Diary of a volunteer: unruly foliage and unlocking the Trust’s tool shed!

Follow the progress of newbie volunteer Sarah Baxter as she learns the ropes on the towpath this spring

Towpath volunteering illustration


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.

Alan Baker