CANAL COL­UMNS

Canal Boat - - This Month - STEVE HAY­WOOD Award-win­ning cur­rent affairs TV pro­ducer, jour­nal­ist and au­thor who has been a boat owner for nearly 40 years

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’

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