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28th June 2014 Go To Original Entry

Silk Road

This week UNESCO added 22 sites along the 2,000-year old Silk Road through China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to its list of World Heritage Sites along with China's Grand Canal. The Grand Canal dates back nearly 2,500 years and at almost 1,800km long is the longest artificial waterway in the world.

What has that to do with Britain's canals? Well, the world-famous 'Silk Road' begins in China and ends in Macclesfield on the Macclesfield Canal in Cheshire. China began producing silk fabrics in 3,500BC, but the practice didn't reach England until the 18th century. High production costs in London drove silk merchants to seek lower prices in provincial towns such as Macclesfield, where hand-loom weaving in garret houses was gradually being replaced by weaving in large mills. At the height of the Silk Industry, Macclesfield had become the world's greatest producer of finished silk, with 120 mills and dye houses, and silk is still produced there, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Timely then for us to have written a feature on the Macclesfield Canal for our friends at Find out some of the highlights and reasons to visit the Macclesfield Canal
- and why not take a trip to one of Macclesfield's four Silk Museums while you're there?

31st March 2014 Go To Original Entry

5 years today!!

16th September 2013 Go To Original Entry

Birmingham Library opened by Malala Yousafzai

Library of Birmingham
I was one of the 10,000 who hip bumped into the new Library of Birmingham at its opening ceremony. The launch was a massive PR success with coverage from the BBC and all the national newspapers. Even I was caught by Al Jazeera TV to give my opinion. Media interest is fabulous, but for me, too many journalists are enjoying the hoo-hah around the 190m cost of the building at the expense of debating and reporting on the more important issue of the library service.

The exterior drama of the building is the glory of Birmingham and architect Francine Houben of Mecanoo but inside, 5 floors dance intimately with books, spiralling the eyes, sparkling the mind. The library director Brian Gambles is quoted in the Bookseller (6 Sept issue) as saying "books were at the heart of this project". I have a hunch this is the right idea, if the engaged faces of children I've spotted in libraries across Britain are any sign of what British citizens born since 2003 want for their future.

On its launch, what did Brummies think about their new library? Speeches at any opening ceremony usually expect puffballs of idealistic words from the mouths of suited dignitaries ? and then, if the dignitaries are lucky, the crowds will smile and clap. At the opening ceremony of Birmingham Library the microphone voice said the project would "bring people and communities together"... Par! We in the crowd knew it already had. We'd come from our homes in taxis, on buses, trains, cars, chauffeur-driven cars, on our bikes, on foot. We'd chatted to strangers as we waited for the ceremony to start, and shared the excitement of this day in Birmingham.

The crowd were craning to get a photo of Malala Yousafzai

In the crowd, I stood next to Doctor Trueman from Eastenders, and on my other side was an assertive woman in a mobility scooter. Young men's suits and old ladies' shopping bags rustled together, children jumped up and down to see above the heads of the grown-ups and babies fell asleep in their pushchairs. All sorts were here. And everybody was waiting for Malala Yousafzai.

We listened and clapped at the speeches of the other dignitaries, but finally when Malala took the microphone, to officially open the library, the crowd's response to her was a tear jerker before she even spoke.

She told us it was different here than in Pakistan for girls, "even children of 6 and 7 have read more books than me" "I will empower myself with knowledge" "books are the weapons that can defeat terrorism" "books are very precious... some books visit the corner of your heart and some books go out into the universe"? Wow, I want to read the book this girl will surely write herself, one day! And I hope everyone who wants to read it will be able to pop to the Library of Birmingham and borrow it for a while.

Musicians lined up with the books inside the Library
20th July 2013 Go To Original Entry

In the heatwave - Britain's Coolest Canals

Those of us who already know and love Britain's canals might be forgiven for wanting to keep the secret to ourselves. But the canals are a national treasure to be shared, and our mission is to tell as many folk as we can about all the amazing things to see and do on the towpaths and the water.

We've just teamed up with, website of Martin Dunford (co-founder of Rough Guides) and Jonathan Knight (founder of Cool Camping) - to write a blog for them, Britain's Coolest Canals, about a few of our favourite canal routes - the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal, Macclesfield Canal, Llangollen Canal, Worcester & Birmingham Canal, and the Oxford Canal. Ooooh, and from the blog, you can also win a 1000 narrowboat holiday with UK Boat Hire!

Thanks Cool Places! These boys know a thing or two about travel and leisure time, and it seems they agree with us girls - canals are cool!

Horseboating on the Llangollen Canal
12th April 2013 Go To Original Entry

Canal wildlife through the porthole

As a tiny business, we always have a deadline for something looming over hurried Weetabix and rushed elevenses. But the problem with living on the canals is that at this time of year, it's impossible to keep your eyes focused on a laptop when there's so much happening outside the boat.

This morning I 'wasted' time watching the reeds opposite the Coolcanals boat. They're hiding a nest. Only the little red speck of her bill gives the show away. Then HE arrives with purpose, to and fro, to and fro... With attitude, he's on a mission to bring her the best possible reeds to make the perfect nest for their babies.

On his way through the reeds to the nest, reed in bill 
Handing over the reed to her in the well-camouflaged nest

Same place last August - the happy result of such hard work!
25th March 2013 Go To Original Entry

I'm dreaming of a white... Easter?

This winter has been cosy for us aboard the 'coolcanals' narrowboat, all tucked up at basecamp in UK Boat Hire's marina at Alvechurch on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal.

But Spring is here! And we've set off on our travels again. Coolcanals is back 'off-grid'... relying on the sunshine to fill our hearts and charge our solar panels... Errr... Hmmmm...??

Clearing snow off our struggling solar panels

Canal & River Trust keeping the Tardebigge Flight open whatever the weather

Nothing can spoil hireboaters' holiday

Mind your heads under the bridges though!

Bit chilly for bare feet
28th January 2013 Go To Original Entry

Life and death on the canals - a tribute to a friend

It won't reach the headlines in the media - Dai wasn't a celebrity. He was just an ordinary man, living a quiet life on his narrowboat Jandai with his wife Jan and dog Foxxie. He was one of the rare few who genuinely travel the canals all year round, and was proud to be a continuous cruiser. His boat was his pride and joy, and the canals were his home. He was out walking his dog on the towpath in this January's snow. He died here. Suddenly. An acute heart attack. His dog wouldn't leave him, his wife couldn't bring him back.

Can there be warmth in the cold certainty of death? In the real world, away from the canals, Dai and I probably wouldn't have met. Our differences would have placed us far apart in prescribed geography, society, politics. But we met on the canals and shared good, real, wholesome friendship over bottles of wine, homecooked food, and boaters' chat. It happens like that on the canals.

When I'm writing for our Coolcanals books, I unapologetically rave repeatedly about the genuine warmth and charms of the canal community. I feel it's my responsibility as a guide writer to try to avoid cliches and idealism when our Coolcanals mantra focuses on the best of canal life - but at its best, canal life IS special. When people like us who live on boats meet passing strangers on their narrowboats, deep life-long friendships can begin from these chance encounters. Martine and I met Dai and Jan only just over a year ago (our sailaway narrowboat was built by Kingfisher Narrowboats who also built Jandai) but we immediately had so much in common - especially our way of life and our love for the canals. Dai loved his engine and boaty gadgets, and although he probably wouldn't have liked to be described as such, we knew that under his macho exterior he was a sweet man who would always give his help to anyone who needed it.

In death, the canal community cares deeply. Dai's wife and dog are wrapped in canal people's love and care. Canals were Dai's home, his community, his life... He loved the canals and they loved him back. But more than anything, he loved and adored his wife Jan and dog Foxxie - and it would be a comfort to him to know that they can rely on the canal community to love them too. 

Happier times - photographing us photographing them! Off on their travels again, leaving us cosily tucked up in Alvechurch marina for our winter mooring (Dai loved to tease us after we gave up continuous cruising)

One of our last get-togethers on our boat early in the new year - unlike us, Dai was a fabulous & keen cook so he had to endure our homecooking efforts!
13th December 2012 Go To Original Entry

Our narrowboat winter on the canal in Alvechurch. Coolcanals? - it's frrrrreeeezing!

Frozen bow of Coolcanals boat
Frozen bow of Coolcanals boat
It's one of the top 10 questions we're asked. "Isn't it cold?" they ask with the expression of a concerned landlubber. "No, no, no!" The question has become almost tedious when to me, I love winter so much. Anyone who has ever huddled around a roaring woodburning stove on a narrowboat on canals in winter, knows life couldn't get much better than this.

But before I slip into a Bing Crosby song, let me tell you about today... 13.12.12 This isn't just cold weather, this is 'The Day after Tomorrow' (that film where New York freezes and Dennis Quaid has to save the world and his son Jake Gyllenhaal stuck in the library!) (it's ok, we're not burning any Coolcanals books to keep warm!!)

Ice on the inside of the portholes, -4 in the boat bedroom, the boat has stopped rocking and my winter mooring in Alvechurch is a scene to behold. The stillness.

The porridge is cooking slowly on the woodburner, and my own breath is visibly hungry for Mr Quaker's warmth. Would I leave all this for life in a huge house where I could rattle around without layers of woolly jumpers on, and flick a switch to turn up the central heating? No way!

Signing off for hot porridge - on an iced-in boat in Worcestershire...

PS Of course, before you all tell me that not all narrowboaters are as bohemian as us, there are all sorts in our community and lots of boats these days have fantastic full central heating, but I do wonder who thought it was a good idea to invent that noisy heating system that keeps Martine awake in the otherwise still and silent winter nights..

Ice & frost on the inside of the Coolcanals boat portholes
Ice & frost on the inside of the Coolcanals boat portholes

21st November 2012 Go To Original Entry

Poetry - one of the 100 Treasures of Britain's Canals!

Canal & River Trust asked me yesterday why we chose a poem as one of our 100 treasures of Britain's canals -

Britain's canals in their slippers, tiaras and trumpets are loved by us all as a national treasure. There are engineering marvels to blow our socks off, wildlife to melt our hearts and boats that hold the secret stories of our heritage. Choosing only 100 treasures for our book 'Britain's canals, a national treasure in 100 must-see objects' was always going to be a tricky selection process. There are just too many amazing treasures to mention! So why on earth did we pick a poem one of the 100 treasures of Britain's canals?

Canals have always been more than just canals. Anything manmade deemed great, has been constructed by the energy of emotion. Over 200 years ago famous engineers and unknown navvies worked under the dreams of entrepreneurs and industrialists to build Britain's first ever national transport route. Blood, sweat and tears built the first canals and the same cocktail of emotion drove the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) to help restore them.

Around 60 years ago, Robert Aickman, co-founder of the IWA, named his '7 Wonders of the Waterways'. It was a time when Britain's canals were crumbling at the seams, since the trade of the Industrial Revolution had left and the built environment wasn't needed any more. Robert Aickman and Tom Rolt together saw tourism on the horizon for leisure boating, and their passionate campaign to keep waterways navigable put the built environment in the spotlight.

Today, all '7 Wonders' still star as the ultimate must-see engineering marvels of the built environment (and of course are included in our 100 Treasures) ? but canals have reinvented themselves as the unique leisure destination of our time. By boat, on foot, by bike, canoe or wheelchair, people go to the canals to find their own peace. What would Aickman have made of a poem as one of the 100 treasures of Britain's canals? Well, he was an artist, a writer ... his vision of today's canals would probably be creative.

The canals stay the same, unspoilt by progress, yet people's relationships with the canals change. Canals mean something different to everybody, and touch emotions we hold dear. We dream and think inside our heads with silent words, and we own words in our most intimate understanding of ourselves and our surroundings. If we let it, poetry can dig deep into our psyche with words that reach meaningful places. Canals now have their first ever Canal Laureate, Jo Bell, and to mark the launch of the Canal & River Trust this year, Ian McMillan's poem 'Canal Life' was commissioned by the Poetry Society. His poem has 46 lines, but for me the first 4 unwrap every treasure of the canals:

The canal tells you stories
The canal sings you songs
They hang in that space
Between memory and water
14th August 2012 Go To Original Entry

Coolcanals go for Olympics on canals?

It's the calm after the sporty storm as steaming euphoria settles over the Olympic Park, and roaring huggable London quietly fluffs its mane with pride. But while gold medals swing from the pert necks of athletic bodies, I'm nursing saggy aching limbs after my challenge cruising the infamous Tardebigge flight on the Worcs & Birmingham Canal. 30 locks in a rise of 220feet in just over 2 miles makes Tardebigge the longest lock flight in Britain - boaters either hate it or love it!

We were less than 3 locks into the flight when a BW chap (in his new Canal & River Trust T-shirt) came chugging along the towpath on a quadbike. A fine compliment hid in his ear-to-ear grin and happy greeting  "Oh no, it's the two most dangerous people on the canals!" (He was coincidently the BW hero who rescued us last winter when our boat got wedged in the lock in Stourport Basins) Just for fun, Martine had to prove, on behalf of all womankind, that contrary to the Stourport mishap, girls can be cool as cucumbers at the tiller... and she steered our boat 'through the eye of the needle' into the next slither-thin lock on the flight! Our hero doffed his imaginary hat in overblown Thespian jest, and we sailed away, all three of us waving in canal camaraderie.

In 30 locks I returned a happy "good morning" to 4 boats, 12 bikes and over 40 walkers (I was counting the strolling couples, bouncing families and waggy dog walkers easily enough, but lost count when a rambling group yomped past). Then there was the friendly bunch who were holidaying in a former lock keeper's cottage along the flight ( - they mucked in by closing the lock gates for us as we passed their cottage.

Winding locksful of uncountable gallons of canal water, and lifting a 57ft steel narrowboat downhill sounds like an Olympic workout... but I'm telling my saggy muscles, it's just another day chilling out for us boaters.

PS The Tardebigge Lock Flight is one of the 100 treasures of the canals in our latest book
13th July 2012 Go To Original Entry

Canal & River Trust launch!

Trumpets, drums, and much clapping of hands... it's official... Canal & River Trust are the new guardians of our canals and rivers, with HRH Prince Charles at the helm as Patron of the new charity.

Since canals and rivers amble everywhere, launch events for the new charity were held all across the land. Martine and I were at the celebrations in Gloucester Docks. We heard the speeches and shook hands with lots of people, while the champers and balloons created a Mexican wave all across the usually still waters of the canals. It was a fabulous day with TV news and seemingly everyone talking about the canals!

The importance of this change of status for the canals is immense, and frankly intense. Britain's canals can't survive on their own - they need people to get involved and help, and the message of the Canal & River Trust is to join and become a 'Friend'.

Ho-hum, today I'm back from the adrenalin commotion of the launch, and I'm quietly in the bow of our narrowboat for lunch with the ducks. Since we've been moored in Alvechurch, 6 ducklings have been joining me and Martine every mealtime, for whatever culinary disaster we might rustle up. Today it's pickled beetroot butty again (still no fridge or cooker on the boat!) The ducklings squeak in delight over our stale bread crusts, and we squeak with their pleasure. The simplicity of moments like this are part of the reason canals are a national treasure, and so important for us to our best to help protect them. 

Launch party aboard King Arthur at Gloucester Waterways Museum

1st July 2012 Go To Original Entry

July the 1st!

It's been a whirlwind since my last blog... 2012 is turning out to be an excitingly busy year for coolcanals.
We've finally emerged from the burning hole of researching, writing and publishing our latest book, yet the all-consuming months of scratching at scorched deadlines are always instantly forgotten when the first copy of the book arrives hot from the printers! July 1st is the official publication day of our latest book:
'Britain's canals, a national treasure in 100 must-see objects'.
And today is emotional for other reasons too. British Waterways, the governing body for Britain's canals, offically transfers to charitable status as the new 'national trust for the waterways' - the Canal & River Trust. BW is no more! Martine & I will miss the friendly BW way that has been part of our everyday canal life for so long. But this isn't a sad day, July 1st is the day Canal & River Trust takes up the baton for caring for the canals & rivers of England and Wales (its big launch is 12 July)and, under its new charity status, more funds can be raised to help protect and maintain the canals (and we're sure that they'll be just as huggable as BW!).
Martine & I were really honoured when we were asked to produce a special edition of 'Cool canals Weekend Walks' for the new Canal & River Trust fundraising campaign. All new 'Friends' of the Canal & River Trust will get a free copy of this special edition, and we hope it'll inspire even more people to enjoy walking canal towpaths as much as we do.
Meanwhile we're still building the boat around the desks in our mini narrowboat-sized office - my tenon saw is permanently positioned to trip us up, and the sawdust levels in our lungs are reaching red alert. There's still no cooker (we're making do with a camping stove and epic variations on a salad theme!), no fridge, and nine months of sleeping on a hard plywood floor has taken its toll!! Thankfully friends we meet along our travels sometimes take pity on us, and narrowboat NB Jandai fattened us up recently with some great home cooking and even got stuck in with some of the woodwork - boaty camaraderie at its best! :)
Who in their right minds would choose to build a boat, while living on it and running a publishing business at the same time...?
21st March 2012 Go To Original Entry

Community Pubs Month

Rotund midriffs don't really tally with the image of long-distance walkers. We've rambled here, there and everywhere along the 2,000 and more miles of canals, and have calf muscles of iron, but the stomachs tell another story! I blame those landlords and landladies of canalside pubs serpenting us with their best ale on almost every turn of the canal.

Our floating office has been moored in Stourport Basins Stourport Canal Basinsfor over a month now, which feels like an eternity for our itchy feet (we're in our usual typing frenzy getting our next book ready for our printer's deadline!). But Stourport is making us welcome - it's a canal town, and so a good community goes without saying. Maggie, the landlady of our Stourport local, has her own narrowboat of course.

April is Community Pubs Month and her pub, the Hollybush, just a stone's throw from the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, has what a good pub needs - a landlady who cares about her pub, fab real ales and a community welcome that's real.

The local pubs have welcomed us strangers in town, and already the looming goodbyes will be sad. It's a reminder to me of the vital role real pubs play in nurturing community. It's a hard and frankly worrying fact that, according to CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale), pubs are closing at a rate of 16 per week. Canalside pubs have the bonus attraction of the water and summer tourism, but still need to manage year-round trade to keep them open.

"In the old days, you just had to stand behind the bar with a jug of ale and people would come flocking in", Maggie jests, "but now pub landlords and ladies have to reach out and give people reasons to come: pub quizzes, curry night, jamming nights". And Maggie's energy spreads into social media networking too, and of course her good beer, lager and food... and a smile.

GOOD landladies and landlords make GREAT pubs... and create vital hubs for their communities.

Support your local:
Community Pubs Month is an initiative by CAMRA to increase awareness of local community pubs this April.

Pub is the Hub

CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale
6th December 2011 Go To Original Entry

Walking boaters or boating walkers?

Of course when I write our Coolcanals guide books, the 'point' is to focus on the 'best' of the waterways and tell the story in tourism language ? a job that's easy... we're walkers, and what's not to love about trundling the towpaths! It has occurred to me though, now that we're living on a narrowboat again and continuously cruising the canals, we'd think that walking the same stretch of towpath that we've cruised in a narrowboat would be a tad tedious. Never! Walkers and boaters experience the canals from different viewpoints.

Take Bratch Locks for instance. We've walked through the famously popular Bratch Locks lots of times. On foot, we always enjoy a good gongoozling session if we're lucky enough to catch a boat on the move. We spotted two kingfishers in the hedgerow last time we walked this bit of the Staffs & Worcs Canal and spent ages over a picnic, sitting with our legs dangling from the wall outside the old toll office at Bratch. This week when we boated through the locks, the journey was a much more serious affair. The primary aim was to avoid death by drowning, and the secondary aim was to complete the course without the unwanted embarrassment of becoming 'The Boaters Who Flooded Bratch Locks' because we didn't follow BW (British Waterways)'s warning signs. For a boater, Bratch is all about the coded blobs of blue and red paint on the paddles. This is BW's bid to help simplify the unusual lock procedure. It's easy once you've read the signs: open the blue-blobbed paddles first and then the red, or is it the red and then the blue? Or both together? (Aaargh... we wish those darn gongoozlers weren?t watching us)

Can't believe it's been a whole month since we piled all our belongings into our new sailaway narrowboat at Kingfisher Narrowboats in Trent Lock. There hasn't been much time to build the interior yet. We've been on the move, heading southwards to the Midlands, before the canal freezes in winter. So far we've travelled the River Trent, the Trent & Mersey Canal and the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal. As continuous cruisers we have to move regularly to meet BW's regulations ? but that doesn't stop us mooring long enough to explore the towpaths and revisit some of our favourite walks.

The only hitch at this time of year is that there aren't enough hours of light to fit in enough walking and boating into a day. Counting down to Dec 21, things will be looking up after the shortest day of the year. We're outdoor people, and hate being trapped indoors. I'm almost (I lie) tempted to join the mad cyclists we hear pedalling past our boat in the dark! They cycle in clumps, and chat together as their lamps flash past at ridiculous times of the night, rain or no rain. Who are they?!

No, we're content to stay boating walkers, or are we walking boaters?
11th October 2011 Go To Original Entry

Canal & River Trust

Momentous! A new era is dawning over Britain's Canals. British Waterways has announced the name and logo of the New Waterways Charity set to launch early 2012.

In 2012, the new 'Canal & River Trust' will take the baton to protect the future of our canals for all waterways users - boaters, walkers, cyclists, wildlife watchers, sightseers.... Ahead lies a fabuously challenging task for the new charity to preserve the past and fund the future... and the changes ahead will surely rank amongst the biggest on the timeline of UK canals. Exciting times!

[Canal timeline in a nutshell:
It all started over 200 years ago with the opening of the canals as a revolutionary trade route for the Industrial Revolution. The success of canals depended fundamentally on the determination of canal engineers and entrepreneurs (Brindley, Telford, Wedgwood, Cadbury....) The decline of canalmania came with the legendary arrival of the speedier steam train. Canals were redundant, and left to crumble. After World War II, a group of people, passionate about keeping Britain's canal networks navigable for leisure boats, launched an era of direct action. In 1946, Tom Rolt and Richard Aickman formed a voluntary organisation, famously known as the IWA (Inland Waterways Association). 1948 brought a landmark change as Britain's canals were nationalised and BW (British Waterways) became the governing body of the waterways.]
27th September 2011 Go To Original Entry

'Conker'ing my fear of spiders

ConkersFive years is a long time in one place for me. The house is sold and I can't wait to move back to a home on the canals again.

John & Mick at Kingfisher Narrowboats have been building our 57-foot narrowboat (a semi-trad Sailaway with additions). All's nearly ready for moving on day. But... there's a problem for me. Someone's already moved in. A spider is hanging maliciously from the porthole and I know he's got friends in dark crevices.. I can see a repeating film in my head - waking up in the middle of the night, trapped in a 6-foot steel corridor with something tickling my chin. And this chap isn't the revolting type with crisp black legs, it's worse - he's the most repugnant variety, with tiger stripes and a bulbous boily body. Just heavous!

Can an animal-loving veggie let the sole of John, Mick or Martine's boot solve this problem? According to John, some boaters say that placing conkers in the portholes stops spiders from crawling in. Is this a spam joke that someone gets kicks out of every time they see a boat cruise by with piles of conkers in their portholes? Or is it rooted in scientific fact?

Does anybody know for sure?
What shall I do?
Boot or conkers?

The conkers have started dropping off the trees now - I've started my collection.
9th September 2011 Go To Original Entry


Where on earth did August go?

It flew by in a whirlwind of excitement, planning, preparations, M&S hats, sobbing and champagne - my son got married!!!

Poor George is the long-suffering ear to his Mom's canal mania. How ironic then that he and Donna chose to be married in the canalside church in Wolverley on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal... by Carol the vicar (who owns her own narrowboat, of course!)
20th July 2011 Go To Original Entry

The Droitwich Canals have reopened! But what's next, now the shovels have been hung up?

Max Sinclair, a local canal enthusiast, launched the campaign to restore this canal over 40 years ago.
I was at the ceremony, 1st July 2011, when the Droitwich Canals were officially reopened... 40 years since restoration began.

"2,500 volunteering days to get here, 12million to make it happen, 21 miles of extra boating... Allow me to declare this restored canal open." Caroline Spelman (Secretary of State for the Department of Environment) unveiled the Droitwich Canals. The hurrahs that followed could never be more than an understatement of the achievements behind this moment.

Amongst the crowd there were work-worn faces glowing with "We did it!" and there were curious new faces that had sauntered across the road from town to see what the fuss was about.

Some of the big names in the waterways world could be spotted brushing through the bunting, and VIPs included Peter Luff MP and British Waterways' chairman Tony Hales. A marvelous day of suits and ice creams.

But the real red carpet treatment had to be meant for the 'volunteer'. This opening ceremony was a gathering of ordinary folk who had achieved extraordinary things over decades of enthusiasm and hard work for the restoration of the Droitwich Canals. Max Sinclair, the local canal enthusiast who launched the campaign to restore this canal over 40 years ago was there... his presence was the heart of the ceremony. The day drew old friends and gave tumultuous thanks to everyone who had clubbed together to make the reopening of the Droitwich Canals possible... and, for the cherry on the icing, the press got a stonking story to tell.

Martine and I gate-crashed the marquee to hear the opening speeches. Tony Hales spoke with his official hat on, and a personal smile for the achievement of a canal he knows well. "Vision, determination, skill, partnership" his words chorused the positive mood of the Droitwich canals, "obstacles can be overcome for a common cause working together".

Each VIP speaker struggled to thank every individual who'd helped the restoration project - yet the single word that hailed loudest from every corner was 'partnership'. The success of the Droitwich Canals Trust and the strong partnership behind it, was the tip-of-the-day for the future of all of Britain's canals. Where would our canals be without fundraisers and fund-givers, without people who care and people who 'do', without skills and shared knowedge, without local support and central consent?

But none of this is ground-breaking stuff, is it? The case for the benefits of 'partnership' is as old as the canals themselves. After all, a working partnership steered the Droitwich Barge Canal when it was first built by James Brindley, and opened in 1771... Entrepreneurs, engineers, navvies, land owners, local people and politicians.

So everyone seems to agree that partnerships are important. But partnerships without purpose are like ducks without water. Substancial commercial funding only comes to build a canal when it can rely on its future use, its raison d'etre. The mills and factories of the Industrial Revolution were the original business of the canal networks, and now the big industry is tourism. Heritage, wildlife, boating, walking, cycling, sightseeing and waterside attractions are brinking on an exciting new era for canal tourism (especially as the New Waterways Charity launches its PR campaign and public interest is set to boom).

The local area supported the Droitwich Canals because tourism is the 3rd largest industry for the County Council. It is estimated that the canal will bring 320,000 visits over 5 years and 2.75million per annum to the local economy with new jobs.

The pride of a nation is grateful to those behind the success of the Droitwich Canals... Now it's the language of tourism that must help guard the future of this canal, and every other canal in Britain.
31st May 2011 Go To Original Entry


At the seminar talking about the new waterways charity set to launch 2012.

The annual waterways event. Crick. Sat, May 28. The hordes headed for the dancing gazebos of festival-fun and glam boats on the water... while the 50, or so, few took their seats inside the more sombre seminar tent at the festival. I sat near the back, a habit since school.

The panel was chaired by Richard Fairhurst (editor, Waterways World mag), with speakers - Simon Salem (Marketing Director, British Waterways) and Paul Roper (Inland Waterways Association).

"NEW" was the buzz word batted from the panel. The 'new waterways charity' will have new trustees, a new brand, new events, a new mood, new hopes, new-news.

Paul Roper publically announces from, and probably to, the IWA camp, "We will have to change our attitude". A weapons amnesty? (IWA is a campaigning organisation launched in 1946 to help keep our waterways navigable, with part of their role as a pressure group being to challenge some controversial BW decisions). Simon Salem gives weight to the magnificent task ahead, "We're working for the next 100 years, not tomorrow".

The rousting and refreshing tone must have silenced the handful of hobby-grumblers who traditionally turn up at events like this (where they can plebishly pop BW heads into medieval stocks and throw tomatoes). Nobody barked out loud with self-interest about their blocked Thetford or anything else they insist BW should put right for them. Perhaps the collective voice of the new waterways charity can leave the misery-mongers of yore out on a limb.

The earnest audience clung to the parcel of words unravelled by the panel, while the noise of Crick carried on outside. The festival hords, unaware, disinterested in the stuff of the seminar, symbolise the challenge for the 'new waterways charity' to engage the minds, hearts, skills and pockets of the waterways public, and the wider public. The job ahead is for us all to spread the word, and help build local volunteer bases for the future well-being of our waterways.

In 7 iconic words, Simon Salem lit the seminar's spotlight, "This is our, the waterways, big moment". The modest crescendo was usurped as 2 people wobbled into the tent with hot chips and cold chomping gums. Then all our empty seats filled in a flash as the new cohort arrived for the next seminar ? 'Boat Buying and Ownership'.

Martine and I walked down the canal towpath, beyond the moored boats and the hum of the show. In the flurry of peacock-puffing waterways politics, it's easy to lose sight of what's so important to protect.
6th May 2011 Go To Original Entry

Big waterways Society?

We shall fight on the canal banks, we shall fight on the mooring grounds, we shall fight in the tunnels and in the locks, we shall fight on the aqueducts, we shall never surrender? is this the mood of live-aboard dissenters of the Big waterways Society?

As the amoebic rumblings of the 'new waterways charity' invite debate, fresh gunfire from the live-aboard corner is smoking predictably. And, true to form, the live-aboard remains either loathed or loved (ho-hum, better than neither loathed nor loved?)

Of course, the generic title has its contradictions ? is the 'live-aboard' an economic migrant, a quirky misfit, a tourist attraction, a secretly envied escapee? The truth is, people who live on boats along Britain's inland waterways are just as diverse as any other community - old Mrs Jones and the new kid on the block, artists and writers, builders and mechanics, vicars and sinners, city bosses and jobless old-timers. Bless us all, we're one Big waterways Society!

When I was a live-aboard with a continuous cruiser's boat licence (significantly cheaper than permanent mooring fees), I kept on the move all year round. (Don't tell British Waterways but...) I cheated and overstayed at some of my favourite moorings... if I thought I could get away with it... and I happily stuck to the rules... when I had to. That was the way it was.

The Guardian (Andrew Mourant, April 27) tells us that live-aboards now fear for their lifestyle as the new waterways charity herds us to the future with plans to tighten rule enforcements. I've known canal-life since the 1970s when rules were less stocky and the waterways code only had to be implicitly passed on from boater to boater. But this is no time for selling rose-coloured specs. Since the 70s, derelict waterways have been restored (at unimaginable expense) and the networks are healthier, making our 'rights and responsibilities' operate differently today.

Thankfully, rule-abiding live-aboards who care about the canals will speak up for themselves, despite the loudest rogue live-aboard shoving his 'something-for-nothing' banner in the way. But, parallel to the debate, I wonder what will become of the silent squatter ? the unknown boater, the lost soldier of landlubbers' conformity, the vulnerable soul that might be labelled a mental health service user if they were just the other side of the hedgerow in landlubbers' patch.

His half-tarpaulined floating shack has been moored in the same spot forever, and become the local Robinson Crusoe Wreck. He is the invisible dweller no one sees, yet his mark is stamped. His towpath patch is worn threadbare, his tyre-free bike is growing into the hedgerow, and his dangled contraptions (of unknown purpose) decorate the gunwales of his boat. He and the wretched few like him, spoil our views with their filthy noise from ungodly generators and wafts of salmonella from the portholes of their maggoty galleys. The Crusoe blight has been championed as the eye-sore of Britain's canal landscape. A common enemy, a fabulous scapegoat. We'll moan about him, safe in the knowledge that he'll stay inside his boat, passively ignorant, keeping his murky curtains drawn and his daily solitude to himself.

The Big waterways Society is home to these countable few. Now, as the battle for the new status quo on the waterways gets brutal, and passions roust for everyone's opinion (and cash), we'll find out if our unwilling Crusoe castaways from landlubbed society should become castaways from the waterways too? Is the 'new waterways charity' really the enemy?

(Please don't shout at me for my laziness: no gendered politics implied ? read all he as he/she)
28th February 2011 Go To Original Entry


They've arrived and a box is sitting on my desk. The new Cool Canals book - Britain's Great Waterways Outdoors. BW tweeted about us - "BWcomms. Just seen the fantastic new book from coolcanals... Looks good. Feels good. Even smells good!"

Aahh yes...that's what it's all about...smelly books. I know there's been an ebook revolution and, as a micro-publisher, I'm excited about the e-possibilities: but do I think ebooks will one day totally take the place of real books? (Guardian) Well... ebooks are cool, neat and functional, but you don't fondle them, you don't sniff them with deep indulgence and you don't turn the page with fumbling anticipation. For me that's the utter pleasure of books. Stop. I'm obsessing. Back to the question - do I think ebooks will ever totally replace real books? Absurd! No.

Anyway, on a similar note, my rant of the day: most folk agree libraries are the delicious place of safety where children want to roll to the edge of their imagination. Passion for books is contagious, and libraries spread the bug. As libraries face cuts and closure, should we take away the right of every child in Britain to experience the joys of books? Libraries are trusted, accessible resource centres for the whole community. Should Mr C's Big Society shout and make a noise about the loss of the real pub, the post office and now the neighbourhood library. Campaign

Dfrrrrxszdddd (Oops. Tufty, the coolcanals cat, wrote the last word with her paws as she walked over my laptop keyboard. Not sure what her point is)
27th July 2010 Go To Original Entry

School holidays on the canals

It's holiday time and the canals have something in the air again. The kids have broken up!

I've just put down my Bill Bryson book (Notes From a Small Island) and his train of thought has sent me drifting into a pointless muse over how foreign visitors to our island might interpret the Brit phrase - "The kids have broken up".

What does that mean? Broken in most Pavlovian respects doesn't sound too good to me. Broken (by definition implies out of order), broken-down (in despair, needing fixing), broken-up (as in disintegrated, or worse, potentially ruined).

So when the kids break up, do they scatter into chaos from their safe homogenised mass? Does it scare us that they come to sunny canals all across Britain in ones and twos, with bikes, on boats, in flip flops and wide-eyed smiles on the towpaths?

Answers on a postcard.
27th May 2010 Go To Original Entry

Can Art help get Britain's canals out of their current financial crisis?

Ignore it, adore it, spit at it or laugh out loud at it... Art always contributes to every society's consciousness. From an English village where playschool pinnies come out for paint play, to the scars of Iraqi slippers on the vandalised statue of a fallen dictator.

But what has art got to do with any campaign to save our waterways? (IWA campaign: Well, everyone knows canals have Roses & Castles ? the traditional folk art of the people who worked and lived on canal boats in the Industrial Revolution. Decorated pots and pans add to the tourist attraction, and make neat souvenir trinkets. Good stuff for small craft businesses across the waterways.

But we're not silly, we know pots and pans aren't enough to get the waterways out of their financial crisis?

More public support for the waterways is what matters at the moment. More press coverage. More visitors. Every so often, British Waterways sets artists loose on the towpaths to prick public interest and hopefully prod the press into precious media coverage. Fake holes on the towpath and controversial installations of dog-poo in trees do the trick But imagine the impact of a much grander, iconic, public art project.

My point is this:

Antony Gormley sculptures. Take 3 of his most famous projects:
1) The Angel of The North rolls around every speeding heart on the A1.
2) Iron Man stands silently, with the audacity to rust away in Birmingham city centre.
3) Another Place, Crosby Beach, near Liverpool, where the statues of 100 iron souls gaze out to sea, with hope beyond the tides.

Mr G's sculpture and the spirit of the waterways would go together like jam and Victoria sponge cake. After all, Britain's canals were our first motorways, made for boats during the Industrial Revolution - and now they offer a vision of hope for urban regeneration, and an accessible escape to rural Britain. Right up Mr G's street!

Imagine Gormley's Iron Men of the Waterways, and where they might stand...

The Angel of the Caen Hill flight wistfully watching over travellers?

Iron Waterways Man daubed in Roses & Castles outside the waterways museum? (attracting visitors as the Puppy sculpture does outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao -

Statuesque souls half-immersed in river silt at the moody brink of the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal? (Crosby Beach has been inundated with visitors since Gormley's sculptures arrived there)

Or what about a solitary Iron Waterways Man on a lonely bit of the Pennine cruising ring? Or Iron Waterways Man graffiti-sprayed by Camden's community?

Imagine the monumental tourist attraction and what that could do for the canals, politically and financially. Imagine the thrill of one day meeting Iron Waterways Man on your travels.

Canals should always be about boating, but they were born and have survived through a tradition of entrepreneurialism and creativity. The real Iron men (and women) of the waterways.

Am I alone on this one?

5th May 2010 Go To Original Entry

Waterways for everyone: boats, bikes and walking boots?

All ducks are equal. But are some ducks more equal than others?

"Pah!" say some boaters - but economic need and ethical responsibility is driving the mood of canal folk to properly share our secret national treasure of 2,000 miles of linear heritage. The future of Britain's canals can't be ruled by boaters alone ? canals are increasingly used for waterside outdoor pursuits too. Towpaths are being improved, and sometimes even controversially hardsurfaced, to make flat cycle routes and easy canal walks.

IWA, the Inland Waterways Association, have just published a typically rational, informative and ever-so-tactfully provocative article (by Mark Bradley and Keith Goss) on the changing status of Britain's canals... i.e. how we can use them for everything from holiday boating to jogging along the towpath. But when pedal power, boat power and quiet people in walking boots all syphon together in one narrow zone, surely that spells conflict?

Speaking from my own canal experiences as: 1) live-aboard narrowboater 2) long distance canal walker 3) slow canal cyclist.
When I'm in a canal boat, I'm not keen on coach-loads of strolling gongoozlers getting dangerously in my way at the lock gates; when I'm on my bike, I loathe pedalling in first gear behind gaggles of walkers hogging the towpath; when I walk canals, I rage at bike-bells and lycra gusts of wind knocking me into the canal. All 3 of me want it our own way! That said, as all canal goers know, everyone meets up at the end of the day in the local canalside boozer, to share the best of canal life - a pint of mild in a good old-fashioned canal pub solves everything.

And in the same solidarity, cyclists, walkers and boaters are willing to join together on the campaign to Save Our Waterways from blunderingly short-sighted goverment funding cuts. In my bones I know it's an excitingly tough time for canals... and I am (despite selfishly wanting to keep the canal world all to myself) really glad more folk than ever are discovering the secrets of the canals. Yet, in the success of popularizing the waterways, my heart would break if every beautifully clumpy canal towpath was tarmacked so it could be described as accessible to all: canal nature, integrity, heritage and slow manners jeopardized! Off-the-beaten track adventures for canal trail walkers like me would be ruined. Imagine the outcry if Britain's other footpaths, the National Trails, the Offa's Dyke Path, the Pennine Way or the Cotswold Way were smothered in Tarmac! Horror NO!! I'm an activist to protect long-distance canal walks. "Let me smell the soil, scuff the grass, KEEP CANAL WALKS GREEN!"

It goes without saying that bringing investment to the canals is the task ahead. Yet what's special about canals to me is not what money can buy, but more pressingly what we might lose without proper funding.... irreplaceable heritage, unique landscape, slow culture, stoic solitude and a special sense of community that another Britain has lost. Balancing everyone's needs and respecting the territory is the trick. Canals can offer a perceived escape from the hierarchies of consumerism that's priceless. So when it comes to planning for our waterways future, should we be mindful of who gets the biggest say? The Mallard with the loudest voice, the fat Goose who waves the largest wad of money, the decoy Coot... or just a bunch of us daft Ducks?
28th April 2010 Go To Original Entry

Canals - ignored or hot news in the broadsheets?

As I'm doing my unhurried 2,000-mile canal walk across Britain, the question I get asked most is "Who would even want to walk every canal in Britain?" CANALS... shopping trollies and knifings. No, start again. CANALS... the immeasurable slow pleasures of Britain's historic waterways rambling idyllically coast to coast and end to end. Under-valued, under-used and under-funded.

The great British 'staycation' continually bulks the travel section of the national newspapers, so why are my goosebumps rotting in the wait for canals to get proper, enthusiastic coverage? "The canal boat is right up there with the postbox as one of the iconic images of British life." says Tony Hales, British Waterways' chairman His words alone punch the point that canals are a red-hot tourist attraction and Britain's travel media should break its veto.

....But I smell a trend revving up. Even if canals were made for narrowboaters, they are perfect trails for cyclists and walkers too. The Telegraph are covering our coolcanals mission to change the way people see canals (and our guidebooks shot to the no 1 spot with the helpful coverage!) And now, even eclectic outdoor-type Guardian Travel readers who like to climb Himalayan mountains and follow Mauritian rainbows are being asked to send in their tips on the best canal walks

Hoorah! The canal walker's message is getting out there. Canals... priceless, slow adventures. The great British walk. So the next bod who asks me "Who would even want to walk every canal in Britain?", I'll say, "Why would I risk ankle-cracking moors and skin-twisting crags, or getting lost, being eyeballed by a cow, or chased by a farmer - when I could simply follow the water all summer."

PS Maybe, just maybe, hope is on the horizon for the world of canals and the unsung canal volunteer, bastion of a stalwart fight against political indifference and Britain's outrageous neglect of its waterways' heritage

Martine & Phillippa
Hi, welcome to our blog!
We're Phillippa & Martine and, as well as our personal canal rantings and ramblings, we'll also be posting regular updates from Coolcanals.
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