IT’S A BRIGHT slightly chilly January morning and, rather than being tucked up in our Hylton Road offices staring at a computer screen, I’ve welcomed the opportunity of spending a couple of hours with a group of cheerful volunteers helping to clean up a local canal.

It’s the last day of the month-long Canal and River Trust deep clean operation along the Worcester and Birmingham Canal from Worcester to Wast Hill (near Hopwood) and the Droitwich Canal from Hanbury to the River Severn at Hawford, just north of Worcester.

And it’s a far cry from the day they started, said the trust’s customer operations and volunteer team leader Timothy Booker. “We started at Sixways and it was horizontal rain. It just shows the commitment of the volunteers. No-one wanted to turn back and they all battled on.”

There has been one group of volunteers working on a Wednesday and another on a Thursday – the numbers vary from three or four up to 20, depending on people’s commitments.

There are eight of them today including Jess – a lovely young black Labrador dog belonging to volunteer ranger for the trust Mike Butler. The first job is to go through the safety briefing and remind the volunteers about dealing with any sharp objects like needles and contaminated water.

We’re all wearing buoyancy aids – it is a bit soggy underfoot in places – just in case someone slips and inadvertently ends up in the drink. It’s not recommended – especially on a day like today.

During the past month, the volunteers covered about 32 miles of canal cleaning up litter, managing the vegetation, making sure there are no dangers for boat users or towpath walkers and checking the locks, weirs and any other aspect of the canals to make sure they work properly. If there are any big problems Timothy alerts the trust’s staff to deal with it or contractors may be brought in.

Apart from the usual array of discarded cans, bottles, food wrappings and other general litter, they found an unwanted laptop and a flat screen TV along the way over the past few weeks.

The worst section of the canals for litter was on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal from Sixways to Worcester city centre. They gathered so much rubbish they had to leave their filled black sacks piled up for Canal and River Trust workers to collect at various points.

Apart from starting the New Year by giving the canal-side a spruce up, it is also a chance for Timothy and some of these volunteers to meet the some of the trust’s volunteer rangers and lock keepers who are also helping out with the clean-up.

Most of the volunteers are retired - some have an interest in Britain’s waterways, some enjoy looking after the environment and some just like to get outdoors and meet new people. There’s quite a bit of light-hearted banter being exchanged as they set about the job in hand.

John Maiden, from the Bath Road area of Worcester, has been retired for about 10 years and volunteered for the trust a couple of years ago. He is now a volunteer ranger for the trust in the Perdiswell area of Worcester.

“I used to walk along the tow path because it was a short-cut home. As a volunteer I am meeting people and picking up rubbish and looking after the environment. Volunteers can do as much or as little as they like. I do two or three days a week.”

Timothy pointed out that the rangers provide vital information about the state of the canals and their fixtures. “They tell me about things like the condition of the bridges and I can assign work for the trust’s permanent staff or the volunteers.

“If a tree has come down in bad weather the canal might have to be closed and we can get a contractor in to deal with it. The volunteers also tell us about vandalism.

“It is crucial to have these volunteers. The lock keepers are vital because if there are inexperienced people who are not used to a boat they can help them. The volunteers represent the face of the trust.”

Barbara Howman, a retired nurse and the only female among the volunteers today, comes from London and began volunteering about three years ago with her partner who lives in Worcester and loves narrow boats.

She signed up because she wanted to get to know Worcester. Apart from helping with the deep clean, she has planted trees, pruned vegetation, done painting and maintenance work on the locks and other fixtures.

Along the towpath Timothy, an ex-soldier, spots a camouflage bag tucked away at the base of a tree in the hedge. The volunteers get very excited – it’s a geocache. Some of them knew they were getting close as they have apps on their phones giving approximate locations. They explore the contents before making an entry in the log book and replacing it for the next treasure hunter to discover.

Mike Butler is a volunteer ranger and lock keeper who, in 2013, was looking for an activity to help ease him into retirement. Mike was a train spotter up until 1968 when steam engines stopped running and then his interest moved on to the canals.

“If you want to do an activity when you retire, you could not do anything better,” he said.

As we continue towards Porter’s Mill, Mike inspects the weirs are flowing and free from debris while other members of the group check fixtures like moorings and hazard warning posts, as well as looking for litter.

At this point – a popular meeting place for young people - there is an array of fast food litter in a puddle. It’s quickly gathered up and Timothy explains there used to be a bench on the side of the canal but it was recently found ripped up and dumped in the water.

“There was a bench at Porter’s Mill which was donated by Waitrose. Someone pulled it out of the ground and threw it in the canal,” he said. Canal and Rivers Trust staff reclaimed the resin seat and will reinstate it with extra deep fittings to make it extremely difficult for anyone to remove.

Other common items found in the canal are tyres, shopping trollies and bicycles - but that’s a job for the trust’s staff.

Timothy said the volunteers love using their practical creative skills – they’ve turned what was a muddy bank section of the tow path at Porter’s Mill into a series of neat steps and they’ve also constricted a wooden fence around a large hole along the footpath to prevent walkers from falling in. “They love doing that sort of thing,” said Timothy.

For more information about volunteering for the Canals and Rivers Trust visit and to find out more about volunteering projects and opportunities in Worcestershire email or phone him on 07917555928.