5 ways London’s waterways will be shaped by the Canal & River Trust’s new mooring strategy

People gather on the banks of Regent’s Canal, undoubtedly to complain about the CRT service facilities. Image: Getty.

Anyone without a vested interest in the canals, bear with me here; I’ve got big news. The Canal and River Trust (CRT) has released its new mooring strategy for the London area. I accept this may sound super boring but trust me, it’s not.

Even if you don’t have one foot in the water, so to speak, the canals are a public asset and CRT’s report affects everyone's access to them. The plans will shape the way the capital’s waterways are used for the foreseeable future.

The CRT is the completely-not-unwieldy privatised charity that took over from the erstwhile publically owned British Waterways. It is hoping to address the fact that the number of boaters using the canal network has ballooned over recent years, placing new stresses and strains on a vast and largely neglected network.

 
CRT’s figures for boat numbers in London, taken from the Mooring Strategy.

With the CRT predicting a further 1,500 boats on London’s waterways by 2022, this report attempts to prepare the 100-mile network for the foreseeable future.

Having sifted through the benevolent buzzwords such as ‘fair sharing’, ‘balancing’ and especially ‘vision’, which one three-page supplement managed to use ten times, here are five things we’ve learnt from the CRT’s 2018 London Mooring Strategy.

1. The New Space Race

There’s a perception of a zero-sum equation when it comes to usable space along the waterways, leading to fears that this surge in boat numbers will lead to London’s canals clogging up.

Matthew Symonds, the CRT’s boating strategy and engagement manager, warned of the “enormous amount of pressure on what is, after all, a finite space.” The report stated that “If numbers continue to rise in line with recent years it will be to the detriment of all users of the waterways.”

But is there really a lack of space? While the central London and East End canals have seen huge increases in the number of boaters, there has only been a slight swelling in west London. West of Kensal are miles and miles of canals (with convenient transport links) that remain unmoored most of the time.

 
Numbers of boats in different areas of London over time. Click to expand.

Within a short walk of Tottenham Hale station, one of the best connected stations in London, there is about a mile of towpath that is un-moorable due to underwater obstructions.

If the CRT was so concerned by space, you would think more energy would be put towards making proper use of existing space – rather than fearmongering that something (or some boaters) is going to have to give

2. The elephant in the room that’s probably going to mug you

Long unlit urban paths are always going to be a safety nightmare. On one night earlier this year, eight boats around Victoria Park were broken into. Last winter there was a particularly long spate of muggings along the Clapton stretch of the Lea. With similar stories heard across London you’d be forgiven for expecting that the CRT would suggest some sort of solution.

Yet in literally the last sentence of the report it merely suggests founding a “Canal Watch”, apparently oblivious to the fact that such a scheme was set up by boaters following the east London break-ins.

Nobody’s asking for the CRT to start arming hordes of retiree volunteers, but some sort of proposed anti-crime battle plan would be nice.


Canal Watch. The grass roots one, not CRT’s. Image: author provided.

3. It’s not all rubbish

If you’re looking for a way to strike up a conversation with a boater in London, just start complaining about the CRT service facilities and off they’ll go.

Key talking points include trickling water points, broken sewage pump-outs, and overflowing bins. And when there’s rubbish strewn across towpaths and in canals, it’s about time the issue was addressed.

Luckily, nine new rubbish disposal sites are being brought in across the network; with more water points, better sewage disposal facilities and even waste oil disposal facilities.

While this looks promising, only time will tell if these will be delivered effectively or will even be sufficient.


4. Innovation on the canals

For a charity and local council partnership, you wouldn’t imagine innovation to be top of the agenda, yet there are some interesting schemes to be piloted.

A patch of “eco-moorings” are intended to address on-going issues with pollution from boats and their trusty solid fuel stoves. This will see greater policing of boaters in the Kings Cross/ Angel area, which is coincidentally right by some of the most expensive canal-side property on the network. But that is definitely just a coincidence, right?

The CRT has rightly taken notice of the new types of industries flourishing on the canals, from bookshops to bakers, and ice cream boats to community spaces like the formidable Village Butty, a floating village hall.

New permanent business moorings are to be setup across London, but more interestingly ‘Roving Trader’ moorings are going to be tried out so travelling canal boat businesses can ply their trade in the big city.

5. Opening up the canals

The CRT is gunning hard to ensure “access to the water for all”. Although this sounds like a crowd-pleaser, it’s controversial among boaters; when you’re trying to steer an unwieldy 15 tonne barge through London’s narrow waterways, the last thing you want to worry about is kamikaze kayakers getting tangled in your propeller.

The CRT will be encouraging more spaces for water sports and fishing by imposing restricted moorings on certain areas of London, which, despite being at the expense of boaters, will probably be worth it if it brings more of the public to the canals.

But one things for certain from the report: the CRT’s move towards being a “wellbeing” charity as well as one that actually manages the waterways is being treated with healthy amounts of scepticism after it blew £60,000 on a rebranding that included a significantly inferior logo. So we’ll just have to see how this plays out.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.