Locked into the lifestyle
TEN years ago Paul Roache volunteered as a lock-keeper on the South Stratford Canal and during that time a whole new world has opened up before him which includes a thriving wildlife population, meeting new people, health benefits, beautiful countryside, local history and a turtle with no name.
Paul, from Stratford, regularly travelled to Japan and North America when he worked with Magna International in the automotive industry with leading brands like Jaguar, Mercedes and BMW, but now he can be found volunteering as a lock-keeper with the Canal and River Trust charity on a section of 11 locks known as the Wilmcote Flight.
From his vantage point by the water’s edge, Paul, 73, keeps up a centuries-old tradition of maintaining the locks as a lock-keeper, a job which used to include a cottage as keepers were often needed 24 hours a day to open and close the lock gates.
Nowadays, Paul and his fellow volunteers of this stretch of the canal share a cabin, but there are still some original lock-keeper cottages to be seen on the 25-mile route which goes to the edge of Birmingham and joins Kingswood Junction allowing access to the Grand Union Canal.
One of the great advantages of being a volunteer lock-keeper is that when Paul is at work he’s surrounded by nature. He says wildlife in the area is growing, the leisure industry is booming as people opt for staycation holidays on Britain’s rivers and canals because of travel restrictions caused by Covid, and he enjoys the obvious health benefits of being out in the fresh air.
“I just wanted something completely different,” Paul said. “Some days there’s rain but it’s just good to be in the open air – it’s so positive for a person’s wellbeing and mental health. The Canal and River Trust is looking for volunteers and it depends on the support of thousands of volunteers across the network on a yearly basis. Age is not a barrier and we do need young people to volunteer to help protect the legacy for the next generation. There’s a range of roles available such as lock-keepers, towpath rangers, boat crew and wildlife conservationists, in fact everybody is welcome to join us.”
It sounds idyllic and come April, when the visitor season starts in earnest, the South Stratford Canal gets busy not only because Stratford is a popular and historic visitor destination, but because of the tranquil beauty of gliding effortlessly over a smooth surface of canal water with bird song as a backdrop.
However, this beauty was nearly lost forever during the Second World War when many canals were neglected or abandoned to become – as Paul puts it – “muddy ponds”.
Thanks to intensive conservation and restoration by volunteers like Paul, the canals are there for all to enjoy both on and off the water as towpaths are well used by families, dog walkers, runners and cyclists.
As always, the engineering feats we see or use each day but take for granted often have a backstory to tell and the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal – to give it its full title – is no exception. It was built between 1793 and 1816 and was first used in 1800. Like many other canal routes it became less well used as a form of transportation with the advent of the railways.
It eventually closed in 1939 before being restored in 1964 and boasts 54 locks. The lock gates are made of seasoned oak and will last for about 22 years, which isn’t bad considering they’re constantly exposed to the elements and occasionally get bashed by narrow boats that have approached the locks a bit too fast.
Being a lock-keeper also brings with it some unexpected chance encounters with some well-known people. Paul has enjoyed meeting the likes of Tim West and Prunella Scales, who filmed the television series Great Canal Journeys, Gyles Brandreth, Sheila Hancock, John Prescott and Anita Harris.
But there are other delights to be had with the abundance of wildlife on the canal that Paul sees on a regular basis.
“We have otters, water voles, heron, woodpeckers, king fishers, mink, stoat and we even have a resident turtle. I saw it a few years ago and didn’t think it would survive the winter but it did. I have no idea how it got in the canal and, as yet, we haven’t given it a name.
“This is another reason why being a volunteer is so rewarding because you get to be in a great environment and spend time with nature,” Paul said.
Unfortunately, canals can be affected by pollution and litter, which is why the Canal and River Trust has devoted time and money trying to keep Britain’s waterways clean and safe.
The list includes hundreds of tonnes of floating litter, towpath litter, fly-tipped waste and, in some cases, agricultural pollution. The joys of boating are clear to see but there’s always a risk-factor involved when it comes to people and water, as Paul explains.
“Last October a woman accidentally fell off a boat she was on with her husband. I spotted the incident and rushed to the scene. She was in the water for five minutes or so and both her husband and I tried to pull her out and eventually we did, but her wet clothes made her body heavier, so it was an extra weight we had to deal with. She was fine when we got her to the canal bank and then to safety,” he said.
The Canal and River Trust is appealing for new volunteers to join them in a range of roles, from traditional lock-keepers to wellbeing rangers on historic waterways across Warwickshire. There are opportunities to sign up to become a lock-keeper along several canals including at the iconic Hatton Lock Flight – also known locally as the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ – as well as the locks at Stockton, Knowle, Wilmcote, Lapworth and Napton
To view the range of volunteering opportunities available, including those local to you, visit: canalrivertrust.org.uk/volunteer