Illustration: Alan Baker
At the middle lock on the Hertford Union Canal in central London, a graffiti artist is rolling battleship grey paint over a nearby wall to form the background for a new piece. Giles Williams, a Canal & River Trust lead volunteer and towpath ranger, strolls up to take a look. But, ranger or otherwise, Giles isn’t planning to lay down the law; instead he asks the artist if it were suitable for him to design something for the nearby lock gates.
“They get tagged so much they might do better with a design,” Giles explains, and contact details are exchanged before this positive meeting of canal user and Trust volunteer comes to a close. “For somebody who always considered themselves to be shy, I’ve been surprised how much I enjoy meeting people,” says Giles, who has been volunteering for two years. “As a towpath ranger, we are meant to engage with the public and I turned out to be pretty good at it. That’s one of the things about volunteering, you might end up discovering skills you never used before.”
The Canal & River Trust has numerous roles for volunteers, who have become an essential part of the canal support system. Giles volunteers as both towpath ranger and lock-keeper at Old Ford Lock on the Lea. He began volunteering after he was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a condition similar to MS, and wanted to find a way to get outdoors and maintain his fitness.
As he was a canal lover, he approached the Trust and is now a lead volunteer. That means that with the support of the Trust, he helps organise other volunteers and also receives training opportunities. As a towpath ranger, he takes his team of volunteers along the busy East London canals every Thursday to collect rubbish, trim brambles, greet the public and generally keep an eye on things.
Today’s team includes Nick and Mal. Nick has been out of work for two years and is looking for activities to restore his confidence and discipline, while Mal has been homeless since 2009. He is currently living in a local park and wants to use volunteering as the basis for an eventual return to work. He says that if he wasn’t on the towpath, he’d be in the library reading philosophy. Both Nick and Mal are cheerful and enthusiastic, enjoying the weather, the company and the chance to be active and do something helpful.
“People volunteer for many reasons but we mainly work with retirees or people without work, who have nothing else to do,” says Giles. “It keeps them physically and socially active.” It’s clear from meeting Giles and his team that people don’t just volunteer out of a sense of altruism – they do so because there are tangible physical and mental benefits and because it provides a level of commitment that they are comfortable with.
Giles believes volunteering has helped both his mental and physical health, and research supports anecdotal evidence. A study has shown that adults over 50 who volunteer on a regular basis are less likely to develop high blood pressure while a 2013 review followed a group of people over time and discerned that “volunteering had favourable effects on depression, life satisfaction and wellbeing”.
“It’s well known that daylight, exercise and fresh air are three solutions to depression,” says Giles. “Volunteering with the Trust provides exercise and fresh air – you just can’t guarantee the sunshine.” Fortunately, we have picked a pleasant morning for our session, which takes us along the short, pretty Hertford Union to Giles’s lock by the Olympic Stadium. Along the way, several bags of litter are collected, plants are trimmed and a couple of student artists are handed a dozen discarded cans for a sculpture they are creating. The level of engagement is always friendly, whether the rangers are talking to boaters, cyclists, dog walkers or joggers. “We’re not busybodies, though we do get confused for them and have to be careful how we approach people,” Giles emphasises. “In fact, this really isn’t a job for a busybody.”
Giles believes volunteering has been very good for him, and recommends it for others. What would his advice be to anybody thinking of contacting the Canal & River Trust? Giles thinks for a minute before responding. “If anybody is thinking of volunteering I’d suggest they pick something that looks interesting and give it a try,” he says. “If you enjoy it, carry on; if you don’t, pick something else because there are buckets of different jobs. You can be in an office, you can work with the archive, and there’s half-a-dozen different outside roles from dealing with people to dealing with machines. There’s also training available.”
The Canal & River Trust is also trying to reach out to different sections of the population to expand its volunteering base from the retirees who are so highly valued but in such great demand. The hard-working Mal is the first homeless volunteer that Giles has worked with, while a major oil leak on the Lea mobilised the young boat dwellers of Hackney to come out in force. Nick started volunteering last summer and now tries to come every week. “It’s giving me some commitment that might have been lacking for a couple of years,” he says. “It suits me, I also help out in the office, for the discipline of being somewhere regularly. On Tuesday I was designing posters, now I’m doing this. I want to move back into work and it’s all about getting my confidence back.”
For more information on how to become a lead volunteer, head to our website.