Tooley’s Boatyard’s owner Matt Armitage is gearing up for a two-day celebration marking his 15 years in charge of the historic boatyard and is hoping to remain for 15 more.
Matt took over the day-to-day running of the historic Banbury site in 2002 and has transformed the yard into a seat of learning, innovation, entertainment and community outreach.
Matt’s history is as meandering and long as the Oxford Canal the boatyard has sat beside for over 200 years.
After leaving school at 16 and with no real plans for a career, Matt volunteered at an archaeological excavation not far from his home. Within three years he was a full-time working archaeologist, eventually winding up at the Oxford Archaeology Unit, one of the foremost groups in its field.
It was while working here that Matt developed his passion for functioning sites of historical importance.
Matt said: “One of the things I used to do was go to places like this [Tooley’s] which were being destroyed and I would draw them and record them before they were bulldozed.
“It’s fantastic that this is still here because I’ve seen so many that have been lost.”
Matt’s links to the boating world began when his friend started a floating restaurant in Oxford. Matt became a business partner which led to him taking over the Castle Mill boatyard in Jericho, Oxford, setting it up as a working boatyard which is still under the threat of closure from developers.
In 2002 the lease came up for Tooley’s and it was the perfect opportunity for Matt to indulge his passion and knowledge and save the UK’s oldest, continually working dry dock from possible closure.
Matt said: “When I first took it on, the site had just been redeveloped and it had been integrated into the Tourist Information Centre as well as the museum. We’re the largest exhibit in the museum.
“At the time there was nobody repairing boats in Banbury because of the redevelopment, so we took it on, set up and got the boatyard running and operating. We repair boats, in fact coming up this year will be our 1,500th boat, which is about 100 per year.”
From the solid base of a working dry dock Matt and the Tooley’s team quickly sought to build its capabilities, transforming it into a place the community could learn and interact with. The team built and performed the first broadside launch of a narrow boat for 90 years in 2007, run a boat school and Matt is a frequent speaker at historical societies.
Reaching out to a wider audience, the yard cleans out the dry dock for the annual canal day to turn it into a makeshift cinema, runs astronomy classes and has started the Man Shed scheme, allowing use of the yard’s forge and equipment for weekend blacksmiths.
The lease expires in October and to mark the last 15 years Tooley’s will host a two-day celebration, on Oct 7 and 8, of its place in UK history and its importance to Banbury.