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Peter Nicholls

Noted boat-builder Peter Nicholls recently turned 77 and is still hard at work. In conversation with Andrew Denny, he discusses his 50 years in the business

Roger Baileff (l) Peter Nicholls (r) in front of latest Huffler

Roger Baileff (l) and Peter Nicholls (r) in front of the latest Huffler

It started with a request from a reader – could we find a much-loved narrowboat he commissioned from boat-builder Peter Nicholls nearly 50 years ago?

While we are yet to track down the boat in question, we were well aware of Peter, who is still hard at work, quietly building a variety of steel craft in his workshops at Braunston Marina. It came as a surprise to us, though, that his career and business stretched back that far. Starting with conventional steel narrowboats in the 1970s, he eventually came to specialise in wide-beams and sailboats capable of cruising tidal waters throughout Europe and, in some cases, around the world.

We visited his premises to find out more about his career.

Early leisure boating scene 

Inland boats were a very different proposition from today’s luxury, high-tech models when Peter started in 1973. Back then, people wanting to get afloat cheaply would buy redundant ‘station boats’ – open-plan, Birmingham day-boats, originally pulled by a tug or horse. There were plenty of them left from the dying days of canal carrying. 

Working in the open, with no workshop, it could be hard graft, he says, particularly in winter. “But I was young and tough then. I had a little van and I would tow a welding generator around on a trailer, with a Lister SR2 on the front end. And then I thought, ‘Never mind these rusty old boats, I could build these things myself!’ So I bought some plans for narrowboats and modified them.”

Redditch base

In 1974 he found a small workshop in Redditch which was part of a redundant wire works. There was one problem, however: it was so small he could only build a 40-footer inside. “As a test I built a bow and two whole sections, about 32ft long. But the first customer who came didn’t want that. He wanted a 24-footer. So, I had to put the shell on one side and start again and I built the 24-footer with a closed front, a small cabin and a little stern. And a Sabb single-cylinder engine but no fitting out. We put that on the water for the customer down at Alvechurch and he took it home to Wolverhampton.

Seagoing craft

As a business, Peter Nicholls Boatbuilders has run the full gamut of inland boats. But, despite being based at ‘the crossroads of the canals’ in Braunston, over recent decades the company has, paradoxically, become best known for its seagoing boats. 

Undoubtedly his most famous work is Princess Matilda, the Dutch barge he built for Timothy Spall. The centrepiece of the actor’s three Timothy Spall at Sea TV series, it has perhaps received more screen time than any other boat. 

Princess Matilda

But it’s his steel-hulled sailing yachts that now stand out among the narrowboats of Braunston Marina. 

Peter’s move into wide-beam boats and yachts came largely with the influence of two boat designers, Roger Fillery and Tony Tucker, both of whom he knew from his early days in the business. Peter has built several of Tony’s designs, including the Renegade round-hulled and the Mistral chined yachts, both capable of round-the-world sailing. 

It was Peter’s own concept for an easy-to-sail Category A (deep sea) motor all-steel sailboat that led Tony Tucker to design the Huffler exclusively for him. Named after a Broads term for the man who would lower the mast of Norfolk wherries to get under bridges, the first Huffler was launched at the 1993 London Boat Show. 

The Peter Nicholls’ brand

Peter’s early boats were mostly sailaways and even up to the early 2000s there was quite a market for people fitting out their own boats. Perhaps everything became more complicated, not just through extra legislation (the Recreational Craft Directive started in 1998) but because equipment itself has become more complicated. 

Looking back, the years have gone past and he’s barely noticed. “How many boats have I built? I did count once, a few years ago, and it was about 500. But I don’t know now. I’m still too busy.” 

Is there a ‘signature’ to his boats, a characteristic Peter Nicholls’ look? “One thing you wouldn’t be able to see when they’re underway, our boats always had long swims. For example, a 50ft boat would have a 14ft swim. They cut through the water very well.” 


Scumble in 1983


Where’s Scumble?

One of Peter Nicholls’ earliest boats was Scumble, a 40ft narrowboat built at his original premises in Redditch in 1976 as a sailaway. 

Freighted by road down to Hamble, it was sailed by Peter across the Solent to Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Its commissioner was Peter Atkinson, at the time a young assistant prison officer at Parkhurst, who was to go on to be governor in several other such institutions. 

Peter Atkinson sailed the boat 4 miles upstream to Newport, close to his work, and fitted it out with the help of some prison contractors, adding the name of a local brewery, Burt & Company – signwriting that he kept while the boat was in his ownership. 

Moving to the mainland in 1980, he brought it with him to the Shropshire Union, finally selling it in Wakefield in 1983 when work took him there. 

Peter Nicholls tells us he would love to know if it is still cruising, and says he will happily “send a tenner” to anyone who can relate its travelling history. Or perhaps its fate, since there does not currently appear to be a boat with that name on the inland boat list.

Is this early example of Peter Nicholls’ work still happily cruising somewhere?


This is an extract of the feature that appears in the March 2024 issue of Waterways Worldclick here to read the full article.