The canals were built as a network of waterways, linking in with existing rivers, to serve the burgeoning industry of eighteenth century Britain. However, they had barely been finished when the invention of steam locomotives started the railway revolution. Rail was faster and cheaper than canals, and the waterways fell into disrepair.
But, as people began to realise the potential of the canals for walking, fishing, holidaying and tourism, they began a new lease of life, although too late for many canals that had already fallen derelict.
So, since the 1970s, the Waterways Recovery Group has been harnessing the power of hundreds of volunteers to restore these forgotten monuments. Most of the work is done by 'camps' - residential holidays for a weekend or full week where all the volunteers stay together (usually in a village hall) working on the canal by day and taking over the local pub by night.
The camps are a fantastic way to meet new people, learn new skills (owning a dumper-truck driving licence will stand out on your CV!), have fun and, corny as it sounds, make a difference. The advantage of volunteering on a canal as opposed to other restoration projects is that you can literally measure the progress it makes year on year, as another few yards or mile of canal is reopened.
See the WRG website for more details and to sign up for a camp! Waterways Recovery Group