Belfast Telegraph

Co Down woman to be reunited with 121-year-old barge she once called home for over eight years

Portaferry woman Hilary Hunter
Portaferry woman Hilary Hunter
Inside the boat
Inside the boat
The Dutch barge

By Mary Magee

An 1898 barge that survived two world wars and was used as a dwelling for most of her life is crossing the Irish Sea to moor in Strangford Lough.

Hilary Hunter, from Portaferry in Co Down, described her barge, affectionately known as the 'old Dutch lady', as a "sanctuary and wonderful calming space" that was her home for over eight years in Essex.

After a brief stay in Kent, Hilary moved back to Northern Ireland six months ago and had to leave her beloved barge behind.

But with the help of a team of fishermen, they will soon be reunited.

They plan to spend five days sailing it across the Irish Sea and moor it at Strangford Lough.

The interior of the 121-year-old barge resembles a small cottage, ideal as a health and well-being retreat.

Hilary runs the Wrens' Nest therapy studio in the town, which provides a private and tranquil place for groups to meet, study or practice.

She is so passionate about holistic methods and natural healing that she organised a festival in Portaferry in March to encourage more people to follow a healthy lifestyle.

The barge is named Drie Gebroeders (meaning three brothers).

When Hilary first bought it, she put in new rigging and rewired and redecorated it.

The barge boasts two double cabins, a shower, a living space and a kitchen.

It was once used by the Germans during the Second World War and even now has the hallmarks of witnessing many adventures.

Original skipper Dirk Pols was Dutch and had three sons, so the boat was named three brothers, a popular name for vessels at that time.

The ship was eventually passed on to one of his sons, Hendrik Pols, who was to lose her to the Dutch army at the onset of the Second World War.

She was later requisitioned for the use of the Pontonniers, in the maintaining of bridges.

She fell into German hands eventually and there are now visual signs of alterations to her bow point, having been adapted for use as an invasion barge.

Little is known about her after the war, but these barges are normally used to carry farm goods and materials along the waterways, ideal for conversion to a houseboat.

Hilary added: "Dutch historians are fascinated by her and are trying to uncover her secret life since the war, but in such difficult times, records were few and ownership uncertain.

"Perhaps she lay unused for years, or maybe worked in Belgium or France.

"The Dutch Kadaster (land registry and mapping agency) only records her ownership from the year 2000 when she appears to have been saved as a historic hull by an enterprising man named Ger Hofman.

"Apparently it was he who was her saviour, pouring what I imagine were his life savings into her adaptation to the current layout, retiring her to a pleasant life of holiday charter, visiting festivals and beauty spots around the waters of northern Holland."

Hilary added: "People always assume I have always been a sailing person or have long dreamed about a life afloat. Nothing could be further from the truth.

"The first night I slept aboard was during a dark, stormy, flooded night, her rudder thumped loudly on its metal housing posts, the clanging echoing through the riveted iron hull.

"Tying the tiller up in an attempt to slice this sent her into a rage and the banging grew much louder."

It wasn't long before Hilary did get used to her and now admits she is a novice sailor.

She purchased the barge from a man who used it as his home but then married and returned back to live on land.

"Getting to know her was a little awkward," added Hilary. "There was a period of long-distance love and uncertainty but I soon learned of her huge personality.

"I love this boat and I love being spending time in it.

"I find it so peaceful and relaxing being so close to water.

"I have a real passion for natural healing. Everyone leads such stressful lives and a lot of people are increasingly going to GPs and a lot of problems people have now is all down to stress.

"People enjoy being by the water, stress levels go down and they lead much healthier lifestyles as a result."

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