Keeping customers on the straight and narrow!

aking a well-earned break: Karen by the canal at Crown Wharf
aking a well-earned break: Karen by the canal at Crown Wharf

Karen Wyatt of Canal Cruising Co. Ltd reflects back on almost 50 years’ experience of narrowboat hire in Stone

She might have been paddling furiously underneath, but Karen Wyatt from Canal Cruising Co. Ltd appeared, as ever, totally unruffled. Even though she was running the business virtually single-handed – husband Peter’s hospital stay was proving longer than expected after a hernia operation. Karen just re-scheduled our interview away from hospital visiting hours to a ‘relatively quiet’ midweek morning.

It’s almost unheard of these days to spend your whole career in one workplace. When Karen was 17, little did she suspect that her Saturday job cleaning out narrowboats for Canal Cruising at Crown Wharf Stone was to lead to a job for life.  At 18, she started dating her boss’s son Peter (the couple socialised in the nearby ‘Star’, where Karen’s father was publican).

 

Karen and Peter married in 1984 and after taking time out when their two children were little, Karen came back into the business, gradually taking on the boat hire and office side, leaving Peter to concentrate on boat maintenance, repair and building boats of his own.

As the third generation of Wyatts in the business, Karen is well placed to highlight the changes in canal cruising over the last half century.

Half a century is a long time, and the slow pace of time on the canal is what customers struggle to get used to these days, Karen reveals.  Though the maximum cruising speed is 4 mph, in reality it’s more like 2-3 mph.  So if you hire a boat for an hour it’s pretty good going to make it to Aston and back.

  “Customers often start out with a preconceived idea about how far they want to get,”

Karen explains. But rather than argue, she just waves them off, knowing they’ll come back in a more relaxed frame of mind – even if they didn’t achieve their intended destination after all.

“It takes customers a day or so to unwind and realise that canal cruising is more about enjoying the journey than reaching a goal.”

While narrowboat design and steering has remained basically unchanged, interiors have become far more comfortable, Karen continues. With the old 48-foot 4-berth boats, the sitting area had to double up as a bedroom but modern 60-foot 4-berth boats have separate sleeping and living areas.

Canal Cruising’s 14-strong fleet are all equipped with a 240 volt electric sockets to power the microwave, freeview TV and DVD player which come as standard and to charge up the laptops, tablets, iPhones, iPods which customers increasingly bring on board.

   “Customers these days don’t see canal cruising as the adventure it used to be,”

says Karen.

“What they expect is a floating home-from-home.”

Hands-on: Peter Wyatt operates a lock
Hands-on: Peter Wyatt operates a lock

Canal Cruising’s boats now have beds with sprung mattresses and duvets instead of quilts and blankets, armchairs in the living areas.  The galleys are stocked with much more by way of cooking utensils, glassware and crockery.

“We showcase local china, of course,” adds Karen, “Portmeirion and Wedgwood hotelware stands up to a few knocks!”

But in Karen’s view, there are limits as to how much a boat should be ‘tarted up’.

“Narrowboats are basically cottages on water, and their interiors should be in keeping with that,”

she insists.

“Canal cruising should be about enjoying the simple life, spending time with each other, working and playing games together and getting to know your kids again.”

Their customer profile has seen a few changes, too.  While most are still in the 40-60 age bracket, the Channel 4 series “Great Canal Journeys” is inspiring older people to take to the waterways as well.

“They see Timothy West and Prunella Scales celebrating their golden wedding anniversary by navigating the canals and think – I could do that!”

Another new customer group are young hirers from overseas, Karen has discovered.

“They’ve obviously have found out that canal cruising is a typically British holiday!”

Back in 2006, Karen helped mastermind the building of Canal Cruising’s 6-berth marina to accommodate their growing hireboat fleet and to create more working space for the third-party boat repairs they carry out while their own boats are away.

   “Most of the work is below the waterline so you can’t see what we spent £150,000 on”,

Karen recalls.

“We nicknamed the project ‘the hole’ because we kept throwing money into it!”

But come the day when the marina is drained out, her children’s names Kimberley and Dominic scratched into its concrete wall will come to light again.

The marina was built with the permission of Crown Wharf’s landowner, government-owned British Waterways. British Waterways’ transfer in 2012 of the ownership of English and Welsh inland waterways to a new charity, the Canal and River Trust has been the greatest change in canal management Karen has experienced to date.

Has the new ownership brought any improvements?  It’s early days yet, but the signs are positive, says Karen.   Maintenance is better, with more regular dredging, pruning of overhanging trees and towpath improvements (though these can lead to conflicts between speeding cyclists and other towpath users).

Local CRT volunteers are very conscientious about keeping the towpath litter-free, promoting the canals when they’re out and about and reporting repair issues, which are attended to much more promptly.

“Spot repairs are now often done overnight, to minimise stoppages,”

Karen observes.

There seem to be more people walking the towpath in Stone than ever before, she’s noticed.

“The floating market over the Mayday Bank Holiday weekend which brought eight boats to Stone selling traditional and homemade gifts, such as rosettes, clothes, curtains and even doggy treats created a definite buzz!”

Trading from buildings almost as old as the canal itself, Canal Cruising, founded in 1948 is the oldest narrowboat hire company in the UK.  Peter and Karen’s company has not only played a vital role in helping Stone rediscover its identity as a canal town.  It has become part of that heritage itself.

ED. Just had to put my oar in – excuse the pun – the Wyatts, like so many others, make a living in Stone. But it doesn’t stop there. I’ll not embarass them with a list of what they give back to the town, but take the Gazette’s word for it, there’s many community organisations who have benefitted from their committment and although they probably see upwards of 90% of their trade coming from out of Stone itself, they do not hesitate when called on to get involved. Canal Cruising is is a business, but it is also an institution without which Stone, and the canal, would be so very much poorer.  Long may they coontinue to do what they do!