Meet David, litter-picking in London
David has enjoyed views of the Grand Union Canal from his house in Greenford, West London for 16 years. Before lockdown he used the towpath mainly as a shortcut, but during 2020 he developed an entirely different relationship with the canal, one that changed the course of his life.
"I grew up around boats and water, both my Dad and Grandad had boats, just not on the canal. When the first lockdown happened, I thought the canal would be a nice place to go for a walk, less busy than my local parks. I was right, but I didn’t expect to see so much litter laying around. It was appalling. I spotted someone doing a litter-pick and decided to join a volunteer group based in Ealing, but it quickly became clear that the canal needed special attention.
Making a difference
"I formed the Friends of the Grand Union Canal in August 2020 and we now have 3,600 Facebook followers, all enthusiastic about looking after the canal environment. In November 2020 I started the Hillingdon litter-pickers with support from the Canal & River Trust. We’re really making a difference. Groups go out for 2-3 hours each weekend, we have dedicated events and a lot of us also do solo litter-picks when we’re out and about.
"One of our first big litter-picks was in Ealing where we cleared hundreds of bags of rubbish. A lot of it was old, historical rubbish. But we discovered that once we’d tidied up an area, it stayed tidy.
"The majority of my volunteers are London-based, but we have a good mix of ages and interests. One of the things that motivated me to start the groups was loneliness. I was feeling very low during lockdown, and I wanted a reason to leave the house and connect with other people. That’s exactly what’s happened. We have fun and we all help each other. It’s been a godsend.
"Quite early on we found a box of Heroes while we were litter-picking, and now someone always brings a box along. We call ourselves the ‘litter-picking heroes’.
"I’ve discovered that people are both passionate about the canal and willing to help, but sometimes they don’t know how to get started. People are really nice, and people care. That’s the most amazing thing I’ve learned.
"I’m always surprised by what we find. When I first started, I thought it would be all cans and bottles, but there’s so much more than that. And it changes by area as well. We collect clothes, kitchen waste, domestic rubbish. On one occasion we fished out a plastic bag containing a litter of kittens that had been dumped in the canal. We rushed them to the vets and five out of six survived. They’re now happily rehomed with staff from the vets.
"If I had to concentrate on one thing, it would be getting plastic pollution out of the environment. It’s satisfying to see the positive difference we make. I’m often told how much safer and happier people feel out on the canal after we’ve tidied a stretch up.
Peace of mind
"The biggest benefit I’ve experienced is peace of mind. Spending time by water is very calming. I love to walk and clear my head, although it takes me a while to walk anywhere now, as so many people know me and always stop to have a chat.
"The friendships I’ve made have changed my life. I started this because I wanted something to focus on, and to help people who were feeling low, like I was. When I think back to how I felt during the first lockdown, I honestly believe that things could have turned out very differently.
"When restrictions are eased, I’m looking forward to getting involved in other aspects of caring for the canal. I’m not good at doing nothing. And I love the canal. It still amazes me that from my house I can walk to Limehouse or Paddington without going onto a road."