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Interview: Helen Walker, waterways chaplain

01 March 2024

‘It’s a better pace of life, with a friendly, resilient community’

There are over 2000 miles of canals across England and Wales, many of which are over 200 years old. I’m based currently at Norton Junction, which links the Grand Union Canal between London and Birmingham and the Leicester Line of the Grand Union, which runs to Leicester, Loughborough, and Nottingham.

The canals are used by a variety of narrowboats,
wide-beam boats, historic boats, working boats, paddle boards, canoes, and river cruisers. There are boaters who run businesses from their boats, boaters who live on board, those who holiday on the canals, and those who hire boats for holidays and day trips. There are boaters who have moorings, and those known as “continuous cruisers” who don’t — often the most vulnerable.

Waterways chaplains are volunteers from local churches,
licensed or lay. We visit the waterways offering help, companionship, and a listening ear to individuals and businesses. There are three paid staff, including the national chaplain, Chris Upton, all under the umbrella of the Church Army, drawn from all denominations.

A few years ago, while on holiday on our first boat,
my husband and I broke down on a difficult stretch of the South Oxford Canal. We flagged down a gentleman in a working boat who towed us to safety. He refused payment, but said: “If you see another boater in trouble, please help them as I have helped you.” One day, I saw a waterways chaplain helping a boater whose home had been set on fire, and God did the rest.

We’re God’s hands and feet on the towpath.
We can be a listening ear and support in bereavement — but also give practical help: provide food parcels, help out with boat repairs or breakdowns through membership of River and Canal Rescue, the AA of the canals.

One boater spotted my jacket and told me he’d had his food nicked off his boat,
and that conversation led to a whole host of things, and, in the end, he got his boat licence paid for through Universal Credit. There’s a church off the Kennet and Avon Canal that is opening up the premises for showers for boaters like him who live on small river cruisers without those facilities.

My husband and I both work part-time
and live with two dogs on a narrowboat less than two years old; so we’re in a very fortunate position. He says if the grass gets too long, or we don’t like the neighbours, we just move on. We bought our first boat as a memory to my mother-in-law, who had a shop by a canal. We loved it, and, though we had a house as well, the more we were on the boat, the happier and more comfortable we were.

I spent most of my working life as a trainer,
and then we ran a guest house and pub in Devon. There are very few licensed lay ministers who were landlords of pubs. In my early forties, I felt a strong sense of God calling me to ministry and became an LLM. Then I applied for a job within the diocese of Oxford as an administrator, worked for two archdeacons as their PA, and did HR qualifications. Now, I’m a safeguarding trainer, and my husband is an operations director for a charity for children in care. Two days a week, our dinette becomes an office.

There are places on the canal that you cannot get to by car.
There’s beauty and the wildlife, and the real appreciation for God’s creation, the little moments that never recur again. . . Last spring, we were travelling past a field with sheep, and I heard a distressed lamb bleating and running across the field to its mum, who was calling it. I’ve had lots of sermon themes from what I’ve seen on the canal.

It’s a better pace of life, with a friendly, resilient community.
Travelling through cities, you see people walking along, looking at their phones; but, away from towns, people are friendly and talk to each other. Sunday Morning Live on BBC1 recently interviewed a boater I’ve worked with, who talked about the people who helped him — walking his dog, getting his shopping — when he was ill.

Yes, we are transient, but we meet up,
and we also have social-media networks, and look out for each other. Winter months are harder, because people tend to hunker down and stay indoors. Most of us have wood-burners or a multi-fuel burner of some sort, but the cost of coal has doubled in the last two years, and some aren’t eligible for the £600 fuel allowance. It also took the Government a long time to work out that there are people who don’t have a postcode. Their payments are coming through now, but, if you’re not licensed with the Canal and River Trust [CRT], it’s more difficult. I work closely with CRT staff to support some of the most vulnerable boaters, often older men with mental or physical health problems or financial issues.

I have internet because we work remotely.
Some have it through 4G, but it’s patchy throughout the country, there are no wired networks, and it’s limited to what people can afford.

Not having a postcode is one of the biggest challenges.
One lady needed a doctor, but she had to register online, and your postcode is a required field. I was finally allowed to bring her to the surgery and fill in the form with a pen — but a lot of vulnerable people with mental-health or anxiety issues wouldn’t have the confidence to persist. We’re working with local groups and the CRT to create pop-up food and clothing banks that don’t ask users for a postcode.


I’m helping an elderly gentleman with poor eyesight to claim housing benefit — 20-plus pages of forms — because case law says that boat licences and mooring fees can be paid by housing benefit or Universal Credit. A home mooring is important now, because he’s elderly and can’t manage the boat in winter. If the canal is frozen, he can’t get water, and doesn’t have a car, so can’t get coal.

We’ve had a mooring, but now we’re cruising for eight months.
We enjoy it so much: so let’s do it while we still can. Then we’ll winter in an area close to our family and church community.

I’m still in touch with my own church community through Zoom and email.
Being linked to a home church means I know that the waterways chaplaincy is being prayed for, and lots of other chaplains are supported by their home congregations. We’re also members of the Boaters’ Christian Fellowship, and go to churches near the canals.

My early childhood was spent in Northern Ireland.
I attended a school for Catholic and Protestant children together, which had a huge impact on me as I was growing up at the height of the Troubles. That made me see we’re all God’s children: it doesn’t matter to Jesus who you are. So that’s the way I approach people.

I played the flute ever since I can remember,
and my first experience of God was singing in the choir at my grandmother’s church, in Devon. Music allows me to worship in different ways and settings, though I’m a traditional rural Anglican. I became a Christian in my mid-teens, was part of a Christian youth group, and studied theology.

I’m angry that boaters find themselves unable to access services
because decision-makers don’t understand the culture.

I’m happiest being out on the canal
on our boat, enjoying God’s creation and his amazing love.

We have an electric boat;
so, for me, the best sound is water lapping gently as we go along.

Being able to make the world a better place gives me hope.
Being able to make a difference to someone’s life is my measure of success.

My towpath walk is a prayer walk.
I pray for those I encounter, or who are passing, and for God to guide me so I can reveal his love to them. I offer all the work we do to God during that time.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Peter,
because he reminds me of our humanity: how we all make mistakes.


Helen Walker was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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