Perhaps widebeams should pay more; unlikely towns that have a lot to offer
You get to a certain age – somewhere in your early 30s in my experience – when birthdays stop being celebrations and become more commiserations. I had a birthday recently. It was not an occasion of great joy in the Haywood household. You would not have heard champagne corks popping and the cheerful voices of friends and family vying to offer congratulations.
Age has its advantages, of course. You get money from the government for a start – and that’s a novelty after years of them dipping into your pocket every month filching what they can.
But it has its associated indignities too. Apart from the mortal frame creaking at every joint, the memory starts to fade just at that stage when people start asking you to exercise it.
“What was it like in the old days, then?” someone asked me on the towpath recently. I couldn’t believe the cheeky muppet was talking to me, but since I was the only person around I guessed he must have been.
“What are the biggest changes you’ve seen?” he went on. “What do you regret the most?” I wasn’t comfortable in this role of providing instant oral history, but the questions got me thinking. What has been the biggest change I’ve seen? What do I regret the most?
The first question is the easiest to answer since the canals are totally unrecognisable from when Em and I tentatively cast off for the first time all those years ago in what seems a different world.
Then towpaths were overgrown and crumbling into the cut; today they’re like little roads – too much like little roads sometimes. The canals too – despite the complaints they’re not dredged enough – are in far better condition than they were. In those days there were people who cruised with a block and tackle on board as the only way of making progress.
My biggest regret is the passing of the sense of community that was associated with a small band of enthusiasts pursuing an obsession against obdurate, intransigent bureaucracies who were so blind they couldn’t see the value of a canal system, and so unimaginative they couldn’t picture what it might be used for.
My other biggest regret is the growth of widebeam ‘narrowboats’.
Me admitting this may come as a surprise to many since it’s been a long standing unwritten rule of the cut that you don’t criticise other people’s boats. But it’s not individual boats I’m criticising, but a category of boat that I have to confess I find unremittingly pig-ugly.
I mean, widebeam ‘narrowboats’? What sort of a contradiction in terms is that? Give me a Dutch barge, or a Thames tug and I can understand how the design of the boat results from its function. But widebeam ‘narrowboats’?
I know their owners love them to bits, but their function often is as a box to live in. They are not really navigable boats – for heavens’ sake, some of them are being built without even having gunnels for exactly the same reason that the old butties were: to maximise space. With some notable exceptions, the canals weren’t really built for wide boats, either.
The Grand Union may have double locks, but wide boats were little used and soon discouraged by the company; and even up north, on the Leeds & Liverpool, home of the elegant short boat, current dredging and vegetation maintenance make it a nightmare in some places if a narrowboat meets a widebeam, let alone if two of them meet each other.
Later this year the Canal & River Trust will be undertaking a comprehensive consultation into the structure of licensing fees and let me nail my colours to the mast at this early stage and say that, for many reasons, I am hoping that in the future the licence will be based on the surface area of a boat – length x beam – not just on length alone.
I’m aware that this suggestion is going to get many in the waterways’ community howling, and I am fully aware of the arguments they will marshal to defend the status quo.
But I remain unmoved by claims that because wider boats have a reduced area of cruising, they should pay an unequal licence fee. That way lies madness.
You’d have 70ft narrowboats claiming discounts because they can’t cruise northern canals. You’d have people with small engines wanting a discount for not being able to navigate the Ribble Link to the Lancaster Canal.
‘Me admitting this may come as a surprise since it’s been a long-standing unwritten rule that you don’t criticise others’ boats’