Britain’s wooden canal boats restored for community benefit

A Manchester charity is saving and restoring some of Britain’s remaining old wooden canal boats for use on community projects. Less than 200 boats survive on the 2000 miles of inland waterways in the UK, but the Wooden Canal Boat Society, based in Ashton-under-Lyme, is dedicated to bringing heritage boats back to their former glory.

The charity has fully rebuilt two vessels, which it now uses as working and pleasure boats on the Ashton Canal, while a further four are in the process of being renovated. The organisation’s current restoration project involves a boat that will provide respite for people with mental health difficulties.

The society began when a passion turned into an obsession for Chris Leah, one of the founding members. “I love the still water, the ducks and the friendly people on the canals,” says Chris. “There are ancient buildings and bridges of stone and brick, interesting boats, trees, dark mysterious tunnels… and it’s constantly changing.”

Chris bought his first canal boat for £100 while at university in Chester, living on it to save money, and he set about refurbishing it. With the help of an old boat builder at his local boatyard, he learned how to transform a “floating chicken hutch,” as he called it, into a water worthy vessel and has been fixing up old canal boats ever since.

While working at a museum in Ellesmere Port, restoring boats for display, Chris realised that their potential wasn’t being used. “I always found it frustrating that we were restoring these boats just to get looked at,” says Chris.

So in 1987, Chris and a small group of friends set up a trust, which became the Wooden Canal Boat Society in 1996, to help return heritage boats to use. The charity now attracts over 150 volunteers a year, which help out at its own boat yard as well as its charity shop in the centre of Ashton-under-Lyme.

Twice a month the society uses its two restored boats to collect clothes, furniture and bric-a-brac from over 350 houses to be sold in their charity shop. Anything un-sellable is recycled. As well as sourcing unwanted goods, which can be used to generate funds for further restorations, the trips allow people who wouldn’t otherwise get the chance, an opportunity to spend time on the canals learning how to handle a narrowboat. The charity also provides opportunities for volunteers to stay overnight on Forget Me Not, a refurbished wooden boat painted in the traditional style.

Chris says the benefits of the canals are many. “The waterways combine industrial history, which I find fascinating, with the human atmosphere of a village that stretches throughout the country. Waterways are the only form of transport where the actual track forms a wildlife habitat in its own right. I would love the world to be more like the canals; human scaled, low energy and with lots of friendly interactions with people and wildlife.”

The latest project for the society is a boat named Hazel, which was initially a horse-drawn working boat carrying coal and salt in the Northwich area. In the 50s she became home to a couple who refurbished her as a live-in boat. During this time Hazel played a part in many of the campaigning boat rallies that helped to save the canal network from closure.

After successfully being awarded a £75,000 grant for Hazel’s restoration, in a return to her roots, she will once again will be working for the good of canal life. The charity will use the boat to provide waterway holidays for people recovering from stress, depression and other mental illnesses.

“Travelling on the canals is an extremely relaxing and peaceful experience,” explains Chris. “It takes the traveller into a different world, where they can forget their usual worries and concerns and can simply ‘be’ for a while. For those suffering from depression or stress related illness, it is particularly therapeutic. The pace of life is slower on the canals and gives people the time to re-assess things and experience a more easy-going reality.”

By bringing important heritage boats back from the brink of decomposition to once more serve a useful purpose, in this way the Wooden Canal Boat Society hopes to continue benefiting people’s wellbeing and promote a more sustainable society.