Meet Sheffield's Blue Loop volunteers giving neglected waterways some TLC

Friends of the Blue Loop clearing rubbish beside the Tinsley Canal
Friends of the Blue Loop clearing rubbish beside the Tinsley Canal

The waterways running through the heart of Sheffield have made a remarkable recovery from the scars of industrial pollution, which had turned them into a toxic soup.

Today they are a flourishing nature haven, populated by a bounty of wildlife including kingfishers and otters.

Friends of the Blue Loop volunteers who have been tidying up the Tinsley Canal

Friends of the Blue Loop volunteers who have been tidying up the Tinsley Canal

But after years of neglect, a little TLC is still in order to help them achieve their full potential as a picturesque escape from the hubbub of inner city life.

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That's where the volunteers who have been tending to this eight-mile ribbon – comprising the River Don and Tinsley Canal, and known as the Blue Loop – come in.

This small but devoted band of helpers have expended much sweat slowly transforming the waterway and its banks into a flourishing spot for visitors to enjoy.

Volunteers clear vegetation obstructing the towpath

Volunteers clear vegetation obstructing the towpath

There is a long way to go but their toil is making a big difference and they have ambitious plans for the year ahead. Anthony Walker, volunteer leader for the Canal & River Trust, has been overseeing the efforts of these helpers, including the Friends of the Blue Loop.

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Their tasks range from litter picking and cutting back invasive species to creating new meadows and planting wildflowers which will attract insects and in turn other wildlife.

Anthony has only been in the job five months, but he is already seeing the fruits of their labour.

Blue Loop volunteers John Blackburn (right) and Tony Richardson with a bike they lifted from the Tinsley Canal

Blue Loop volunteers John Blackburn (right) and Tony Richardson with a bike they lifted from the Tinsley Canal

"They've been working really hard to tidy up the canal and make it look loved again," he said.

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“We’re already getting comments from the general public saying what a difference we’ve made, but there’s a long way to go.”

About 15 people typically turn up for the Friends of the Blue Loop volunteer sessions, held every other Wednesday, and there is usually a good turnout too for the Canal & River Trust’s own work days, at which anyone is welcome to lend a hand.

There are plans to hold even more volunteer days next year, such is the willingness of the local community to get stuck in.

So far, the work has focused on a relatively short stretch of the Tinsley Canal, from Victoria Quays to Cadman Street on the other side of the Derek Dooley Way which looms over the water.

But there has been plenty of work to do along that strip.

During the last litter pick, volunteers collected a whopping 27 bags full of rubbish.

Anthony says they find all sorts abandoned in the canal and on the towpath, from old tyres and bikes to prams and shopping trolleys.

That stretch is a popular spot for magnet fishers, he adds, who often leave any scrap metal they retrieve beside the canal for others to clear.

As well as cleaning up the canal and towpath to make it a more pleasant habitat for different species, the aim is to attract additional visitors of the human variety.

“We’re trying to open the waterside up and make it more accessible to visitors, and help them to feel safer there,” he said.

“As the footfall increases, hopefully it will have a knock-on effect of improving safety and deterring vandalism and littering.

“This is somewhere where you can be in the middle of the city and before you know it, it feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere.

“We want more people to know about it and come here for walks or to enjoy their lunch beside the water.”

Anthony and his team of volunteers are particularly keen to get the canal looking its best in time for a very special anniversary, with the canal’s 200th birthday falling on February 22 next year.

As well as doing the grunt work, volunteers get the opportunity to learn new skills, like hedge laying, and to spend time aboard the trust’s work boat Naburn.

Anthony has big plans for 2019, including removing more of the overgrown vegetation to make the canalside feel more open and welcoming, and creating a community orchard close to Cadman Street.

But for now, he says, volunteers deserve to take a moment to look back on all they have achieved during 2018, before the hard work begins again in the new year.

For more information about the Blue Loop, including how to volunteer, visit www.the-rsc.co.uk/the-blue-loop.