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Reporting and energising the campaign against the cuts made by DEFRA.

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The Horseboating Society
event, 13 & 14 October 2006



Two men united with Maria, against the DEFRA cuts

What started out as a pleasure cruise eventually turned into a protest cruise. Two guests of honour supported the efforts of The Horseboating Society. One represents British Waterways, the other is an MP.

Robin Evans legging

Previously, on August 4, 2006, Robin Evans, chief executive of British Waterways, (with his wife Hilary), joined horseboat Maria at Portland Basin where the Lower Peak Forest Canal meets the Ashton Canal. They would be engaged in operating the horseboat as it was intended when the canals were built for these craft.

Robin and Hilary chose to walk on the towpath with boathorse Queenie initially. The towline was passed over railings, over anglers, and a moored boat, and around a lampost, and carefully worked on the turnover bridges. Hilary had a taster session of driving Queenie along a quiet section of towpath. Our guests then boarded Maria, Britain's oldest surviving wooden narrowboat, built in 1854 at Marple. Queenie pulled Maria through Woodley Tunnel but it was Robin who took Maria through Hyde Bank Tunnel by legging from the back cabin roof [See photo left]. His big smiles on exiting the tunnel suggest he was pleased with his solo effort!

After our lunch break, Bonny The Boathorse took over from Queenie up the locks. Robin explained he had to attend to a conference call, so we started on the locks as he walked up beside Maria. Robin was visibly upset by the call which confirmed further DEFRA cuts. Hilary advised Robin to tell Bonny The Boathorse about it all, "as Bonny understands everything". Our pleasant day out was in jeopardy if we gave vent to our feelings now about Defra cuts. Robin and Hilary helped work the long flight of locks and photos were taken of the happy crew at the top, of "Robin and His Merry Band".

The following day was an easy cruise for us along the Upper Peak Forest to Bugsworth Basin. Maria was now loaded with some 18 tons of limestone, all shovelled on by hand. The boat is owned by the Ashton Packet Boat Co. and with their friends helping, the boat was soon loaded. Queenie brought the loaded boat back over two days to the Ashton Canal. This was a re-enactment of the trade in which Maria was engaged from 1854 to circa 1904.

On Friday October 13, we set out again. Now we were on our way to the 10th anniversary celebrations of the Bridgewater Hall, the world class music venue on the Rochdale 9. We were seeking media coverage about the Defra cuts as we took Maria into the heart of Manchester's canals, recently praised by John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, as an "engine" for regeneration of the city.

Horseboating here is difficult and potentially dangerous, involving underground horseboating in dark locations and detours on city streets due to current construction works. Arriving safely, Maria entered the padlocked Bridgewater Hall Basin for the first time for an overnight stay. The Manchester Evening News photographed her on arrival. BBC Radio Manchester did two interviews with us during the day. All were alarmed that the Rochdale might close.

On the Saturday the HBS crew were joined by extra supporters. Many of us were IWA Manchester Branch members, and belonged to local cruising clubs, and we welcomed some Friends of President too. Queenie posed for photos with Maria in the Bridgewater Hall Basin.

David Heyes, MP, whose constituency covers some of the Rochdale and Ashton Canals phoned to assure us that he would meet us soon as invited. David has a keen interest in canals and earlier this year introduced The Abandoned Waterways Bill. Due to ongoing construction work, Queenie had to make a detour by city streets to gain access to the Ashton. David with his wife Judith watched our approach to lock 2. They were welcomed aboard Maria, enjoying their short cruise to our lunch spot. This was determined by ample grazing being available for Queenie on parkland above lock 4.

David Heyes MP steering Maria

A lengthy lunchbreak to rest horse and crew enabled David to talk to all members of crew in a very relaxed manner. We discussed the concerns that our local canals might close, and David was able to ask us questions which bothered him. He asked about the reported lack of use of the Rochdale. One of the crew explained she had been made redundant because during her community canalboat job, the canal had been closed for 21 months out of 24. We described how this made it impossible for boaters to plan a through cruise with such uncertainty. We praised BW for attending to repairs and lamented the huge costs that BW had been suffering.

We talked about the fact that there were fewer boat owners in the north than the south, and how societies like ours could enable anyone to join in. After lunch, David enjoyed steering Maria [see photo right] on his local canal up past the Commonwealth Games Stadium, now home to Manchester City. Football supporters were streaming along the towpath, some stopping to watch the horse and boat, others hurrying on to their game. So David saw the canal in use by boaters and many walkers.

When David left, he was given copies of recent waterway press to provide him with articles about the Defra cuts. He assured us he would work for a rethink in Defra and the Treasury. He was quick to sign up to the Early Day Motion 2757 drawing the government's attention to the need for full funding of navigation authorities to be reinstated.

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