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20 Questions

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Jenny and I have recently featured in the “20 Questions” feature in "Canal Boat” magazine. They asked if we were interested and after a little thought, we agreed. I suspect that they had been let down by someone, and needed a replacement at the last minute, as they needed our answers in double quick time. This suited us, as too much thought would probably mean answers that bored the readers to death. The answers were edited, presumably to fit the space available, but I thought that our full answers might be of interest. Here they are:

1 What first attracted you to the waterways?

 JOHN: My earliest memory is being taken to Sheffield Basin in 1966 by my dad. I would guess that it was the occasion of the IWA rally there, as I remember lots of boats, and most of all, lots of masts. I also remember seeing Sheffield Keels tied up at the Hovis Mill on the River Rother whilst growing up in Rotherham. This prompted a canal boat holiday as soon as I could afford it, which was on a boat from Peak Forest Cruisers at Macclesfield. That was it, hooked.

JENNY: To be honest, I wasn't really aware of canals until a previous partner went to work on hotel boats which I then joined in August 1992. That was when the bug bit!

2 Which is your favourite canal?

I don’t have a particular favourite, they all have good and bad points. If pressed, I would probably say the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, as it is relatively unspoiled, and was one of the first canals that I traded on. 

Having worked on hotel boats and then working on Roach with John, I’ve got to know many canals inside out.  Travelling canals throughout the seasons keeps them fresh, though possibly some canals suit some seasons better.  They all have something to offer at different times to me.

3 And which canal do you find is the hardest work?

The Northern Stratford Canal. We average less than one mph between Kings Norton Junction and the top lock at Lapworth. 

Any canal with deep locks and plastic paddles - there are a couple of locks where I know the paddles are such hard work that I do not even attempt them anymore.

4 How did you get involved in running working boats and a coal yard?

I knew that I wanted to work on the canals, and already had Roach when I was offered a job tug-driving for the Union Towage Company on the “Project Aquarius” dredging contract in Birmingham. The chap who ran Union Towage also set up the Union Coal Company initially to obtain a coal supply for Richard Clapham who was operating Cepheus as a fuel boat at that time, but who ended up supplying me too when I started my rounds in 1994. We worked out of Les Allen and Sons boatyard at Oldbury initially, where we had loose coal delivered in bulk and bagged it up ourselves. This turned out to be the way forward for us. We eventually spotted the disused yard at Awbridge that we have ended up working from, and I became an Approved Coal Merchant to ensure that I could obtain fuels from a variety of sources. This also gave us the opportunity to supply other fuel boats at competitive wholesale rates.

Having left hotel boating in 1996, I then worked in a boat yard for a year- but that was too static for me. John delivered to the boats there and the rest as they say is history.  I had to learn to live in a back cabin and cope with coal dust everywhere. These modern coal boaters(!) all have pre-packed fuels whereas we would tip loose into the boat and bag as we went along. Balancing scales on the planks and shovelling down into a heap of coal is not pleasurable, but once you reach the floor it becomes so much easier.  The variety of fuels we now have to stock as well as the lack of loading places mean loading loose into the boat is now a thing of the past which is a shame (though my back appreciates it!).

5 What do the waterways need most?

 Management that understand that the canals were built for navigation, and who understand what that means. It means maintaining the canal to a satisfactory standard for navigation, a situation that is not happening at the present time, as the current standards are set too low. There is definitely no place for reeds in the navigable channel.

A proper veg pledge. A good friend who has worked canals forever said that when working for a contractor, their remit was to cut off-side vegetation back 6 ft (yes 6 ft!) from the edge and 8ft above the waterline, it makes work carried out today seem like a pathetic trim with secateurs.

6 What do the waterways have to offer the country?

The waterways offer a free and easily accessible place for people to escape the noise and traffic of the real world. Long may this continue.

Ditto, plus it gives the opportunity to meet a wide and diverse bunch of people with whom to pass the time of day.

7 What’s the best thing about steering a loaded working boat?

I still get a buzz from steering Roach loaded, even after twenty years. I get the same buzz seeing other boats leaving our yard loaded. A well loaded boat cuts through the water with very little wash at all.

It’s hard to put into words, it’s very satisfying steering a loaded boat and being able to get through.  We once re-loaded at Stone with just over 21tonnes on the boat and we bounced and bumped our way through to Stoke, it took us as long to go from Harecastle Tunnel to Hardings Wood Junction as it did to go through the tunnel.  There is a strong sense of satisfaction in getting to a destination after such trials and tribulations.

8 And what’s the worst thing?

 Meeting a boat cutting the corner of a bend, the steerer of which then panics and puts their boat hard astern with the resulting loss of steerage. This is the cause of quite a few collisions, although we do expect this situation and are very careful when approaching bends.

Being told when struggling through bridge holes full of silt and or rubbish, or even when stuck in the middle of the channel, that we are “grossly overloaded”.

9 What future do you see for freight carrying on the canals?

Traditional narrow boat carrying is unlikely to make a return, but there is certainly a place for the likes of ourselves to make a living. I believe, as does CBOA (Commercial Boat Operators Association), that the larger waterways have good potential for freight carriage which should be promoted and supported by CRT and local authorities to a far greater degree than at present. Potentially useful wharves are still being built on for short term gain rather than attracting longer term planning. Encouragement should be given to anyone wishing to carry freight on any canal. 

Personally I feel that anyone who has a good idea for carrying cargo should be encouraged and should have a go.

10 Have you ever fallen in?

 Yes! The worst was in winter whilst wrapped up in many layers of clothing, which seemed to treble in weight as I tried to climb out.

Touching wood, only twice in 22years - both times with the phone in my hand though!

11 What are you reading?

 I’m ploughing through Ulysses. I have tried and given up previously, but I’m quite enjoying it now that I have got my head around the “stream of consciousness” style of writing. This “heavy” reading is interspersed with “Tales of the Para Handy”, in which I see the characters of various acquaintances!

I rattle through all sorts but my sister lent me her Robin Hobb Liveships trilogy and now she and I devour her books as soon as a new one is published.

12 Who would be your ideal boating companion?

 Jenny.

John.

13 What would you like to see happen to the waterways in your lifetime?

 I would like to see them maintained to a reasonable standard with navigation as the first priority. I would also like to see canal side development improve dramatically, and get away from the awful pastiche “mock-warehouse” architecture currently prevalent everywhere.

I would like dredging teams and other boaters to realise that a 70ft boat is not hinged in the middle and needs space/depth to navigate bends.

14 What did you want to be aged 12?

 An architect.

A horse vet. 

15 What do you think of people on our canals?

 It takes all sorts!

Its good that we are not all the same, that would make life very dull.

16 What’s your fondest canal memory?

Meeting Jenny over a diesel pump.

Too many but one that must be up there, seeing the flotilla of boats that turned up to our wedding reception outside the Lower Lode Inn - especially as some guests ending up using the camping boat!

17 What do you do with your spare time?

 Mess about on my guitars, drink beer and exchange footballing insults with Pete Ivermee (of the FMC butty Gosport). He’s a Reading fan, and my team is Sheffield Wednesday.

Bag coal, plan routes, keep on top of the accounts, bag coal, load boat, clean brass repeat shuffle repeat.

 18 What do you hope to be doing in 10 years’ time?

 Drinking large gin and tonics on a tropical beach - some hope!

I would hope NOT to be banging on about the same old issues but to be honest, though I might moan and ache at the end of the day, I can’t imagine not doing it - there really is nothing quite like messing about on the water.

19 Which canal would you most like to see reopened?
The Wyrley & Essington, from Ogley through to Huddlesford Junction, as this would encourage more use of the Northern BCN. 

From Saul to Lechlade (now known as the Cotswold Canals) and if possible the Wilts & Berks.

20 What superpower would you like to possess?

The power to persuade CRT that there is no place for reed-beds and overhanging vegetation anywhere near to the navigable channel. 

Bionic back/shoulders - I did ask for a bionic shoulder before my operation but my surgeon just suggested a different line of work!

Tardebigge and beyond

After leaving the bonfire do at Smethwick, we ended up in Birmingham on the Sunday night having visited Hockley Port on the way. Deliveries made, a night out in the ‘spoons on Broad Street ensued, and very convivial it was too.

Jenny took Roach from Birmingham down the Worcester and Birmingham Canal to Alvechurch on her own as I had to nip off to Sheffield on the train. She also carried out our usual coal deliveries on the way. I got back to the boat just in time to go across the bridge to the Weighbridge - a fine pub on the Alvechurch Boat Centre yard. Graham Wigley turned up by train for a few pints and another convivial evening was had. 

The morning after was cold and bright, and turned out to be colder than I thought. The running planks looked like they were covered in dew, but as I discovered by losing my footing and ending up with a leg in the canal, they were actually covered in ice. Just like everyone else who ends up in the canal, the first thing I did was to look round to see if anyone else had seen the occurrence. Unusually, no-one had, although I already knew this as I could hear no laughter.

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Leg dried off, clean trousers and socks donned, and other boots found, we were off. The overhanging trees are still a problem along this length, as is the depth in quite a few places. Nevertheless, we made Tardebigge New Wharf with no mishaps, and made our deliveries there before setting off down the locks. Tardebigge Reservoir is alongside the canal a few locks down, and we were surprised to see how low the water level was. It turns out that there had been a spate of vandalism further down the canal with paddles being left up overnight on a regular basis, which meant that lots of water had been run down out of the reservoir to keep the canal topped up. Lets hope that we have enough rain to top it back up. The affected locks are now locked up every night to try and counter the problem.

Various deliveries made down the Tardebigge flight, tea drunk with customers, we finally made the Queens Head. Out on my own for a pint and footy on the big screen. Beer very good but expensive.

This is a very busy canal for us, and after another hard day we made Hanbury Wharf. This is where Jenny and I met all those years ago, our eyes meeting over  a diesel pump. The Eagle and Sun was shut, which was no loss, so we walked down to Droitwich and ended up in the Hop Pole. This is another fine pub, and I sampled Ambridge Ale, a brew aimed at Archers fans I expect, as the popular radio soap is based on the local village of Inkberrow. I sampled a few more just to check the consistency of the brew.

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The reeds along the Five Mile pound, as the canal through Hanbury to Tibberton is known, and in the Lowesmoor Pound aproaching Worcester are rampant. The response of CRT (Canal and River Trust - custodians of our inland waterways), is to give them a haircut once a year. This improves the look of the canal quite considerably, but does nothing to improve the navigation itself. The reeds, and the silt around them are still there below water level, and will still push the unwary boater across the canal. Why this trimming is carried out at all is a mystery to me, and a waste of scarce resources. CRT tell me that this work is carried out to improve visibility but carrying it out after the holiday traffic has ceased makes no sense at all. Visibility for who? The reeds will have grown back in time for next years holiday traffic. The two pictures here are an illustration of the problem. The top picture was taken in summer and shows the reeds in all their glory; the second picture shows the same location with the reeds cut back, but still there, lurking below water level. 

A very pleasant evening was had in the Anchor at Worcester with a few local boating types. Rog Hatchard was on fine form with plenty of tales from the “Old Days”.

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The Severn was rising quite quickly as we set out to reach the Staffs & Worcs Canal via Stourport, and there was lots of detritus coming down with the flow. Steering up-stream in these conditions and trying to avoid logs, trees, dead sheep etc, is akin to playing a game of Space Invaders.

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Since changing the propellor on Roach a few years ago, a good flow on the river poses no problem. The locks upstream were all ready for us as Martin, the CRT lock-keeper, had been booked to work us up the river.

We passed by Pete Hawkers’ new place (well, new to him), and as he had heard us approaching, he was standing on the steps leading down to the landing stage which was under water. Pete used to own Bletchley and Argus, a pair of Grand Union boats with which he carried coal and diesel for many years. (See the web page Bletchley & Argus elsewhere on this site).

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We reached Stourport in good time, and locked up into the basins. It is loads easier getting into the bottom narrow lock when the river is up as there is no climbing of ladders.

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Our last few drops were carried out, then off we went up to Wolverley that night, and Awbridge the next day. We need to return down the canal to fulfil the rest of our orders in the next few days. This will also give us the opportunity to visit the pubs that we missed out.

Sojourn in Smethwick

Our latest trip has been a very good one for lots of reasons. It was our first time out since the dredging works at Wightwick, and we decided that it needed a fair testing. We loaded 19.5 tonnes of coal onto Roach and set off on the Friday, intending to get up the Wolverhampton Twenty-One and spend some quality time that evening in the Great Western.

We sailed through the Wightwick pound (below) with no problem at all ……. except for a bounce over something at the tail of Wightwick Mill Lock. Oh well, it is certainly a lot better than it was. 

We zoomed up the locks into Wolverhampton with very little trouble at all. In fact, the only problem was the heap of spoil by the railway viaduct at Oxley that caused  Roach to veer over into the fig tree, (yes, it’s a fig tree)  and scratched our shiny paint-job. These locks are always better to work when there are no other boats about as the pounds are generally all full.

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There are a few gates in a very poor state on this flight; the top lock has one of the bottom gates held together with a ratchet-strap, and there are no plans as yet to mend it. I hope that it doesn’t fail whilst we are half way up next trip. 

Other gates on the point of failure and have also been patched up. One can only assume that the CRT Engineers are happy with the repairs, and have given them the OK. I’m not sure that I would be happy to put my neck on the line in that way.

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Never mind. We managed to put all this out of our minds with a few pints of Bathams in the Great Western. This is a fine pub situated just behind the railway station. The beer is great, and the pub is filled with railway memorabilia, mainly Great Western Railway memorabilia - obviously. It is probably illegal to pass through Wolverhampton without visiting this pub - ask the Narrow Boat Trust crews.



Saturday dawned bright and water was up to racing level, so we decided to boat round the Old Main Line to Smethwick to join the bonfire party hosted by the BCNS (Birmingham Canal Navigation Society). This is my old stomping ground, as I started coal-boating from the yard of Les Allen and Sons along here in Oldbury. We had not taken a loaded boat along this canal for a good while, as previous trips had been marred by poor depth of water, but decided to risk it as the spot-dredging team had recently been along. No real problems except for the last length between Summit Tunnel and the Engine Arm which is definitely in need of dredging and is full of typical BCN stinky mud.

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The above picture is of Roach under the M5 at Oldbury. It keeps the rain off.

The Smethwick Engine House was open when we arrived so we went in to have a look. I didn’t realise that the engine and pump were still in-situ, and it was a pleasant surprise to see them. It was also a nice suprise to see John Allen (one of the Les Allen sons) out with his family, and we had a couple of minutes reminiscing. The bonfire party was very good, particularly as there was a beer tent with all the beer provided by Ma Pardoes. The end of the night was even better as all beer was offered  at £1 a pint. It seemed rude not to.

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Suprisingly, we didn’t make an early start the next morning. No hangover though; this is a feature of drinking fine quality ales. And lots of practice.

Smethwick Locks are a little short, and require us to lift our fenders to get the gates open. The picture to the right shows the obstacles that had to be removed to get through the bridge below the bottom lock. Trolleys, although it could have been an underwater art installation. I have to say that I was pleasantly suprised by our trip along the Old Main Line. 


coalboat@waitrose.com © John Jackson 2014