Wednesday 26 September 2018

CRT Jottings - Annual Public Meeting in Birmingham

CRT Jottings
Annual Public Meeting in Birmingham
September 2018

CRT held its 6th Annual Public Meeting on the Austin Court theater on Wednesday 26th September , a stones throw from Old Turn Junction in central Birmingham. 

This public meeting, which would be referred to as an AGM is most other settings, is open to any and all interested parties and was led by Allan Leighton, the Chair of the Trust with Richard Parry (CEO) and his senior team providing a series of presentations to highlight the achievements and challenges over the last year. They also outlined the key elements in the plan for the year ahead. These presentations were followed by a Q&A session from the floor.

I can't hope to capture everything which was said, but here are the stand outs as I saw them:

Allan Leighton (Chair)
  • Income stands at £204.9m, an increase of 5% after allowing for exceptional  one off grant income received last year.
  • Volunteer activity grew to 600,000 hours 
  • Aim is to develop CRT from a National Asset to a National Treasure
  • Wider use of the waterways can make a real difference to national well being.
  • The heat of activities remains and will always remain navigation
  • The regions have been trimmed to 6, each with a director
  • A new brand identity has been delivered in line with new objectives
  • Asset quality continues to improve
  • Investment values have grown from £480m when the Trust began to £750m today
  • 225 Local adoptions are now operating 
Richard Parry (CEO) / Stuart Mills (Chief Investment Officer)
  • The Defra Grant represents 25% of income - assured for nearly 10 years
  • Investment income now generates £50m
  • The trust has been following a strategy to diversify investment away from its property bias.
  • Investment income has increased 40% in 6 years - beating market averages
  • Non property investment values were adversely impacted by exchange rates last year
  • Bond issue for £150m  concluded, releasing an extra £100m for investment and locking into a low 3% interest rate for 30 years.
  • Additional investment will generate a net £2m to £3m income pa.
  • BWML sale nearly complete.
  • Inclusion in Peoples Postcode Lottery as a preferred beneficiary has seen grant income increase from £3m to £6m.
  • There are now 27,000 active friends
  • Boat numbers are up 2%
John Horsfall (Head of Boating)
  • License review included 11,000 responses
  • London Boating strategy included 2,000 responses
  • Business licensing was automated
  • Evasion down to 3.1% - the lowest yet. Attributed to a focus to help people stay on the water rather than harder tactics.
  • 70% of boaters satisfied - below 72% target and slightly down from last year.
  • The licensing changes were explained
  • Caveat to look at high usage areas was flagged up, given the rapid growth of boat numbers in some locations.
Richard Parry

  • Key aim is to broaden the appeal of inland waterways
  • 250 miles have been awarded Green Flag status (K&A, Lancaster and Chesterfield)
  • Plans is to move this achievement to the urban areas where the benefits are greatest
  • CRT spends £150m pa on the network
  • Stoppage update: Middlewich  should open in December 18 and Marple in March 19.
  • Progress being made on the historic boat collection in Ellesmere
Julie Sharman (Chief Operating Officer)

  • Health and Safety has high priority with incidents monitored daily
  • Among staff there is typically one reportable incident per month which results in a 7 day absence.
  • 313 public incidents (not all are brought to CRT attention)
  • 9% relate to CRT asset deficiencies.
  • Fatalities are, sadly, fairly common but have declined from an average of 60 ish pa to 40 pa today.
  • Common reasons for public deaths are misadventure, alcohol and substance abuse.
Adam Comerford (National Hydrology Manager)
  • Illustrated the impacts of the recent low rainfall and the high temperatures
  • 10% of network impacted by closures or restrictions
  • 2018 will probably set a new benchmark for water shortages
Nicky Wakefield (Marketing)
  • Rebranding undertaken to reposition the Trust as a Waterways and Well being charity
  • New brand works better on digital platforms
  • Total cost was 0.1% of total income or about £200,000
  • £60k on logo, £50k on digital templates, £20k on signage, £30k on uniforms and £50k on launch events.
  • Initial results after 3 months - Awareness of CRT for those within 1km of waterway increased 47% to 55%, recall of message from signage up from 6% to 9%, website visits up by over 10%, propensity to pledge tangible support up from 2.1m to 2.8m.
  • These are very positive outcomes and will continue to be monitored closely.
Questions and Answers

These came thick and fast and the best I can do is summarise the key questions as I understood them, to give you a flavour of the subject matters:
  • Future funding plans / sources
  • Protection for vulnerable boat dwellers
  • Best practice sharing among regional boards
  • Cyclists and pace issues
  • Wide Boat licensing fee increases (including a petition)
  • Opportunities for CRT to influence beyond the canal corridor
  • Need to safeguard the  built canalside heritage
  • Facility issues including refuse collections
  • Leaving space for fishermen between moored boats
  • Pressures on shared  water space re non boaters (eg rowing)
  • Limitations in growth of residential moorings
  • Anticipated inclusions / exclusions in review of high usage areas
  • Tone of solicitor correspondence to vulnerable boaters
  • CRT involvement in Icknield Port Loop development (Birmingham)
I think that's about all I can remember - any errors or omissions are entirely my fault and can be attributed to advancing age and very bad handwriting.....

Braunston beckons

Braunston beckons
August 2018

We always knew that progress would slow when we reached the Grand Union and so it has turned out. We are dawdling along in the knowledge we have a whole month ahead of us before the Black Country Boating Festival so there is really no need to press ahead, covering in a week what could normally be covered in a couple of days.

 Junction cottage at Braunston

This means that for the first time this trip we are having to be mindful of the mooring restrictions.

Our first destination after Blisworth wasn't exactly challenging. The plan was to moor at Gayton Junction and both see the family, and offer a convenient point for Helen to get to London. In reality the plans changed and we moved on through Weedon, pausing to pick some plums along the way. We consulted the map and realised that the top of Long Buckby Locks was close to a railway which leads to Northampton, so we stopped there instead.

With Long Buckby Station being a couple of miles away we called a taxi (£10) and both went into Northampton. Helen prowled the charity shops in search of more material for her new Canal Boat column before heading off to London. I did the banking and legged it to get some jamming ingredients not readily available on the towpath. She went south and I went back north.

Lock keepers hovel

Instead of getting a taxi to the boat I thought I would walk, dragging the loaded trolley behind me. There was a bus stop but what are the chances of a rural bus arriving when you need it? Of course, I was hot and sweaty a mile down the road when a bus rolled past....

With Helen away I was left with some time on my hands. With jam stocks running low it seemed a good opportunity to do some making and ended up cooking some Sunshine Plum Jam (Yellow plums with orange), Mirabelle Plum Jam and Blueberry, Raspberry & Lavender.

Much as I like jam making I do like a bit of external diversion and spotted a couple dithering around off the water point. They were new to boating and couldn't work out how to get back to the junction. It had been suggested that they reverse back but with a short boat that was going to be difficult. So I eyed up the boat, and the canal, and figured it would probably wind. They eagerly accepted an offer of help and started the manouver - with me holding the bows. Now I always knew the turn would be tight and as the boat swung round my optimist drained away like a leaky lock. They got all the way round to 88 degrees when it stuck - at which point all the male boaters came out to have a laugh at my expense. After all, it was obvious from the start that the canal was not wide enough! But I had the last laugh. The boat was fitted with one of those lift up fenders at the stern and when I pulled it up it shortened the boat by 18 inches, and round it went. The mockers shuffled off without a sound.

The line of the old canal through the fields at Braunston

By the time Helen returned the jam was made, the boat was cleaned and we were ready to go to Braunston, just a few miles and a few locks to the west. With the locks completed we needed a mooring for the bank holiday weekend. Not always easy in this popular spot. We pulled up onto the disabled mooring and I walked ahead to suss out the options. It happened that a boater I had met previously was leaving the mooring just beyond the Gongoozlers Rest, so he waited in situ and obligingly moved off just as I arrived. That was us set for the weekend.

The weekend was rather wet which dampened the trading opportunities, but we left the sign out and the bell rang every now and again and we sold a surprising amount of preserve over the three days. The trading paid for a visit to Midland Chandlers to restock new filters for the engine and more crucially for the water filter, which was reduced to a mere dribble. The General Ecology filter is really effective but wow, the replacement cartridges are dear - £120 a pop and they last a season if you are lucky.

With the weekend over we moved the boats to just beyond the junction and picked up an Enterprise Van for a home visit, jam making extravaganza and chutney restocking exercise.

Tuesday 25 September 2018

Doing the mainline old skool

Tipton to Birmingham
September 2018

You may remember that I had wanted to use the Old Main Line to get to Tipton last week, but was thwarted by the high winds.


Well, after a weekend of rain Monday dawned with with a clear blue sky. So, with another trip into Birmingham ahead of me there was absolutely no reason not to follow the twisty Brindley route beck to town. 

Brades Hall Junction

We started with a quick trip to the service point at the Black Country Living Museum before heading south towards Tividale. One snag with the Old Main Line at this time of year is the weed. The water is amazingly clear but it does grow a lot of water lillies, and come September all their leaves fall off and contrive to wrap themselves around your propeller. Its never anything very serious and can be cleared with a blip of reverse, but you never quite manage to dislodge it all.

Start of the Oldbury Loop

The weed abated as we reached Tividale and crossed the tunnel arm on the aqueduct. Then is was Brades Hall Junction and on to the Oldbury Loop by pass, built long before the New main Line was constructed. 

Chemical Arm

I do find this route so much interesting that the newer canal below is, with twists and turns carrying you along and in no time we were at the Chemical Arm which is a lazy backwater populated by Mike Anson's two Joey Boats. 

Welcome to the M5

The M5 Oldbury Viaduct is undergoing major renovation and for the next couple of miles the concrete deck above our heads was covered in scaffolding, with whistles being blown to warn workers of our approach.

M5 reconstruction

The old canal twists and turns beneath the motorway, passing junctions to the Titford Canal and to the old locks of Spon Lane, which branch to the south and the north. Then the canal finally breaks free of the M5 and picks up the line of Smeaton's summit, a line which runs three locks lower than Brindleys original route over the hill at Smethwick. The canal narrows as it passes the old colliery coal chutes and then burrow through the relatively new Summit Tunnel, a concrete tube which mirrors the Galton Tunnel on the NML below.

Urban boating

Then it is on past the imposing Smethwick Pumping station and the narrow opening to the Engine Arm to the top of the three Smethwick locks. The top of the locks is marked by a replica Toll House, but sadly it is a favoured target for local arsonists, and once again it is standing a forlorn and a burnt out shell. The locks at Smethwick used to be duplicated to come with demand, with the original northerly chambers being buried long ago. I had, until recently, assumed that the paired locks all fed into common pounds as seen on the Trent and Mersey, but I recently saw some old photos which show two separate sets of pounds. The bottom exit can still be seen in the shape of a twin bricked up archway in the road bridge.

We were followed down the locks by two local boats and they seemed very chilled to let us progress at our pace and made no attempt to catch us up. We later learned that this was due to a snag with a submerged fender in the bottom lock. For our part we picked up a sheet of polythene in the Summit Tunnel which proved a hindrance till we did a weed hatch visit in the bottom lock.

Having arrived at Smethwick Junction it was simply a matter of ticking off the loops as we passed them: Avery, Cape, Soho, Icknield Port and Oozells St, letting our friends on Mugs Afloat pass mid way down the final straight. Whilst we may be a bit slow it always surprises me how slowly other boats pull away ahead, which probably explains why so few boats need to pass!

We arrived in central Birmingham to find about four moorings, but within 30 minutes they had all been filled and the rest of the afternoon saw several boats chugging to and fro looking for somewhere to stop. Perhaps part of the reason for all this busyness is CRT's Annual Public Meeting which is taking place in Austin Court in Wednesday, followed by the National Council meeting in the afternoon. There certainly seem to be a huge number of familiar faces round here at the moment.

Monday 24 September 2018

Tipton Canal Festival 2018

Tipton Canal Festival 2018
September 2018

If you ask people to name the canal centre of England they are likely to reply Birmingham. Not a bad reply, but as it happens, quite wrong. Tipton is, without doubt, the epicentre of the canal network. A rain drop falling into the canal in Tipton can find its way to the sea by travelling north, south east or west and truth be told there were plenty of drops available this weekend to test the theory.

Tardebigge and Bittel

Tipton's festival falls conveniently between the Black Country Boating Festival last weekend and the end of season Historic Boat Gathering at Parkhead next weekend, so a number of traders are covering all three and becoming very familiar with the Netherton Tunnel in the process.

Trading in the rain

Tipton lies at the heart of the Black Country and I think its fair to say that it is something of an urban village, with a strong sense of its identity. They welcome strangers with a surprising openness, but I suspect you have to live there a lifetime to be considered a true Tiptonian (or is that a Tiptonite?).

We arrived in the wind on Wednesday and hunkered down to see out the rain on Thursday, at the same time taking the opportunity to catch up with some friends who moved to the village a year ago as Curate.We emerged with the sun on Friday afternoon to get the stall set up ready for the weekend, the forecast suggesting a fair day on Saturday and non stop rain on Sunday. 

Better weather on Sunday

As it turned out the Met Office got it completely wrong and no sooner had we erected the gazebo on Saturday morning than the rain blew in and before we knew it we had three sides around us and the rain was lashing down. We don't like putting the sides on the gazebo because it wrecks the look of the butty and cuts us off from the crowds, but without them we would not have been able to trade at all. We were surprised how many people braved the elements and whilst the day set no records in terms of sales, we had 2/3 of an average day. Some of the other stallholders hung in there to the end, but by 3.00pm there was a queue of cards trying to get out of Coronation Gardens.

A clutch of Black Country regulars

Sunday, which was supposed to be wall to wall rain, turned out to be mostly dry, but with a sharp northerly wind which prevented the temperatures rising out of single figures. The long hot summer is just a distant memory and the sad reality is that with the autumn equinox upon us we have started the relentless slide into winter. 

We were slightly surprised to see Santa's sleigh wheeled out for the occasion, but then its presence was supplemented by the rocking pirate ship and swing roundabout both of which dispensed large amounts of bubble snow to enhance the festive feel.

Christmas comes early in Tipton

As is so often the case, Sunday brought larger crowds but they were here to look and browse rather than buy.

Smiling in the rain

But we don't simply judge and event of sales. We also take into account the ambiance and whilst the organisation of the event was a bit here and there, the village carnival feel was positively lovely and is one we would like to include in future years plans.

Sunday 23 September 2018

Blisworth Canal Festival 2018

Blisworth Canal Festival 2018
August 2018

By our reckoning this will be our sixth Blisworth Festival, and our second with the boats.

In the early days of Wildside we decided that canal based events would be our core market but with work getting in the way of extended boating, we were obliged to load everything into the car and be land based. Blisworth was that little bit too far to travel there and back each day, so we found a nice B&B which was a self contained apartment and made a weekend of it.

 Bliswoth festival field

The problem with our migration to water was the popularity of the event. Far more traders wanted to come than there were spaces between the two bridges, so I devised a cunning plan. We had always had our stall of the triangle of land by Candle Bridge and it struck me that there was good 35ft of grassy bank immediately to the north of the weir. This was just perfect for the butty and the motor could be strung out over the weir itself. The idea was presented to the harbour master who jumped at the creation of an extra mooring where one had not existed previously.

Mugs Afloat trading at The Wharf

The location also meant that we would be in our "usual" location and be easy to find for our regular customers. As a bonus the wide bit of grass allowed us to put the gazebo legs out onto land, which would be an issue further down the narrow towpath. This therefore became "our" spot.

This year the organisers had changed but to our relief the weir spot remained ours, but to our surprise the trade stalls on the triangle were no more. In their place there was a sizeable CRT tent, with the ice cream  van on the road. Initially this looked like bad news as the CRT stand had their back screen facing us but it actually all turned out rather well. The new open space was popular with visitors who came off the bridge and chilled out on the sunny bank whilst eating ice creams. This was good news for CRT who had lots of people to talk to, and excellent news for us as they all seemed to wander over to taste our wares.

The new chill out zone at Candle Bridge

Another nice twist of the event is the fact that two of my previous London bosses live nearby and look in on us each year to see how we are doing. 

The altered footfall dynamics assisted by mild, dry but not hot weather made for a great combination and our sales surged by about 40%. This was quite a result because over the last few years the sales had declined year on year to the point that we were considering alternative venues in mid August. In the event it was Blisworth back at its best.

Helen is interviewed live on local radio

Radio Northamptonshire were broadcasting live on Sunday morning and we were asked to participate. Helen is far better at radio interviews than I am so she spoke to John Griff and enthused about jams, life afloat and life after cancer. He seemed well impressed and quietly confided in me that "she comes across really well on radio". Thats my girl!

The rest of the event was maybe a little smaller than in recent years, but none the worse for it. About 15,000 people attended on Saturday and a few less on Sunday. The new organisers were very attentive and actively seeking feedback so hopefully next year will see a few of the wrinkles ironed out and this popular Northamptonshire event go from strength to strength.

Friday 21 September 2018

Back to Blisworth

Back to Blisworth
August 2018

Its hard to believe that my last blog on our travels way way back at Soulbury, south of Milton Keynes. This absence has been due to a mix of familiarity with the route, a busy time making new stock and most significantly the woeful sate of our battery bank, The batteries were new about two years ago but they were cheap and the mix of failed alternator last year and the prolonged heat this summer has caused them to to be over taxed. I suspect that they are coated in sulphate and a new set is beckoning this winter. The snag is that in hot weather the batteries are barely able to supple the fridge and freezer overnight and sucking a few amps to power the laptop has been a luxury we couldn't afford.

A return to Cosgrove

From Soulbury we paused in Fenny Stratford for a couple of days, making lots of Blackberry Wine Jam and catching a bus into Milton Keynes where we picked up a copy of Land Love magazine in which we feature. The nice thing about Fenny is chewing the cud with the skipper of Wol, who is temporarily moored on the 48 hour mooring whilst the residential spots opposite are upgraded.

Spare lining ring left over from the 1980's repair

From Fenny it was back to the embankment moorings at Cosgrove where we rode out some poor weather and, you guessed it, made more jam. This time it was Mirabelle Plum made from the few mirabelles we found along the route plus some more marmalade as stocks are running low.

A wire sculpture of a pony and wagon on the Tunnel Trail at Stoke Bruene

In reality we were dawdling, killing time before the Blisworth Festival but eventually we headed north again mooring up for a couple of days in Stoke Bruerne, seeing Kathryn Doddington who armed us with masses of New Zealand books. I also took the opportunity to have a good look at the southern portal of the tunnel, watching the boats come out like a real gongoozler.

Blisworth Tunnel - southern portal

Finally, on the Thursday we made our way through the long Blisworth Tunnel and were not overhauled by anyone, which was good. We continues to Gayton Junction where we watered, dumped rubbish and crucially used the elsan before winding and returning to our usual spot beside Candle Bridge.

 Entering Blisworth Tunnel

Passing another boat at the Blisworth end

Thursday 20 September 2018

Surfing into Tipton

Surfing into Tipton
September 2018

The first named storm of the season hit the Midlands yesterday messing up our plans to get back to Tipton for this weekend's festival.

A windswept Mainline outside Birmingham

We were moored in the Oozells St Loop and with the wind gusting at between 40 and 50 mph is was far from ideal conditions to travel out to the Black Country, but it was either that or make the journey today (Thursday) is incessant rain. The wind was gusting badly but we decided that the rain would be worse, and set off at about noon.

The Cape Arm entrance.

In some ways the first section was the worst. The wind was being channeled down the cut but we were moored facing Sheepcote Bridge  so we had little option but to pass through the moored boats of Sherborne Wharf. Given the unpredictable gusts I was very cautious, hooting repeatedly as I neared and passed through the bridge - to meet another boat here would not be great. Of course, a boat did indeed come the other way, only spotting me as I nosed round the corner, balancing on the wind. He was going far to fast and careered into the boats on the offside.

The Avery Loop entrances

The wind blew this way and that but fortunately if the deep drafted butty is moving is resists side winds better than the motor and it is possible to use it to stabilise our direction of travel. The one thing I must never do is stop!  There were no boats moving on the NML so we left the flats and entered the main canal, crabbing here and there as blasts from the side arms pushed us about.

Echoes of Blondie in this striking bit of Grafitti

My plan had been to follow the Old Main Line from Smethwick, a route I have never undertaken with the butty in tow. However, by the time we reached the Cape Arm it was clear that I would have my hands full using the full width of the lower channel. Most of the route is either in the trees or within the confines of the Galton Valley cutting, and this offered a significant amount of protection from the gale which howled overhead. 

Bridges of Smethwick Junction

The wind was intense as we passed Chance's glassworks, with both boats veering probably 20 degrees out of true, only coming straight at the last minute as we entered narrows or bridges. All the wind was tearing leaves off the tree and we had our first taste of autumn, the prop continually clogging up  with light detritus.

The Horseley Company's work is everywhere!

The cross winds were at their worst as we passed Pudding Green Junction and entered the Island Line, which is much more exposed and the channel a bit narrower. There was no stopping for apples on this occasion and it was all I could do to avoid being blown onto the railway bank. 

The wind never abated and at Factory Locks I was driven onto the shallows on the offside below the locks. This is a foul smelling trap for the unwary and one which took a while to free ourselves from. The turn at Factory Junction was no better and we had to pause on the lock moorings for a few minutes in the hope of a slight lull, before powering round the turn and gaining some momentum. Once moving all was OK again and having phoned ahead discovered that a suitable mooring was vacant in Coronation Park, with the butty on the short kinked bit and the motor balanced out on the turn behind the railings.

BCLM staff out of character for a minute or so

Barry kindly sorted out the butty whilst we nipped off to the BCLM to use the facilites.

The day concluded in the company of Sandra and Barry (Homebrew Boat) and I regained my mojo for Six Handed Rummy winning (with great skill) for the first time in months.  So here we sit under a leaden sky with wind and rain buffeting us around waiting for better things which may or may not arrive this weekend.