Shop front in the summer

Friday, 31 January 2014

Getting Afloat - Part 1

Peter Underwood looks what turns ordinary people into boaters
In the first of a series looking at all the joys and potential problems of moving from being a gongoozler on the bank to a boater on the water we tackle just what it is that distinguishes one from the other.

OST people seem to enjoy being by water, whether it is on the beach, fishing a bubbling stream, strolling on a towpath of drinking in a pub with liquid outside the windows as well as real ale in the pumps.
But what takes some people from being observers to being participants? You can make the argument that our island heritage gives us a natural affinity with boats but the reality is that only a small percentage of the population are actually boaters.
Perhaps it is linked with childhood. I was born and brought up on the east coast, by a tidal estuary, and all the theories suggest that I should be terrified of the water after being swept away in my little rubber ring by a eight knot tidal flow even before I started primary school.
In fact, I was rescued by a passing boat – perhaps that explains my obsession – and went on to swim, sail and fish in those grey waters throughout my youth.
However, there are plenty of enthusiastic narrowboaters who would avoid choppy seas and tidal rivers like the plague, so childhood experiences are not necessarily what makes a boater. Perhaps it is because we associate canals, rivers and boats with freedom – walks on sunny days as children, our first fishing trip to an unpromising urban canal, early family holidays.
Simon Jenkins, a long term boater who runs the Norbury Wharf boatyard and hire fleet on the Shropshire Union Canal reckons it all starts with a canalside cup of tea.
“Give people what they want and they will visit the canals, enjoy them and steadily fall in love with them,” he says. “People want somewhere to enjoy their leisure and that often means nice scenery, plenty of action to look at and somewhere to buy a drink and some food. If you can add a bit of history, that’s so much the better.
“We see people of all ages visit our tearoom here at Norbury and they sit and watch the boats stopping on the wharf or moored along the popular towpath. They become fascinated and many move on to hire one of our little day-boats, so they get their first taste of actually travelling along the canal system.
“That gives them confidence that they can manage a boat on the canals and it is surprising how many day boat trippers move on to take one of our fleet of hire-boats out for a short break or a longer holiday.
“By that time they are hooked, like so many of the rest of us, on the waterways and they may even go on to buy a boat themselves.”

 Curiosity about boats is the starting point for many people on the road to hiring and, perhaps, owning a boat.

Which is a nice theory, and clearly canals attract the curious, you only have to be moored in a popular spot and be sitting outside to attract all sorts of questions from the passing public. They range from the little boy who wanted to know it we had to kneel down inside the boat – he hadn't been able to work out that there was another half a metre or more below the water surface – to those who clearly daydream about moving lock stock and barrel onto a boat.
I reckon that curiosity is the key. Most boaters seem to be curious – about what's around the next bend, about the history of boats and canals, about their fellow boaters and their boats, even about the wildlife that surrounds them on the waterways. 

Boaters love to explore their own history. Historic boats gathered at the Ellesmere Port Boat Museum.

It means they are keen to try new things, meet new people, travel to new places and try new experiences – even if that new experience is pushing your boat up a muddy ditch that forms one of the less well used parts of the Birmingham Canal Navigations.
I suspect curiosity also makes potential boaters impulsive. After all, buying a boat is a big step and a large investment in something that can cost a lot of hard cash just to keep it available for use. Cautious people, who study every worse-case scenario before making a commitment are more likely to stay walking the towpath and look at the more adventurous boaters with a little bit of envy.
Certainly, we would own up to jumping into boating without too much time spent looking at possible consequences. A week on the Norfolk Broads, followed by a three day break on a hire boat from the now-defunct Water Travel hire firm on the southern end of the Shropshire Union nearly 20 years ago convinced myself and my wife that what we really had to have for our 25th wedding anniversary was a boat.
Within weeks we had started looking even though the anniversary was a year away and within a couple more week we had jumped the gun entirely and bought a 32ft Viking GRP boat on the Yorkshire Ouse at Boroughbridge.
It soon became an obsession that meant we travelled to the boat, nearly two hours from our home, almost every weekend and often spent three or four days on the boat each week. We may have run out of fuel the first time we took it out and been left drifting down the Ouse, we may have scared ourselves heading back upstream from York as flash floods brought large tree trunks down river, but it was all one wonderful adventure.
So, too, was our first major summer journey, down the Ouse to Selby and then on to Leeds and along the Leeds and Liverpool canal. That gave us our first taste of the camaraderie of the canals and we were adopted by a single hander in his steel narrowboat as we joined the Aire and Calder and he gave freely of his advice and experience for the next week or two, giving us our first insight into proper canals.
Even before we began living on our boat it became an obsession. We had a new steel boat built, a 42-footer, which we proudly named Boadicea. Within another year or so our curiosity led to selling that to buy an unusual Ensign design from Wincham Wharf on the Trent and Mersey with a fixed steel cabin at the stern.
Curiosity, you see, it leads you by the nose in the boating world.

Getting afloat becomes the ultimate aim for those bitten by the bug. A couple on the Staffs and Worcs canal.

So, it you are wondering why you have this urge to splash out hard-earned cash on hiring a boat for a holiday, or even buying one, it is probably down to a combination of things, love of water, earlier good experiences, even a good cup of tea in a canalside cafĂ© – but, above all it is because you are a nosy person who wants to know what's around the next bend.
Over the coming weeks we will be looking at the best way to scratch the boating itch, hiring a boat, buying into a boat-sharing syndicate, the pros and cons of buying an old boat, the risks of buying a new boat, the best boat design, the best place to keep your boat, the equipment and training your really need, the places your should consider going with your boat and the organisations that may be able to help.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Happy Birthday Denise :-)

It's Denise's birthday today, so we have been spoiling her... She's had cards, flowers, chocolates and some other presents. We haven't let her have too much of an easy day of it though as she has been outside cleaning the hire boats and looking after the Tearoom as and when necessary. She's like our mother hen round here and always looks after us all, not to mention keeping us fed and watered!

I know Ange mentioned that Pacific was coming on well yesterday, but it is now really taking shape. The varnishing has been finished today, the brass fittings are all up, Ange is in the process of hanging the curtains and Mick has serviced the toilets and reinstalled them today. The carpet and cushion flooring is being laid tomorrow, so I should be able to get you some photographs next weekend to give you a taster of just how well she looks.

Talking about hire boats - Quince is now available for viewing on our website, as are all the other hire boats here

I was out in Birmingham for my friends 18th birthday last night. We had dinner in Jimmy Spices; which is most definitely my favourite restaurant. It is just out the back of Gas Street basin at what is called Regency Wharf. The site was once a canal basin, but was filled in and now houses a host of different restaurants although the original entrance bridge from Gas Street basin still remains. Following dinner, we ventured to a couple of bars on Broad Street with a last drink in the Tap and Spile before heading home. It was a great night out and I forget that such a vibrant and multicultural city is right on our doorstep - I much prefer going by boat though!

We've had another productive weekend. Bernard has completed the service on Bounty and has (amongst other jobs around the yard) started servicing the engine on Quince. She required a new drive plate so the gear box has had to be removed.

Mick has now started servicing the gas appliances and doing the gas tests on the hire fleet. Mike has done some Boat Safety examinations. We've been doing quite a few Boat Safety Scheme examinations recently.

Buffer is now under offer, which leaves us just six boats for sale at the moment which can be viewed here, but don't fret, we have got some more stock in it's way to us. Don't forget that our Brokerage rates are excellent, just 5% + VAT (terms and conditions apply).

That's it from me today.

Best regards, David.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Raining cats and dogs

As the title suggests it is absolutely pouring down as i write this blog, it is also blowing a hoolie and the rain is coming in underneath the tea room door, it is raining that hard. It's also started thundering and lightning just to put the top hat on it. I have just looked out of the window to see if it's stopped raining and Denise is chasing bin lids around the funny, she won't thank me for mentioning that.
We have had "Pippin" return to us this morning after a trip down to Great Haywood and back, the customers aboard had a very enjoyable week, "Phoenix" has gone on a jolly today for a week with returning customers aboard, they are not planning on going very far, they are just chilling for a change.
Bernard has been working on engines as usual and generally making a nuiscance of himself and Mick has been cracking on with the gas work on the hire fleet.
We have had Mike Shaw in today doing boat safety work on one of the brokerage boats and also one of the hire boats, pity he was sat on the back of "Shongalolo" when the heavens opened ;-)
Peter has been working on the inside of "Pacific", varnishing, putting up curtain poles and getting it ready for the carpet and vinyl to be laid on Monday, it really is starting to shape now, a couple more days and then us girlies can get on and make it look nice with new curtains etc.
Denise has been out skiving all morning, (oops i mean cleaning), she has been spring cleaning "Ember" as in 2 weeks time we have a flotilla of "Ember", "Sphinx" and "Pacific" going out with the leaders and children from the Boat House Youth in Blackpool which will be the first of their 3 holidays with us this year, we look forward to seeing all of them again.
Well that's it from me until next Saturday, byeeee.........Ange.

Monday, 20 January 2014

A spot of your own?

Journalist Peter Underwood has been turning his thoughts to moorings and here, in the second of his guest blogs he looks at long term moorings and the ways they could change in future. 

It is impossible to argue that there are not boaters who over-stay, so what is the answer, particularly in the so-called 'hotspots'? 

CRT officials have been quick to point out to me the 'problem' areas of the Western Kennet and Avon canal and the London canals. Once again CRT has difficulty in producing numbers showing the extent or otherwise of the problem but it is simple enough. Both are popular areas that have attracted liveaboard boaters who don't want to travel far enough to comply with the latest interpretation of CRT rules as to what's a 'bona-fide journey' as they have work and family commitments in the geographical area. 

Many would happily pay a reasonable amount for a simple, safe canalside mooring where they could live full-time but such moorings are either not available or far too expensive, especially in London.

So why don't CRT provide simple, offside, moorings so that – as in Amsterdam and even Singapore – families can make their homes on the canal, adding to its attraction and diversity?

Doing so would relieve pressure on visitor moorings in popular locations, provide the people concerned with stability and do much to smooth relationships between boaters. That brings us on to CRT's other role – as a provider of moorings – something it mostly does in the form of bankside moorings, although it also has some in small basins and wharves and it owns BWML which has many marinas across the country. 

There are two issues which militate against CRT using its mooring powers to deal with the issues thrown up by liveaboards in popular areas. The first is that instead of growing it's mooring provision as boat numbers have increased it has had a policy of cutting one online mooring for every ten created in a new commercial marina, something seen as a way of boosting marina development but which could now be increasing the numbers of unwilling continuous cruisers as marinas see their high prices resulting in more empty berths. 

The second is the auction system, once again introduced, to 'establish market prices for its sites as it did not have any true measure prior to this,' according to CRT. Head of Boating, Sally Ash, who lost responsibility for the sale of moorings when it was transferred to CRT's estates department, told me more than a year ago that the auction system was being looked at. 

More than 12 months on CRT's press office tells me: “The sales and marketing of our sites is being reviewed but until this has been completed, the auction system is the preferred method for sales.” 

Many boaters have regarded the auction system as unfair to those with a limited budget from the time it was introduced but since the auctions moved away from being a boating function the problems have been exacerbated. Reserve prices in the online auctions have now moved to 90 per cent of the guide price, almost wiping out any opportunity to establish the true market price of any mooring, despite the protestations about competition law. This would seem to distort the market substantially as boaters are unable to indicate that they feel a mooring is worth much less than the reserve price. The result, on the CRT's own figures is that before September 2011 just one in five moorings were not sold when first put up for auction and that has risen to a third unsold since then. 

The auction system is also seriously distorted by accidents of timing as well as by shortages of certain types of mooring, especially residential ones. A classic example is found at the Engine Arm moorings on the BCN, some fairly standard residential moorings in the not especially popular area of Smethwick. Usually there is a regular turnover of boats and the moorings sell at just below £2,000, sometimes having to be listed several times before going. A few months ago a bidding war developed between three or four boaters determined to buy one of the mooring and it doubled in price, returning to the normal level when the next vacancy came up.

Residential moorings in London, commercial or CRT, fetch prices well out of the reach of an ordinary family and CRT seems to recognise something more is called for and has already been in discussions about providing cheap basic moorings in the capital. 

Once again there is a lack of information. I asked whether CRT has figures for the provision of residential berths sold under its auction system and residential berths available in marinas and how they have changed over five years? I was told: “We do not have details of residential berths for sites other than CRT sites. We have created 10 additional residential moorings over the last two years and are actively working on developing approx. 30 over the next 12 months, primarily in London. Sales of residential moorings are rare as many of the London ones have assignability. 

Over the past five years we have had 230 residential vacancies advertised through the auction system, and 64 per cent of these sold above reserve.” Caught up in the apparent demands of being a commercial operation it has found difficulty and now seems to be looking to others. The press office told me: “The provision of long term moorings is not the sole responsibility of the Trust. Indeed it is our policy to promote investment by private and social enterprise in this provision. As both network operator and mooring provider, we are bound by competition law and must not use our dominant position in the market to adversely affect other mooring providers. 

“We do recognise that there is a shortage of supply in the provision of affordable moorings with consent for residential use. The main reasons for this shortage are a lack of available land in areas of high demand and local authority planning policies.” 

Talk to local councillors, especially in cities like Birmingham and you hear almost the exact opposite – they would love to develop floating communities in some of the many small basins but can't get CRT to co-operate. 

So will CRT make up it's mind to dump auctions and even stop reducing online moorings, given that nearly 90 per cent of them are already taken? Watch this space seems to be the answer, with CRT telling me: “We’ll be announcing any changes in due course – I’m afraid I don’t have a timeline.” That hasn't prevented CRT moving ahead with changes in the related visitor mooring system in an apparent attempt to deal with overstaying, allegedly by boaters whose boats are their home, despite the lack of any dramatic statistics to confirm there is such a problem.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Welcome to "Quince"

It's been a lovely day here at Norbury today. The sun has shone for most of the day and it has brought folks out in their flocks!

Denise has been busy in the tearoom and been cleaning boats in between, Ange has been flitting here there and everywhere whilst Mick has been working on Pacific.

We've had a lot of people enquiring about boats for sale today, we have taken several hire boat bookings and the day boat bookings are rolling in.

Talking about hire boats, we are introducing two new boats this year. Pacific is one - which I will tell you about in another blog. Quince is the second. She has replaced Quartz which we retired at the end of last season.

Quince is a four berth boat, quite unusual as the fixed double at the rear of the boat also converts to two single beds. Here's a couple photographs of that.

She also benefits from having a safe locker onboard to keep valuable possessions. Here's a few more photographs of her.

And finally one of her exterior.

That's it from me today.

Best regards, David.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

it's been a long time

well as the title suggests it's been along time since i posted on our blog and as i keep getting told off for not writing one (my day is a saturday) here goes.
we had a quiet start to the day today, it does seem strange not having any day boats out with lots of people milling about and the smell of bacon as they all wait for their breakfast baps before they depart on the boats, but they are booking very well for march, so roll on march ;-)
we have had "pippin" go out today for a week with returning customers and they have headed south towards great haywood, i hope the weather is kind to them, they did head off with lots of logs on board so if it is damp or cold at least they will be warm with the solid fuel stove blazing away.
denise has been out spring cleaning sphinx today but i had to keep calling her back in as the tea room has ticked over nicely today.
fred has been pressure washing and blacking today. we have "bounty" and "victory", two of our day boats in there at the moment for a freshen up of their hulls and at the same time checking that everything else under the water is ok with them as hopefully they are going to be very busy this year.
bernard has been busy with engine servicing on the hire fleet and doing the show round on "pippin", he forgot to take the boat manual with him, luckily i spotted it before they had travelled too far, but i did have to get a wriggle on to catch up with them.
"hekla" one of the boats we have just sold has left us today with its new residents on board.
mick has been working on "pacific" today, this is the new addition to our hire fleet, she is coming along nicely, she is going on her maiden voyage from here on 15th feb so we will all be working hard with carpet laying and cleaning her ready for then.
david has been sorting the manual for the other new addition that we have in the fleet for this year "quince", and i have been answering phones and serving customers in the tea room and shop....oh and i did have a dog jump into my arms this afternoon in the tea room as he was sooooooooo pleased to see me,unfortunately for me he had just been for a walk down the towpath so not only was he covered in mud but i was too ;-(
well thats me done til next saturday, byeeeeeeeeeeee ange.   

Monday, 13 January 2014

Who ties where?

Journalist Peter Underwood has been turning his thoughts to moorings and here, in the first of his guest blogs he looks at visitor moorings and the heated debate about their use.

Mooring. It's a topic that obsesses boaters almost as much as toilets and seems to dominate much of the Canal and River Trust's policy-making time.

Why? That's a very good question and, considering the amount of time devoted to the issue you would imagine CRT had enormous files of complaints about mooring going back years.

I have been told several times by senior CRT staff and a trustee that the organisation regularly receives 'lots' of complaints about boaters without a home mooring.

But when I asked whether  the organisation kept a record of these complaints, whether it was willing to make it public and how did it verify whether such complaints had a basis in fact, the answer was a curious mixture of hearsay and assumption.

CRT's press office told me: These staff are probably referring to a wide mixture of informal feedback received verbally or in passing within correspondence. 
The number of formal complaints we receive is small in comparison.  Letters published in the printed waterway press gives a reasonable guide to the strength of views of boaters, and a casual analysis of the letter pages of Canal Boat and Waterways World over the past year or so confirms that the mushrooming of apparently largely static communities of residential boats in certain areas is a matter of quite wide concern amongst boaters. 
For most people, putting pen to paper on a particular subject such as this is a chore that theyd rather not do and, for every letter written, there may be many, many more who think the same but dont bother to write. 
So, this is a very long way of saying no, we dont have any quantitative evidence about complaints, but that doesnt mean we can ignore all other pointers.

Despite a somewhat inadequate factual basis for policy making, there is little doubt that a proportion of boaters do complain about being unable to moor where they choose in high season.

A boaters survey of the Southern Grand Union reported in November, asked: Are you ever affected by congestion at visitor moorings on the Grand Union south of Blisworth, highlighting Rickmansworth?

Just two per cent said they were frequently affected while 82 per cent were never affected or didn't bother to answer. Another 17 per cent were infrequently affected.

There are no figures for what proportion of visitor moorings are in use at any one time, a difficult task for CRT as their number-checkers only visit each stretch on average once a fortnight. However, the figures from the three mooring sites (Foxton, Stoke Bruerne and Thrupp) where they changed the rules with much fanfare this summer, show that around 75 per cent of the use was by Leisure Boaters, 20 per cent by Continuous Cruiser / Liveaboards and the remainder working or trading boats.

Given that 15 per cent of all boats on CRT's system are Continuous Cruisers that would seem logical as those who spend their lives on their boats are slightly more likely to be using them than those who are taking a holiday. 

So should CRT be motivated by the angry letters of a handful of leisure boaters to the boating press? It would easy to suggest that doing so is the equivalent of government making policy on the basis of the letters columns of the Daily Mail.

Certainly a more factual basis would be preferable and that may be slowly emerging as it combines the database of day-to-day boat checks  - although CRT admits, We do not visit visitor mooring sites sufficiently frequently to provide a reliable indication of usage levels; with a new programme of volunteer boat recordings at visitor moorings on a daily or 34 times per week basis.

In any event it thinks it has the right amount of visitor moorings, even in hotspot locations. The press office told me: The detailed discussions held over many workshops do indicate that the space allocated, overall, is about right.  

Given that there is a big difference in visitor mooring usage in peak boating months versus the shoulder months (eg Sept/Oct) we must beware the conclusions that if they are not full in late Sept/Oct, too much space is allocated.

With CRT itself saying there is enough space, boater surveys indicating that only a handful have serious problems mooring even in hotspots like Rickmansworth, what is all the fuss about?

It is possible that part of the anger is a matter of timing. A holiday boater naturally likes to cram in as much travelling as possible, especially those on hire boats attempting a 'ring'. That means they tend to arrive at their planned mooring late in the day and find it full. That makes some people angry and resentful of the boats that are occupying 'their' space.

Human nature being what is, there is a tendency to blame what are usually labelled 'continuous moorers' meaning continuous cruisers who do not abide by the rules.

The reality in most places is almost certainly different. One of five of the moored boats may have a continuous cruiser licence but the rest will almost certainly be leisure boaters who simply turned up before the boater making the complaint. On longer- term moorings there may be boats that have been there the full term but simple observation around the system this year shows an increasing number of leisure boats being left for a week or two at a time during the season, and moved regularly as owners avoid paying high marina fees. One owner near Foxton reckoned one in ten moorers in his marina were now only paying for the winter months.

Nothing illegal about it as long as the boat is moved regularly, and of course, as a boat with a nominal home mooring, there is no obligation to be on a journey, as there is with Ccers.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Getting back into the swing

Firstly, I would personally like to wish you all a very Happy New Year.

I had virtually two weeks off over the Christmas period and left Simon holding the fort. I had great plans to go off boating, but at the last moment I decided to stay put. Although saying that I did go down to the Wharf at Goldstone on Christmas Eve with my boat and had a very enjoyable Christmas Day in the pub there with Denise, Mike, Ange, Mark, Denise's sister and her partner. We returned to Norbury with the boats on Boxing Day. Other adventures over the Christmas period saw me at Chester, Leek, Buxton, Froghall, Llangollen, Trevor, Walsall, Perry Bar, Knowle, Tamworth and Norton Canes. As you can see most of them canal related - well you didn't expect anything else did you? I must say it was good to have such a long break, but it has taken some "getting back into the swing" of things this week.

Richard has painted The Shropshire Star and she now looks replendent in our livery. Here's a few pictures for you.

Just to remind you what she looked like when she was in service last year.

The Shropshire Star partway through her transformation.

And here's how she looked yesterday when we got her out of the dock.

We are busy plodding on with Winter Maintenance on the fleet. Bernard is keeping busy servicing engines, Fred is docking, pressure washing and blacking two days a week and I am working on some of the internals as well as the other day-to-day jobs that need doing. Meanwhile Archie has been working on Pacific.

Mick has just completed some bathroom alterations on one of our regular customers boat's. He has now started doing his bit on Pacific and she enters the fleet next month and her first booking is 15/02/2014.

Best regards, David.

Thursday, 2 January 2014


Happy New Year to everyone, I really hope you all had a good one where ever you were, what ever you were doing and who ever you were with!

Another year has passed by and a new season is looming upon us shortly, looking back on last year it didn't turn out to be that bad after all, yes hire boat bookings could have been better but they were the same as the previous year, day boat bookings were the best we have ever had, the holiday cottage booked quite well (it should be even better now its had a make over) the new trip boat that we introduced in May did better than we anticipated, the dry dock was busier than anticipated, Richard our new painter turned out some superb paint jobs, as expected! Boat sales were a bit slower than previous years but picked up towards the end of the year, but I reckon the most noticeable difference was how quiet the canal seemed, considering we had some fantastic weather the canal just didn't seem to get busy at all with the usual traffic that we see, talking to others around the country they all said the same thing ' the canal was quiet' Sitting in the office writing this blog today looking out of the window at the blue skies and the sun beating down it is hard to imagine that it is the 2nd January today it really is more like a spring day, lets hope that this new season brings fantastic weather and lots boating!

As its New year I didn't think it was worth being fully staffed so there has only been myself and Joyce in today, how wrong I was first thing as we had two day boats go out, one was unexpected as it was the nice folks form the holiday cottage, who saw the sun and though they would take advantage and go cruising and the other one was booked on Tuesday and I hadn't noticed, so it was a bit balmy first thing but once I had got them going it settled down to a nice steady day.

Things will be back to normal as from Monday next week, everyone will be back off their holidays and the usual jobs will commence as we start to get the boats ready for the start of the season!

Until later in the week.