Getting Involved with Canals
Here are some wonderful ways to enjoy canals, from going for a walk to driving heavy machinery!
If you're thinking of living in a canalside home, I hope you're also up for embracing the lifestyle and getting 'stuck in' at your new home. There are so many ways to get involved with your local canal. Whether you're 9 or 90, and whether you're looking for a day out or a long term commitment, there's truly something for everyone! Here are some ideas which you might like to consider:
Going for a walk along the towpath is the easiest way to enjoy the canal - there are very few hills, with the exception of long lock flights, but potentially lots of mud, so I definitely recommend that you wear walking boots!
There's a wide range of events around the country which take place all year round. You can find my favourite events calendars here:
- Canal & River Trust Events Calendar
- Waterways World magazine Events Diary
- Roving Canal Traders Association Events List
- Inland Waterways Association Events List
Individual restoration groups may have their own calendars, e.g. here's Lichfield's.
Here are a few examples of the kind of events you might find:
- Canal festivals (e.g. Brownhills Canal Festival)
- Boat shows (e.g. Crick Boat Show)
- Heritage boat gatherings (e.g. Alvecote and Huddlesford Heritage Gatherings)
- Events at canal museums and attractions (e.g. pumping stations in steam)
- Canalside charity events such as coffee mornings
- Canal traders' floating markets
- Canal & River Trust Explorers events for children
- Canal & River Trust open days (it's fascinating to visit a lock when it's drained of water!)
- Santa Specials and other special events on trip boats
Trip boats are a perfect first experience on the canals. They can be private enterprises or charity boats - often they support local restoration projects or offer special outings for groups, including the elderly or the disabled. You can even find a few horse drawn boats operating in season. Sadly several have closed recently and I am only aware of three still trading. There's Llangollen Wharf on the Llangollen Canal in Wales, the Tiverton Canal Company on the Grand Western Canal in Tiverton, Devon, and the Kennet Horse Boat Company in Kintbury, Berkshire, on the Kennet and Avon Canal. You can find out more about horse boats from the Horseboating Society.
If you really want to experience the canals, there's no better way than hiring a boat. You can hire 'day boats' for a quick taster, or holiday boats for longer trips. Day boats are usually shorter and easier for beginners to handle, so that's a great way to begin. Most hire companies will take you out for a short run first so that you are confident to take the controls on your own.
If you're thinking of buying a boat, hiring a narrowboat for a week or two is strongly recommended, in fact I'd hire twice before you buy, once in summer and once in winter, to make sure that boating is absolutely right for you. Some people just don't take to the pace of life and the compact accommodation on board. Others never look back!
You might enjoy some of the energetic sports available on canals such as paddleboarding, kayaking, cycling, and fishing. Here's my son on a combined river and canal paddle with Tamworth Canoe Club.
If you prefer to contribute your leisure time to the operation, maintenance and restoration of the canal network, there are several fantastic options:
Canal & River Trust volunteer opportunities are advertised on their website. Typical volunteer opportunities include being a lock keeper, manning an information point, leading walks, being a ranger along a stretch of canal, being a boat data collector, helping at a museum, working with children on Explorers activities, or joining a local towpath taskforce. I'm a member of my local Taskforce. We help to clear and refresh the towpath, banks, fences, hedgerows and lock gates. Some CRT volunteer projects are dedicated to improving wildlife habitats (see below).
If you want to do something really physical and maybe even work with heavy machinery, or if you have administrative skills, there are restoration projects around the country where you would be welcome as a volunteer.
The Inland Waterways Association has a volunteering page where you can find out about local branch opportunities, such as clean-ups and work parties, as well as administrative tasks and campaigning projects you could get involved with.
You can also contact individual canal restoration groups, for example, here in Staffordshire you could volunteer with:
- Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust
- Caldon & Uttoxeter Canals Trust
- Shrewsbury and Newport Canals Trust
- Stafford Riverway Link
- Burslem Port Trust
Many canals are conservation areas, and you'll find some wonderful nature reserves along the canal corridors or nearby. Here in Tamworth, the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal passes right through the middle of the RSPB Middleton Lakes reserve. Most canal restoration projects include some kind of conservation element which you could get involved in.
If you are interested in the wildlife commonly found in canal habitats, the Canal & River Trust has a useful Spotter’s Waterways Wildlife Guide with links to pages about many of the animals which benefit from a canal habitat (it doesn't include fish, for some reason).
There are lots of events and activities along the canals which are specifically designed for children. I also recommend that you take a look at the resources and printables for families and schools on the Canal & River Trust’s Explorers pages, they're perfect for helping children to engage with canals. You can search for individual sheets and activities on this resources page. Here are some of my favourites:
- All about Canals is a great introductory printable for children
- How a Lock works is an excellent YouTube video suitable for children
- Build a Canal is a very easy history printable for younger children
- The Build a Canal game is probably the best children’s game on the Canal & River Trust website in terms of performance and educational content.
- Waterways Today is a downloadable printable for children
- Canal Boats – a printable about the different boats using the canals, past and present.
I hope this page has given you some ideas! For more ideas check out the Canal & River Trust's page dedicated to their motto #lifesbetterbywater.