Extraordinary events

Bangladeshi dragon boat races to a ‘floating book festival’: we explore how the Trust is connecting with new audiences by providing event space.

Photo by Colin Nicholls

Words by Ben McCormick

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It’s 2019 at the opening of a commemorative ‘Black Sabbath Bridge’ in Birmingham, and as the strains of Paranoid (played by tribute band Sabbra Cadabra) carry across the water, several seeds of ideas are sprouting in onlookers’ minds.

“After the bridge opening, we had a whole raft of enquiries from people asking how they could go about using the island the band played on in the canal basin for their own events,” says West Midlands region community engagement manager Ani Sutton. “Most of them were bands wanting to do the same thing, which isn’t currently practical as the island isn’t really ‘event ready’. Having said that, we are looking at what we can do on the island so more people can use it. And it got us thinking further about how we can present the canal and surrounding Trust property not just as a place for walkers, anglers and cyclists – our traditional target audiences – but as a destination venue for the wider public too.”

It’s not just in Birmingham where Canal & River Trust staff are working with others to bring new people to the canals. Across the network, Trust property is being used by a whole host of community groups, private companies and other organisations whose events are designed to appeal to sections of the public that are less aware of what the waterways have to offer.

From film screenings and live theatre performances at the amphitheatre created by the canalside steps at Granary Square on London’s Regent’s Canal, to ecology adventures in Leicester, Trust property is providing a home for all sorts of activities and introducing new people to canals like never before.

Leicester locals
“We’re increasingly focusing on reaching more members of the local community,” says Stephen Hardy, communications and campaigns manager for the East Midlands. “Around a third of the population of Leicester live less than a mile away from the waterways, but so many of them are unaware of that and tend to ignore the canals as a result.”

The Trust has worked in partnership with a number of third party groups in Leicester to encourage people from different backgrounds to visit their local canals. Among these are the Barrow Boats in Barrow upon Soar, which runs ash-scattering ceremonies in the Old Mill Basin on the River Soar. The company can take up to 12 people on a boat to a location approved by the Environment Agency, where people can scatter the ashes of their loved ones, something that has proven popular among members of the local Sikh and Hindu communities, although they are available to other faiths or secular groups as well.

Another link the Trust has made in Leicester is with the Somali Community Parents Association, with which it ran a programme called the Leicester Young Ecology Adventurers for Somali youngsters aged between 11 and 14. Part funded by the National Lottery, the scheme provided an opportunity for young Somalis to learn how to canoe with professional tutors, experience the outdoors and find out more about the wildlife and ecology of rivers and canals.

Dragon’s den
Since 2015, the Trust has been working with Birmingham City Council and the local community to put on the annual traditional Bangladeshi dragon boat race Nowka Bais. A style of boat racing historically held after the monsoon rains in rural Bangladesh, Nowka Bais is one of the largest Bangladeshi cultural events in the country and takes place at Edgbaston Reservoir in July. Alongside the racing, the many thousands of visitors enjoy street food, arts and crafts stalls, a funfair, sports activities, rowing and sailing taster sessions, live music and dance.

Following the success of the partnership on the Black Sabbath Bridge event, the Trust is again working with Westside Business Improvement District on an event that should attract a less traditional type of visitor to the canals. Although details are yet to be finalised, the organisations are in advanced stages of planning to hold a ‘floating book festival’ on boats and at various venues in and around the canals in Birmingham.

“We’ve helped organise a number of really well-attended, unique events that have challenged the way we look at the waterways and the space around them,” added Ani. “They’re the kind of things that have opened our eyes to the potential of Trust property that we haven’t really explored before. So we’re urging interested people and organisations to get in touch, ask us about availability and work with us to do more.”

Are you a member of a group interested in holding an event on the canal or in any other Trust properties? Speak to your regional office to find out more about how you can introduce a new audience to the canals.

Posted on 13/03/2020