In recent years Whilton Locks has been the home of several notable entrepreneurs. They include the designers at Saxon Lifts, world-famous for their specialized hydraulic lifts; Peter Ilsley, one of Britain’s best-known craft potters; and farmer Roger Ashby, who emulated David Steele by diversifying into the burgeoning leisure industry.
David, who died on March 22 2009 at his home near Carcassonne on the Canal du Midi in France, aged 77, created Whilton Marina 38 years ago. It is still one of the largest and most prestigious inland narrowboat facilities in the UK.
At his memorial service at Whilton parish church on April 23, we learnt that David was one of 12 children in a struggling tenant farming family.
He worked his way through farming, agricultural sales and house building with intense dedication and focus, eventually coming to the Locks to build the house which is still occupied by his wife Lucy, a talented gardener and wildlife enthusiast.
When he got his biggest brainwave, he could have been looking across the canal to a field flanking the railway embankment.
Others would have seen a piece of open land that had once been a playing field for Tate and Lyle sugar company employees. David envisioned an ideal base for people with narrowboats.
The “leisure boom” was in its infancy when the four-acre excavation was flooded with a million gallons of canal water in May 1971. It took nearly two decades before all of the 250 moorings were rented for craft owned by boaters from many parts of Britain. David Steele’s marina was among the first of its kind in the country (Daventry District Council has controversially tagged on to the idea of building a marina in the town some 30 years later!).
When I moved into the nearby Windlass Cottage in 1972, there were few boats berthed in the marina. But David was always confident that it would flourish. During frequent discussions in his little office in the hut where the chandlery is now located, I discovered that he was fascinated almost to the point of obsession by creative business ventures and the stock market.
One day I found him and his son Richard pegging out an area adjoining the main road and was told that they were going to build a new pub and posh restaurant. A few days later the steelwork was delivered. The Bannaventa incorporated bricks from the nearby Georgian mansion that had been the home of a Tate and Lyle executive.
The large pub, opened in 1975, was named after the long-vanished substantial town or military staging post built in the area to service the Roman army.
Its main bar featured heads of Roman emperors sculpted in resin by a local artist. A claim was made by some historians that Saint Patrick was born in the Bannaventa settlement in A.D. 389 and there was a persistent local story, which I have been unable to confirm, that David Steele attempted to capitalise on this by offering small plots of the “birthplace” for sale to Irish Americans!
The pub boasted an enormous car park – David claimed it was the largest in the county – on which, in the late 1970’s, he ran Sunday markets with up to 100 stalls. Police had to be called to direct hordes of visitors and the venture was eventually dropped after a long-running planning controversy.
Infuriated by the council planners, David retaliated by standing as an independent candidate for the District Council and winning a Daventry Town Ward seat after personally canvassing all its residents. Not surprisingly he was shunned by the political establishment and eventually lost heart and did not seek re-election.
His huge Bannaventa pub was also a difficult venture. It was opened by directors from the Hook Norton Brewery and for a while he ran it himself. However, he was not temperamentally a pub landlord.
The pub and restaurant, which later incorporated a popular nightclub, was let to a succession of managers and tenants. Some went bankrupt. The most successful was Ken Gane, who renamed it The Locks. After Ken and his wife Jean left in 1991 the building became the flourishing Whilton Locks Carpet Centre.
David Steele also founded a thriving caravan and leisure enterprise at Cosgrove and a similar business at Overstone Park. Another venture, holiday chalets in the south of England, was not as successful and he eventually moved to the warmer climate of southern France. The marina and other leisure businesses were transferred into the capable hands of Lucy and their five sons and daughter.
At the marina the Steele family have been responsible for many major improvements to meet the needs of the growing number of boaters from all over the world who ply the Grand Union Canal through Whilton parish.
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