"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.


Santa's Grotto on an empty Canal.

Monday seems to have become the main work day at Knowl St Heritage Boatyard so last Monday I enlisted some help to lever "Hazel" off the mud and get her floating on an even keel again. This meant that we had to deploy the wheelchair ramp to access the boat, but it was a lot easier to work inside as the boat was no longer at an uncomfortable angle. The water level remained about a foot down all week.

Saturday 26th November was the appointed day for the Stalybridge lights switch on and Santa's floating grotto. We would need to move "Hazel" down one lock and tie her at Armentierres Square above lock 6. On Friday I checked the levels and found the pound where we needed to go almost empty. The same applied to the long pound between locks 3 and 4. The trip boat, "Still Waters" had intended to come up to Stalybridge on Friday, ready to do trips on Saturday, but had to cancel due to lack of water.


There were several streams feeding the cut between locks 7 and 8, so there should have been enough water, but, the lowered weir on that pound meant that all that water was running to waste in the river rather than feeding the canal between Stalybridge and Ashton. Consequently, any pound with leaky lock  gates was getting depleted. It occurred to me that if I cracked open the paddles on lock 7 to let through water equivalent to the amount running in from streams, then it would divert water to feed the canal without dropping "Hazel" back on to the mud again. I did this then went home, had my tea and took Em to the cinema with a couple of tickets won in a raffle. After the cinema I went to check. Everything was fine, the level was OK above lock 7 and it was slowly rising below. By the morning I estimated that the pound through Armentierres Square would still be low, but usable.


10 AM was the alloted time for moving the boat, so, about 9.30 I arrived to find "Hazel" sitting on the mud again, but the pound below prettywell full. At first I thought I must have miscalculated the paddle setting. Later I found that a pair of CRT men had drawn the paddles to fill the pound below, thus dropping "Hazel on the mud, exactly what I'd been trying to avoid. CRT are fo course world renowned experts on water management.

With much effort and ingenuity we got "Hazel" into the channel and floating again, then shafted her down to the winding hole and amazingly were able to wind. We worked through the lock then bowhauled past Tesco to tie just above lock 6. Phil Ash volunteered to stay with the boat to talk to passers by whilst the rest of us went to Ashton to bring "Forget me Not" up.


It was a very cold and frosty morning. I was a little concerned about getting the engine started but things turned out to be worse than I imagined. The battery was not exactly bursting with joyful exuberance and, though the engine turned over slowly, it simply would not fire. Suddenly, a horrible smell of hot electrics filled the air and everything went dead. Clearly that boat was going nowhere in a hurry. We returned to Stalybridge in the van to announce that we would have to bowhaul on the morrow.


Lots of kids enjoyed meeting Santa on board the boat through the evening and there was a constant queue of kids, parents, grandparents, aunts etc waiting in the freezing cold to get aboard. I kept an eye on things from the back cabin hatches, never having had an ambition to be an elf. Eventually all the children had gone home to climb the wooden hill to Bedfordshire. Santa, elves, marshalls, Dan Cocker, who had organised the whole thing, and mys elf enjoyed a brew and mince pies aboard the boat. When everyone had gone home I banked up both fires for what promised to be a chilly night, then settled down to sleep in the back cabin.

I had a dream about living with a cloth snake that loved me to bits but which I regarded as treacherous. I also, in the dream, had two cats. I had to keep feeding the snake lest it should consume one of the cats. Analyse that if you can!

Sunday morning at about 9.30 everyone began to arrive. We had a good team, Tony, Phil H, Aaron, Alan, Neil and me. We worked down the first three locks smoothly and efficiently, then we were on to the long pound, still about a foot down. We took it in turns to play horse and it was hard work as the boat was dragging in the mud. She stopped on an obstruction at the first bridgehole but we were able to deal with this by dragging her back a short way, then all pulling hard to take a run at it. A little way further on she jammed again, in a narrows where there was once a bridge. We tried the same technique, but to no avail. I decided to walk back to the locks and send down some more water. As I left I noticed that the stern end had lifted about 3 inches on the underwater rubbish.

I drew a paddle on each of locks 4 and 5, but as these were short pounds they would soon be depleted. The next pound up had boats in it which had been sat on the bottom on Friday but were now floating again. I drew the paddles and carefully watched the water level as it dropped. I didn't want to empty the pound. I was just about to shut the paddles again when Tony rang to say that "Hazel" was past the obstruction. I walked back down the towpath, shutting paddles as I went, and caught up with the boat at Clarence St Bridge.

I climbed aboard and put the kettle on. As we approached the lock I could hear the bottom of the boat grinding over submerged stones. The towpath washwall has collapsed in places and, though parts of it have been rebuilt, there are lots of rocks in the canal. We stopped in the lock to enjoy cups of tea and consume the remainder of the mince pies. It seemed unlikely that anyone else would want to use the lock.

The next couple of pounds were nicely full of water and I was able to take some photos as we went through Whitelands tunnel and into lock 1.


Lock 1 has been closed for a month for repairs. For years it has been leaking profusely from the chamber into the towpath tunnel. CRT have dealt with it by injecting expanding foam into the wall, a process I'm familiar with for keeping old wooden boats afloat. It seems to have worked.

Aaron legged the boat through the bridge, then I took over bowhauling. Everyone else climbed aboard. As we approached the Asda tunnel Neil and Alan climbed on to the roof and prepared to leg. They had been selected as leggers as they are the tallest. Asda tunnel is difficult with an unpowered boat as it has no towpath, it's too wide to leg off the sides and the roof is a long stretch to reach too, but possible. The technique is to lie on your back and  reach up with your legs, then simply walk along the concrete roof upside down. A few feet above shoppers are busy filling their trolleys, unaware of the boat moving below them.

The tunnel opens into an artificial ravine with no towpath. There used to be one but, in 2002 a retaining wall started to collapse and had to be supported with half a mountain of limestone. Since then no-one has been prepared to put up the money for a proper repair. Tony took up the long shaft and expertly propelled the boat under Cavendish St bridge and past the mill of the same name. Where the towpath resumed I took up bowhauling again for the last 100 yards, before throwing the line back aboard for Tony so that he could guide the boat to tie abreast of "Forget me Not". An excellent trip!







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.


Recycling Trip 3rd July 2016

A really enjoyable trip for those who showed up. We were a bit low on numbers and struggled to get round the collecting area in a reasonable time, but all who came enjoyed it and we got a big pile of stuff for the charity shop. As well as new people there were long awaited re-appearances by old friends Martin Nestor and Adrian Glasgow.

This n That (9th November 2013)

This n that.

In my last post I hoped that "Southam" wouldn't get stuck in a lock. Of course, she did. We set off with a boatload of sponsors and everything went fine until we got to the first lock, where "Southam" jammed. We could probably have got her through with lots of flushing and pulling, but, with lots of elderly people in the fore end, this seemed unwise. Instead we unjammed her and unloaded our guests, then worked "Lilith", the butty, through and bowhauled her to Mossley and back, leaving a couple of volunteers to mind "Southam". On our way we met a former volunteer who I hadn't seen for years. He offered to pull the boat, and helped us to bowhaul all the way back to Stalybridge after we'd winded at Mossley.

One of the sponsors said it was the best sponsors trip ever. It's funny how people seem to enjoy things going wrong.

Stuart has now left for warmer climes in India. The Hughes family are going to travel all round India before going to Nepal to build an orphanage..

Martin is making a great job of building "Hazel"s back cabin. Her hull is being caulked and today Mike Carter, the surveyor, came to have a look. He seemed pleased with what he saw. I was busy for most of the morning dealing with visitors, some of them potential volunteers. We're going to need a lot more organisational help getting the project up and running once the boatbuilding side of things is finished.



Cult Member? (5th December 2012)

Cult Member?

I've noticed that the most popular search to find this blog is Subud Cult. That's strange as I think I've only mentioned my membership of Subud once or twice. It's also a bit unfair to Subud as it's about as uncultish as you can get. There's no glorious leader, I've never been asked for money, there's no orgies (shame but there it is) and there's no set of beliefs that you have to pledge your allegiance to. Emuna, my partner, reckons that the Church of England is more cult like than Subud. What it is is a vehicle for the sharing of a wonderful spiritual exercise called a latihan (Indonesian for exercise) that was first experienced by the group's founder Mohammed Subuh Sumohadiwodidjojo ( I hope I spelled that right)in about 1925). There are now small groups all over the world, but there is an understanding that Subud doesn't evangelise. Those who are ready for it will find it. I've certainly found the latihan has made me into a stronger and better, more human, person in the 6 years that I've been doing it.