Engaging the next generation of restorers

In an age where many people are looking to the future, it can be a struggle to engage younger generations with the past. Restoration coordinator, Katie, has been working to help provide restoration groups with the tools needed to increase their opportunities for younger people and create the restorers of the future.

A young restorer helping with gardening A young restorer

It could be argued that we wouldn’t be where we are today without canals, and the important part they played in the industrial revolution. Canals were the answer to moving heavy goods long distances, making trade and production easier and bringing in large amounts of money and investment into the country. They provided the nation with access to a working economy.  If it wasn’t for the birth of canals, our lives could be quite different.

Our waterways have always offered us so much and, in modern times, they still offer a huge variety of opportunities for young people. From learning valuable heritage skills, to understanding and building on the wider benefits waterways can bring to local communities and environments, there is still so much to gain if we can protect and restore these historic structures.

Young volunteers filling flower beds beside the canal in Leeds Filling flower beds beside the canal in Leeds

Gaining an insight

There are already some great programmes that allow young people to work closely with our canals, including the government's Kickstarter Scheme, the Duke of Edinburgh Award and the John Muir Award. However, there is room for growth and expansion of both informal and formal learning and volunteering opportunities, particularly within the restoration sector.

This comes with challenges. We teamed up with the Inland Waterway Association’s Restoration Hub to conduct some research into the barriers restoration groups and canal societies encounter when engaging with younger people.

Young volunteers working on the Desmond Canoe Trail in 2018 Young volunteers working on the Desmond Canoe Trail in 2018

Out of 22 responses, almost half of the groups said that the restoration sector is appealing to young adults and encourages them to get involved in roles that interest them. Almost 100% of respondents noted that they think it’s important for restoration groups to offer youth engagement activities. There is a clear interest and a need to develop and grow current opportunities.

Some restoration groups are already doing brilliant work in partnership with local schools, colleges, youth groups and wildlife trusts, but there are others that feel they could be offering more opportunities but encounter challenges from paperwork, safeguarding, communication and lack of resources.

Following on from our consultation, we created the Young Volunteers and Waterway Restoration digital toolkit. It’s a document packed full of tips, guidance, case studies and templates with the aim to help support restoration groups reach out to local partners and expand their youth offering.

A young restorer sowing some seeds on the bank of Lancaster Canal Seed sowing with a young restorer

Putting the toolkit into action

With the release of the toolkit, we teamed up with local restoration groups, Lancaster Canal Trust, Wendover Arm Trust and Buckingham Canal Society to help deliver some fun, youth focused events in the summer of 2021.  

Lancaster Canal Trust event stand on the Lancaster Canal Working with Lancaster Canal Trust

From children as young as three years old, the events allowed local families to join in some volunteering activities suitable for all ages including environmental maintenance, building bug houses and trying their hand at some brick laying.

A young restorer helping Lancaster Canal Trust maintain a picnic area alongside the canal A young restorer helping Lancaster Canal Trust maintain a picnic area alongside the canal
Children taking part in a gardening activity alongside the Lancaster Canal Getting outdoors and finding out what it takes to restore a canal

Through working in partnership, restoration groups can reach out to wider and younger audiences. There are many youth groups across England and Wales who are looking to get involved in local community projects and gain new skills at the same time. By making these types of connections and sparking interest in canal restoration from a young age we have the keys to navigate the future and drive the sector forward.

Last date edited: 18 October 2021