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News article created on 1 December 2014

Canals unplugged

First up in our new series on the winter works: the stories and people behind the open days.

The winter works are one of the Trust’s biggest projects – closing and draining stretches to repair and maintain locks and walls so that the canals remain open for everyone. In the first of our series of stories, meet restoration campaign manager Sarah Burns to find out about the winter works open days.

It’s such a rare opportunity. I mean, how often do you get to walk in a drained canal? We had over 11,000 people coming down to our open days last year, and this year we’re expecting more. It’s the most popular thing we do.

People always want to know what we find at the bottom of the canals. With the Regent’s Canal clear-up we’ve already found a massive amount of rubbish, carrier bags, mobiles phones, tyres, weird metal things. And loads of bikes. 

Two weeks ago one of the volunteers found an unexploded WWII hand grenade. We alerted the police straight away. They came really quickly, cordoned off a one hundred metre radius and then the bomb disposal squad came in. It all happened very quickly. It was partly exciting, and quite scary – especially, I imagine, for the person that found it.

We spend £45m on year on the winter works. We do about 180 different stoppages ranging from changing lock gates to really small repairs. This year the biggest is draining a kilometre stretch of the Regent’s Canal so that we can repair the canal wall. The smallest works would be cutting back vegetation when it grows through brickwork or patching up potholes on towpaths. But it all matters, it all counts.

People travel for miles. Our first open day this year was in Napton in Warwickshire. It’s quite remote but 200 people came down including one couple who drove up from London just to see the canal drained. It’s a stretch they always boat on and they were so enthusiastic about seeing it from another perspective. I think people come because they want to learn about the history, and to talk to our engineers who can tell them what it takes to keep a canal in working order.

You lose canals if you don’t look after them. Lock gates need replacing, other restoration works need to happen, and if they don’t we just can’t use the canals. They become dangerous.

I’ve been in loads of drained canals. I always find it really impressive to be right up close to the original Georgian and Victorian brickwork. I love it. 

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