What our waterfront still lacks is people on the water


Guest post by Marie Millward

Handsome, dynamic, sometimes threatening and with a reputation for having a rather dirty past – the watery channels through the heart of our city are the reason the thing we call Leeds grew in this particular location. Over the centuries the River Aire and its man-made sisters the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and the Aire and Calder Navigation shipped in and out the goods we made and things we needed, washed our wool and our socks, transported our collective excrement to sea, powered our mills, watered our market gardens. I love these waterways where the normal rules of dry land do not necessarily apply, even though I have been known to get seasick on a canal boat.

These days of course we treat out waterways with a little more respect and enjoy them as the setting for sitting, for our homes and offices, at least when the water levels are behaving themselves. Its not hard to find tranquil places to watch a visiting tern or gaze at the flotsam and jetsam, to jog, cycle or get worried about that dodgy looking bloke but what our waterfront still lacks in any numbers, is people on the water as well as around it?

Something a bit magical happens to most people on a boat. Floating is itself is a small act of faith and as the pace of motion changes and the scenery slowly slides by it demands small changes in way we behave. The restricted space requires resourcefulness and sociability; we are close to, and aware of, the elements.

So, how do you become more than a waterway spectator, or gongoozler, to use the waterway term?

One way is through community boating and I’ve seen boat projects all over the UK and parts of Europe and the USA provide a way onto the water for people who, for a range of reasons would otherwise never get on a boat. It can be just as simple as providing a boat trip but can be more formal programmes of therapy, education, training, rehabilitation, community service as well as every sort of creative activity.

Compared to Leeds, far more goes on in neighbouring districts of Wakefield, Bradford and Kirklees around their waterways. Take Safe Anchor Trust, a completely volunteer run charity based in Mirfield who provide free boat trips on its four cruise boats carrying over 16,000 passengers per year. The boats are skippered and crewed by over 100 trained volunteers.

Canal Connections are new-ish addition on the Leeds Waterways but with lots of experience of people and boating. They have recognised that there is a huge gap in provision in central Leeds for a community boat project. They are organising an event this month to showcase some examples of work on and around waterways in other parts of the country and to encourage a conversation about what we want our waterways to be like. They have boats but need partners to give their work deep relevance and purpose and connections to what makes Leeds tick – which is where you might come in…

If this floats your boat (couldn’t resist) or you would like to find out more, they are holding a free event to kick start their work in the city. Places are limited, so please book your place as soon as possible.

Building the Social Economy through the Waterways

Tuesday, 19 March 2013 from 09:30 to 14:00

The Moyes Centre at David Young Community Academy, Seacroft


Marie Millward is a freelance consultant with Dandelion specialising in projects that connect people with watercourses, waterways and their local environment.)