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