YOU'VE never seen a Charlie Chaplin film properly until you've watched it on a makeshift screen put up in the hull of a former grain barged moored beside the River Ouse.

It was raining outside, the water drumming on the steel deck above our heads. Below decks on the Selby Tony, however, it was dim and cool. The ribbed steel of the hull stretched all around us, like the inside of one of those spaceships in the Alien films.

The audience was seated, drinks and snacks in hand, in a haphazard scattering of upright chairs, comfy sofas and stools in front of the screen. There was much ducking and weaving of heads to see past the heads of those in front. But none of that mattered... because this was just brilliant.

John Beecroft, the former ITN cameraman who was a founder of the South Bank Community Cinema, fiddled with a few controls somewhere off in the dark, and the first images of Chaplin's Modern Times flashed up on the screen.

Chaplin was playing a hapless factory worker trapped in the grinding mechanism of the brave new world of the 1930s. He flapped and flurried, trying to keep pace with the ever faster conveyor belt he was working on. Two giant spanners in hand, his job was to tighten the nuts on half-built gizmos as they flashed past him. Sometimes his spanner would get stuck, and he'd be hauled along, flapping and squawking, until he was almost swallowed by the giant maw into which the completed gizmos were pouring.

Chaplin remained brilliantly funny throughout, his face and gestures wonderfully soulful as, sacked for failing to keep pace with the demands of his conveyor belt, he was spat out into the desperate world of the Great Depression. There, he fell in with a waif, played by the glorious Paulette Goddard, and between them the pair tried to find a corner to make their own in the brave new mechanistic world in which they found themselves.

Released in 1936, right on the cusp of the change from silent to sound movies, it's an utterly brilliant, wonderfully funny yet heart-wrenching film. And watching it in the steel-ribbed belly of the Selby Tony, with the rain thundering on the deck overhead and the other audience members laughing and crying all around, was unforgettable.

But then, everything about the Selby Tony - aka the York Arts Barge - is pretty much unforgettable.

For four weeks or so, it has been moored at Tower Gardens. And for three of those weeks - right up to last Thursday - it was the venue for a festival of community arts unlike any other.

That steel-ribbed hold, once capable of carrying 250 tonnes of grain between Selby and Hull, has been converted into a unique performance space.

York Press:

A performance in the steel-ribbed hull of the Selby Tony

For three weeks, it was used for everything from live acoustic folk and roots music to stand up comedy, cabaret, classical cello performances, improv drama, arts and crafts workshops, magic, puppetry, and even an exhibition of dolls and boggarts. Oh, and that unforgettable screening of Modern Times, of course...

For the team behind the Arts Barge project, the last few weeks have been a triumph: a chance to prove the naysayers wrong and show that the dream they have nurtured for a decade - of having a permanent floating arts centre on a barge moored in York city centre - is achievable.

The reaction to the barge has been all they could have hoped for, says Christian Topman, one of three directors - along with Hannah West and Marcia Mackey - of the Arts Barge project. "We've had three weeks of really successful arts events, and there has been an amazing buzz."

It hasn't always been that way. There were sceptical mutterings from some quarters when the Arts Barge team first began dreaming back in 2009. Then, in 2013, when the then Labour administration at City of York Council offered a grant of £25,000 to help the project, those mutterings began to turn nasty. Some opposition politicians took advantage of the criticism to denounce the cash award.

So stung was the Arts Barge team that, having used only a small part of the council grant, they declined to take the rest.

But they refused to give up. With the help of donations, fund-raising, and individual investments, they managed to raise enough to buy the Selby Tony in 2013.

The barge had been sitting in the Waddington's boatyard near Rotherham, waiting probably to be sold for scrap. It was little more than a rusting hulk - bit it was big, and the hull was in good condition.

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The Selby Tony in dry dock

Having bought the barge, the Arts Barge team began the process of raising money to convert it into a floating arts centre. They staged events - including a regular Riverside Festival in a marquee in Tower Gardens - sought donations and launched two crowdfunding campaigns.

The barge was moored for a while in the Foss Basin, where people could see it, before being towed to the Hirst boatyard in Knottingley, where work began on converting it.

The hull was re-plated to strengthen it; internal partitions were removed to create a large performance space; and an upper deck of brand new steel was fitted.

But perhaps the biggest expense so far has been the 'incline tests', says Christian: a series of tests carried out by qualified engineers to ensure that the barge was stable in the water, and wouldn't capsize, even if everyone onboard rushed to one side to look over the rails at once. "It is all signed off," Christian says. "Safety is non-negotiable."

A few weeks ago, the barge began its journey back upriver to York, towed by a tug. Along the way, it had to negotiate a low bridge - a process which required tonnes of ballast being loaded aboard (including five family paddling pools filled with water) to lower the barge enough to get through.

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Tight squeeze: The Tony navigates a low bridge

The Tony arrived in York on July 12, was opened to the public a week later, and then promptly put on the Arts Barge festival.

But what next?

Since last Thursday, when the festival ended, the Tony has lain quietly at its moorings. Soon, it will be towed to the Foss Basin again. Because there is still work to be done.

The first is the construction of a permanent mooring at Tower Gardens. The Tony has planning permission to moor there - but the moorings used this summer were only temporary. The Arts Barge team want the Tony to be a permanent fixture in the city centre - and for that, there need to be pertinent moorings that can continue to operate whatever the weather, and however high (or low) the water gets.

There is also still work to do on the barge itself. A deckhouse will be built at the stern; the engine room below decks (the engine has been removed) will be turned into a toilet; and a disabled lift is to be fitted.

So for now, the fundraising will continue. But the Arts Barge will be back, says Christian.

York Press:

Arts Barge directors Christian Topman (left) and Hannah West (centre) with bar manager Hannah Hutchinson during the festival

"We will be back here at Tower Gardens next summer. And one day we'll be moored here permanently," he says. "It's a unique arts space. It is not city centre slick, and never will be. It is a unique floating venue that is small, haphazard, but has great acoustics. We want to develop it as a permanent floating centre for community, fringe and small scale arts and performance."

We can't wait.


This summer's Arts Barge Festival wouldn't have been possible without the army of volunteers who helped out, admits Christian Topman.

There are too many of them to thank them all, he says. But they made this summer's festival happen, doing everything from manning the bar and serving tea and coffee to setting up events and clearing up after performances.

To find out how you can get involved in future - or to make a donation - visit