"Let's Face the Music, and Dance"

I recently discovered this on a data stick in the bottom of a carrier bag. I wrote it in 2013, but, though personnel have changed a little, the general situation remains normal, so I thought I might as well publish it here.

Lets face the music, and dance.

A few years ago we had a visit from Tony Conder and Roger Hanbury, then curator and chief executive respectively of The Waterways Trust. Tony paid our work a brilliant compliment, “you're working wonders on next to nothing” he said. Certainly, up to then the society had led a hand to mouth existence and it was a wonder we were able to keep the boats afloat and functioning.

When Fiona Jones was working for us, trying to raise funds for our different projects, I would often have the following conversation with her:-

Me “What we really need is continuous funding for 3 full time boatbuilders”.

Fiona “ Sorry, but there aren't any funders who will do that, we always have to fit in with their objectives”.

Me “But we need funding for 3 full time boatbuilders”.

Fiona “But there are no funders who will provide that”.

Thanks largely to Fiona's tenacity we eventually got funding, in the nick of time, for Hazel's rejuvenation. This has funded two people to work on Hazel, but the other boats have been suffering in the meantime because we really need someone working full time on maintenance to keep everything afloat and functioning and to carry out the many stitches in time that will otherwise cost us dear in the long run.

I mentioned that Hazel's funding came through in the nick of time. She had sunk several times in the preceding few years and I was doubtful about how long we would be able to keep her in one piece so that there was actually something to work from when it came to restoration. Certainly, when we slipped her we discovered how weak she had become. By the time the restoration started we had had Hazel for 23 years. In that time she had been docked numerous times and essential maintenance carried out, but, nevertheless, it was clear that rot was steadily eating through the structure of the boat and there was nothing that we could do about it without the kind of major replanking job that we've carried out in the past 18 months. The fact is that, without our 3 full time boatbuilders, both the completed Hazel and the 5 other boats will gradually subside back into dereliction.

Jobs currently awaiting the time, money and boatyard space include the following:-

Lilith, Needs her stern end rebuilding and a new back cabin.

Forget me Not, Needs a mid life overhaul including renewing the top bends and lining planks, renewing a lot of the shearing, clothing up and renovating the back cabin, not to mention overhauling and installing the Bolinder.

Southam , Needs a lot of strengthening of the bow and most of the planks down the left hand side replacing. This would give an opportunity to put her on a diet so that she is less likely to get stuck in locks. There are also ongoing mechanical problems to address.

Queen, Needs a complete rebuild similar to the work that is being carried out on Hazel. We also need to find a Kromhaut semi diesel engine for her.

Elton Needs a complete rebuild, similar the work that is being carried out on Hazel.

Obviously, these jobs, especially Queen and Elton, are not going to be carried out overnight, even with our 3 fabulous boatbuilders, but it's essential that our work on the boats speeds up so that wood is being replaced faster than it's rotting away. It took 23 years to get work started on Hazel. Queen and Elton are unlikely to survive another 23 years without rebuilding, and, at a rate of 23 years per boat, that means poor Elton would have to wait 46 years for work to start on her.

So, why can't volunteers do all this work? Once upon a time I used to spend my spare time firing steam engines on preserved railways. Sometimes I go for a day out to one, or read about them in the railway press, and it makes me turn a bright shade of malachite green to see all the skilled work that is carried out by volunteers. Not only have volunteer led organisations rescued and mostly restored all the engines that were once consigned to Barry scrapyard, but now they are building replicas of the ones that were missed, not just great express locos like the famous Tornado but now humble tank engines and, believe it or not, diesels.

This is what can be done, but the supply of skilled volunteers for boat restoration is extemely restricted. There are simply not as many boat fanatics as there are railway fanatics, and many of those who do exist can satisfy their boating needs by owning a pleasure boat. Though the Hazel project has brought to us some excellent and highly skilled volunteers, they are still heavily outnumbered by the tasks that need doing. It would be nice if I could just find volunteers to reliably do simple jobs like printing and distributing recycling leaflets and keeping the firewood supplies topped up. We need to keep up the publicity about what we're doing ( there's another thing, we've never had a volunteer to take charge of publicity over a sustained period) in the hope that this will bring in more volunteers, but, relying entirely on volunteers will not get the boats restored, though conversely, neither can the job be done without them.

So, how much would these 3 wise boatbuilders cost? Luckily, many skilled people are prepared to work for a project like ours for well below what they could earn doing an easier job for a commercial company, but the costs are more than just wages. If someone is working full time they use up a lot of materials, which cost money. They also make it possible for more volunteers to work alongside them, and they also use expensive materials. The work that we've been doing on Hazel with two paid workers has been costing about £50,000 a year. That works out at £25,000 per worker, or £75,000 for the three. Hardly a bankers bonus but nevertheless, a lot of money to pluck out of thin air. Where will it come from?

It's amazing how many people just assume that we are getting huge grants to underwrite our work. I often get asked by people who have just taken on a historic boat where to apply. The reality is that you only get grant money if your project fulfils the objectives of the funder. Mostly these are social objectives of some kind. Pure heritage funds are scarce and fiercely fought over by well resourced museums and heritage railways etc. The funding that we've had for Hazel is purely to do with the work that she is going to do when she goes into service. Our funders probably couldn't care less that she is the last Runcorn wooden header. While it is entirely possible that we will be able to find more projects that fit with the objectives of a funder, there is always the danger that we will turn somersaults with our plans in order to fit a funders objectives, only to end up reluctantly running a project that wasn't what we really wanted to do. Luckily we have only had to very slightly tweak the pre existing Hazel project.

I'm not knocking grant funding, I'm sure it can play an important part, but it's always likely to be the icing on the cake. This is how it should be. Charities that rely too heavily on grants are always deeply vulnerable to recessions, government cuts and changes of policy on the part of funders. It also needs a lot of rather tedious work, not only in filling in the forms but in gathering the information that they need. For example, while we have figures for volunteer hours at the boatyard and in the shop, we have no idea of the overall annual total of volunteer hours, which is something that funders want to know. We need more volunteers with the time, skill and inclination to put together all the necessary information, fill in the forms and, most important, talk with funders. At the moment Nick Lowther is doing a great job on this, but there's only one of him!

When Hazel is in service she will, inshallah, earn her keep, but she shouldn't really be funding the other boats. She needs to cover her costs and put a bit to one side for her own long term maintenance. I calculate that we will need to put aside £6000 a year to ensure that Hazel never falls into dereliction again. If she starts earning more than running costs plus £6000 then we should be looking at reducing charges for her users. Associated with developing the Hazel project will be the development of a training project to make sure that we are never stuck for qualified skippers. While initially this will be for our own purposes, there is scope for making some money at this in the longer term, but I've no idea how much. We need someone to do a realistic business plan.

The growth of the WCBS has been quite amazing, and quite scary at times, like riding a powerful motorbike that you don't know how to control. In 1988, the year that Hazel was donated to the infant Wooden Canal Craft Trust, the total annual income was £3200, with expenditures of £2500. I don't yet have figures for 2012, but the total turnover is going to be well over £100,000. This has its down side as some people see us as well off and so are more mercenary in their dealings with us than used to be the case. The fact is that for the last 3 years expenditure has exceeded income, something that can't carry on for too much longer. The only reason that we've been able to afford to run a deficit is that we have some, rapidly dwindling, reserves, put by when we had the good fortune to be given a rent free shop for 14 months during 2006/7.

The main engine for this growth, since 1996, has been the recycling project and its offshoots, the market stall and various shops. I don't, again, have the 2012 figures yet, but it looks likely that our current shop, a former woolworths and the biggest charity shop in Ashton, will turn over about £60,000 this year. The down side of this is that its running costs are likely to be round about £50,000, putting only about £10,000 into WCBS funds, which is mostly swallowed up in overheads, licenses, insurance etc. The reality of running a charity shop is that, if you are paying a market rent for your premises, the main beneficiary of your efforts is going to be the landlord. That's not to say that it's not worthwhile renting a shop, it gives us security of tenure. We were very grateful for the free shop mentioned above, but it was a bit of a nightmare when we were given 11 days to vacate the premises because it was going to be sold.

The current shop has a problem. When we moved in, Stamford St was a busy shopping street, not quite in the very centre of Ashton, but not far off. Gradually, under the influences of out of town shopping, online shopping and the recession, the town centre has been imploding. Many of the shops on Stamford St are now empty, others have become offices or takeaways. The footfall is reducing. Despite this, Sarah's efforts have kept the shop income up, though the last few months have been a bit disappointing.

How do we move this business on so that it will generate the £75000 a year in profits that we need. We really need to start being a bit more enterprising. I get a bit sick of hearing all the excuses for not doing things, just drifting. One of the big ideas for our current shop was to start a cafe there, but it's never happened.

As many of our customers are now buying online, we need to start moving there ourselves. Some work has been done on this recently and we're now earning about £100 a month through online sales. This could be expanded greatly , and a lot of the goods that currently goes to the tip turned into money,with more volunteers to do the work, yet when it comes up for discussion I'm always told it's not worth bothering.

Another thing will be to look for another free shop. Our esteemed treasurer will, of course, point out that nothing is completely free, there are always electricity bills and water rates etc to pay, but the potential income from rent free, albeit temporary premises, is huge. The gain for the landlord is that they get property that is awaiting redevelopment looked after and can get it back when they need it. The problem then, of course, is staffing it. This genuinely is a challenge and, despite 'Big Society' rhetoric, government policies are actually discouraging genuine volunteers. However, we managed it before and, with real effort in recruiting volunteers, and with possibly a paid manager on a short term contract in case the shop has to close suddenly, it can be done again. I for one am willing to put some effort into this once Hazel is finished. Any more offers? We really need more volunteers who are able to get stuck in and make things happen.

Trouble at t Aqueduct

The Tame aqueduct links Ashton under Lyne, Lancashire, with Dukinfield, Cheshire. A solid stone aqueduct with 3 arches it crosses the River Tame. Most people think that it's on the Peak Forest canal, but, strictly speaking, it's a branch of the Ashton canal. The Peak Forest starts at Dukinfield Junction, an end on connection immediately on the South side of the structure.

For months now, Keir, contractors for the Canal & River Trust, have been giving it a much needed renovation. The job has gone on longer than expected as it turned out to be in worse shape than anticipated. that's something I'm familiar with on old wooden boats. They're nearly finished now, but I became puzzled as to why they appeared to be attempting to fill the river in. I've now asked some questions and learned the story.

The first part of the job was to erect a lot of scaffolding on both sides and underneath the aqueduct. I did wonder when i saw this going up, what would happen if heavy rain in the hills should cause the river to rise. The scaffolding was pretty much blocking the two side arches, but this is OK because the water runs through the middle one doesn't it? Apparently they were warned that actually it wasn't OK, but professionals know best.

Everything was fine until we had that day of wild weather a few weeks ago, when thw whole country was disrupted by flooding. Every drop of rain that falls in Stalybridge, Mossley, Greenfieldm Saddleworth and all around has to exit via the Tame aqueduct. When there's a lot of rain it brings with it trees and rocks and shopping trolleys by the dozen. The scaffolding acted as a seive, holding back the debris, thus completely blocking the side arches. The middle arch couldn't handle so much water, so it began to back up, thus increasing the pressure on the old stonework. Something had to give and luckily it wasn't the aqueduct, they built 'em well back then, but the river bed. The force of water scoured it out down to the aqueduct foundations.

The aqueduct can't be left with its foundations exposed, so they made a roadway down the steep steps that lead down to the river and have brought in an incredible tracked dumper that can drive up and down this slope to deliver countless tons of rock to restore the river bed.

Rock being deposited in the river bed.

The scaffolding has now mostly gone from the West side.

The steep roadway.

The dumper breasts the summit.

Bah Humbug at the Jobcentre

Every Thursday there's a demonstration outside the jobcentre in Ashton, protesting about workfare, sanctions and the generally dickensian attitude towards anyone who is unemployed or too ill to work that prevails today. Some of the protestors are also very good at giving advice to those claimants who have been unfairly treated (that's most of them in my experience) or are simply baffled by the byzantine bureacracy that is involved in claiming a pittance to not quite live on.

Some people enjoy protesting, but, sadly, most of the public see protestors as a nuisance and don't engage with the issues being raised. Someone came up with the idea of coming up with a very appropriate Dickensian theme for last weeks demo. My lovely Em made the Victorian costumes and the Rev David Gray rewrote some carols to sing. He himself was typecast as Mr Bumble. Unfortuately I missed most of the performance but I understand it went down well, despite being interrupted by a couple of young thugs who Em thought were out of their heads on some substance. I got there at the end and took these pictures.

A Good Trip

Today we ran a short trip to Lumb Lane and back for a group called Just Life. http://justlife.org.uk/projects/justlife-manchester/  It was a really enjoyable trip on a nice sunny day. We had a few problems (as usual) with rubbish on the blade. One of our guests was from Africa and he was really interested in the plants that grow in Britain. He didn't know about brambles, stinging nettles, rosebay willowherb etc that we just take for granted. here's some photos.Yes I did point out to our crew member that dangling his foot over the side was not a good idea.

5th January 2010 A Cold Christmas for Captain Kit Crewbucket

2010-01-05 @ 13:52:18 by ashtonboatman

A Cold Christmas for Captain Kit Crewbucket.

Captain Kit Crewbucket is a lucky black tomcat. In February 2003 he appeared under a tarpaulin in the hold of "Forget me Not". He was lost, terrified and wouldn't come near anyone. We estimated his age as about 6 months. Gradually as we put food out he learned to trust us. When I brought his food at dusk I would look under the tarpaulin and just see his two eyes shining in the dark. I thought it looked a bit ghostly, so I named him Kit Crewbucket after a spirit that is said to haunt Harecastle canal tunnel. One of the museum staff took a particular interest in our new arrival, but he called the cat Captain. As all readers of T.S. Eliot will know, a cat has three names, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TXkLgtusza4 so he became Captain Kit Crewbucket.

Soon Captain Kit realised that he was on to a good thing on the boats with plenty of admirers to give him titbits and make fuss of him. He has become something of a celebrity at Portland Basin, with a regular column in the WCBS newsletter and occasional appearances in the local paper. Fans would visit from foreign places (like Yorkshire) in the hope of a glimpse of our celebrity pussycat.

It must be said that Captain Kit has always enjoyed the summer more than the winter. Basking in the sun has always been more his style than sheltering from the dreich drizzle and, his particular bette noir, snow.

When it began to snow, just before the Solstice, the Captain began to show a marked reluctance to come outside. When he did he would carefully hop between my footprints to avoid his paws sinking into the white stuff. After New Year the temperature dropped more and everywhere became covered in an 8 inch freezing white duvet. Kit had made himself a nest aboard "Hazel" and refused to leave it even for his favourite cat treats. It seemed like the time had come for the Captain to be given a holiday from the boats.

My partner, Emuna, loves cats. She used to have a wonderful black and white cat called Oedipuss who lived to be a grand old lady of 20. After Oedi died, Emuna decided not to have another cat. For several years, As Oedipuss got older, she had been reluctant to go away because she would not trust anyone else with the precious puss. She felt that having a cat was too much of a tie.

Emuna enthusiastically offered to look after Captain Kit for a while at her little house in Ashton, so we drove through the deep snow to park the van as near the basin as we dared, then trudged down to collect him. Cats generally don't like leaving their territories, and Kit was no exception. He struggled and yowled as I carried him through the deep snow to the van (which by then looked like a mobile ice cream).

Soon we were at Emuna's house and, after spending about an hour hiding under the bed, Captain Kit realised that lying on top of the bed was much more comfortable, and he's hardly moved from there since. He seems to be taking quite nicely to being a house cat. Now my concern is whether I'll be able to prise Emuna and Captain Kit apart when the time comes for him to resume command of the boats.

The End of The Flea Market Stall 15th December 2009

2009-12-14 @ 19:24:59 by ashtonboatman

The end of the Flea Market stall.

We started doing recycling trips with the boats in August 1996. At first we collected metal and clothes/bric a brac. We thought that we would develop it by starting to collect waste paper, glass etc, but the bottom fell out of the market for these commodities and, when it started to recover, the council started collecting them. However, a successful jumble sale or two showed that there was money in clothes and nick nacks, so we decided to give car boots a try. These went well, so we decided to have a go at council run markets, settling down on the Tuesday flea market in Ashton market place. To begin with the returns on this were marginal, but we were so broke in those days that we stuck at it for lack of any other income.

The big turn round came when we invested £40 in a secondhand stall that was advertised in Loot, and asked for a pitch, ie an area where you can erect your own stall rather than renting a stall from the council. We got our investment back the first day we used our own stall.

Our pitch was in front of the town hall steps. An excellent location, but we were forced to return to a ready made stall after a councillor complained about it being untidy. (He'd be untidy if he had to stand in that wind all day). After one time when we failed to make our stall money I approached the market management again and they let us have a pitch opposite Kwik Save alongside the market hall. At first this didn't do too well, but after a while our customers found us and soon other traders started to join us.

A bombshell hit when pitches were suddenly banned completely because they made the place look untidy (councillors again, or one particular one). A load of traders, including me, went to a meeting in the council offices and got it reversed.

On the morning of 25th May 2004 I drove, towing the market trailer, into town to set up our stall. I could see a big plume of smoke in the town centre and thought I hope that isn't the market hall. It was! If you have pyromaniac tendencies have a look at

The fire actually helped us. We were given a new pitch on a busy corner right in front of MacDonalds.

I should have mentioned the market trailer. This excellent box trailer was built for us using part of an old caravan chassis by Benchmaster Engineering of Mossley. It was a great boost when we got that as it meant that market stock no longer had to be unloaded from a boat in the early hours of the morning, then put back at the end of the day.

Anyway, things went well for the last 5 years, though sometimes it's been a struggle to find enough volunteers to keep it running. The stalwart for many years was David Lloyd, but, sadly, he was taken away by a heart attack.

Just lately I've been concerned about the amount of my time that the stall has been taking. Now that we have a huge shop on Stamford St in Ashton the income from the stall is not so crucial, and I keep thinking about all the other things that I could be doing on the boats with the 15 hours of my time that it takes each week. I was thinking of ways that we could carry on running the stall with less of my involvement when the powers that be dropped another bombshell. Our pitch was to increase in price from £10 to £90! We could reduce this by trimming down the area, but this would mean trimming down on takings too. I asked about moving back to our old pitch alongside the (rebuilt) market hall, but they aren't allowing pitches there now. Probably because they are so terribly untidy.

So, that's it. I've enjoyed 12 years market trading and, for a lot of that time, it was a lifeline to the Wooden Canal Boat Society. Now we have the problem of what to do with shop rejects as we all hate dumping them. The market stall kept down our landfill contributions considerably. I think it's sad that the tidier uppers of this world are steadily destroying our wonderful markets. They did it to Tommyfield Market in Oldham, which is now a shadow of it's former self.

Have a look at our untidy stall at market13

Oaken Clough, Ashton under Lyne 1th October 2009

2009-10-17 @ 06:28:14 by ashtonboatman

Another day.

It's Saturday and as usual I'm spoilt for choice as to which of my many tasks to tackle today, well, this morning anyway. This afternoon I will go to the AGM of the Medlock & Tame Valley Conservation Association. This is the charity that has taken charge of the wonderful wildlife garden created by Mildred Burlinson. It's situated about a mile from Ashton town centre just off the Oldham Road. I worked for Mildred looking after the garden for 12 years. Recently I've been trimming Sycamores in the garden, but I don't have a lot of time to devote to it. More volunteers urgently needed in this wonderful place. There's also a big old victorian house attached to the garden, which, unfortunately, seems to be being viewed as a liability rather than an asset. I wish I had time to help more. Have a look at the website http://www.medlockandtame.org.uk/