“The swans here aren’t very friendly” says Andy Littlewood, Senior Urban Ranger for the Coventry Canal.
I had just arrived at his office after being progressively hissed by the pair who are regularly seen at Coventry Canal Basin berating passers by and generally being the swan version of anti-social.
As Canal Rangers, Andy and Roland Mackie with whom he shares his small office both show clear enthusiasm for the 5½ mile stretch of British Waterways - The Coventry Canal - which runs between The Canal Basin at Drapers Fields and Hawkesbury Junction beyond Longford.
“We have over 700 boats visiting the basin each year” says Andy “and the old facility is used by many as a major leisure resource”.
Looking through his windows at the basin, the old warehouses on the side adjoining Leicester Row are filled with a range of operations, from the Coventry Model Railway Society, through to major Public Relations companies, while above Andy’s office and the next-door newsagents, IT companies share accommodation with regional health councils.
But it wasn’t like this a few years ago, for by the early 1970s the last working boats taking coal to the Longford gas works ceased operation, and even though some leisure activities were taking place, the canal did look neglected and run down.
“It started to get filled up with rubbish and pollution, including some from the canal side industries, themselves in their last years of existence” says Andy “Vandalism became a serious problem, and the surrounding buildings became underutilised.
There was a major boating rally in 1957 held by the National Inland Waterways Association where a declaration was made stating that :- The society is to promote and encourage in all possible ways the proper use and maintenance in good order of the Coventry Canal and connecting waterways.
As well as a steady flow of boats into the basin - I have frequently seen up to 12 at a time - the Coventry Basin has a potential as a social amenity. Certainly, if the recent Chinese New Year celebrations are anything to go by, the basin can be a vibrant venue, and upon completion of a new restaurant-bar and flats complex, the atmosphere will be one of modernity matched with tradition.
But, beyond the leisure value, there is the great educational asset, and this is where Roland sees his task as important.
‘Think about the arts trail. Every last Friday of the month I walk the canal looking where the clean up boat may need to go, but this is now combined with a gentle walk for any age group, where the canal tradition can be viewed, and questions answered.’
The value of these walks, and of the whole amenity is recognised, and supported by Coventry Council.
Roland (22) applied for and gained an apprenticeship with the canal rangers and liked it so much he stayed. As well as working in the office, and being actively involved in projects which seek to involve children and schools in the arts and natural life of the canal, Roland also works on the ‘clean up boat’.
‘Once or twice a week we go around and clear up litter and debris in and around the canal’ says Roland ‘Its sad and amazing what we do find at times. We even came across an old mini dumped in the water.’
His voice took on a slight edge when he talked about how dangerous this can be.
‘It’s not just anti-social, but potentially lethal. Never minding the potential damage to boats, anyone who decides to jump into the water could be seriously injured’.
How does the service survive? ‘Well’ says Andy ‘1999 saw European funding available for the Ranger Service, when it was known as Foleshill Canals Alive Ranger Service (FCARS for short) but that expired at Midnight New Years Eve 2001, and the local authority and British Waterways have continued to support the service, and the regeneration of the canal as a city amenity. And we are now ‘just’ The Canal Rangers, which is shorter and tidier’.
So, the amenity is there, and the events are increasing. What next. Just for the period till the summer, there are the regular Longford Urban Walks, Canal Ranger Patrols and the Children’s Womble Walk, and various half term events. Also - I am pleased to admit - the narrowboat ‘The Coventrian’ operates cruises, and occasional ‘specials’ such as the ‘All that Jazz cruise’ which is a two hour cream tea or something from the bar event. Additionally the newly conceived ‘5½ miles of art’ is a guide to the Coventry Canal Art trail. A book which will help those walking and viewing the various examples of artwork around the canal is available from the office, or from the Herbert Art Gallery.
‘We want Coventry people as well as boat visitors to enjoy what we have’ says Roland’ and people should make that turn off the ring road to find this jewel in the city.’
For information about events, or even how to get there Andy will be pleased to speak to anyone who calls the office on 024 7623 1306 or visits Unit 5 at the canal Basin.