Building skills and rebuilding the canals

Iona, a heritage trainee on the Grantham Canal, worked towards an NVQ L2 Diploma in Heritage Conservation and Restoration. Iona talked to restoration coordinator Katie Woodroffe about why she would encourage everyone to get involved in their local restoration.

Iona helping to preserve brickwork using tools Iona practising heritage skills during the restoration of Grantham Canal (Photo: Grantham Canal Society)

What sparked your interest in heritage and canals in particular?

Iona: "I have always been passionate about heritage and the built environment since I was a young teen, stemming from having a grandad who taught me how important heritage is and protecting what remains of the past. There was something very appealing about contributing to canal restoration, knowing how significant canals were in the development of British history and how important they are now to the public, not only as heritage but for our mental health also.

"My interest in canals was always present. However, it was while working for the Canal & River Trust that I truly discovered how captivating the canals can be. The knowledge I learnt during my training and meeting others who were just as keen to protect heritage as myself has done nothing but inspire me and my future. Canals are so rich in history and, to me, there is nothing more important than allowing this heritage to be accessible for future generations."

Finger marks remain in the historic brickwork (Photo: Iona Gibson) Finger marks remain in the historic brickwork (Photo: Iona Gibson)

Can you tell us about a moment you experienced while working on Grantham Canal that will stay with you forever?

"One of the most memorable moments while working on the canal was discovering parts of the unspoken history no one had seen for centuries. We found brickmakers' marks that had been drawn by workers before the bricks were fired, and old glass bottles that had been transported through the locks and lost along the way. We even found part of a leather boot trapped in the mud at the bottom of the lock. However, the most unforgettable moment was finding unintentional marks on the bricks.

"We found two bricks which had marks that we believe are either the finger marks of a worker, or were possibly made by a cat that strolled across the clay. One of these bricks was found loose among the reclaimed pile and the other was found at the back of the canal wall, but they were almost identical to look at. It was fantastic to see and has sparked a permanent interest in bricks. These little discoveries just added to the story of the canal and only served to fuel the importance of restoring and protecting the heritage.

"However, there are many moments from working on the Grantham Canal that will remain with me forever. It was such a fantastic experience working there, meeting like-minded people who shared the same passions as myself and learning how important the restoration was to the community."

Old bottles discovered in the remains of the canal (Photo: Iona Gibson) Old bottles discovered in the remains of the canal (Photo: Iona Gibson)

What did you find were the benefits of working on a restoration project?

"For me, there were several benefits. First and foremost, I furthered my skill set that orientated me towards my career goals. I made vital contacts with others who have continued to help me years after I left. But also, I benefited from the sense of community, contributing to something bigger, but local. Seeing how passionate people were about the restoration, witnessing the dedication, it showed me how important these projects are for so many reasons and strengthened my passion and belief in protecting our own heritage."

Iona making stop planks for the Chesterfield Canal (Photo: Iona Gibson) Iona making stop planks for the Chesterfield Canal (Photo: Iona Gibson)

How does restoring a waterway benefit the local people?

"I think one of the main advantages of restoring the waterways these days is not only allowing the history and heritage to continue, but also providing a place for people to go, be outdoors and feel a sense of refreshment. Good mental health is more important than ever and the serenity that naturally comes along the canals is precious. These spaces have so much to offer and their beauty is vital."

What would you say to someone thinking about getting involved in their local canal restoration?

"Put away any doubts and don’t hesitate. There are so many advantages to working or volunteering on the canals. You get to be outdoors in the beautiful scenery, see the wildlife and enjoy the peaceful tranquillity. You will learn so many invaluable heritage skills, general construction skills and come to know so much about canal history. You’ll also have the knowledge that you contributed to the future of the canals and their preservation. It’s such a wonderful feeling. And not only that, but you’ll make lifelong friends along the way."

Last date edited: 2 February 2021