Four things we learned about the UK’s waterways from Chris Clegg’s Canal Time Map

The Regent’s Canal, London. Image: Getty.

In my ever-present efforts to satisfy the cartography-minded readers among you – i.e. all of you – I stumbled across an interesting map of England’s inland waterways.

What causes Chris Clegg’s Canal Time Map to stand out is that, unusually, it’s scaled by time rather than distance, showing how long it would take to travel around the UK via narrowboat.

Such a map can only work when most other variables such as route and speed are fixed, which is true of the inland waterways, where boats can only travel at 4mph.

With this in mind and a sprinkling of other assumptions, our man Chris has created this handy tool for all types of boaters. Somewhat unfortunately, due to the collapse of waterway industry in the early 1960s, the map now mainly services retired leisure boaters, but I’m sure they appreciate it.

The north. Click to expand. 

Here are four things you can learn about boating from the map:

1) Travelling by water is slow. Really slow.

It takes 45 hours to get from St Pancras to Oxford by boat. If you were going to take public transport, the journey would be less than an hour and a half. So this isn’t ideal unless you’ve got a particularly gruelling working week to spare, but what if you needed to take a lot of luggage to Oxford, like, say 30 tonnes of coal for example? No, okay, it’s still a terrible idea. Driving still takes under two hours and now days we have big trucks and nice roads. You can see why industry on our inland waterways died out.

2) The weather doesn’t just delay trains 

The south. Click to expand.

Within the instructions on how to use the map, you can learn quite a lot about the unpredictability of the inland waterways. The timings are worked out based on “normal” conditions. Abnormal conditions would include “low pounds, ice, strong flow on rivers, excessive weed growth, or water shortage restrictions requiring waiting at the locks.”

Excessive weed growth is becoming a greater problem in the warm months, while ice restricts movement in the depths of winter. As we all saw earlier this year, trains are just as susceptible to freezing weather but if waterway traffic is to compete on the slow and steady mantra, reliability is crucial.

3) Choose your crew wisely

“An experienced and fit crew of 3 adults” is required, along with a whole host of other things, to travel at the speeds specified by the map.

“Fit” is fairly subjective and considering boating on the canal network is now predominantly an activity for the retired, I’m not sure many crews could still accurately be described in this way. An “experienced” crew member is just as hard to come by – judging by my friends, who will show up eagerly for a day of “beers on the boat”, yet rarely return for a second time after the realities of spending a day struggling to open locks. So unless you’re a 19th century boating family, best treat these times with a pinch of salt.

4) It’s (a lot) bigger than you think

From Wales to the Norfolk Broads. Click to expand.

It’s not something you’re really going to get to grips with from the odd walk along the canal around Kings Cross, so it’s easy to forget just how the UK waterway network is. To travel from Guildford to Lancaster by canal, one of longest direct journeys possible, would take upwards of 160 hours. There are 2000 miles of canals across the country, with a tiny proportion in cities like London.

They are living relics of England’s industrial past and have been preserved for our pleasure. Get out there and get exploring.

All images courtesy of Chris Clegg.

 
 
 
 

“A story of incompetence, arrogance, privilege and power”: A brief history of the Garden Bridge

Ewwww. Image: Heatherwick.

Labour assembly member Tom Copley on a an ignominious history.

The publication last week of the final bill for Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge has once again pushed this fiasco into the headlines.

As well as an eye-watering £43m bill for taxpayers for this Johnsonian indulgence, what has been revealed this week is astonishing profligacy by the arms-length vehicle established to deliver it: the Garden Bridge Trust. The line by line account of their spending reveals £161,000 spent on their website and £400,000 on a gala fundraising event, amongst many other eyebrow raising numbers. 

Bear in mind that back in 2012, Johnson promised that the bridge would be entirely privately funded. The bridge’s most ardent advocate, Joanna Lumley, called it a “tiara for the Thames” and “a gift for London”. Today, the project would seem the very opposite of a “gift”.

The London Assembly has been scrutinising this project since its inception, and I now chair a working group tasked with continuing our investigation. We are indebted to the work of local campaigners around Waterloo as well as Will Hurst of the Architects Journal, who has brought many of the scandals surrounding the project into the open, and who was the subject of an extraordinary public attack by Johnson for doing so.

Yet every revelation about this cursed project has thrown up more questions than it has answers, and it’s worth reminding ourselves just how shady and rotten the story of this project has been.

There was Johnson’s £10,000 taxpayer funded trip to San Francisco to drum up sponsorship for the Thomas Heatherwick garden bridge design, despite the fact that TfL had not at that point even tendered for a designer for the project.

The design contest itself was a sham, with one of the two other architects TfL begged to enter in an attempt to create the illusion of due process later saying they felt “used”. Heatherwick Studios was awarded the contract and made a total of £2.7m from taxpayers from the failed project.


Soon after the bridge’s engineering contract had been awarded to Arup, it was announced that TfL’s then managing director of planning, Richard de Cani, was departing TfL for a new job – at Arup. He continued to make key decisions relating to the project while working his notice period, a flagrant conflict of interest that wouldn’t have been allowed in the civil service. Arup received more than £13m of taxpayer cash from the failed project.

The tendering process attracted such concern that the then Transport Commissioner, Peter Hendy, ordered an internal audit of it. The resulting report was a whitewash, and a far more critical earlier draft was leaked to the London Assembly.

As concerns about the project grew, so did the interventions by the bridge’s powerful advocates to keep it on track. Boris Johnson signed a mayoral direction which watered down the conditions the Garden Bridge Trust had to meet in order to gain access to further public money, exposing taxpayers to further risk. When he was hauled in front of the London Assembly to explain this decision, after blustering for while he finally told me that he couldn’t remember.

David Cameron overruled the advice of senior civil servants in order to extend the project’s government credit line. And George Osborne was at one point even more keen on the Garden Bridge than Johnson himself. The then chancellor was criticised by the National Audit Office for bypassing usual channels in order to commit funding to it. Strangely, none of the project’s travails have made it onto the pages of the London Evening Standard, a paper he now edits. Nor did they under his predecessor Sarah Sands, now editor of the Today Programme, another firm advocate for the Garden Bridge.

By 2016 the project appeared to be in real trouble. Yet the Garden Bridge Trust ploughed ahead in the face of mounting risks. In February 2016, despite having not secured the land on the south bank to actually build the bridge on, nor satisfied all their planning consents, the Trust signed an engineering contract. That decision alone has cost the taxpayer £21m.

Minutes of the Trust’s board meetings that I secured from TfL (after much wailing and gnashing of teeth from the Trust itself) reveal that weeks beforehand Thomas Heatherwick had urged the trustees to sign the contract in order to demonstrate “momentum”.

Meanwhile TfL, which was represented at board meetings by Richard de Cani and so should’ve been well aware of the mounting risks to the project, astonishingly failed to act in interests of taxpayers by shutting the project down.

Indeed, TfL allowed further public money to be released for the project despite the Trust not having satisfied at least two of the six conditions that had been set by TfL in order to protect the public purse. The decision to approve funding was personally approved by Transport Commissioner Mike Brown, who has never provided an adequate explanation for his decision.

The story of the Garden Bridge project is one of incompetence, arrogance and recklessness, but also of privilege and power. This was “the great and the good” trying to rig the system to force upon London a plaything for themselves wrapped up as a gift.

The London Assembly is determined to hold those responsible to account, and we will particularly focus on TfL’s role in this mess. However, this is not just a London issue, but a national scandal. There is a growing case for a Parliamentary inquiry into the project, and I would urge the Public Accounts Committee to launch an investigation. 

The Garden Bridge may seem like small beer compared to Brexit. But there is a common thread: Boris Johnson. It should appal and outrage us that this man is still being talked about as a potential future Prime Minister. His most expensive vanity project, now dead in the water, perhaps serves as an unwelcome prophecy for what may be to come should he ever enter Number 10.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.