Itís a Broad Church

Taylor's boat yard Chester, J. Harry Taylor, David Jones, Welshpool canal, Monty 08 rally, Montgomery Canal 

From one canal extreme to another this time, from dusty nineteenth century boatyard to sparkly twenty first century boat rally (- from the sublime to the ridiculous some might say).

Hope springs eternal, but it doesnít jump quite so high as time goes by. The fate of the old Shropshire Union boatyard at Chester has yet again come to the fore after over ten years of proposals and prevarication about its future. This custom-built canal boat dock has latterly become known as Taylorís Yard since J. Harry Taylor took it over from the canal company in the 1930s. Taylorís became very well known to the post-war pleasure boat fraternity as the builders of a well-respected range of elegant mahogany canal cruisers in the 1950s and Ď60s, most of which still grace the waterways. Much of their other work was maintaining river cruisers and fishing boats from the Dee and as such most of their work and skills were eventually little different to hundreds of other boatyards around the coasts of Britain. They carried out much canal boat work in their early days but as cargo traffic diminished it was the pleasure boat trade that kept them and their successor David Jones going and has, by default, preserved the old canal dockyard through to the present. It is this more historic aspect of the yard Ė some of which dates back to the 1840s Ė that it is crucial to preserve now. As ever, the main problem has been convincing the owners, British Waterways, of the cultural value of this remarkable inheritance. To them it has either been an increasingly shabby embarrassment or a development opportunity. If only they would see it as the cultural gem that it is and use it as a loss leader, or even as a flagship of their role as waterway conservation managers.

Happily, or at least potentially so, things have taken a lurch forward lately. BW have found a new tenant for the yard and on that basis have agreed to spend some money on some significant repairs to the buildings. This of course will mean some significant clearance first, physically moving stuff out of the way. As a long term obsessive about the importance of this yard Iíve become part of a small team making an inventory of some of the surviving equipment and details for future reference (and perhaps restoration.) As such we have now had several meetings trying to work out how to do it and a couple of site visits trying out the system. But it is going to be a mammoth task, especially when we get into the oldest building, one that was originally a steam driven sawmill, although it has been in use as a general carpenters workshop for several generations now, with all the clutter that that entails. Watch this space for progress reports and wish us luck please.

Another of my waterway obsessions is the conservation and restoration of the Montgomery Canal in Powis so a visit to the Montyí08 campaign rally at the end of August was a must. It was actually a shock to stand on the footbridge over the canal in Welshpool town centre and find the canal basin full of boats. It was a shock to find colour and movement, fluttering flags, balloons, barking dogs and smoking chimneys on water that is usually empty except for rubbish and urban ducks, a rather dull town improvement at the end of the municipal car park. But it was a moment or two before I could decide whether it was a pleasurable shock or an affront to my dull conservationist self, all the predictable tat of a pleasure boat rally on this historic water, usually so distinguished, if dour. But here suddenly was a lively scene of movement and life and my doubts were pushed out of the way on a tide of people having an interesting and pleasant time in the middle of town. It was an accidental bonus of this particular event that the pedestrian route from the car park to the festival site proper was along the towpath, a pleasant walk at any time Ėover the aqueduct, under a bridge, past historic warehouses and up past Welshpool lock. On this festive occasion the scene was constantly animated by the passage of boats through the lock -- canoes, small boats with steam and solar power and big ones with passengers, and it proved to be an immensely popular spectator sport all day. People were simply taking pleasure in the real underlying magic of water, the ability of boats to float and rise with the water levels and the ability of the stuff to stay flat. It was a profound lesson being taught in the most accessible way, a perfect introduction to the purpose of canals and the power of water. Magic.

After that the showground part of the event was a little disappointing if predictable. It has become accepted wisdom that any waterway based event has to broaden the base of its appeal to include something for everyone, and that that something need have no waterway connection whatever. The result is that most of what is on offer is of little interest to most of the people but if you narrow the range of activities to waterway related themes only you may end up just preaching to the converted, which is not the idea at all. It may be more fun for the few but it is hardly evangelical. Thank goodness I donít have to walk that policy tightrope but I find it difficult to see how shooting with paintballs or watching a comic dogshow furthers the cause of canal understanding or restoration. But the sun shone, the grass was perfect, the beer was cold and loads of people seemed to be having a lovely time. This isolated section of the waterways was once again alive with people and possibilities.

©Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere,
August 31 2008

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