Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Golden Goose.

When we first started to spend time on the canals, it was on hire boats - admittedly that was many many years ago. I seemed to remember it as idyllic experience, but then I was a much younger man. I also seem to remember that the weather was mostly sunny, so my memory may be selective. I did not keep a journal back then, but I can't bring to mind a time when our plans had to change due to a stoppage. People seemed to be friendly and always helpful towards each other. There were British Waterways staff around and advice and a cheery wave were often exchanged. The experience was enjoyed and we harboured a certain amount of envy, of those who owned their own boat and could spend all their leisure time afloat. Which to my mind was a much more pleasing option than the occasional couple of weeks holiday that we managed to enjoy. The seeds were set. We were just like everyone else, we worked, raised families and saved for the day when we could purchase a boat of our own. We knew that our idyllic lifestyle would come to us.

I remember the first time we operated a lock and the feeling of relief that came from being shown the ropes by a much more experienced and helpful boater. Someone who went out of their way to give that bit of reassurance and guidance. I remember being invited aboard a boat that had a separate tidy engine room and a carefully cleaned and polished engine. With a large flywheel and an exhaust that tonk tonked. I was always amazed at how efficient the towpath telegraph was. But the one thing I do remember was in the politics of the waterways, the common grumble being increasing costs.

Contrast our experience back then to what we find now.

There are many more boats now than there were then. I don't mind, as the more the merrier. However, due to the downturn and other pressures - it seems that the number of boats is reducing. The environment on and around the canals has changed for the better. The dirty often smelly canal water has been replaced by much cleaner water. Flora and insect are much more abundant in the margins. So the environment has benefited from that. The towpaths are improving, though when a high speed cyclist whizzes by, I'm not sure that its always for the better. The fishermen are still the same, studiously avoiding eye contact. But we do slowdown if we spot them and we do give them a wave. We can now go for days and days before seeing a waterways employee. Because now they seem to be in white vans rather than walking or working upon the towpath. However, I seem to see more rubbish in the water than I remember in the past. But back then shopping trolleys were not as common. But the one thing that has not changed is the politics. The fight to get repairs done and for reinstatement of the infrastructure is still ongoing. The boaters have become even more cynical of those managing the infrastructure.

The towpath telegraph has been replaced by the 'towpath internet' as boaters keep up with the issues of the day from websites such as Narrowboat World. I now enjoy being able to come to give occasional assistance to first time hirers - if only because it reminds me of those 'pit of the stomach' concerns I had when we first started out. I would still love to have a polished and burnished 'tonkity tonking' engine but I feel that it would be covered in drool! But when it comes to the management of the waterways, nothing has changed. We all grumble at the upward spiral of prices. Prices that commits us all to make changes to try to save on costs.

The most painful realisation of all, is that if we were still doing our boating through hiring for holidays. I would no longer consider boat ownership as being an 'idyllic' option. I would not encourage anyone to buy a boat because of the increasing level of uncertainty for a viable future for the waterways.

I recognise that we are amongst the last generation able to retire at a sensible age. I realise that we are amongst the last generation able to retire early with the benefit of a good pension. Compared to the predictions for the next generation we consider ourselves to have been very fortunate. What has changed my views. Is that I have serious concerns for the long term viability of the waterways in the hands of the present incumbents. The way that the inland waterways are managed needs drastic change. The megalomania, bloody minded thinking and personal fiefdoms, need to be replaced with people capable of taking aboard the serious challenges that lay ahead.

There is only the one option available to us all. That is CaRT, no matter how many other options we would prefer. We all have to work with the devil we know. The devil who seem to view us as an irritation - until the management need our money. I am actually uplifted from time to time by the occasional exodus of senior 'ex BW' Mastodon. However, I am downbeat when I see the - big bonus poor performers - Troglodytes hanging on for their pension pots with the grasp of a drowning man.

The age demographic of users of the inland waterways is quite high. Go to any boat club and look at the age range - it should be of concern to us all. We need to attract young people for the short and long term future. The only time we see young people now, are part of a family on a hire boat. To attract the younger age group to the inland waterways we will need to fulfil their wants and needs. That will mean providing moorings close to schools and places of work. The trust should take on board that when they provide residential moorings - there is a tacit agreement that they are also housing landlords.

The trust seems to have a plan of action which is to drive as many young people from the inland waterways as possible. I realise that CaRT would like everyone mooring in a marina. That is one such possibility - as long as the youngsters are not being priced out. The overheads with running a boat year on year are now comparable with the overheads for running a home. Houses appreciate in value and a boat depreciates. The trust currently seems to treat the waterways as some sort Golden Goose. All the signs are indicative that the goose is about to fly away. No doubt someone from 'antiquity' will be on a big performance bonus for achieving that!

Would I recommend purchasing a boat on the inland waterways to anyone - no way! If you want to experience the best of the canals then hire a boat. At the end of the hire period you can walk away without experiencing the worst, that comes with boat ownership. And the uncertainty of a management up 'merde' creek, all achieved without the aid of a paddle.

If you keep very very quiet - and you listen very carefully - you might possibly hear the feint sounds of recovery - no me neither!

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