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All aboard the Story Boat: shooting a Forestry England event in East Devon

Forestry England is celebrating its centenary in style. Luckily, I was invited to photograph one of its most memorable events

The Story Boat makes for an incongruous sight in her temporary woodland home

“What’s that?” I asked the Forestry England community ranger. “You want me to photograph a boat in the middle of a forest? But shouldn’t it be at the seaside, or on a lake somewhere?”

Gail displays photos and relics as she recounts the tales of Vera's past

Apparently not, came the response. For this is a boat unlike any other. It’s a boat full of stories, and memories, and wonderful experiences that fire imagination and excite interest.

This boat is a Story Boat. And it was my great privilege to photograph it at an event during the summer holidays.

I was invited to Trinity Hill, between Axminster and Lyme Regis on the Devon-Dorset border, to see the Story Boat in action. The event was a collaboration between the Thelma Hulbert Gallery, boat-builder Gail McGarva, and writer Sarah Acton. It was a part of Forestry England’s ‘Tributes to Trees’ centenary celebrations – and it was brilliant in every way.

The idea was to bring Gail’s Story Boat back to the woods from which it was formed, and to celebrate the occasion with stories, crafts, and reflection. It was a classic summer day out for the family, with plenty of opportunity for people of all ages to enjoy hands-on activities while unleashing their creativity.

The Story Boat

The Story Boat made for an incongruous sight as I arrived at Trinity Hill: an upturned boat on wheels, nestled among the verdant foliage of the surrounding forest. Setting it up was Gail, her creator: a humble, passionate and hugely talented boat builder and storyteller.

Gail McGarva: boatbuilder, storyteller and keeper of memories

Visitors gained hands-on experience of boatbuilding techniques

The Story Boat is crafted from a retired fishing boat named Vera. Built in 1923, Vera was one of only two remaining ‘lerrets’: a type of boat designed specifically for use off Chesil Beach in Dorset.

In 2010 Gail secured funding to build a seaworthy daughterboat, to help preserve the lerret and prevent it from extinction. She recreated the boat purely by eye and named her Littlesea.

With this done, Gail turned her attention to Vera. With the help of further funding, she turned her into the beautiful structure you see in these photographs: a mini maritime museum in which to celebrate the story of Vera and the community she served.

Over the course of the day, I watched child after child disappear into the Story Boat, sitting riveted while Gail recounted stories of Vera’s past. Rivets then took on a literal meaning, as the children were given the chance to learn some boatbuilding skills.

Needless to say, the whole experience was wonderful to watch, and even better to capture on camera.

A riveting time was had by all

Inspiration among the trees

Cyanotype printing among the trees

While Gail transported visitors to a maritime world, representatives from the Thelma Hulbert Gallery ran badge-making and cyanotype-printing workshops.

Meanwhile, under the shady bough of a beautiful oak tree, Sarah Acton invited adults and children alike to take part in creative writing activities. As visitors penned tall tales of trees and wave-crushing boats, and crafted beautiful tributes to tie into the mighty oak’s branches, the atmosphere was one of serenity and wonder.

Visitors put pen to paper to write their own tributes to trees

Space to reflect, and time to imagine

The perfect spot to share stories and reflections

And then it struck me: in that moment and place, modern life was on hold. The visitors had taken a step back, embraced the forest and let their wildest imaginings roam free.

So it’s with real pleasure that I share some of the images from the day. If you ever have the chance to visit the Story Boat, or take part in one of Sarah’s creative writing workshops, I highly recommend them both. They’re a source of enlightenment, for young and old alike.

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