More Trees Planted

Today Tony and me got a few more trees planted, near the motorway in Audenshaw. I also cut back some sycamores that were threatening trees planted in previous years. We pulled out some shopping trolleys and a bike. Back at Portland Basin we tried to breast up to Southam but "Forget me Not" stemmed up in mid basin. The level is about 9" down but the water should be deep here. I poked around with a keb and managed to move something big but couldn't get it out of the water. It felt like a submerged tree trunk. Here's some pictures of "Forget me Not" around Guide bridge.

Elton on Dock.

"Elton" has always been the Cinderella of our fleet. It's years since she was docked but she's now got 3 weeks on the dock at the marina. Long overdue anyway but precipitated by the damage caused when she was rammed by "Community Spirit". It's pretty amazing that we've managed to keep her afloat since the damage was done in March. The damage extends below the waterline yet it didn't start her leaking. If she had gone down it would have been a struggle to get her up again with that gaping hole in her stern. It's now being plated up. Here's some pictures of Aaron shafting her across the basin and the damage.

"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.

A Winters Night on "Hazel"

A winter's night on “Hazel”.

It's the time of year when we don't get much sunlight and so “Hazel”s batteries need to be topped up from the mains every now and then. She has a huge bank of batteries that need a special charger and can't all be charged at once. Someone, normally me, has to stay to switch from one set of batteries to the other sometime in the night. I don't mind as I get to stay in “Hazel”s wonderful back cabin.

To charge up I have to shaft the boat the short distance across the aqueduct to Dukinfield and tie up beside the premises of Dixon & Smith, Motor Engineers. Pat and John are kind enough to let us plug in whenever we need power. Tying up is easier said than done because of all the rubbish in the canal. To get the bow close enough to get on and off the boat, the stern has to be pretty much in the middle of the cut as there is something big that catches the middle of the boat and causes her to pivot. There was nothing to tie the stern end to as the boat lies along the end wall of a factory. Between the factory and the water there is a small bank of rubble so, some time ago, I drove a pin into this and attached an old ratchet strap to it. In order to tie up I have to hook the ratchet strap with the cabin shaft and pull it to me. I then pass the stern line of the boat through the ratchet strap and tie the line to the timberhead. At the fore end there is a chain with a hook on the end secured to a post on the bank. All I have to do is put the fore end line into the hook and tie back to the T stud.

When tied like this, the back cabin is facing the railway bridge and I enjoy hearing Trans Pennine Expresses growling by, interspersed with the occasional freight. If I open the doors I can watch them and wonder if the passengers notice my cabin light below them on the canal.

For ages the weather has been rainy. I've been fed up of the rain, especially as I'm trying to work on “Forget me Not” on dock. Now, all of a sudden the wind has turned to the North and we're getting those cold clear winters nights that I love. Tonight the mopstick was frozen to crunchiness by 8PM.

I've been writing all evening, or rather talking to my computer, my friend Jackie will type up what I've recorded. Now it's bed time. The cabin is so warm I keep falling asleep. I tried opening the doors to let the heat out, with the range roaring away it gets extremely toasty in here.

Whilst writing the above paragraph I fell asleep. I woke again in a cooling cabin a couple of hours later, so I turned out the light and snuggled into my sleeping bag. In the morning it was cold. I had a flask to make coffee so I decided not to light the range. All I had to do was to shaft the boat back over the aqueduct to Portland Basin. I quickly dressed and put on all the gloves I could find, then climbed out into the crisp cold still dark morning. After disconnecting the charging cables I untied the lines, stiff with frost, and threw the ratchet strap back on to the bank. I then grasped the icy shaft with my gloved hands and, taking care not to slip on the frosty roof, pushed the fore end out into the channel, cat ice chinkling as the boat pushed it aside.

The stern end was stuck on something and, as I couldn't exert as much effort as usual because I was standing on a slippery surface, it took a while to get it free. By this time my hands were becoming very painful in spite of the 3 pairs of gloves that I was wearing. I decided that I would have to go inside to warm up. I went into the main cabin and lit a fire, enjoying its heat while I drank a cup of coffee.

When I had thawed sufficiently I climbed back on to the roof in the now bright and shiny but still cold morning, and started to move the boat towards the aqueduct, jumping down on to the towpath to give her a good tug with the fore end line before climbing back aboard to swing her round with the shaft and tie up abreast of “Lilith”. With everything secure I headed for home to get ready for another day working on “Forget me Not”.

12th July 2010 A Sign of the Times?

2010-07-12 @ 20:15:00 by ashtonboatman

A sign of the times.

It was a hot sunny day and I was busy working on the boats at Portland Basin when I noticed a wheelbarrow parked on the towpath across the canal. As we have wheelbarrows on the boats for collecting on recycling trips, I went over to see if someone had borrowed on of ours. When I got there I could hear banging and slushing noises from the other side of the stone wall. The ground drops steeply down about 20 feet of wooded rocky bank to the River Tame. I looked over and saw three men sploshing about in the river and dragging out rusty bikes, scaffold poles etc. One of them saw me looking and explained that they had decided to clean up the river.

This public spirited explanation was slightly marred by the fact that they only seemed to be removing metal objects, leaving behind much, equally unsightly, but valueless, plastic.

They dragged their ochre encrusted booty up the bank, over the wall and managed to load it into the sagging barrow ( which wasn't one of ours). I imagine they must have had a van nearby because it's over 2 miles to the nearest scrapyard that takes iron.

I think it's a good thing that people clear up and weigh in the clutter that others have carelessly discarded, but I also see desperation in the men's actions. I haven't seen this sort of activity since the 1980s when long years of unemployment spurred the picking up of beer cans, dragging ditches for scrap metal and other forms of scavenging. Anything to make a few bob to try to make ends meet. Are we now going to have another no hope generation like that of the Thatcher years? Growing up with no understanding of the concept of working for a living.

17th January 2010 Kingfisher Morning

2010-01-17 @ 11:46:44 by ashtonboatman

Kingfisher Morning

Friday morning at Portland Basin. The snow and ice had departed overnight and so I was able at last to drive the van down the hill to the wharf. I noticed Mr Woodcutter perched on the hatches of "Elton" peering into the watery interior. I had been unable to keep the boat afloat during the icy period. I think ice had prevented a bilge pump from switching off, so it ran until the battery was exhausted, then the boat filled up with water.

As I walked over to talk to the woodcutter my eye detected a movement near the stern end of "Hazel". A flash of electric blue whizzed out across the water as a kingfisher took flight. It is years since I've seen a kingfisher at Portland Basin. I was delighted. It seemed like an omen of good things to come in the awakening year.

Mr Woodcutter came back across the boats and I set him up with some waste wood to cut up for the boat ranges. He is the first volunteer I have ever come across who never tires of cutting wood. Consequently we have not had the usual Christmas firewood crisis this year.

Mr Woodcutter is an excellent fellow, and yet would be despised as a scrounger by many, which is why I call him Mr Woodcutter. He is a simple man, not in the sense of being a simpleton, but of enjoying the simple things in life. He enjoys walking and physical exercise, which is why he comes and cuts our firewood. Most of all he enjoys a skinful of good quality ale (none of your cheap lager thank you very much). Unlike many who get the taste for alcohol, Mr Woodcutter seems to be very much in control of the drink, rather than the drink being in control of him.

Mr Woodcutter's dislikes include employment, which is why some people would have little time for him. Personally I feel that the idle rich, who live by renting out their inherited assets, are more of a brake on the well being of the populace than the few who choose to take the pittance that the dole offers in return for a less stressed life. Post triumph of capitalism that is an unpopular view!

Mr Woodcutter is an expert at staying one step ahead of the system, and good for him. He is fascinated by the Loch Ness Monster and often stays near Inverness, which he considers to be the best place on Earth, in order to catch a glimpse of the fabulous beast. So far he has been unsuccessful.

I lit fires in "Forget me Not" and "Southam" to dry the cabins out, then started the petrol powered pump to raise "Elton". As the water gushed from "Elton I started sorting out the bilge pumps that had failed during the icy period. Soon the boat was floating again and the woodcutter had run out of work for his bowsaw. We picked up saw horse, bowsaw and firewood sacks and walked the quarter mile to the bit of woodland that I look after. Mr Woodcutter was happy to get to work cutting up the sycamores that I felled a week or so previously.

Returning to the boats I put some pies in "Southam"s oven and carried on sorting out pumps. Mr Woodcutter niether eats nor drinks during the day so I enjoyed my meal alone. He cut loads of wood, which I collected in the van later. By the end of the day, which is about 3PM at this time of year, things seemed to be getting back to normal after the disruption caused by wintry weather.

Containing my Anger

Containing my Anger.

It was 6PM on a Tuesday evening and I had had a long day cutting planks for "Hazel" with the chainmill
In order to minimise disturbance to residents in the various flats I worked on this across on the towpath side, next to the junction with the Peak Forest Canal.

It had been a long day, made less comfortable by a vicious wind that whipped up the sawdust into a desert storm. As I inserted the resharpened saw into the groove for the final cut, an Anderton Marina hireboat emerged from the Peak Forest Canal and started to turn into the wind towards Manchester.

The lady of the boat, a solidly built cheerful scotswoman, walked by on the towpath with a big collie dog. We exchanged smiles and she carried on, then backtracked to ask about a safe mooring for the night. Her husband was now frantically backing up to avoid the boat hitting the newly repainted "Community Spirit" on the outside of the turn. The wind caught the flat cabin side like a sail and took the boat sideways.

I suggested that they back up and tie on the outside alongside the flats, the site of the prophet John Wroe's magnificent but long disapeared house. This was good advice from the point of view of having an undisturbed night, but would involve some manoevring that beginners would find challenging even on a still day.

As we spoke the boat reversed into the shallow water on the far side of the bridge and the rudder crunched into the stone copings. The bonny lady hurried over the bridge to help push it off and pass on my advice to her partner. He engaged forward gear and attempted to get the stern away from the bank, but an ominous underwater clattering indicated that the blade had picked up something that was battering the bottom of the counter as it rotated.

Its ability to manouvre further inhibited by rubbish on the prop, the boat moved slowly forwards, still in the grip of the wind. I could see that he wasn't going to get the boat to its destination without hitting one of our boats, but I wouldn't have minded if he simply scraped his bow along the side of "Southam". The sensible thing to do would have been to forget about engine power and use the shaft, which lay idle on the cabin roof, to get control of the errant fore end. I have always, however, found a great reluctance among trainee, and sometimes experienced, boaters to use the shaft.

The strategy employed to control the boat was a surprising one. As the bow headed into the arm where the boats awaiting restoration float in shallow water I expected to see a flush of sterngear from the still clattering prop. Instead the boat carried on until it impacted "Elton"s stern. She gave a lurch, then resigned herself to being used as a fulcrum as, still in forward gear, the man put his tiller over to lever the boat round. As soon as he backed up the wind caught the bow and he lost control again. He repeated the manouvre, but this time, the hireboat's bow having moved a few feet Eastwards, it was "Queen"s turn to suffer the indignity of a ramming.

I stood watching, open mouthed and dumbstruck. I knew that both boats were tough enough to withstand these blows, but I was amazed at the sheer disregard for other peoples craft.

The boat backed up again. The next boat in line for a blow from its bow was "Hazel", our most fragile boat. Somehow he managed to miss her, but, as anticipated, scraped his bow along the side of "Southam" instead. As his stern end approached the footbridge he threw a line up to his wife, who sensibly led the boat back to the overnight mooring that I had suggested.

I started the saw and quickly completed the last cut, by which time my anger had subsided a little. I shafted "Lilith" back across the basin to tie up abreast of "Southam", then went to dig out some leaflets from "Forget me Not"s cabin. I walked over to the moored hireboat and tapped on the roof. The woman emerged and reddened when she saw me. I sought to defuse her embarrasment with a smile, it wasn't her who had been steering, and handed her the leaflets. I said "Here's some information about the historic boats you just rammed". She was full of apologies, but she didn't call her husband out to face me. I diverted the conversation away from the incident as she was clearly uncomfortable, but it was her partner that I wanted to feel that discomfort. He had not once looked in my direction as he carried out his cavalier careering around the basin.

I went off to get some food. Early in the morning the boat left to work down the locks to Manchester. I wonder what sort of night the arrogant man had. It would be no surprise to me if the ghost of Jack Monk ( "Queen" was his first motor boat and remained his favourite) had visited him in the night and given him terrifying dreams of boatmans justice.