The Ambler

Amble's Community Newspaper: News & events from Amble in Northumberland – The Kindliest Port.

Puffins to the people

Betty-and-DaveFor decades, Puffin Cruises has been taking locals and visitors out to see the wildlife around Coquet Island. Dave Gray’s boat trips have made the family one of the most famous in Amble. The Ambler caught up with Dave and Betty Gray on a rare moment of landlubberliness, to find out more about the family who brought puffins to the people.

Born and bred in Amble

Dave: “I started as a miner in the Hauxley pit, I was there till I was 18, but I didn’t like being down the mine. Then I did all sorts of jobs, picking periwinkles, doing bits and pieces of building work. I was fishing for a while, living at Low Hauxley.

Betty: “There wasn’t even a road along the links in those days; I had to push the pushchair along a track along the dunes!”

Dave: “We moved to Amble and I got a job with the Harbour Commissioners, then I got a job with the Amble Modern School’s Seamanship Centre, teaching the kids all about boats, knot  tying and navigation. Ken Shawcross was the teacher. There’s a boat on the quayside now, called the Seaquest, which was built by the school. In 1969 I started running boat trips during the summer holidays with Gordon Easton. Then Freddie (the dolphin) came and put Amble on the map. Gordon used to take people out to swim with the dolphin, while I took the viewers out.

“Then came Mrs Thatcher and everything changed. I was made redundant. At the time it was a major blow, you think how are you going to manage, but I decided to go into business myself.”

Boats are his life

“Puffin Cruises was actually my son Davey’s idea, after Freddie went. He’s got a good business head! We still do work for the lighthouse. It’s a real family affair, Betty does the bookings and the bookkeeping, Davey and I run the boats along with Bill Gregor. And my grandson Steven also helps out. He works for Trinity House on the vessel ‘Patricia’ that you see off Coquet Island every year.”

In 2006, Dave was diagnosed with cancer and spent time in hospital.

“I was pretty shabby. It took nearly two years to get back to what I should have been. Davey and Bill kept on with the boats and if it hadn’t been for Betty, I probably wouldn’t still be here.”

His eyes well up with the memories.

Betty, who spent many years on Amble Town Council, becoming Mayor from 1999 -2001, reveals a quietly determined nature: “You’ve got to get on with it. I knew he was ill and I tried to give him strength. He’d never been ill in his life. The Ashington staff were wonderful.”

Nowadays Dave has to regularly check his blood pressure, and finds life a lot less stressful with his dog Shep and, of course, being on boats.

“Boats are his life,” says Betty. She laughs, “and the dog”.

Dave: “Afterwards, I started to look at everything differently. I was 74 last month. Amble looks a lot better these days, but every change I’ve seen is for the worst. Employment has disappeared; everything seems on the verge of tipping over. Tourism, yes, but it’s such a seasonal thing – no-one knows more than us! We rely on good weather to help bring customers. We rely on people from holiday lets, and caravan parks.”

Puffin Cruises attracts many visitors to the harbour area, and Dave and the family are regularly asked about local history, and in their opinion a museum in the town would be a good idea. Dave’s knowledge and love of the wider Amble area is obviously beneficial for his business, but he agrees he feels happiest around the harbour.

“The harbour is my part of town, if I’m up the street, people will laugh and say ‘Are you lost?’”

Puffin Cruises: 01665 711975/ 07752861914

Anna Williams

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