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Steve Haywood: Tooley’s under threat

PUBLISHED: 16:13 19 June 2018 | UPDATED: 16:13 19 June 2018

The boatyard has one of the most difficult locations (photo: Martin Ludgate)

The boatyard has one of the most difficult locations (photo: Martin Ludgate)


“Tooley’s - as everyone on the canals knows - holds an exceptional place in waterways history, it being the dock from which waterway’s author Tom Rolt started the epic journey depicted in his book Narrow Boat”

here’s a film starring Bill Murray which you may have seen called Groundhog Day about a cynical newsman who finds himself trapped in a time warp, condemned to repeat the same day endlessly, time after time. I’ve felt a bit like the Bill Murray character myself this month when I heard alarming news that could, once again, signal the closure of Tooley’s dock in Banbury in Oxfordshire.

Tooley’s – as everyone on the canals knows – holds an exceptional place in waterways history, it being the dock from which waterway’s author Tom Rolt started the epic journey depicted in his book Narrow Boat. This was this book that led directly to the formation of the Inland Waterways Association and the development of the canals into the vibrant leisure network we all enjoy today. In other words, Tooley’s isn’t just any old dock: it’s unique, a shrine for anyone interested in the waterways.

Yet Cherwell Council seems never to have grasped its significance. Where other councils would have cherished the dock as the ancient monument it is, Cherwell saw it in the mid-1990s as an inconvenience to its grandiose plans for the Castle Quays shopping centre which now engulfs it. Yes, Tooley’s survived that battle, but only as a shadow of its former self, the reduced site only saved because of the Grade One listing which protects the old blacksmith’s shop and the actual dry dock itself. Now even that may not be enough to ensure its survival following news that after 15 years the operator of the dock, Matt Armitage, is having problems renegotiating a new lease.

Cherwell has offered him a renewal – but here’s the rub – it’s being proposed with a break clause. This means Matt could be asked to vacate the site as early as September 2019. Why Cherwell Council is setting this condition is not clear, but you can’t help feeling it’s somehow connected to its recent decision to become a developer itself and buy the Castle Quays shopping centre. Plans are already underway to knock down an existing car park on the site and to build a new hotel.

It seems that once again Tooley’s becomes an inconvenience to Cherwell Council’s plans. It has already suggested to Matt that he move out of the dock while the new development takes place, but since they have offered no cast-iron guarantees that he’ll be invited to return, he’s decided very wisely to stay put. This hasn’t helped business, and already he’s has to cease taking bookings for work in the dry dock. Tooley’s is already one of the most difficult locations in the country for a boatyard. Unlike other yards it has no mooring facilities to provide a regular income stream; because of its position in the shopping centre, it hasn’t even got adequate facilities for deliveries. And though it gets no independent funding of any sort, it is compelled to allow public access to visitors as a nod to its historical importance. How many other yards would countenance those sort of restrictions, I wonder?

Some indication of the sensitivity of Cherwell Council towards this jewel on its doorstep is that in the 1990s during negotiations for the shopping centre development there was talk of developing Tooley’s as a pizza parlour with tables on the dock floor. This crass idea was finally knocked on the head by British Waterways who, as ultimate freeholder, made it clear it wanted to see Tooley’s retained as a working dock. That still remains the position of the Canal and River Trust.

But how much can you trust anyone nowadays where money’s concerned?

We were travelling along the Oxford Canal northwards when we met a C&RT tug boat pushing a lighter at the recently-mechanised Heyford liftbridge. The tug and lighter had just passed through, so imagine my surprise when the bridge was lowered across my bows. ‘Thanks very much! That was a great bit of boating!’ I shouted to the sour-faced employee responsible as I pulled into the bank to offload Em to open the bridge again. ‘We’re in a hurry,’ was his only explanation.

I guess he’d saved 30 seconds. But, with Justice now occupying what would have been his pick-up point, the driver of the tug had to attempt to get his colleague on board in shallows further down the cut. Five minutes later, after Em had opened the bridge, allowed me through and closed it afterwards, he was still trying to get his mate on board. He was still trying as we cruised round the bend and out of sight. I wonder if he knows the word karma?


Steve Haywood is an award-winning current affairs TV producer, journalist and author who has been a boat owner for nearly 40 years

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