Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Pretty as a picture

Pretty as a picture
April 2018

Helen has been keeping secrets from me and, as we all know, "suspicion tears you apart". Not good news on the run up to our 30th wedding anniversary (23rd July).

She has been nurturing this secret from months, coyly alluding to "something special" every now and then, but never letting on what she was keeping from me. Whats more,I knew there was money involved, which disturbs an ex banker to his roots. 

Jan Vallance's painting of our boats under way

Finally. a few days ago Helen started a gradual reveal. The money was for a gift to both of us to celebrate our forthcoming anniversary, but such was its physical size there was no way she could smuggle it onto the boat for the actual day, or even hide it away at home.

Today I was expecting a big pre season glass delivery, but instead the parcel man arrived bearing a big flattish package which was snatched from my grasp by "Mrs Secrets". She returned beaming with a pair of scissors and asked me to open it. 

After a brief tussle with the parcel tape I got in and there was the back of a picture. Oh er - we are not always in agreement when it comes to artwork, so it was more than a bit of nervousness I turned it over. 

It was a specially commissioned Jan Vallance painting and not just of any old canal scene, but instead it was one of our own boats making their way north along the Worcester Birmingham Canal. It is fantastic, lovely, amazing and all so technically accurate! I love it and immediately saw that the chimney breast in our dining room was the ideal place for it. As you can imagine, Helen was there way before me....

Barry's original photograph
But that's not all. The actual image is included in Barry Tutenberg's top fifty photographs from their 2015 travels.

So a vote of thanks, first to Helen, the continuing Mrs Tidy whose secretive behaviour is not only forgiven but forgotten. Secondly to Jan Vallance for creating such a lovely and unique painting which will inspire be during the long winter days at home, and finally to Barry Teutenburg who not only supplied the original image but also suffered my glacially slow progress along the Worcester Birmingham canal for hour after hour!

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Cley next the Sea

Cley next the Sea
April 2018

After all the cold followed by the rain I was blessed with wall to wall sunshine during a recent visit to North Norfolk.

I went out with my mother to follow the North Norfolk coast round from Cromer to Hunstanton. Along the was we saw the wave spray splashing over the shingle bar at Cley next the Sea. We drove down to the beach which offered an opportunity to grab some images before my fingers went numb.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

North Walsham and Dilham Canal revisited

North Walsham and Dilham Canal
April 2018

I guess I visit the North Walsham and Dilham Canal about once a year, paying a watery pilgrimage when I come to visit my mother who lives in North Walsham, just a mile or so from Swafield where the restored navigation will end.

Ebridge Mill with lock and spillway

A year seems to be a good gap to appreciate progress and a cracking article by Martin Ludate in the July 2017 edition of the Eastern Daily Press's magazine "Norfolk" only served to whet my appetite.

Distinctive ground paddle

I started out at Ebridge Mill with its tranquil pool and well preserved lock chamber. When I was at school this was a sea of reeds with the remains of a steam dredger stranded on the mud in the middle. Today it is a glorious spot and the development for 2017 was the restoration of the spillway by a WRG camp. At the time of my visit the canal / river was brimming full and the spillway was in use, bypassing the old lock chamber.

Bacton Wood Lock

A little to the north west you come to Bacton Wood Bridge which is now the home for a slightly primitive trip boat, or should I say raft. I have long felt that the restored length would benefit from a trip boat and I guess you have to make a start somewhere!

 Trip Boat

Distinctive castings for the North Walsham and Dilham Canal

The restored lock at Bacton Wood stands ready to carry its first boat and it was particularly interested to take a closer look at the "lock furniture" which is all original and recycled. The castings are unique to the North Walsham and Dilham Canal, even bearing the legend G Cubitt, Nth Walsham.

North of Bacton Wood the canal is kind of wet rather than watered but stroll up to the culverted Royston Bridge and you return to a canal full of the wet stuff. The relationship between the restorers and the Environment Agency has been very like the Brexit Negotiations with angst and strong words, but over time they are making progress.

Partially re watered north of Royston Bridge

The Agency were not at all happy about the watering of the section between Bacton Wood and Ebridge and applied a stop order on their work. But over time relations seem to have thawed and there seems to be a cautious acceptance that the watering of the Swafield pound will be a good thing. 

 Dredging progresses

From a flood control perspective the big canal channel has to be a better bet than the narrow ditch which represents the current bed of the River Ant. The restorers have both cleared out the reeds and dredged the section north of Royston Bridge to a depth of about 18 inches. Water marks on the banks bear testimony to a full depth trial re watering in Jan 2018 when their integrity was tested. There is evidence of extra material being added to the top of the south bank in recent weeks and hopefully this is a prelude to full and permanent re watering.

Swafield Bridge reach

I have to admit that the restoration team always seem to be blessed with some seriously good kit which is parked here and there along the canal. All in all the volunteer enthusiasm, heavy duty kit and increasingly supportive authorities should see this top couple of miles in water in the very near future.

I will keep you posted...

Friday, 30 March 2018

Naburn Locks

Naburn Locks
March 2018

In my last post covering the CRT National Council Meeting in York I mentioned a site visit to Naburn Locks.

CRT and Council members gather at the Naburn Locks workshops

Naturally, I took my camera with me to record this far flung outpost of the connected waterways system, a location I would very much like to visit by boat. However, Naburn is Ouse equivalent of the Trent's Cromwell Lock. It forms the top of the tidal Ouse beyond which the waters of the Ouse are controlled. 

Bridges over Naburn Locks

We were given a guided tour by the resident lock keeper who has lived and worked on the site for 35 years, supported by volunteers. 

Naburn Banqueting House

The first and smaller lock was built in the 1750's and a larger one capable of carrying 400 ton craft was built next to it in 1888. Between this time the Trustees of the Ouse Navigation built the imposing Banqueting House next door. This fine Greek revival building has been hotel, night club and guest house in its time but alas it is prone to flooding and occupies a very remote location. As a result it has been a  commercial failure and rumour has it that it has defaulted to the ownership of Nick Mason of pink Floyd who is looking to sell.

The lock island used to host a four story water mill which was demolished about 100 years ago. However, the old navigation buildings still stand and are being creatively redeveloped by volunteers who have transformed them to a visitor centre on a shoestring budget. The complex includes a forge, a workshop and offices.

Naburn Lock Keepers cottages

To date attention has focused on the workshop and forge which contain period machines and an interpretation boards. The offices are stripped out and restoration is ongoing.

Outside a nature  and heritage trail is being established funded by the 'Tesco Bags for help' scheme which includes six locally relevant totem poles created by a local chain saw artist. As it stands the site justifies a couple of hours plus, in good weather, a picnic on the open grass area.

Archbishop's Palace

Perversely, this lock island is the only land owned by the Trust in the area so they are making what they can of it and it is great to see its potential being realised.

Return to York

Thursday, 29 March 2018

CRT National Council jottings

CRT National Council Jottings
March 2018

Canal and River Trust's National Council meets once every six months and follows a pattern of one meeting taking place immediately after the Annual Public Meeting in September and the other in various locations around the country.

You may recall that my first March meeting took place at Liverpool Docks, last year was in Bath and this year we gathered in the Yorkshire Museum in York.

I have to admit that I find this roaming approach to the spring meeting very informative, even if it creates travel issues. The formal meetings run from 11.30 till 4.30 but on each occasion there is an optional site visit and thhis time the reward for showing up at 8.30 was a coach trip to Naburn Locks and a boat trip back to the meeting venue in Museum Gardens. Its surprising what you learn on these trips. Did you know that whilst CRT owns the river navigation of the Ouse through York, they own no land in the city and the Naburn Locks site is their closest bit of real estate? They are therefore, with much volunteer assistance, developing the flood prone lock island into something of a visitor attraction which is well worth a visit and how better to travel the six miles than by boat. Its good to see aspects of CRT in action as it "grounds" discussions. These informal site visits also offer an opportunity to have a chat with CRT staff, the Trustees and other council members which is a massive plus. I sometime think that my greatest influence on the Council is via the informal discussion opportunities it offers rather than formal questions raised "in session".

Given the numbers involved in these meetings they tend to be a succession of presentations and information dumps, designed to inform and offer some scope to challenge in question and answer sessions which follow each segment. However, time is limited and we have to crack on to keep to the timed agenda.

What follows is a precis of my notes, which are not formal minutes and are simply the things which struck me during the meeting and may well contain personal misunderstandings, errors or omissions. With those caveats in place here goes:

Richard Parry 
Key comments
  • With an operating turnover of over £200m the trust had a small surplus of £800k last year.
  • Income was slightly above plan
  • £2.7m was received from the Postcode Lottery and the Trust is now a "Direct beneficiary" (which is a good thing)
  • There have been lengthy legal appeals regarding water abstraction on the River Lea and currently they find in CRT's favour, which may have a positive impact on future income.
  • Public safety - 300 recorded incidents last year which was about average.
  • Towpath satisfaction stands at 91%
  • Volunteers offered 490,000 hours and were 96% satisfied
  • 205 community adoptions are in place
  • Donating friends stand at 23,500 vs a target of 28,500
  • Public brand awareness is rising but stands at 36% vs target of 40%

  • Breach as Middlewich is significant but not as large as Dutton last year. Access is difficult and the closure will be lengthy. Limited damage to third party property.
  • Lea Navigation at Pyms Brook - a tanker full of oil was illegally dumped in the brook and has been very difficult to clear up and has resulted in a 5 week stoppage.
  • Following another towpath death in Manchester there have been renewed public appeals for the installation of barriers which is being balanced with boater needs and heritage issues.

Winter Works
  • 240 planned stoppages
  • 180 gates replaced
  • Marple Locks have included a near complete rebuild of one lock which was not expected. Canal opens in early May. Aqueduct railings added to offside funded by Postcode Lottery.
  • Extensive pinning needed on the Mon and Brec.
  • Significant repair work to quadrants on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal which had developed cavities beneath.
Engagement and Participation
  • 8 open days took place attracting 15,000 visitors (2 cancelled)
  • There has been a focus on safeguarding this year
  • The CRT re-organisation has seen an emphasis shift and the exec roles have been reduced to 7. Senior manager numbers have dropped from 78 to 60 of which 42 are filled and 18 are open.
  • No gender pay gap exists within the Trust.
  • The Trusts aim is moving progressively to a Waterway and Wellbeing Trust. In effect this is extending its aims to a wider audience.
  • The quality of contractors used is being closely scrutinised following well known issues with Carillion etc.
  • The EA transfer now appears unlikely.
  • BWML is seen as a non core operation and a buyer is being sought. 

Jenny Abramsky - appointments committee chair
  • Terms of Reference amended to reflect the new Regional Advisory Boards
  • Recruitment of chairs is underway in the 6 regions (was 10)
  • It defines the max and min number of seats on regional committees.
  • Following the departure of some experienced trustees replacements are being sought
National Council Review
  • Group discussions took place and concluded that a Council Member handbook would be of benefit, defining what a council member does, how its is done and how best to maximise the influence membership offers.
Long Term Debt
Stuart Mills (Chief Investment Officer and Sandra Kelly (Finance Director)
  • At its inception it was agreed that the Trust should carry some debt, initially via a £25m revolving credit line upped to £50m in 2016.
  • This debt was consolidated in a private placement of £150m at the end of 2017. 
  • This debt is agreed over a 30 year term at less than 3% interest, offering stability.
  • The money is invested in the Trust's investment portfolio of which property is making 10.8% and non property 9%.
  • In effect the trust is borrowing cheaply based on its asset base and inherent strength, investing the money is assets which are earning a return which is higher than the financing costs and the difference (called arbitrage) is profit applied to the trusts wider operations.
  • (Andys comment 1. Dont get blinded by this high  finance stuff. In simple terms the trust owns investment assets of £800m which is an endowment providing income. They see an opportunity to make more money from this source and are borrowing some long term money to buy more commercial property. Its a bit like a glorified "buy to let" where you use the value of your home to support a cheap second mortgage to buy another property which you then let out.)
  • The private placement was to a number of well known North American and European institutions which, we were assured, do not carry reputational risks. (Andy's comment 2 - I was rather worried about this because the names are not in the public domain).
  • (Andys comment 3 - I am comfortable with this overall arrangement which appears prudent and well stress tested, however, as with personal debt, a bit is fine but one can overdo things. The Trustees assured us that they have no current intention of any further placements beyond £150m and in my view any further increase in long term debt should be discussed before it is entered into)
John Horsfall (Interim Head of Boating)
  • 32,000 leisure licenses and 1,000 business licenses covering 2,000 craft.
  • Generates £27m of income
  • The rules covering licensing are within the BW Act of 1995 and are "opaque". (Andy's comment - Think of the Pirates Code - not  so much rules as guidelines...)
  • There has been a dramatic increase in the number of boats used as dwellings since the act was passed. Mostly these are on a continuous cruising basis.
  • The recent review is about fairness, not income generation.
  • Consultation elicited 11,000 responses and an overriding desire was to see area included in the calculation.
  • The details of the new structure are in the public domain and have so far generated 15 to 20 complaints.
  • Some areas such as discounts such as Electric, Historic and areas of high demand are subject to further ongoing review to ensure that they deliver the desired outcomes.
Brand Update
Nicky Wakeford
  • Brand awareness has been growing and has risen from 30% in April 16 to 37% today.
  • The cascade of engagement is : Beneficiary (say towpath user) to Follower (say Facebook) to Friend and then Volunteer.
  • The slower than expected growth in public awareness is a major issue as it is inextricably linked with the bid for further government grant funding when the existing package expires.
  • Focus groups were convened to identify the key message needed. Well Being emerged as the key message we are not getting over - the benefits of being able to spend time beside water which has a proven link with peoples emotional and physical wellbeing.
  • The resulting strapline is "making life better by water".
  • This altered strapline will be accompanied by a change of logo 
  • The colours will be blue and green and the logo will be circular to better fit on social media.
  • This new identity will launch of 21 May (I havnt seen a draft)
  • There will be a 2 to 3 year roll out
  • The cost is being bourne be the normal Marketing budget and we are assured that this exercise has not involved expensive consultancies. It appears quite home grown.
  • Assets bearing the Trust Logo will be rebranded as they are replaced in the usual cycle.

Andy's comment on re branding

  • As soon as I saw this my heart sank and like many of you I thought "here we go - another go at rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic where the only winner is the PR agency commissioned". Actually this is far from the case and in my view this step is essential - let me explain why.
  • As boaters and canal lovers we all know the benefit of time by the water but this message isnt getting out there fast enough
  • A massive 25% of the Trust income is from the government grant which is subject to renegotiation and possible termination in a few years time.
  • The trust is doing what it can to increase income from other areas such as friends, investments and utilities but this is not enough to replace the grant should it stop.
  • Its clear that if we want to see the canals and rivers maintained in the next decade the continuation of the government grant is essential.
  • Governments are always looking for ways to cut costs and the CRT  grant is a sitting duck for the butchers block.
  • Maintaining a pretty canal network for a handful of boaters isnt a compelling argument but if the millions who benefit form the canal environment recognise the benefit they receive and use their voice to lobby the government the chances of success are much higher
  • Put simply, if we want to keep our river and canal network we have to see the public engagement increase dramatically. At the moment they use the asset but dont recognise who CRT are. If we dont get this cracked we will be in serious trouble in a few years.
  • Everyone realises that the current logo is fine for us existing users - but its not hitting the spot for the wider world.
  • If something isnt working you have to bite the bullet and make the change. The Logo / strapline is in exactly this position and I would argue strongly that we embrace the change, and move to being active advocates of the Waterways and Wellbeing concept asap.
  • For me this is pure self interest. I want to see my watery playground continue and improve and if it takes a switch of emphases - fine. Bring it on.
I think thats about it. I am sure I missed some issues but these were the stand out's from the event. Please give me feedback of issues you think should be considered / communicated.

Its probably fair to say that the boating and business issues are mostly addressed at working group meetings which happen two or three times a year than at these big National Council meetings.