CANAL COL­UMN

Once boaters are fed up with hav­ing a go at each other, it’s time to at­tack the CRT, says Steve Hay­wood

Canal Boat - - Contents - STEVE HAY­WOOD Award-win­ning cur­rent af­fairs TV pro­ducer, jour­nal­ist and au­thor who has been a boat owner for nearly 40 years Fol­low me on Twit­ter @ Cut­dreamer

Ilove this time of year on the cut. You can wake to a vile day, wet and windy, but be­fore the morn­ing is out the coun­try­side can be bathed in glo­ri­ous sun­shine, and be­fore night has fallen a frost can have set­tled and you can hear the sharp crack of ice as you step onto your boat.

A few craft are al­ready on the move, dodg­ing the win­ter stop­pages; and one or two continuous cruis­ers who’ve been holed up for the win­ter are be­gin­ning to emerge, blink­ing, from their over­heated cab­ins. But by any mea­sure you couldn’t de­scribe the canals as busy: for the most part they still feel for­saken, locked into their win­ter qui­etude.

There’s an­other rea­son too I like this time of the year – be­cause al­though the trees are still bare and the tow­paths thick with mud, you know spring’s not far away. From now on things can only get bet­ter. I didn’t be­lieve it un­til I lived on a boat but it’s true: there are times when you can smell the sea­sons chang­ing. At this pe­riod of the year it’s pal­pa­ble. You can turn your head and catch a whiff of it on the breeze, or sense it as you stand gaz­ing over the stub­ble fields, strain­ing your eyes to the sky where great squab­bling flocks of jack­daws, crows and rooks are still dark­en­ing the hori­zon as they re­treat to their nigh­t­ime roosts.

In the past, this part of the year was when you tra­di­tion­ally pulled out the Ni­chol­son’s and be­gan plan­ning new cruis­ing trips for the sum­mer, or at least dug out the pho­to­graph al­bums so you could re-live some of the old ones. To­day this seems a quaintly old fash­ioned con­cept, like an Ed­war­dian fam­ily gath­er­ing around the pi­ano to sing to­gether. In this in­ter­net world I some­times think that when we’re not ac­tu­ally cruis­ing, the great­est recre­ation for boaters is moan­ing about other boaters. Cer­tainly, judg­ing by some of the nar­row­boat groups on so­cial me­dia, we are a queru­lous and not aw­fully like­able bunch. Some­one only has to ex­press an in­no­cent opin­ion about one facet of boat­ing – about black­ing hulls, say – and be­fore you know it a dozen oth­ers have joined the fray, ar­gu­ing that the way they do things is right, and any other way wrong, like a pack of snarling dogs look­ing for a fight.

Some top­ics are caus­tic. Men­tion speed­ing boats, or bow thrusters, or that old peren­nial of cas­settes v hold­ing tanks, and you might as well put on your hard hat and re­treat to the trenches, be­cause dis­cus­sion on th­ese top­ics will go on and on, ap­par­ently in­ter­minably, be­com­ing in­creas­ingly more bit­ter un­til it even­tu­ally frac­tures into gen­eral ran­cour and personal abuse. And if boaters get bored of hav­ing a go at each other, then there’s al­ways that ha­bit­ual kick­ing boy lurk­ing in the back­ground ready to give them an hour or two’s en­ter­tain­ment.

I’m talk­ing of course about the Canal and River Trust. Now I’m not say­ing there isn’t a lot to crit­i­cise CRT for – for heaven’s sake, I do enough of it my­self. With every month that passes you get the sense that it’s strug­gling to iden­tify its core re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, get­ting too con­cerned with the minu­tiae of man­age­ment and los­ing sight of the big­ger pic­ture. Just this month come re­ports of an­other C&RT cock-up, this time with it ap­par­ently fail­ing to ful­fil its statu­tory re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­vide jour­nal­ists with in­for­ma­tion un­der the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act. Some­times I de­spair.

But CRT can’t be blamed for every­thing; we boaters have re­spon­si­bil­i­ties too. I fear some haven’t yet grasped this. They think every­thing should be done for them, that the price of a li­cence gives them the right to de­mand that every­thing on the cut is main­tained to perfection. We seem to have lost any idea that canalling is an ad­ven­ture, not just a trip to the shops in the car. The idea of personal re­spon­si­bil­ity seems to have van­ished too. Peo­ple com­plain about CRT for triv­ial rea­sons. Be­cause a lock gate doesn’t open eas­ily, or the tow­path is over­grown, or there’s rub­bish around a bridge.

We could just as eas­ily solve th­ese prob­lems our­selves but there are boaters who are too posh to push, let alone pick up a bit of lit­ter. Boaters who call out the canal re­cov­ery ser­vices when their prop gets fouled.

There have been too many ide­al­is­tic TV pro­grammes about the cut, too much talk of ‘liv­ing the dream’, and not enough about the re­al­ity of the canals. The bal­ance needs to be re­dressed.

‘Some top­ics are caus­tic. Men­tion speed­ing boats, or bow thrusters, or that old peren­nial of cas­settes v hold­ing tanks, and you might as well put on your hard hat and re­treat to the trenches’

Wait­ing for the thaw

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