Diary of a volunteer: meet the team

Volunteer Sarah Baxter gets to know her fellow helpers with the Kennet & Avon working group


Who wouldn’t want to be volunteering by the canal in weather like this? It’s all I can do not to jump into the foliage-fringed waters to cool off as the sun belts down and I work up a sweat with a hammer and chisel.

An unexpected heatwave down by the water has caused the canal’s environs to erupt with gusto. The greenery is rampant; yellow irises, buttercups and daisies flourish along the banks; the air has changed, it’s now thick with birdsong, flowers and impending summer, with a lingering note of wild garlic that’ll be gone before too long. Not a bad ‘office’ for the day.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. There are around 50 volunteers signed up to the Canal & River Trust’s Bradford-on-Avon working group – and it’s not just because lead volunteer Derek is extremely persuasive! All sorts of people are drawn here to give their free time to this part of the Kennet & Avon. There are volunteers who live in Bradford, but also others who come from outlying towns and villages – Melksham, Trowbridge, Frome – because they want to lend their hand to the preservation of this canal.

“I was looking for something to do; something outside, something with my hands,” volunteer Chris tells me as we scutch stones for the Bradford group’s canal-side wall rebuilding project. “One day I saw Derek sitting near the lock with his leaflets. The rest is history.” Chris worked for the MOD for 40 years. He now enjoys his ten-minute ‘commute’ from home to the canal; he likes the chance to get some fresh air and exercise. He does one or two mornings a week; it fits well around his bowls.

“People who use their brains all day don’t want to spend their free time doing the same,” adds volunteer Graham. Having spent his working life as a railway engineer, Graham has now switched to waterways. Though retired, he’s still acquiring new skills – he’s been trained up to use the stone-cutter and has become something of an expert at dry stone walling.

Many of the volunteers are retired, but plenty are not. Isabelle teaches French evening classes, leaving her free to move stones or hack back vegetation for a few hours a week. Others are part-time or – like me – work for themselves. What drew me to this Bradford crew, other than a love of the canal itself, was the flexibility and the attitude: they meet four days a week; people come when they can, for as long as they can spare, and that’s OK. Coffee breaks are important. The work is done, but at a relaxed pace.

It’s immensely rewarding too. Even if you only move a few stones or weed around a couple of mooring rings, this is meaningful work: the difference you make is immediate, noticeable and – it seems – highly appreciated. On this hot May day I lose count of the number of dog-walkers and holiday-makers who stop to say: “thanks, you’re doing a great job!”. I don’t get that kind of affirmation when I’m working alone in my home office (though I’m sure the cat leaving baby slugs on my keyboard means much the same thing…). We are helping the canal. But it is helping us too.

June’s volunteering tasks

Time to pack away the fluorescent Canal & River Trust anorak! The temperature is rising and it’s a lovely time to be working outside – on the wall rebuild, and on keeping the canal tidy as holiday season approaches. Flora is riotous; ducklings are dashing after mums; seasonal cafes are flicking on their kettles. Only downside: too many nettles.

There are many ways to volunteer with us, from office roles and manning information stations, to joining our Towpath Taskforce or training as a volunteer lock keeper. Find out more at https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/volunteer

Illustration: Alan Baker