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Her working day involves lime mortar and carpentry. Meet Trust trainee Anna Moore, 23.
“I may be the only trainee who loves her life jacket," admits Anna Moore cheerfully. Before starting as a Canal & River Trust trainee in September she’d never been on a narrowboat and had a fear of water. She now loves canals.
“People have a natural pull towards water,” she explains. “You can go anywhere with canals and find some form of beauty. I think locks are awesome – they are such a marvel of modern engineering.”
The lively 23-year-old from Nottingham is one of 13 recruits to the Canal & River Trust’s new year-long heritage skills training scheme.
Spark and skills
With her high-heeled boots and punky style, Anna couldn’t look more different from a traditional conservationist. This, it transpires, is part of the appeal.
“We are trying to encourage new people into the sector. We wanted the enthusiasm, the spark, the interest; not necessarily the skills,” explains Trust heritage skills leader, Jamie McNamara.
“Our construction teams are predominantly over-50 and male. When they’re gone, the skills will go with them. But now Anna could be a skilled craftsperson by the time she’s 25, which is amazing.”
We meet at Cambrian Wharf, the Trust's Birmingham home. The city’s futuristic new library overlooks the 225-year-old Fazeley Canal, one of many that contribute towards Birmingham having more miles of man-made waterways than Venice.
Hundreds of applicants
Anna wrinkles her nose at the 1960s high-rise landscaping that surrounds the waterway. “I get really angry when I see slabs of concrete,” she says. “I love the fact we are trying to bring proper heritage skills back.”
By learning the traditional skills of carpentry, lime mortar plastering, and brickwork used when canals were first constructed, trainees will be able to maintain lock gates, bridges and canal walls to the high standard needed to preserve their delicate fabric.
The bespoke course attracted hundreds of applicants, from as far away as Nova Scotia. Trainees spend their time studying at North Yorkshire’s Heritage Craft Alliance College and working with the Trust’s onsite construction teams and lock gate workshops in West Yorkshire and Wolverhampton.
Lime mortar – fun and good for the environment
The scheme operates across the country, from Lancaster Canal to the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal. Now a dab hand at operating lock gates, Anna has been with the Swarkestone team near Derby, working on the Trent & Mersey Canal, as well as the Lime Kiln Lock on Leicester’s Grand Union Canal.
Working with lime mortar has been particularly fun, she says, and launches into a detailed explanation of how lime, unlike cement, allows structures to breathe. Lime is also good for the environment; it constantly carbonates, purifying air.
“I’ve always had an interest in heritage,” she continues. “And this job has enabled me to get into it. I’ve really enjoyed everything so far.”
Part-funded by a £607,000 Heritage Lottery Skills for the Future grant, a further 28 trainees will be recruited over the next two years. The Trust covers travel and accommodation, as well as an annual salary of £12,544, and learners earn an NVQ Level 2 in heritage conservation and restoration of British canals and waterways. Trainees are aged 18 to 49, and there are six women and seven men, the even gender spread a condition of the funding.
The Irish connection
Jamie moved from Dublin for the job. He is also a student, doing an MA in conservation studies at Birmingham City University. “I can relate to the trainees. If I wasn’t project manager, I would have loved to apply for the course. Nobody else will have this qualification.”
Growing up near Ireland’s Grand Canal has given him an insight into the way canals shaped history, a passion he hopes to pass onto the trainees.
“Most of the Irish emigrants to America would have ended up in the Grand Canal Basin in Dublin and left, never to see their homes again. That sort of knowledge brings canals to life.”
The Trust is now looking at exactly which skills are needed on each waterway, and the newly qualified trainees could fill the gaps. CV preparation, project management training, and the Trust’s partnerships with construction firms will also help them get jobs.
“The hope is that the trainees will be too good to let go,” Jamie says. “In 12 months’ time, they will know the canals like the back of their hand.”
Words and photography: Helen Clifton
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