featured roving canal trader
sam keay - gangplank spirits and preserves
My name is Sam Keay, I am originally from Cumbria. In my past I took my children to Africa where I worked as a volunteer teacher. We lived there with no running water or electric. When I returned home, I worked for Lancashire Wildlife Trust, Myerscough College and The Open University.
I now live and work on a travelling narrowboat business. I began as ‘Cake on the Cut’ making homemade cakes, hence my Salted Caramel Gin. But I have slowly evolved into ‘Gangplank Spirits & Preserves' and I make foraged fruit gin, whisky, rum, vodka, chutney, jam & cordial. I also open as a café selling soft drinks and crepes, and I have a fully licenced bar.
I was brought up growing a lot of our own produce; we had a big allotment, and bottled and froze the spoils. We had a Big Damson tree at the bottom of the garden, and it was my job to climb it. My Damson Gin recipe has been handed down through the generations and is still my favourite. I spent much of my childhood blackberrying and scrumping apples, so my business has really grown from my beginnings.
Growing up we had quite a few narrowboat holidays. I was only a few weeks old when we crossed the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct where I was apparently cosily tucked in my Moses basket in the bow.
We always hired boats out of season, when they were cheap, and I remember running ahead to do the locks, my hands sticking to the frost on the lock gates. Something must have appealed to me and stayed with me, because it seemed a very natural step to move onboard, although I did wait until my children had fled the nest, as I wisely decided I couldn’t live with two teenagers on a narrowboat!
I’ve been boating 15 years now and I’m still very in love with the lifestyle. The towpath is a friendly place where people like to talk to each other and help each other out. Most boaters are unmaterialistic and happy with the simple things in life, a fire, good company, a stew in the pot, and a pint.
I’ve had a lot adventures in the past 15 years that I wouldn’t trade for anything, I think I’ve seen all the 7 wonders of the canal system and so much more. Some of the highlights are:
Crossing the Ribble Link several times, never without a last minute crisis. The first time, I’d only had the boat 2 months and had to be towed by the coastguard as my alternator belt snapped halfway across.
The beautiful Kennet & Avon Canal, surrounded by stone circles, white horses and a history of crop circles. We enjoyed digging out the inflatable canoe and taking picnics paddling down the Avon and mooring right in the centre of bustling Bristol.
Toiling over the stunning Pennines, with empty pounds, badly maintained heavy double locks, dog tired and muddy, but exhilarated and very alive.
Last year I fulfilled another small dream and cruised her up the Tidal Thames from Limehouse to Oxford where my little hippie boat sailed alongside the gin palaces and big working barges. I cruised past the Houses of Parliament and the London eye feeling ridiculously small and excited.
every day is different
The everyday small adventures are just as fun, all the windy rainy days, being blown across the cut, fallen trees blocking the canal, single handing swing bridges that open on the wrong side, going down the weed hatch for the third time in a day...
I enjoy seeing the country through the perspective of the waterways, a city looks very different by water, and I love that one day I can be moored in a city centre and the next moored in an isolated country haven. I feel very privileged to watch a heron hunt from my window and a kingfisher flit by.
There are a few downsides, I hate trying to organise deliveries for my business, dealing with black and white thinking bureaucrats who can’t understand that you don’t have an address, and the never ending fixing things can be a challenge but more than worth it.
good and bad days
This year has been one of the most difficult I’ve ever had on the cut. I had to have a complete re-plate of my boat during lockdown and borrow the money in one of the most financially challenging years for my business.
I managed to break my ankle just as the job was completed and an exceptionally good friend, a fellow trader, lost her battle with cancer and we had to give her a ‘virtual’ send off.
I’ve also had a few previously unheard-of negative conflicts with trading on the towpath, mostly from other very anxious struggling businesses that have seen me as a threat to their livelihood.
Fortunately this has been more than compensated for by the number of super generous people who have gone out of their way to support me and my small business, and realising more than ever what fantastic friends and family I’m lucky enough to have.
All of my festivals, events and floating markets were cancelled this year which is my normal bread and butter to see me through the winter, so I have had to trade on the towpath wherever and whenever it’s been possible.
The public have been incredible, people have really been trying to support the small business owner for which I am immensely thankful. They have literally kept me afloat.
My son made me a website at the end of last year and it was an unforeseen huge help to my business this year. It has really taken off for obvious reasons and I also have some interest in supplying my produce to gin bars and artisan shops.
If you fancy some truly homespun ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ Christmas Spirit please look at my products on www.gangplank.shop