Down the locks to Sport City 8th July 2017

"Hazel" needs to earn some money so that she can do more good work taking people who need their spirits lifting away up the cut. We decided to try taking her to Manchester as we earn more for overnight stays down there. Today Tony, Aaron, me and new volunteer (though he helped dig out the boatyard years ago) Lee, bowhauled her down the locks to the velodrome. On Tuesday she'll carry on to Ancoats.


"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.


Castlefield Food Festival May 2017

We decided to take "Hazel" down to the Castlefield Food Festival. The trip along the Ashton summit and down the 27 Ashton and Rochdale locks to Castlefields, Manchester, was wonderful. We had 6 guests on board, the weather was wonderful  and there were no problems.

I usually take the butty through locks as this is more complicated than the motor. This time I took the motor and left Tony Hewitson in charge of the butty. All went smoothly.

In some ways the festival was a disappointment as we were fenced off from the main festival site and so didn't get to meet as many people as we would have liked, though we made some good contacts. We also found that having guests stay on "Hazel" in central Manchester is a good way of making money. Could be useful.

Lovely dog on the next boat.

I like the constant passing of trains over the viaducts at Castlefields.

The return trip was a lot more difficult. It rained all day, we only had 3 people and we had multiple problems with rubbish and low water as we tried to get through Openshaw. I bowhauled "Hazel" singlehanded through the most of the 18 Ashton locks. I didn't take any photos! Having set out at 09.30 we finally reached Ashton sometime after midnight.

A Day at Knowl St Heritage Boatyard

Yesterday I was working at Knowl St along with Dave, Kim  and Stewart. I was mostly tidying up after the gales. Dave was welding various items for "Hazel" and "Forget me Not". Kim was renovating "Southam"s big ex army range and Stewart was making replacement sections for "Forget me Not"s temporary deck. There was a bitter cold East wind but we enjoyed our work in spite of this.

Dave welding "Forget me Not"s exhaust pipe.

Stewart with the deck sections he's made.

"Southam"s range.

Steaming "Hazel"s Eyebrows (16th November 2012)

Steaming "Hazel"s eyebrows!

Sounds painful, but that's been the main task today. I'm not sure what they're really called. They are the pieces of wood that go under the metal guard irons at the bow and stern of the boat. What pleasure boaters would call rubbing strakes.

There were four eyebrows to steam all together, so we did them in two batches of two, bow and stern. They all bent nicely, though there's always a bit of stress when it comes to steaming wood. The steaming equipment only just completed the job. When the second batch were nearly ready the pipe from the boiler to the steambox started to disintegrate. It's done 28 planks altogether, but for some reason todays steaming was the last straw for it. It was a bit much to expect a plastic pipe to take all that heat, but it did it, only failing at the very end.



Hazel Sponsors Day (19th October 2012)

Hazel Sponsors Day.

"Hazel" sponsors are wonderful people. They sponsor "Hazel" for a day a year, at a rate of £28 a day. Some have raised considerably more additionally. Every year we arrange a day for them to gather. This usually involves a boat trip. Some have stuck with "Hazel" through the difficult years when it seemed like the boat would never get restored. Between them they raised most of the £31,000 now in the "Hazel" fund, which we'll soon be digging into as the grant funding is nearly spent.

This Sunday they're all invited to have a look at the boat, there will be food in the nearby pub, then a trip up the Huddersfield Narrow Canal to Mossley and back. It's only a fairly short trip, but trips on this canal tend to be rather adventurous. "Southam" has never been up there, so I hope she doesn't get stuck.

Tomorrow I have to arrange getting the boats up to Stalybridge and ready for the trip. We're probably taking 3 boats, "Southam" "Forget me Not" and "Lilith". Getting them up the 7 locks to Stalybridge is going to be a challenge. Those locks are always difficult.

It's going to be a busy weekend for me!

Why not sponsor "Hazel". Get involved with this amazing project. http://wcbs.org.uk/



Mad March Recycling Trip 9th March 2010

Mad March recycling trip.

Despite having to scrape a thick coating of ice off the van windscreen I was surprised to find that the cut had frozen overnight yet again. Fian had spent the night boatsitting and I was a little concerned as she tends to feel the cold. Smoke was drifting from "Forget me Not"s chimney, so she was obviously awake, but I followed proper boating etiquette and avoided her cabin until she emerged. She said she had had a wonderful night and actually enjoyed being woken by squabbling geese at 3 AM!

After checking the bilges and feeding Captain Kit I carefully climbed across the ice sugared boats and started "Southam"s big engine to back her over to the towpath side for easy access by volunteers. "Forget me Not" and "Lilith" made a fine sight breasted up at the wharf. Soon people began to arrive and I had a busy time allocating people jobs, giving out safe boating information to first timers, of whom there were many and generally checking that everything was ready, dealing with a closed damper on a range that was causing people to be kippered etc.

As 10 AM approached I asked everyone to climb aboard and began shafting "Forget me Not" and "Lilith" round to face towards Droylsden. This was easier said than done as the ice, though thin, was a great impediment.

With the two currently unpowered boats a little way past 90 degrees of their 180 degree turn I noticed that the person I had asked to steer "Forget me Not" had taken it upon himself to go and start "Southam". Despite my waving he untied the boat and set off, but stopped again when my dancing, waving and shouting was relayed to him.

I had a dilemma that often occurs when working with volunteers. It's important for smooth running and safety that everyone follows the skippers instructions, but if you're too severe in imposing your authority you soon find yourself working alone.

I ran over to "Southam", which was now drifting in the middle of the cut and could only be accessed by climbing down off the footbridge. I found that the stern end mooring line was still tied to the T stud, it had been simply lifted off the mooring pin and thrown aboard instead of being untied and coiled ready for use as it should be. Even worse, the mooring pins had been left in the towpath. I climbed back on to the footbridge, retrieved the pins and re-gained the boat, explaining, I hope tactfully, that I had good reasons for my steering allocations and pointing out the shortcomings re lines and pins.

Moving the boat forward I nudged her past the bows of the other two boats and quickly explained that as I towed "Forget me Not" forward the line from "Lilith"s stem should be taken back and tied on to "Forget me Not"s stern. I took the strain of "Forget me Not"s line on "Southam"s T stud and pulled her forward, though she bounced off the knuckle of the Peak Forest turn because "Southam"s premature move had resulted in the turn being incomplete. My instructions must have been misunderstood because "Lilith"s line had not been carried to "Forget me Not"s stern and, as the two boats had separated, had to be thrown some distance. At the third attempt the line made its target, but almost too late. Boats do not have brakes so, once "Forget me Not" was moving her 15 tons or so was not going to stop. Seeing "Lilith" lurch into line I engaged forward gear again, but a few minutes later waving and shouts of Stop caused me to pull the lever back to nuetral again. "Lilith"s line had not been properly secured and was slipping off. There was no way I could actually stop the train of boats so had to let them drift while the line was re-secured. "Southam" stemmed up un the outside of the turn by the old Junction Mill chimney, now an icon of Ashton. "Forget me Not" wedged in alongside and, once more, the ice made things difficult as we tried to shaft the boats off the rubbish. As I tried to back her out "Southam" picked up a sturdy canvas bag on her blades, which had to be cut off, hanging over the side with a knife while young Daniel Cocker held on to my feet.

Eventually we got going again. Julie Edwards had rung up earlier to say that she would be late and would catch us up. She was waiting at Margaret St Bridge and hopped on to "Southam"s sterndeck as we passed, sharing with me the noise and smoke for the rest of the journey.

Despite my efforts with the knife, there was clearly stil some rubbish on the blades. The engine was struggling and making black smoke, the rudder was juddering and the water was boiling round the stern rather than going back in a clear stream. I kept giving bursts of sterngear to try to throw it off. This had some effect, but never got the blade completely clean and it would always pick up some more. As we passed the site of Robertsons Jam factory, now nearly demolished, a grunt from the engine indicated more rubbish collected. I tried reverse again and the engine stalled. Restarting it, I tried forward again. This unravelled the rubbish, but, looking down into the water, I could see something trailing behind that would obviously go back on to the blade if sterngear was engaged.

We tied up "Forget me Not" and "Lilith" breasted at Fairfield Junction quite neatly and winded "Southam", a manoeuvre slightly impeded by the crap on the blade, then everyone unloaded themselves and started digging out barrows from "Forget me Not"s hold. There were lots of new people and setting off on the collection round was a little chaotic. Most people got the hang of it quite quickly though and soon the two teams were busying themselves collecting from the Moravian Fields estate.

With so many people the speed of collection made up for time lost at the beginning of the trip. I became a little disappointed by the quantities and began to wonder where half the volunteers were, beginning to grumble that they were probably back at the boats having a brew, only to find that they were actually all busy emptying a garage full of stuff that had been donated.

When we had knocked on the last front door and barrowed the last load back to the boats, Fiona started handing out dishes of the excellent food that she had brought, with alternative options for carnivores and herbivores. Time to relax and eat and chat.

After two plates of excellent grub, I picked up the cabin shaft and started poking at the tangle of garbage on the propeller. This turned out to be mainly carpet, which was wound tightly on and bound with all manner of fibrous plasticky stuff. After much prodding and pulling I managed to get it all off, building a great mound on the sterndeck.

The next task was to wind "Forget me Not" and "Lilith". This is carried out by pulling them forward alongside "Southam" then, as their bows approach the tug's stern, pulling back on their front lines whilst shafting the stern ends sideways. This usually swings them round quite neatly and puts them in a good position for setting off, which was achieved quite neatly this time.

With the train travelling quite nicely along the canal and Kevin enjoying having a go at tug steering, I decided to walk alongside, stopping at Lumb Lane bridge (one of the lowest on the canal system) to try out the video function on my new camera The early morning frost had given way to a really nice sunny day, with refreshingly cold air. I enjoyed my walk, but kept my eye on the boats to make sure that everything was OK. I jumped back on board before the tricky turns through Guide Bridge, which were negotiated neatly by the steerers. I took over at Margaret St bridge to deal with the tricky arrival at Portland Basin. The procedure here is for "Southam" to head straight for the wharf then swing round to run parallel to it. "Forget me Not" follows and, if you judge it right, she will run neatly alongside the wharf to be stopped with her back end line (which is on the front of the engine room) while "Lilith" neatly slides alongside her. "Southam", once the towline is thrown off, then goes over to the towpath side of the canal to make it easy for volunteers to get off. She is then shafted back across to tie alongside "Lilith" (trying to do this by engine power is a nightmare because of the impossiblity of manouvering this boat in reverse gear).

Very quickly all the volunteers melted away in the afternoon sun and I made my way home.