Reunion afloat for Five Men In A Boat

The crew of the Silver Song in April 1961 on the Norfolk Broads. Phil Crossley and Bill Taylor
The crew of the Silver Song in April 1961 on the Norfolk Broads. Phil Crossley and Bill Taylor
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When five Blackpool school pals hatched a plan to embark on a river cruise holiday on the Norfolk Broads, little did they know they’d (almost) be recreating the trip some 56 years later.

The crew of the Silver Song in April 1961 – Dave Miller, now living in Cleveleys, Phil Crossley, from Blackpool, Bill Taylor, from Hambleton, John Featherstone, from St Annes, and Barrie Oughton, from Barnsley – may have gone their separate ways as they grew up.

Bill Taylor, Dave Miller, Barrie Oughton, and Phil Crossley aged 16 on Reads Avenue, Blackpool

Bill Taylor, Dave Miller, Barrie Oughton, and Phil Crossley aged 16 on Reads Avenue, Blackpool

But their camaraderie is stronger than ever after reliving their teenage years with a boat trip from Nateby, Garstang, last year and plans for another outing on Lancaster Canal this summer.

John, 74, said: “We kept in touch over the years through Christmas cards but a few pictures which Barrie found from a holiday 56 years ago led to a reunion. And now it’ll be an annual outing.

“We haven’t really changed! Just because we’re in our 70s now, we don’t talk about retirement and mortgages. We talk like 15 and 16-year-olds – point scoring with each other, we haven’t lost that.

“How the crew of the Silver Song on the Norfolk Broads managed to get there from Blackpool and back unscathed, we see as a mystery to this day.

“We had a ‘not a care in the world’ attitude. We all went our own ways and nigh on 60 years later, we’re still in contact with the same realism and often cynical recalls.”

John Featherstone – former Blackpool police officer, Suzuki sales rep and now writer – recounts his story of the reunion of ‘Five Men in a Boat’:

In 1960 five dissolute youths left Blackpool Grammar school with a smattering of GCEs between them, having been largely untouched by Latin, French, Maths and Science teaching and failed memory retention.

Valiant efforts by gowned academic masters, in an archaic institution, had little impression on lusty wandering minds alert to an awakening sixties pop music scene in a vibrant seaside town. There were no Chelsea tractors to guide and shepherd them, but a freedom to gain confidence. None would have heard of Jerome K Jerome and his 1989 book “Three men in a Boat”. A classic tale of ‘overworked’ aspiring business fellows in Victorian London, trying to escape reality and pressure and undertake a relaxing river cruise on the Thames.

The crew of the Silver Song in April 1961 on the Norfolk Broads. John Featherstone and Bill Taylor

The crew of the Silver Song in April 1961 on the Norfolk Broads. John Featherstone and Bill Taylor

But an uncanny link seems to emerge a century plus later with this fivesome.

They have a J, but not a Harris or George... or even a Montmorency. Just a similarity of candour and laid back reality transcending the years.

It remains to this day with all of them and none more so, when the five 74-year-old grandparents all met up again some 56 years later.

The idea was to relive their own holiday memories in 1961 by hiring a launch for the day from Nigel and Ivor at Bridge House Marina, Nateby, Garstang.

From top left to right: Barrie Oughton, John Featherstone, Phil Crossley and Dave Miller

From top left to right: Barrie Oughton, John Featherstone, Phil Crossley and Dave Miller

It worked - and though the wettest day of summer in late June was picked, it was a scenic journey through rain spattered windows from Garstang to Galgate and back as conversation and drink flowed .

The inevitable argument of who was to be captain and who was crew totally unresolved, as it was in all those years earlier.

The same traits of offensive remarks made to each other.

Sniping and snide comment from yesteryear without it seems causing any lasting offence.

The efforts to unite the crew in a simple task of casting off mooring ropes failed and boat steering greeted with unhelpful sarcasm. No – nothing had changed and a good time was had with the bar opening soon after departure.

There was no in depth reminiscing and pipe smoking with these latter day fellows, but perhaps both groups shared a total lack of responsibility and not thinking of contributing to society? The Five had in 1961 sought the attractions of girls but were totally untrained in any procedural advances – but would never admit to that.

Dave Miller -  before he became the drummer with Joe Brown and the Bruvvers and Marty Wilde.

Dave Miller - before he became the drummer with Joe Brown and the Bruvvers and Marty Wilde.

No plan of campaign to overcome this other than possibly hoped for solutions that alcohol consumption could assist in. It didn’t.

Reflective parents of the Five would consider perhaps why their sons had post school employment as a trainee carpet fitter, type compositer, road sign maker, shop assistant and van driver instead of telling neighbours and family they were bound for the dreamy spires of Oxford and Cambridge. None the less they possessed a spirit it seems, of the same nonchalance endowed on the threesome many years before. The sign maker became a very accomplished drummer famously joining Marty Wilde and the Wildcats, Jimmy Justice and Joe Brown and the Bruvvers.

Then a spell in a dance band sailing the world on cruise ships giving him plenty of tale telling recall (oft repeated) for years to come. The others took life in their stride. All married, travelled the world, had various jobs but always sought to achieve the next opportunity.

Today there is no recognition from any of them accepting the ultimate adversity of advancing years in life and health curtailment – and green bananas are always on the shopping list. But back to the beginning: The plan was hatched in 1961 to take a river cruise holiday on the Norfolk Broads to seek girls and advance drinking prowess free of any parental restrictions. Kindly (perhaps foolish) parents of one gave free use of their Hillman Minx saloon car to undertake the 500 mile round trip to Great Yarmouth and embarkation onto the Silver Song. What was the generous father thinking of, trusting these fellows? Strangely enough without any particular attention or care they did manage to bring it back totally unscathed – with no doubt the petrol tank empty.

The actual booking, cost, car journey, one set of clothes and washing and feeding arrangements are still discussed without any recollection and remain a mystery to this day. But a sometimes enhanced memory bank served them well with other moments and, amazingly, a collection of black and white pictures showing skeletal 17-year-olds doing what they do best... showing off.

As one of them said: “We haven’t changed at all, have we?”

• John Featherstone is the author of Pushing Treacle Uphill, describing stories of Blackpool in the 1950s and 1960s. It is available in Waterstones on Bank Hey Street, Blackpool library branches and from Amazon.

Phil Crossley, Barrie Oughton,  Dave Miller, Bill Taylor,  and John Featherstone in 2017

Phil Crossley, Barrie Oughton, Dave Miller, Bill Taylor, and John Featherstone in 2017

Barrie Oughton, Bill Taylor,  John Featherstone, Phil Crossley and Dave Miller in 2017

Barrie Oughton, Bill Taylor, John Featherstone, Phil Crossley and Dave Miller in 2017