Diary of a volunteer: the Great Wall of Bradford-on-Avon

Our newbie volunteer, Sarah Baxter, is thrown in at the deep end with a lesson in stonemasonry

Illustration: Alan Baker


Someone has just slapped me in the face with a pizza – or at least that’s how it feels. I’m up early to walk along the towpath from Bath to Bradford-on-Avon today, to join the Canal & River Trust volunteers, and the whiff of wild garlic hits me like an Italian kitchen. The birds are chittering like crazy. Goldfinches and bullfinches decorate bare-branched trees, which are just beginning to bud. I pass a man walking the other way. He grins conspiratorially: “Best part of the day, eh?”

By the time I reach Bradford, I’m already full of the joys of spring in general and canals in particular. I head for the toolshed, where there’s a gang of fellow volunteers, all decked out in royal-blue Trust sweatshirts and high-vis tabards. I’m yet to get my official name badge, which is good as I still feel like a newbie – heaven forbid a member of the public might ask me a question and expect a knowledgeable answer.

Wheelbarrows, stonecutters and paint pots are pulled out of the stores, and we receive our instructions for the day. I’m dispatched to the Hen’s Orchard to help rebuild an 18th-century wall by the canal towpath. It’s a huge project, one that Bradford’s volunteers have been working on for several years. Progress stalls over winter as the temperature needs to be consistently above 8°C for the lime mortar to set. Now the weather is turning, it’s time to get stuck back in.

I have no experience whatsoever in wall-building, stonemasonry, mortar mixing or anything else useful. But neither did any of the other volunteers when the project first started. Professional stonemason John – and his inquisitive cockapoo, Nelly – keep an eye on quality. But otherwise the handsome new rampart is the work of hard-working and enthusiastic amateurs, now including me.

Some of the volunteers have undertaken stone-cutting courses and have become adept wall-builders. Having no qualifications, I’m handed a trowel and sent off to do some pointing on another old wall. I follow Jancis, who seems to know what she’s doing and who I look to for guidance. It turns out she’s only been volunteering a month longer than I have, but she sets to with gusto – proving that sometimes all you need is the will to give it a go. Within ten minutes, I’m slapping on mortar and no one seems to be telling me I’m doing it wrong. Indeed, it’s not as difficult as I’d feared. An hour later, a passerby strikes up a conversation. “You’re doing a great job. Is that lime mortar?” Yes, I reply (I know that one!). “What’s the mix?” Err…

On my next visit to the Great Wall of Bradford-on-Avon, I’m given the job of ‘hearting’. This, I learn, means filling the gap between the wall’s two outer faces with smaller stones. Not hearting properly, I also learn, results in a structurally weak wall that will not last. No pressure.

The key is finding stones that slot nicely into the gaps. It’s like a game of Tetris and it’s similarly addictive. Soon I’m rummaging around the barrow for the best pieces to fill each cranny and crevice, letting out a silent cheer when a stone slots in just so. It’s immensely satisfying.

John wanders over to cast his expert eye. “That’s textbook hearting, that,” he says. “If I had my phone, I’d take a photo.” He’s clearly just being nice, but I’m elated. I’m not a very practical soul; I’ve always been a bit ham-fisted and scared of mucking things up when it comes to DIY. So this feels like a tiny victory. Maybe as this wall slowly grows, my confidence might grow too.

April’s volunteering tasks
Warmer weather means time for mortar so the Bradford canal-side wall rebuild project can start in earnest. The daffodils are fading but the canal is heaving – sunshine and the Easter break drew everyone to the water, from kids to kayakers.

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