|LABOUR OF LOVE FOR CANAL VOLUNTEERS
Site manager Terry Brown is fiercely proud of his workforce.
“My lads (and girls)”, he boasts, “aren’t they just wonderful!”
Terry’s reports back to his board of directors on the progress of the work are full of heartfelt praise for his team, who turn up come rain or shine, or come gales and monsoons, as it has been for much of this winter.
Terry is Lichfield site manager of the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust and under his guidance the workforce is bringing an important part of the city’s heritage back to life, while creating a wildlife corridor and a new link in the district’s recreational network.
The team - engineers, electricians, bricklayers, doctors, journalists – offer many skills, but the single quality that is most important for Terry is enthusiasm.
And no-one offers enthusiasm in greater abundance than Roger and Jean Barnett, or ‘the Staffords’ as they are known to everyone because week after week they leave their home base of Stafford to work unpaid on the canal’s restoration.
Both aged 71, Roger and Jean are typical in many ways of the 30 or so volunteers who comprise the outdoor workforce, but they also have unique tales to tell.
Jean is recently retired while Roger is a technician in the chemistry department at Stafford College, though he counts joiner, milkman, taxi driver, industrial sheeter and working at GEC and a private school for children with behavioural problems among the entries on his cv.
In 1992, in their fifties, both decided to do degrees, Roger to do maths and physics at Sussex and Jean later to study English literature at Bangor.
“I was just a housewife,” said Jean, “then I went to look after my little granddaughter while Roger went to study at Sussex and when he’d finished I went.”
Unfortunately Roger failed his degree but did obtain an HND in physics.
“I went back to college and they got fed up of me and said do you want a job,” he said self-deprecatingly. “It was a learning curve and I had no reason to leave.
“When the college goes they might say we don’t need you and I might be able to retire properly.”
Enthused by her time at university, Jean wanted to teach.
“I asked my personal tutor about becoming a teacher at my age and he said that’s no problem, we’re all old so that gave me the encouragement to apply for teacher training,” she said.
Many applications later without reply, Jean feared that they were politely not answering because she was too old.
“Then I saw this advert for Windsor Castle, for a personal maid to the Queen’s guests and I said to Roger what about it and he said, well they can only say no.
“And that was the place where age didn’t matter. When I went for the interview and my date of birth came up, the lady who interviewed me, who was around my age anyway, said we’re all old around here Jean.
“I was there 11 years. Obviously I had to live in and Roger was at the college and then I came up to Stafford when I retired.”
So how did they get involved with the Lichfield Canal?
Roger explained. “Last year we joined Stafford U3A (a national organisation providing learning and leisure activities for retired people) and the day we joined was the day that the Trust’s Finance Director Bob Williams came and did a talk. We said to him afterwards do you want volunteers and he said yes!
“It was a Wednesday meeting and we were at Tamworth Road on the Saturday.”
Roger and Jean helped to construct the concrete towpath wall of Pound 26 (a pound is the body of water between locks) then took on the task of making the towpath passable
“It was all overgrown with brambles and all higgledy-piggledy and you could barely walk through it and Roger said, why don’t we cut the hedge,” said Jean.
The couple have since moved on to the Fosseway, where a long stretch of the old canal is visible but was overgrown with gorse and now provides a pleasant and peaceful walk, and Darnford Lane, where the canal cuts through Darnford Golf Club.
If all this sounds like hard work, it is a labour of love for Roger and Jean.
Although not themselves boaters, they have always enjoyed walking the towpaths of the Midlands.
“It’s great,” said Jean. “You can see wildlife, birds of prey, it’s amazing how many you can spot. It’s so quiet and peaceful along the canal. And the boaters are so friendly, you can wave to them all.”
Roger agrees. “It’s restoring heritage, hedge-cutting, wildlife, it’s recreation, walkers, cyclists. Everybody loves going along the canal who never go on boats.”
When the key phase of creating the Heritage Towpath Trail, made by moving over 1,000 tons of earth, is completed, the couple would next like to see a tunnel under the Tamworth Road.
“That would give a spur to everybody,” said Roger. “All people can see now is a landlocked canal but as soon as you put a tunnel there, it’s nothing for us to link up to it and then it’ll go through Darnford Park.
“That’s part of the purpose of the Heritage Trail, that people can see it’s there. That’s why we’re concentrating on the Fosseway. There’s more walking because it’s so big, and it’s safer, especially for women, and if they see us working there they might think we’ll join in.”
The Trust’s project to restore a canal link between the Coventry Canal at Huddlesford and the Wyrley and Essington Canal at Catshill, Brownhills, may seem incredibly ambitious, but with the drive and enthusiasm of people like Roger and Jean Barnett, you can guarantee it will be done.
Finance Director Bob Williams has calculated that the business value of the work done by volunteers for 2013 was £251,038 per annum, with 14 directors putting in a total of 6,296 hours p.a., eight officers doing 1174 hours p.a., nine people in the marketing section offering 525 hours of their time p.a., and 30 people (including 20 regulars and at least 12 working every week) on the work teams clocking up 5,435 hours p.a.
If anyone is interested in joining the workforce they should contact site manager Terry Brown on 01889576574 or 07855810568. Volunteers would be welcome in any capacity. See www.lhcrt.org.uk for details.
Roger and Jean Barnett on the site of the Lichfield Canal near Fosseway Lane
It’s Jean Barnett’s turn to don the hard hat and get to work with the heavy-duty strimmer at Fosseway lane, watched by her husband Roger