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A life made better by water

Few of us have dedicated our lives to canals quite like Ian McCarthy. From a magical boyhood boat trip, to becoming part of the restoration movement, to being a member of the Canal & River Trust council today, Ian has enjoyed, restored and served canals proudly all his life. Waterfront caught up with him to hear more.

Portrait of a male volunteer standing next to a canal, wearing hi-viz clothing, life-vest and blue sweatshirt with flat cap and sunglasses

We start right at the beginning.

“I first got involved in canals through my Sunday School teacher. I was eight years old and I went on this magic canal trip through to Northwich. It was absolutely wonderful and, after that, I couldn't get enough of canals.

I became involved in restoring Marple Locks on the Peak Forest Canal. Then, in 1971, I helped to organise the ‘100 Boat Rally' in central Manchester. To get all these boats there we basically had to rebuild the locks on the Rochdale Canal, so I spent every weekend doing that. When I was working on Marple, the foreman used to come down with his notebook and take all our names because we were ‘trespassing and damaging' the canal by restoring it. Thanks to the rally, the mood changed. Canals became something that even politicians wanted to restore.

Through the Seventies, I helped restore and campaign for all sorts of canals, including the Basingstoke, Stratford and Droitwich Canals." (Ian is pictured below on the left actively working on the canals in 1974).

Ian McCarthy, the owners of NB Ant  and Alan Jervis - breaking new ground, March 1974

"Watching ‘The Golden Age of Canals' on TV last night was rather sad. I knew many of the people featured, some of whom, unfortunately, are no longer with us."

We went on to ask Ian what he does today. “About six years ago, I was elected to the Canal & River Trust council as a volunteer representative. I'm also on the appointments committee, selecting trustees to the charity. During the winter I do maintenance work and in the summer I'm a volunteer lock keeper on the Manchester 18, which is the big flight of locks rising north-west out of the city centre.

All my life, I've wanted to encourage people to use the canal and appreciate this wonderful piece of industrial archaeology. When I first started it was all fire and brimstone. I remember seeing ladles of molten metal being carried over the canal in Stoke-on-Trent.

Saying that though, canals have improved out of all recognition in recent years. The canals of the future are going to be arenas of wellbeing."

Portrait of a male volunteer working on the canal, wearing hi-viz clothing, life-vest and blue sweatshirt with flat cap and sunglasses

"The pandemic proved how vital canals are. The number of people who used the canals as somewhere close and safe to go and walk is huge. People need to be outside. It makes them feel better. Canals are absolutely wonderful for making you feel good. They bring tranquillity into the middle of the city."

"One thing about a canal that I discovered is that the last thing you need is a watch. Time will slow down. It is somewhere where you go and wind down.

In areas with little access to green space such as Newton Heath or Miles Platting, people have been out walking the canals there instead of the streets. And there are amazing bits of nature there. One couple I met were absolutely blown away by the fact that they'd seen a kingfisher within a mile of the city centre."

It's wonderful to hear that people enjoy their local canal, and Ian is keen to share how many people get actively involved in restoring them too. “There's a group in Failsworth and another in Chadderton. These aren't leafy suburbs, but people are passionate about keeping their own little patch tidy and clean, because they live there. They want it to be treasured. The Canal & River Trust helps them do that.”

Ian's enthusiasm for volunteering really shines through. “There's a huge range of opportunities. I'm a volunteer who is helping recruit executives. That's quite a responsibility. Then we have people who turn up for a chat and cup of tea and put a few tools away at the end of the day. We are all valuable. The person who puts the tools away is just as important as I am.

Portrait of a male volunteer working on a canal, wearing hi-viz clothing, life-vest and blue sweatshirt with flat cap and sunglasses

Personally, volunteering has helped me to help save all this industrial heritage. It's there, it's working, it's functioning and people are using it. I've convinced an awful lot of other people that it's worth saving and treasuring. Now I'm passionate about getting young people involved, because they are the future.

Canal restoration was the campaign of my generation. The youth of today are fighting bigger fights actually. They are worrying about things like climate change. But the selling point for canals is that you can actually achieve something that matters, instantly."

"Even if it's just tidying up a towpath, you can turn around and say, ‘I did that'.”

Last Edited: 29 March 2021

photo of a location on the canals
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