Waterway volunteers will be recognised in the Waterways Renaissance Awards for the first time this year — and a group on the Kennet & Avon Canal have reached the finals of the award.
The Devizes-based Avon Vale Group completely restored a British Waterways workboat that had sunk on the Bath Flight on the K&A Canal — and they now volunteer for BW clearing offside vegetation on the canal.
The group was formed after a group of canal enthusiasts realised that financial constraints had led BW to have to concentrate on essential maintenance work at the expense of jobs like off-side vegetation management which meant that the navigation width was rapidly becoming narrower.
They believed that they could do something about it — if they only they had a boat— and in 2007 they heard about a sunken BW workboat on the Bath Flight.
They negotiated with BW to take it over and restore it to its original condition so that they could use it to work on the canal. They towed the boat from Bath to Devizes and took it out of the water and immediately set about removing the engine so that the engine that had been submerged for some time could be brought back into use.
After having the hull grit-blasted they repainted the boat in its original BWB colours, refitted the cabin and replaced the engine and they were ready to go.
British Waterways gave the team five years to complete their refurbishment — but they completed the work by 2010 (two years ahead of schedule) and they immediately began the work of clearing the offside bank on the Long Pound near Devizes to widen the channel.
Working one day a week they have made a marked difference on the 16-mile Long Pound and the core team has begun recruiting more teams so that the boat can be used more often — and they have also encouraged work to start on other stretches of the canal using other BW workboats.
As well as the bankside work they have also become a valuable resource for BW as a team of boat handlers. They move BW workboats to sites ready for maintenance to start — freeing up BW staff for essential maintenance work.
On a waterway where the culture of volunteering on work directly connected with the canal had been lost — this project is a significant step towards returning to the hey-day of volunteering on the K&A that existed in the 1960s and 1970s. And just like the early years of volunteering on the K&A local businesses have been encouraged to play their part. The Avon Vale Group say they would not have been able to achieve so much without the support of local businesses like Boat Safety Examiner Mike Price, Victoria and Spencer Collins at The Boat Yard Hilperton, Devizes Marina, Protect Fire Equipment, Devizes Commercial Signs and HMG Paints who have been generous with materials and services — and they have had regular coverage of their project in local papers and on local and national radio and television.
This project has been an inspiration for other groups along the canal who have drawn strength from its success of this project and gone on to develop their own projects.
Team member John Kirby said: “Our project shows how a small number of people with a vision, determination and passion for what they are doing can make a project happen — and make a difference for the benefit of all users of the canal.”
The Avon Vale has also been used as the removal ‘van’ for a remote canal-side house in the Bath Valley that had no suitable road access.
The group have had a two-stage assessment on the way to the final, first with Eileen McKeever, the Strategy and Engagement Manager at the Environment Agency and then with Ian George who is the Maritime Technical Director at Hyder Consulting Ltd who are partners with BW in the Renaissance Awards.
The final results will be announced at a ceremony at the ICC in Birmingham on 23rd May.
The Waterways Renaissance Awards is run by The Waterways Trust and recognises exceptional projects that have turned inland waterways into desirable places for living, learning and leisure.