When I saw the Titanic Quarter in Belfast I was blown away. I just thought it was world class and how lovely it would be to have a long boat in the marina there."

The couple went to the south of England last year to look for a boat. "I knew exactly what I wanted," says Gillian. "Then, while we were there, we heard about a charity in Glasgow selling a barge and I knew the second I saw it that I wanted it. It was lovely and wide and had a lovely feel to it, even though it was an absolute wreck and looked like a piece of junk."

The first challenge was getting Nolly out of the canal in Scotland and over to Northern Ireland. She was in such a poor state of disrepair that the couple couldn't risk sailing her here.

It took a 100-ton crane - and a sizeable chunk of their budget - to very slowly lift the ancient barge out of the water on to the back of a lorry bound for Bangor, where she would be restored.

Nolly was given a full police guard as she made her way from Glasgow to the docks at Cairnryan for the journey to her new home, where she arrived on May 6 last year.

Gillian says: "Nolly was being looked after by a man called David Alexander on behalf of the charity and if it hadn't been for him she would have been in the scrapyard or the bottom of the canal. We will be forever grateful for the help and advice Davy gave us throughout the project.

"One of the biggest challenges was getting her out of the water to bring her here. The crane was huge and took up about 15% of the whole cost.

"Getting her over was also very expensive and cost about a quarter of the budget."

And once the couple had Nolly safely ensconced in her new home, they realised they didn't know where to begin with the ambitious project.

Gillian adds: "When we finally got her here we had no idea how to go about renovating her or what was needed. We didn't even know what questions to ask. We went to East Belfast Yacht Club and they were just brilliant. They couldn't do enough to help us and we wouldn't have been able to do it without their continued guidance and expertise.

"They knew everything and everybody and thanks to them we got the most amazing team to work on Nolly. Our team was so central and so key to making it happen"

In her previous life, Nolly had been kitted out to provide a 'home from home' for disadvantaged kids in Glasgow. The boat is huge, measuring 56ft long by 15ft wide.

Originally Gillian intended to preserve as much of the interior as possible, but as the facia was stripped back it revealed rotting wood and rust, making it necessary to strip it right back to the bare steel. Months were spent angle grinding the hull and treating it to ensure it was rust proof.

Gillian then decided to add another level to the structure, which involved cutting the roof off, lifting it 8ft and welding it to steel joists.

The interior design was all-important to Gillian, who wanted to create a luxurious Scandinavian look. She says: "I knew I wanted cedar wood inside and we had to go for PVC windows to cut out condensation.

"There was a big thought process in how we were going to lay out the inside and in the end we opted for two apartments, and we soundproofed them and gave them each their own entrance. It's a bit like a semi-detached home. It has been designed with a hidden door in the middle so that they can become one.

"Right from the start I wanted a luxury finish and I had gathered things up from all over the place during my travels, in the hope that one day I would get the opportunity to have my own barge. The result is an interior that is a cross between Scandinavian and New England styles.

"One of the most important things for me was light and being able to see the sea from the interior and know that you are on a boat and that's one of the lovely things about it, as no matter where you are on it, you can always see the water."

Sailing Nolly from Bangor nine miles to her new home in Belfast recently was a triumphant if also nerve-wracking day.

Choosing a calm day, they set off at 8.30am and with a top speed of four knots they expected the journey to take between four and six hours. Gillian freely admits: "That was the most nervous day of the whole project. We rocked home in two-and-a-half hours, practically surfing into the harbour. The journey was great apart from a few run-ins with the Stena ferry - size does matter."

Now that Nolly has a permanent home, the couple plan to let visitors enjoy her classy and comfortable interior, which includes a living room with a projector, a beautiful outdoor deck, master bedroom, full bathroom with "onshore" style toilets and shower, a bunk room and kitchenette.

Each of the two apartments comfortably accommodates four people. Luxury bedding, sofas and all-important accessories complete the look.

Gillian says that it was essentially about creating a home for herself and her family. "Boats can be a wee bit claustrophobic, but this one isn't. It has been a real labour of love for me and the most important thing for me was that it was going to be my home and we intend to spend time in it and then let it out for two to three nights a week. We haven't really pushed it yet as a holiday, but already we have had very strong interest.

"I don't think there is anything like it in Northern Ireland and the location here in Belfast marina is just beautiful. Sitting in it in this weather you could be in the south of France, it is just so gorgeous here.

"I'm delighted with how it has turned out and I hope we have brought a little bit of European chic to Belfast."

Gillian has enjoyed transforming the barge so much that she and her husband are now considering setting up a new business manufacturing long boats.

It's not a venture that she had ever considered floating in the past, so at the minute she says they are just dipping their toes in the water to see what opportunities there are.

"The artisan skills here are just fantastic and we've had so many inquiries since we set up our website that we are now thinking about making our own boats right here in Northern Ireland," Gillian adds.

"That is something that we did not think of, but the interest has been huge and we are certainly seriously considering it."

For the full details of Nolly's rescue and renovation, visit the couple's website, www.bargeattitanic.com. A night in the smaller four berth apartment costs £180 while the larger one costs £220

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