Steve Haywood: lay up for winter and lose out

Boating in autumn and winter: it's a whole different experience

Boating in autumn and winter: it's a whole different experience - Credit: Archant

‘When I ask boat owners why they don’t cruise longer, the complaint I hear most is not about winter stoppages, but grumbles about how cold and wet it is outside of the summer’

Given that most contemporary narrowboats are like floating homes, it always surprises me this time of the year that there’s such a noticeable fall-off in the number of people cruising. OK, the kids are back at school now, and you can hardly be swanning off up the Grand Union when you have to be home getting their teas on the table and making sure their PE kit is washed for the morning. Even so, there are weekends and half terms – though you’d hardly notice it from any increase in boat traffic at these times. Besides, nowadays increasing numbers of boaters are retired and not bound by these sorts of child-care responsibilities, so lack of opportunity is no explanation.

Yet when I ask those boat owners who effectively lay up their boat over the winter why they don’t cruise longer, the complaint I hear most is not about winter stoppages – which, of course, can hamper cruising – but grumbles about how cold and wet it is, and how miserable it can be on a boat outside of the summer. This would be bad enough coming from someone you might run across in a pub who knew nothing about boating, but it’s an astonishing attitude coming from people who actually own a boat. OK, I wouldn’t want to prescribe the way anyone uses the canal, which is entirely a matter for them. And I do completely get it that for some people canal cruising is so tied up with the idea of BBQs and long evenings sipping chilled white wine on deck, that to be on the cut when you have to put a coat on, and when it gets dark mid afternoon, doesn’t really do it for them.

But boats nowadays are equipped with all manner of sophisticated insulation and heating systems. They are bursting with TVs and iPods and other means of entertainment. Some of them even have old-fashioned steam radio. They are so much like a house that they are houses, built entirely for comfort and succour. So what is it that STILL makes so many boat owners reluctant to take out their boats in the autumn and winter? You’d have thought the natural tightness of boaters would have made them want to cruise more – if only to justify the fee they pay for their licence.

What makes this attitude so incomprehensible to me is that cruising outside the summer months is such a different experience that boaters who don’t do it limit themselves in the enjoyment they can get from the waterways. I’ve written before how resistant I am to the idea of ‘doing’ a canal. You must have heard the term used; you may have even used it yourself. ‘Oh yes, we did the Llangollen last year...’ or ‘We’re planning to do the Leeds and Liverpool’ when we’ve got time.’

I react negatively against the turn of phrase because as far as I’m concerned it implies that the enjoyment of a canal is a finite experience, something that once done is then completed. I feel that you can never enjoy a canal in its entirety even if you had several lifetimes to do it. A canal travelled in one direction is totally different travelled in another. And it is as different again in one season as it is in another. In rain as it is in sun.

Who can really say they know a canal unless they’ve seen it on a bright autumn day when the sunshine is so clear it burns your eyes? Or unless they’ve woken after a winter’s frost with the damp of each individual twig on a hedge transformed to an icicle in a world which itself has turned to ice. Or in a storm when the rain is drumming on your roof like a thousand elfin dancers, the wind buffeting you, threatening to tear you from your moorings?

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The staytight-over-winter crew should get out more. They’d find it an eye opener.

Find the vandal

Some boaters today seem to be looking for any excuse to have a go at the Canal & River Trust. And so C&RT’s announcement that the dreadful Middlewich breach was caused by lock paddles being left up has been translated as an attack on boaters, some of whom would rather believe it was caused by lack of maintenance. It wasn’t. Regardless of what the bloggers and net magazines tell you, C&RT knows precisely how this breach happened. They know from investigation of water movement and levels. They know from mathematical analysis. The truth is it was vandalism. True, the vandal may have been a boater, but this appalling calamity wasn’t caused by some innocent and inattentive newbie forgetting to drop a couple of paddles. Not such a good story though, is it?

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