Award-win­ning cur­rent af­fairs TV pro­ducer, jour­nal­ist and author who has been a boat owner for more than 40 years

Canal Boat - - Contents - Fol­low me on Twit­ter @Cut­dreamer STEVE HAY­WOOD

‘Male, pale and stale’ - Steve Hay­wood reck­ons much more needs to be done to at­tract dif­fer­ent and di­verse sorts of peo­ple to the canals

The first time I went by boat to the Fair­port Con­ven­tion Fes­ti­val at Cro­predy on the Ox­ford Canal was al­most 40 years ago. My friend Ian and his wife Susie trav­elled with Moira and me in convoy from Ban­bury late one Fri­day af­ter­noon. In those days the fes­ti­val was a two-day af­fair, not the three days it has be­come; and as we rounded the bend bor­der­ing the hill on which it takes place we could al­ready hear the sound of the open­ing acts of the evening echo­ing across the un­du­lat­ing Ox­ford­shire coun­try­side. We moored our boats and were soon stretched out on the grass at the fes­ti­val arena.

You couldn’t do that nowa­days. Quite apart from the fact that the Cro­predy fes­ti­val has turned into a ‘deckchair’ event where no one sits on the grass any longer, it’s also as much a boat as a mu­sic event. Craft – many of them trad­ing boats – line the tow­path, bow to stern, vir­tu­ally the whole of the three miles or so be­tween Ap­ple­tree and Slatt’s Mill locks.

Some boats moor in Ban­bury, their crews trav­el­ling to the site us­ing taxis and the fes­ti­val bus. The newly-built ma­rina where the crews of moored boats of­ten stay for the du­ra­tion, adds an­other wa­ter­ways di­men­sion to the whole af­fair. To stay on a boat dur­ing the fes­ti­val in this day and age re­quires plan­ning of al­most mil­i­tary pre­ci­sion; you need to stake a claim to your moor­ing months ahead.

Even so, de­spite the in­con­ve­niences, I’d ad­vise any­one who hasn’t been to the fes­ti­val to give it a go – as much to get a sense of the di­ver­sity of peo­ple on the cut as to lis­ten to the mu­sic. The canals are of­ten seen by those look­ing at them from out­side as pale, male and stale, and as a fully paid-up mem­ber of that club my­self, I can see what they’re get­ting at.

To be hon­est, I some­times feel that there are too many men like me on the wa­ter. We are al­ways, ha­bit­u­ally, the ones at the tiller. Many of us are re­tired, and if we have hair at all, it’s in­vari­ably some colour be­tween sil­ver grey and ash white.

Cro­predy dur­ing the fes­ti­val is a dif­fer­ent world though. Since so many boaters nowa­days are re­luc­tant to visit Lon­don, a trip to the fes­ti­val at least gives you a chance to get some sense of the young who are cur­rently be­ing drawn in num­bers to the canals; and min­gling with these more youth­ful boaters you re­alise that just be­cause they haven’t got a coach­work-fin­ish liv­ery on their craft (pre­fer­ring in­stead roofs clut­tered with bags of coal and rusty bric-a-brac) they are, even so, re­ally nice peo­ple.

There are a lot of women among them too, some of them sin­gle­hand­edly crew­ing full-length tra­di­tional boats which they wind without a thought. Some of them are black as well. Some are even black AND women.

Now, for­give me if I am scep­ti­cal at the Canal and River Trust’s at­tempts to but­ter up the Govern­ment into ex­tend­ing its grant by try­ing to pass it­self off as some sort of arm of the NHS, ded­i­cated to the health of the na­tion. It all sounds dread­fully man­u­fac­tured to me, like some­one giv­ing you a sob story on the street be­fore, in­evitably, hit­ting you for cash. How­ever, I think there are ways that C&RT could more suc­cess­fully sell the canals as a na­tional re­source, and I think they’re miss­ing a trick not do­ing it.

One of these ways is by en­cour­ag­ing and cel­e­brat­ing di­ver­sity on the wa­ter­ways, though to do this would mean mak­ing a real ef­fort to foster it be­cause out­side of Cro­predy and a few ur­ban en­claves there is no real ev­i­dence that it ex­ists. In other words, as it stands at the mo­ment, C&RT is vul­ner­a­ble to ar­gu­ments that the sig­nif­i­cant amount of public money which is go­ing to the canals is sub­si­diz­ing a small, very nar­row based and – dare I say it? – very priv­i­leged group of so­ci­ety.

The Trust needs to broaden its base; it is just not do­ing enough to at­tract dif­fer­ent sorts of peo­ple to the canals. I com­mend it for the way it’s stood firm again de­mands by, among oth­ers, the In­land Wa­ter­ways As­so­ci­a­tion, to ef­fec­tively ‘cleanse’ the canals by clear­ing out the young from Lon­don’s wa­ter­ways. But it needs to do more yet, and this can’t be achieved by cross­ing the cor­po­rate fin­gers and hop­ing that ex­cluded groups some­how find the canals unas­sisted. It needs to be proac­tive and go out and find po­ten­tial new cus­tomers. Where are the fea­tures about canals in mag­a­zines cater­ing for women, the young and mi­nor­ity eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties? Where is the ev­i­dence that it is tar­get­ing these groups? Where is the ev­i­dence that it is even dis­cussing the is­sue, or even aware of it...?

Lon­don’s live­aboard com­mu­nity – younger and more di­verse

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