Before anyone starts to feel offended, this is not a suggestion that readers should join a group devoted to clandestine love affairs. This is the name given by the Waterways Recovery Group (WRG) to the volunteer parties who turn out with them on Saturdays and Sundays to help restore Britain’s derelict canals. And, as anyone who has ever been on a working party can confirm, the phrase ‘dirty weekend’ can have a very literal meaning.
Canal holidays are hugely popular, but many of the canals we travel today are only open because of the work of volunteers. This year, among their other schemes, the WRG is setting up work camps with the Cotswold Canals Trust restoring the Stroudwater Navigation and Thames and Severn Canal.
The former originally ran from the Severn to the textile town of Stroud. It was then continued through the Cotswolds to join the Thames at Lechlade.
Work is ongoing at both ends of the canal, but one of the most concentrated efforts is being made in the west. Last year saw boats arriving in the centre of Stroud for the first time in more than half a century.
Hard, but rewarding, work
Now the volunteers are moving out into the countryside, along a route flanked by old stone-built woollen mills and overlooked by the beetling escarpment of Minchinhampton Common.
There is a lot to be done: the canal bed has to be cleared by dredging and there are locks to be rebuilt. Volunteers go out on weekdays as well as weekends, and new workers are always given a warm welcome.
Restoration is really valuable work. The reopened canals can be found all over the country and vary enormously in character, from the rural delights of the Kennet and Avon to the Rochdale Canal, climbing across the rugged Pennines.
And the work still goes on. But why do so many people spend their leisure time as unpaid navvies? The obvious answer is that they are doing something worthwhile, and there is always a great sense of camaraderie among the volunteers.
The work can be basic – there’s nothing glamorous about shovelling black, oozing silt from the bottom of a derelict lock – but it’s far better exercise than you’ll get at the gym, you’ll learn new skills and be out in the open air.
Just think, one day you’ll have the satisfaction of turning up at a busy canal during the holiday period, and thinking: “I helped to make this possible”.
FIND OUT MORE
Waterway Recovery Group
The Cotswold Canals Trust
The Lockkeeper’s Café Bar
Wallbridge, Stroud GL5 3JS
This café, next to the Cotswold Canal Centre, serves fine cakes.
Off Stroud Road,
Nailsworth GL6 0AE