CLA Member Profile: Aqueduct Marina

 
Aqueduct Marina

The Parton family had been dairy farmers for generations, but when Robert Parton returned to Cheshire from a fact-finding trip to the USA in 2002, he realised that the figures just didn’t add up.

The level of investment required was just too much to guarantee a future in the industry and, despite having worked hard to double milk production in seven years, a falling milk price over the previous few years meant uncertain times ahead.

His wife Andrea had started a farmhouse bed and breakfast, but that wasn’t enough to support a 200 head, 350 acre dairy farm. So, Robert looked closely at their resources, which happened to include fields adjoining the popular Shropshire Union Canal, just two locks from the Trent and Mersey Canal, and one of the busiest stretches of inland waterway in the UK, the Llangollen Canal.

While farming, Robert had often thought “If only I could have £1 for every boat that passed”. And, having a superb location in boating terms, as well as heavy Cheshire clay to make an ideal watertight basin, the idea for a canal marina was born.

In 2003, a planning consultant was hired, who said there were no planning reasons to stop Robert’s scheme. In a stroke of good timing, British Waterways created a new Marina Unit to develop the canal infrastructure, which helped to move the concept forward from its initial stage, to the granting of permission for what is now the busy Church Minshull Aqueduct Marina.

During this time the family converted the former cowman’s cottage to self catering accommodation, and started an agricultural machinery hire business on the site. Regrettably, the diversification meant the closing of the dairy unit in 2004, and the farm’s three long term staff being made redundant, a sad day that is firmly etched in Robert’s mind.

The planning permission granted in autumn 2007 was for a 150 berth marina, cafe, chandlery and shop, workshops and storage yard, and after considerable hard work in a relatively short time, the marina welcomed its first boat on Valentine’s Day, 2009.

While most people would be content with such an achievement, Robert was keen to continue developing the business and, as well as moorings, a boat brokerage was started and associated services soon appeared . In the early days, workshops offered boat painting, joinery and metalworking services. All repairs, servicing and a cafe were originally operated by tenants.

But Robert was keen to have greater control over the direction of the enterprise. The machinery hire business was sold in 2012 to enable him to focus solely on the canal business. A subsequent period of managed change means that now all the work is done in house, with some of the previous tenants joining existing staff to form an enthusiastic team, all working towards a common goal.

 


The Busy Chandlery

Walking around the facilities, it is obvious that Robert knows every employee personally and places considerable emphasis on staff development, resulting on a professional and friendly atmosphere that many employers would crave.

As he says, “To continue to be successful and grow the business, I need to take the team of people with me.”

Control over the whole business has given Robert the opportunity to look at every piece of land and property to develop further incomes streams. Boat owners can work on their own craft, using the marina’s specially designed boat trailer to raise the boat onto a dedicated area for repairs. Boats can be stored on dry land, supplies and services bought as and when needed, mooring available on flexible terms, and as well as commission on boat brokerage, would-be cruisers can also take advantage of narrowboat purchase on a time share basis – after all, canal boating can be an expensive hobby. The latest development sees another field taking on a new life providing caravan pitches – every acre and every building earns its keep at Aqueduct Marina.

The business has certainly attracted attention – and praise - not just from its customers, but from others who see it as an exemplar of rural business. The CLA’s Cheshire branch held its AGM at the marina earlier this year, and Robert recently welcomed a media company hoping to start a canal boating TV documentary. True to form, Robert arranged for staff to take part in media training, the latest in a long line of development courses, all of which provide life skills as well as instruction in specific disciplines.

When the CLA announced in its Rural Business County League Table that Cheshire was the best place in England to operate a rural business, Robert was not surprised. He said:” “I’m not surprised. Cheshire really is open to business.

“I know it’s easy to criticise, but we’ve had considerable support for our marina, especially from elected councillors who can see that we are a good, successful business and responsible employers who give back to the community. 

 

“The planners have tended to say yes to our developments once we have satisfied the - sometimes expensive - needs for environmental and landscape assessments.

“We’re in this for the long term, and I have every confidence that we can continue to develop in what will remain a thriving Cheshire rural business environment.”

 

For further information on Aqueduct Marina see www.aqueductmarina.co.uk or call 01270 525040

 

 

 

 

 Author: Mike Ashton 2015