WE HAVE just come back from a trip round the Four Counties, with a side excursion to Llangollen and back.
My impression is that these canals are generally in good condition, especially in respect of vegetation; unlike last year there was no sign at all of long neglected towpath side growth and even the offside vegetation had clearly had some cutting done, though more needs doing. Some vegetation is welcome—the primroses were stunning.
We passed only two locks with a defective paddle, which is not bad out of 136 and I did not feel that any of them leaked any more than they ever do. My only general criticism is the number of locks that are in serious need of a coat of paint; this was especially true on the Llangollen, which has a lot of locks with steel gates and balance beams, which are in particular need of attention, though the Shroppie ones were generally in good order.
The only volunteers we came across were at Hurlestone, where there were two on the way out, being as helpful as the paid ones used to be, but there was no sign of them on the way back. Grindley Brook is still supervised by a professional keeper, I'm glad to say; I hate to think what mayhem would result if volunteers were being relied on and they had been unable to find any. Whilst volunteers are a good idea in principle, I still think that there are locations when professionals are essential.
During our trip we undertook rigorous scientific research to establish whether CaRT's new advice not to feed bread to ducks was acceptable to the ducks and came to the conclusion that it was not. We tried them on vegetable peelings and frozen peas, as suggested, but our offerings were treated with contempt, not least I suspect because they rapidly sink and the ducks hardly have time to reach them, whereas bread floats.
Most ducks, when offered bread, hoover it up enthusiastically, but it was noticeable that in some locations they ignored it. This was usually in populated areas, where they probably get a lot of bread. Could it be that the ducks know perfectly well how much bread is good for them, and stop when they have had enough?
While passing through Stoke-on-Trent we stopped to visit the Middleport Pottery, which now has moorings right outside—it's on the offside. It is still a commercial working pottery, using many of the traditional techniques of the trade. We had a two hour guided trip round the whole process for a very reasonable price and it was fascinating—highly recommended. They have plans to acquire a traditional working boat and use it both as an exhibit and to give trips.
Fascinating in a way the producer probably did not intend was the recent programme which consisted of two hours real time trip from Bath Top Lock to Dundas Aqueduct without commentary. It showed graphically how serious the continuous moorer problem in that area has become—the moored boats were virtually bow to stern for the entire trip and while they gave the producer convenient hoardings on which to project his captions, they did little to enhance the scenery.
According to CaRT there were 360 million 'visits' made to canal towpaths in 2014. That averages out to 493 visitors per day per mile of canal, every day of the year. One thing that struck me about the programme was the lack of people using the towpath; on CaRT's figures the boat should have passed 2,465 people during its passage—I doubt if there were 20, though of course some of them might have been hidden behind the continuous moored boats. The number of cyclists seen probably did not even reach double figures—and none of them looked as though they were engaged in time trials.