It’s spring and the air is filled with the promise of new beginnings – for nature and for me. Daffodils are trumpeting. Blossom is coming out – and so is my bike. Well, what better way to travel to my first volunteering session with the Canal & River Trust than by cycling along the very canal I hope to help?
The Kennet & Avon Canal, which flows almost in sight of my home in Bath, has become a buddy since I moved here. It’s provided the only flat running route in this undulating city, cheering me on long training sessions. It’s provided the perfect let’s-go-for-a-walk option when hill-averse relatives come to stay. It has lifted my mood on innumerable occasions. So when the new year began and I decided to look for a volunteering opportunity, I didn’t need to look far.
So it’s my first day, and a beautiful morning. The towpath, however, is not so pretty. The recent rain and my lack of mud-guards mean I arrive at Bradford-on-Avon looking like I’ve already spend a day at work – in a swamp. Head volunteer Derrick Hunt, who I meet by the lock, is tactful. The toilet is over there, he says, if you want to wipe the mud off your face.
Slightly cleaner, I sit with Derrick in the sunshine for my induction. There are forms to sign. Do I have ailments? Allergies? Criminal convictions? He stresses the importance of both having fun and staying safe – better to stop doing a job early, rather then risk hurting or exhausting yourself. My main concern isn’t getting tired, it’s that I have no relevant skills – no engineering or boatmanship. However, says Derrick, there’s plenty to be done. Time and enthusiasm are useful too.
Derrick shows me around: the tool shed; the lock (which has just been drained for the first time in decades); the wall-building project along the towpath. All the while, he’s introducing me to people – other volunteers, building contractors, the local Gypsy and Traveller Outreach Officer – and explaining the background of the Trust and the many jobs involved. Words and information pour like water through an open sluice gate. I have much to learn.
I can’t commit to working weekly; unlike many of the retired volunteers, I have a day job. However, my work is flexible, and I hope to be able to help out once a fortnight. I return for my second session, ready to get stuck in.
I’m tasked with OVM – Offside Vegetation Management. This involves hacking back the foliage on the non-towpath bank of the canal to preempt branches and brambles clogging the waterway. Today the Bradford work party is focusing on a stretch of canal a little east. So at 9am I hop aboard The Vale of Pewsey (the group’s working barge) and join helmsman Tim and crew for day of tree-hacking. I’m given a high-vis jacket, thorn-proof gloves and a pair of lopers, and let loose on the greenery.
By the time the boat heads back to Bradford, at around 2pm, I can’t help but feel somewhat guilty. It’s a glorious day. I’ve had a good fresh-air workout and a sociable lunch, eating my sandwiches on the barge with my crew-mates. I’ve had a delightful free boat trip (“We often see kingfishers here,” volunteer Brian notes; alas, not today). Some people would pay for this. Surely there must be some catch? I guess I’ll find out…
March’s volunteering tasks
As winter ends, it’s time for last-minute Offside Vegetation Management – to help ensure the canal is clear for the busy season. Other preparatory jobs include bank repairs and a good tidy-up after the lock clear out. Wild garlic starts to make the towpath smell delicious; primroses and daffodils glow; birds get rowdier.
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 and catch up with Sarah’s next volunteering diary in early May.