The alternative keep-fit plan: become a volunteer lock keeper

If you’re looking for a way to burn calories and keep fit this winter, there’s at least one option that doesn’t involve treadmills, Lycra or a hit on your bank balance.

Image: Matt Sherlock


It’s an old annual cliché. We all overeat during the winter and, come mid-January, our resolution to keep up with our resolutions is starting to dwindle. Many people opt for the gym, going a few times in the first month before becoming an occasional visitor and finally, sheepishly, cancelling their membership around May or June. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

Keeping fit was one of the reasons why Alex Matthews, volunteer lock keeper since August 2012 at Stoke Bruerne on the Grand Union Canal, contacted the Canal & River Trust when he retired. ‘I wanted to keep busy and, when I saw the Trust’s poster, I thought – why not?’ says Alex. ‘I’ve always liked canals and being outdoors, so the chance of helping preserve part of our national heritage combined with the fresh air and exercise was too good to miss.’

On Alex’s stretch at Stoke Bruerne, which covers seven locks, there’s plenty of physical activity. ‘There’s about a mile between the top and bottom locks, so some days I can cover up to 18 kilometres going from one lock to the next,’ says Alex. ‘Throw in opening and closing the paddles and gates and all of a sudden you’ve got yourself a full body workout!’

It’s not just the exercise and fresh air that appeals, though. Being a volunteer lock keeper is about ensuring the safety of all canal users around the locks and ensuring people enjoy the waterway, so much of the role involves speaking to people, answering questions and ensuring procedure is followed properly when the locks are being used.

‘The social side is great,’ says Alex. ‘You spend a lot of time talking and listening to canal users and everyone’s got a story to tell. It can be a lot of fun too – anyone hiring a boat and heading south will come across my stretch and it can be a bit of a daunting experience for them. You should see the look of horror come across their faces, especially when there’s a bit of an audience. They’re always happy when they see there’s someone there to help.’

When the day is done, there’s still more exercise to follow. ‘I see part of my role as ensuring the beer in the local pubs is up to standard for canal users,’ says Alex. ‘So the right elbow always gets a workout at the end of the shift too!’

Canalside calorie busting: the figures

Distance: 18km
Muscles used: Legs
Calories burnt: 1,144

Lock gate opening
Muscles used: Arms, shoulders, back, legs
Calories burnt: 1,890 (based on 3 hours exercise/day)

Beer drinking
Muscles used: Arm
Calories gained: Between 200 and 1000, depending on the evening (average calorie count/pint = 210)

Could you be a volunteer lock keeper? Find out more about volunteering opportunities at