Volunteers are an essential part of keeping our canal network open

PUBLISHED: 22:59 10 July 2013 | UPDATED: 17:02 13 January 2018

Pic Joan Rusell
Volunteers working on the Leeds Liverpool Canal at Bingley Five Rise Locks.

Pic Joan Rusell Volunteers working on the Leeds Liverpool Canal at Bingley Five Rise Locks.

Joan Russell Photography

Words by Terry Fletcher

Photographs by Joan Russell

As learning curves go this is probably on a par with playing your first game of football at Wembley Stadium. Novice narrowboaters who hire their craft from the popular boatyards in Skipton or Silsden to cruise eastwards on the Leeds-Liverpool canal find their first encounter with the mysteries of negotiating a lock brings them face to face with Bingley’s renowned Five Rise.

Locks are essentially simple systems for lifting or lowering boats between sections of canal on different levels by flooding or draining water from chambers enclosed by massive wooden gates. They are an essential part of inland waterways like the Leeds-Liverpool which scale the Pennines, allowing boats to climb or descend hills. A single lock is fairly straightforward but Five Rise is a complex series of five interconnected chambers which raise boats a total of 60ft in the steepest staircase on the entire 2,000 miles of canal network. They are officially listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the canal system and draw visitors from across the country and the banks usually boast at least a few spectators watching the boaters’ performance.

‘It’s not the easiest place to learn about locks,’ says David Dinsey, a retired banker who now spends every Wednesday helping novices and experts alike through the system. ‘Most people are glad of a bit of help.’

David is just one of an army of volunteers who between them now give some 35,000 days’ work a year to the recently-formed Canal and River Trust which last year took over the running of the canals in England and Wales from British Waterways. The charity is seen as a kind of National Trust for the network and has a massive job maintaining the system, many parts of which are well over 200 years old. And says the volunteering campaign manger, Simon Henry, it needs all the help it can get.

‘The canal network is irreplaceable and we can’t let it go but it needs an awful lot of attention and volunteers are an essential part of that. They work on everything from helping people through the locks, as at Five Rise, to maintenance, litter picking and monitoring wildlife. There is a job to suit anyone who has an interest in the waterways,’ he says.

David agrees. He was familiar with Five Rise from his second career as Town Centre Manager for Bingley. He went along to an open day when the locks had been drained for repairs and found himself agreeing to volunteer. He’s now in his second season and admits he is still learning about the quirks of the system.

‘A lot of the work might be called health and safety, making sure that people are safe and not just on the boats,’ he says. ‘We get quite a lot of visitors on the towpath who come along just to see the locks and they can sometimes get a bit too close to the edge. Those chambers are 18ft deep so we don’t want anyone falling in.

‘With the boats the problems are slightly different. The chambers may be linked but each one is slightly different. Some fill up faster than others and you need to keep your wits about you but you get used to their little ways.

‘Five Rise is famous in the canal system and people want to go through it. There’s a bit of kudos and experienced canal users are fine but for holidaymakers who have just hired a boat in Skipton this is their first lock after a long flat section and it can be daunting, especially with a lot of people watching. Some want to get out and help, which is good because we can show them how the locks work for later on when they are using unmanned sections on their own, but others just stay on the boats and let us get them through.’

His fellow volunteer, John Briggs, almost has canal water in his blood. His grandfather was responsible for Dowley Gap Locks, a few miles further down the canal and John was a regular visitor to his house. Now retired, as well as helping at Five Rise, John patrols the section between Keighley and Saltaire, ready to tackle minor problems before they can become major. ‘I worked for the ambulance service and as a teacher but I love the waterways and I’ve been involved with canals one way or another since the early 1970s,’ he says. ‘When this opportunity came up I jumped at it.

‘You have to have an interest in the waterways but I love being outdoors and it’s very satisfying knowing that you are making a difference and helping to keep the system going. People have a real interest in Five Rise. It has a prestige. When we had the open days people came from as far away as London and Scotland to see it. We owe it to the men who dug the canals out with picks and shovels not to let them be lost,’ he adds.

If you want to know more about volunteering with the Canal and River Trust visit canalrivertrust.org.uk or call 0303 040 4040.

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