The Sharp End: Waterway maintenance

Aboard the narrowboat Hanwell, Rhymer Rigby helps declutter a London canal.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Inspiration is where you find it. A few weeks ago, I was cycling along one of London's less salubrious backwaters and saw a British Waterways maintenance boat hoiking foul-looking junk out of a canal. The work looked tough, dirty and unpleasant - perfect Sharp End material. Thus, a week or so later, I found myself at a lock on the Regent's Canal at King's Cross, waiting for my stint on the Hanwell, a specially built stubby canal boat with an open front for rubbish - a kind of waterborne dustcart.

The Hanwell wasn't co-operating though. Her engine wouldn't start and there was talk of scrambling a back-up, the Aylesbury, from further up the canal. In the meantime, my boss for the day, British Waterways' 'waterways operative' Paul Crowhurst and I biked down the canal to Islington to help out at a BW-run exhibition about safer cycling. In recent years, the canal has become a commuter corridor and it's up to British Waterways to both maintain the canal itself and keep pedestrians and cyclists happy on the narrow towpaths. A tricky balancing act, as some of the more voluble visitors to our stand demonstrated.

When the Hanwell finally arrived, we negotiated the Islington lock and made for the unexpected delights of Hackney. Perhaps I was looking impatient as we chugged along at little more than walking pace, because Paul's colleague Mark Loveday told me that the key to working on the canal was to accept just how slow everything is. The Hanwell's top speed is just 4mph, and with all the numerous locks to negotiate en route, the 14-mile trip from Paddington Basin to Limehouse on the Thames can take a day.

The trick is to remember that the canal was built in the 19th century and make the most of the relaxing pace. Soon, I was in an 1809 frame of mind, helped by the glorious sunshine. Pretty boats pottered on the canal, and pretty women jogged alongside. And you couldn't wish for better guides than Mark and Paul. They were knowledgeable about everything, from the wildlife to the magnificent canal engineering - especially the astonishing 878-metre Islington tunnel.

Both were real enthusiasts and clearly loved the job, despite the modest salary of about £18,000 p.a. (including London weighting). And I could see why: the canal is like a long village. Everyone says hello to everyone else and people help each other out. Indeed, much of the job involves coming to the aid of lost pedestrians, helping out boaters and so on. The canal is also one of the last places in central London where alternative types can afford to live - property developers never really found an easy way to make a quick buck on a narrowboat. But what's it like in the winter? I asked Paul. He enjoyed it, although a workmate had got hypothermia from spending hours chest-deep in the icy water.

But enough messing about in boats - time for some graft. It wasn't long before we fished a couple of shopping trolleys from the murky depths, dripping evil-smelling ooze. Underneath their noxious coating they weren't in bad shape, and they'd go for scrap. Other watery finds included a PC monitor, many footballs, a coat in a plastic bag (was it used in a crime, we wondered?) and a smelly dead eel that went straight into our sealed bin.

There was maintenance to be done, too. Every now and then we'd fix a boom across a weir that had come loose, or scrub the algae off a ladder. Sad to say, much canal upkeep is an ongoing battle against the less civic-minded citizens, whose crimes range from littering to graffiti and even bench-burning.

By the end of our journey, we had three trolleys, a couple of soggy roadsigns, the aforementioned eel and all sorts of rubbish on board. But this, I was told, was a pretty light day. Once, they'd taken out 16 bicycles, four trolleys, three mopeds and two motorbikes. Water normally ruins anything with an engine, but cycles are often salvageable. These usually go to charity, and Mark admitted his own was a canal rescue. They hadn't seen many cycles recently, but 'just wait till the school holidays', Paul said.

More grisly finds can include dead cats and foxes (rarely dogs, who, apparently, have more sense) and even the occasional dead body. Neither Mark nor Paul had ever found a human corpse, but colleagues had, and there's a story about a box with a dead baby in, too. But such macabre thoughts were far from our minds as we puttered slowly back to King's Cross, waving at the other canal users and picking up the odd bit of flotsam. Who'd have thought being a floating binman could be so much fun?

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