Neil Hudson talks to Canal Connections founder Trevor Roberts.
This is our classroom, we just don’t have a blackboard,” says Trevor Roberts, founder of the Leeds-based Canal Connections, a social enterprise which is using canal boat trips to help break down social isolation, educate youngsters and generally improve people’s wellbeing.
A former police officer with over 30 years experience, it was a trip on a canal boat at the end of his career that gave Trevor the idea for the company.
“I was introduced to it when I retired from the police,” he recalls as we head slowly along a branch of the Air and Calder Navigation on one of his five boats. “At the end of my service, I took the team out on the boat and once we were on there, we talked, which we never had time to do in the job, because we used to come into work and go straight out. I realised it was an excellent communicant tool and a way of introducing people to a unique experience. But,” he adds, “there was no sustainability and continuation for people introduced to this wonderful environment.”
The environment he is referring to is one of the hidden gems of the city, the Leeds Liverpool Canal and other connected waterways, which Trevor says are massively underused.
As we chug along toward the locks at Knostrop, within in the space of about a minute we spot a red kite being harassed by crows, a heron gracefully arcing its way over the canal and Trevor informs me there’s a chance of spotting a kingfisher.
Given its location to the city, ringed by motorways, the peace and tranquillity of the canal seems somehow incongruous. And yet here it is. Enjoying it with us are a group of men from Leeds.
“We work with all kinds of people,” explains Trevor, 68, who ‘retired’ at 61. “From young people to over 50s, we have corporate groups who come on trips and really enjoy it.”
Trevor would like to see the canal network used a lot more. He also sits on the advisory panel for the Canals and Rivers Trust and says plans are well advanced to create a ‘port’ at Stourton.
“That’s about sustainability,” he says. “We’re talking about taking freight from Europe and creating an inland port in Leeds, it would create a whole new infrastructure. It also has environmental benefits, because for every boat you use like that, it takes about eight lorries off the road. Then, with about a mile to go to get into Leeds, you’re talking about bringing into use a fleet of smaller boats.”
That’s not all, though. Canal Connections has already used a horse drawn boat and that’s another idea the social enterprise is keen to advance, creating a new tourist market for people who want to enjoy the canal in a different way.”
Trevor grew up in Doncaster but moved to Huddersfield when he was about 10 and now lives in Mirfield. Married with two children and two grandchildren, he says spending time on the water has the potential to benefit a great number of people.
“What we do know is that the waterways are used to about five per cent of their potential, so the scope is massive. When you consider the length of towpath outside where the Yorkshire Evening Post now stands is the busiest outside London, it’s a conversation about how we get people to appreciate the waterways more than they do at present.”
Canal Connections has funding to run two programmes at present. One, Ignite, works with young people, using the boat trips as a training and education tool, while another, Float Your Boat, works with over-50s.
Alan Bolton, another ‘retired’ volunteer and director of Canal Connections, is in charge of the project, said: “This is one of the most relaxing things you can do. What we find is the first thing people do when they come on the boat, their shoulders go down, they start to talk and relax, the project is called ‘Float Your Boat’ and we find out what floats their boats.”
Our brief trip along the canal ends at Knostrop, although the group we are with are carrying on. As we disembark, we head up towards the new flood alleviation scheme, a striking silver ribbon of steel with moveable weirs, which has been put in place as part of the Leeds flood defence scheme and is the only one of its kind in the country.
“People don’t know it’s here,” says Trevor. “That has just won a Living Waterways award for its design, it’s beautiful.” Not far off, as we head back toward Thwaite Mills, we pass a stone circle used for pagan weddings and then a stone sundial in need of a little care.
“That was affected by the floods of Boxing Day 2015, as was a lot of land around here. Some of the boats were lifted out of the water and onto the bank. What I see today though are blue skies, the sun shining, bouncing off the water, the reflections of boats that weren’t here in 2012. I see history here and a lot of friendly people willing to chat, to impart their knowledge and share.
“The reason I set up in Leeds that we have major network running through Leeds which is vastly underused. The water space itself is a wonderful environment for education and therapy. Water has a calming effect on the human brain. We are human, we need to interact with each other and communication is a major part of that. It’s not just about talking, there are so many ways to interact. It’s about finding out people’s needs and responding to those and looking at what I like to call the long view.”
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Canal Connections is a social enterprise based at Thwaite Mills in Leeds. It was formed in 2012 by Trevor Roberts, 68, a retired police inspector.
It operates five boats, running trips along the canal network, working with young and old people. They also work with autistic groups, run ‘dog cruises’ and focus on groups in danger of social isolation, in a bid to promote wellbeing.
Trevor says: “Waterways were the innovators of the 17th Century and Leeds was at the centre of that. Now, with projects like the flood alleviation technology and plans for an inland port at Stourton, it could be again. We want to bring people out here to show them. It’s a way of introducing people to history and the environment.
“We had one headteacher say three hours on the boat was worth three days in the classroom in terms of opening their minds, stirring their imaginations and slowing them down, we’re tryuing to demonstrate what there is here in terms of potential.”