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Heritage Heroes - Canal & River Trust, Help for Heroes

Wounded and sick service personnel and veterans are performing vital restoration work on some of England's oldest canals. 2017 Angel Awards runners-up, the Heritage Heroes project (run by Help for Heroes, and Canal & River Trust), is helping volunteers gain qualifications and readjust to civilian life.

Heritage Heroes is an ambitious canal restoration and career recovery programme run by Help for Heroes and the Canal & River Trust. The programme is helping to smooth the transition to civilian life for 60 injured and sick service personnel and veterans. It has also galvanised a growing army of volunteers to join the great endeavour of conserving our heritage. Help for Heroes and the Canal & River Trust joined forces for the Heritage Heroes programme to work on the Cotswolds Canal (Ryeford Causeway), Pocklington Canal (Thornton Top Lock), Kennet & Avon Canal (Bridge 99), and Wilts and Berkshire Canal (Pewsham Lock).

Heritage Heroes at Caen Hill Locks, Devizes, Wiltshire
Heritage Heroes at Caen Hill Locks, Devizes, Wiltshire © Historic England

Life outside the forces

Veterans returning from military service are highly-skilled individuals who have a great deal to contribute to society, but who often find the transition back into civilian life difficult.

Heritage Heroes gives them the chance to make the most of life outside the armed forces. By restoring 200-year-old canals they can learn new skills, gain qualifications - and enjoy working in a team in the great outdoors.

This project to restore four canals not only rescues our physical heritage but also aims to train 60 personnel and veterans for multi-skill qualifications (Levels 1 and 2 City & Guilds), while recruiting 1,000 volunteers to undertake this important work.

Two veterans (one in a wheelchair) work on a heavy beam along the side of a canal
Veterans work on-site at one of the Cotswolds' canals

Brick by brick

At Ryeford Causeway between Stroud and Stonehouse ex-service personnel and volunteers from the Cotswold Canals Trust have restored a 500-metre length of the Stroudwater Navigation: rebuilding eroded banks, upgrading the towpath and restoring the historic wharf. At Thornton, on the Pocklington Canal in Yorkshire, veterans helped restore a Grade II listed lock by repairing the 200-year-old brickwork and installing new gates. To work on the Kennet and Avon Canal in Wiltshire, veterans received specialist lime mortar training to restore the historic skew bridge, Bridge 99. The final project saw veterans join forces with local volunteers from the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust to help rebuild the locks at Pewsham (near Chippenham) that, ironically, were demolished when the armed forces used them as a training ground.

The veterans have also been able to apply their new skills to other projects such as the creation of a memorial garden adjacent to Caen Hill Locks; way-marker routes and nature trails on the Pocklington canal; new heritage signposts on the Cotswolds Canal; pond-dipping platforms for schools; and the enhancement of sites of special scientific interest.

Saving the UK’s waterways is ambitious in terms of both the scale of the task and of the need to make people aware of the importance of this kind of work. The project’s long-term aim is to extend its work to other locations – and support even more veterans.

New interpretation panel at Bridge 99, Kennet & Avon Canal, Wiltshire
New interpretation panel at Bridge 99, Kennet & Avon Canal, Wiltshire © Tony Bartlett


The Heritage Heroes project has involved 52 veterans across the locations and, so far, participants have gained 41 City & Guilds qualifications and some have secured employment. All participants are seeking further training and/or volunteering. The project has boosted the wellbeing of participants who, while working on the project, have found themselves able to speak openly about often difficult past experiences in a calm environment. The new skills they are learning has renewed their self-belief and fired their optimism about the future.

Veterans have been team-working and skill-sharing alongside other volunteers from the wider community and Canal & River Trust engineers, contractors and staff. By showcasing the value of restoration, the Heritage Heroes are inspiring the public to get involved and enabling the Canal & River Trust (and its many partner canal societies) to recruit new volunteers. 

So far, 500 volunteers have supported Heritage Heroes. The project has raised awareness via media and social media channels and inspired community events ranging from bat walks to schools trips - reaching almost 2 million people. All project partners - from fundraisers, volunteers, engineers, ecologists and bricklayers to project managers and construction and heritage specialists - have shared skills, collaborated, taken away models of best practice, and gained a better understanding of the needs and support requirements of their organisations and beneficiaries. 

Ryeford Double Lock
Ryeford Double Lock © Mike Gallagher

Why this category?

The Heritage Heroes project has served both the core needs of its participants while yielding lasting gains for our physical heritage. It has equipped veterans and military personnel with City & Guilds qualifications in construction, health and safety, horticulture and land management that can be used to help them develop a new career. The long-term recovery for those on the course is about more than repairing damaged bodies and minds, it is about rebuilding lives. Heritage Heroes also represents how a shared model - between the Canal & River Trust and Help for Heroes - can deliver career recovery and canal restoration while inspiring a new army of volunteers to engage with their heritage.

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