Retiring after 40 years of working in an office environment, my intention had always been to do some form of volunteering, but I wasn't sure what to do.
Walking the towpath on the Staffs and Worcester , I saw a work party from Stewponey on a boat. They seemed a friendly bunch so I thought why not give that a go. After a taster day which involved cutting trees back at Park Head by Dudley tunnel, I signed up.
The Stewponey office is responsible for the Staffs and Worcester Canal, Dudley 1, Dudley 2, Stourbridge Canal, and the Shropshire Union Canal from Autherley Junction to Audlem - around 100 miles of canal and 90 locks.
We get down bumpy country lanes where we see and hear all kinds of wildlife, and see the sights and sounds of the Black Country, with kingfishers along all stretches.
The contrast makes the volunteering a rich experience – going to the back end of Netherton on a wet Tuesday afternoon below Cobbs Engine House gets the imagination going about how the Black Country must have been back in the 17-1800s.
How we help
There are around 50 volunteers that work for the Stewponey team. Roles include: lockkeeping at Stourport, Bratch, Norbury & Delph, weir checking, workboat moving and responsive work parties. Anything up to four separate work parties can be asked to travel to anywhere on the patch, for a range of duties. Priorities can, and do, change regularly as emergencies are notified, such as the need to clear a fallen tree or unblock a lock paddle.
I joined the work party team for the variety of work, and to see our local area, often in places members of the public would never have the opportunity to see. On average, I like to get in either two or three days a week.
Appropriate boots and clothing for the work are provided, and care is taken to ensure volunteers don't overdo it.
We work in all weathers throughout the year. Offside tree cutting on the workboat in the middle of January when there is ice on the canal and snow is blowing in from the east is character building. We have the right gear, and everyone turns up with the right attitude (and regular hot drinks and a biscuit) to keep us going.
All in a day's work
Regular work I do includes: tree cutting, removing fallen trees from canals and towpaths, putting in stop planks, replacing/mending lock mechanisms, litter picking, bank protections, painting lock gates and signs, helmsperson or deckhand on our workboat.
Other (less regular) tasks which I have helped with include: installing a new fence, painting the two workboats based at Stewponey, replacing signs, recovering safes from the canal, clearing out silted/weed-filled weirs, putting down a new towpath surface, replacing/resetting lock gates, setting up for events, and correcting water levels.
We often get a call that requires us to stop work so that an emergency can be addressed elsewhere – sometimes at the other end of the network. It all adds to the fun. The nice thing about volunteering at the Trust is that we all want to be there. We all enjoy a good amount of gentle micky-taking, but get the job done (mostly without driving Trust staff too far to distraction).
- The sense of camaraderie and working with like-minded people.
- Giving something back to the local community.
- Getting a thank you from boaters and Trust staff.
- Seeing new places and meeting new people.
- Working outdoors and getting fresh air in the lungs.
- Maintaining fitness with the variety of work we do – good for the brain as well as the body.
- Learning new skills.
- Local flora and fauna – I did not realise how many wasps nests there are along a canal bank, and I am trying my best to identify different types of trees we see.
- Friendship. I am not the only Victor Meldrew, our van ride conversations must be taped sometime, very entertaining. The real point being volunteers are having a good chin-wag.
- Gets me out of bed, and focussed.
There's no hard sell from the Canal & River Trust staff, you will be given a chance to see what work you can possibly help with before you go ahead. You will meet good people and see interesting places whilst getting fresh air and exercise. All good stuff that keeps the mind and body ticking over whilst giving something back to your community.