Bridge building

I became aware of the Waterways Chaplains and their work in the last year or so and I have seen first hand the support and practical help they were able to offer to a friend in need.

Then (totally unconnected) I discovered that I had another friend who had started volunteering for them, so I was really interested to be able to hear more about the Waterways Chaplains and their work ‘from the horses mouth’ … so to speak!

Iona Alexander is a fellow boater. Normally we rarely have time for more than a quick chat when we meet along the canal network. The fact that her diary is full for weeks in advance is a bit of a clue to just how organised she is with her time.

As well as her full time job as a Neuro Scientist, she also writes for Tillergraph once a month and the odd article elsewhere – she recently wrote in Canalboat magazine about Coronovirus. 

After several attempts to arrange the time to meet up and chat (thwarted mainly by lockdown), we finally managed it one lovely sunny afternoon. We sat, the obligatory 2 metres apart, together in a grassy meadow near her boat just as lockdown measures were easing. Boots and Brindley lay near us; sunbathing and listening to our conversation:

“I think my Psychology degree got me into volunteering”

Iona did her Psychology degree at the same time as doing a full time job and she was quick to admit “its quite hard to do a full time job and a full time degree at the same time. I found it quite challenging…  I fell asleep in my exam I was so tired! I fell off my chair! I had planned a small nap between essays but I must have gone straight into deep sleep… I still got a distinction in the degree. I really enjoyed it.

I think it also got me into the volunteering I do as a lot of the psychology practices get caught up in the theological insights.”

What made you choose to volunteer as a Waterways Chaplain?

“I heard that somebody on a boat was having a bit of trouble and I was hearing what other boaters were saying about them and I thought a lot of boaters go onto the water because life is tough (not always but a high proportion) … And if they are then discriminated against, what is left? 

I became a probationary Waterways Chaplain in November 2019 having been given all the gear and done the training and the meetings beforehand. You have a mentor and do the probationary period for 6 months to a year.”

What do you do as a Waterways Chaplain?

“Well that‘s hard to answer! Because I am probationary … and with Covid and lockdown – it’s almost as if I haven’t done it properly yet! 

What you’re meant to do is walk the tow path.  You can do as much or as little as you like and you don’t have to live on a boat. They have these guidelines that you do it for a mile a week … so then you just choose a stretch to walk regularly. 

And then we write a report once a month and we meet once a month. They have started to do a local group in the evenings. It has become a lot more flexible since the lockdown. And the training is on Zoom too which I find much easier!

So I walk on the Southern Oxford canal as no one else does South so I thought I would walk that. There are two other Chaplains on the Oxford who work further North. My plan (before lockdown) was to walk Oxford on one day a week. I focussed on the incidents I knew of to start with.”

“I hate gilets!”

Iona explains – “It’s not natural for me to wear a uniform. 

It’s hard as a live aboard to get a balance for it. If I lived on the land, I would be able to wear my gilet as I walked the tow path and it would be obvious. When you’re living onboard you have to be careful about boundaries. So if people don’t like the Waterways Chaplains, at what point ‘aren’t you one’? I have found these things quite difficult. 

When I am doing jobs on my boat then I tend to wear a Waterways Chaplain T Shirt and then people know that I am a Waterways Chaplain. At home I will wear it when I am walking. People have been very patient and kind when they have seen that I am a Waterways Chaplain.”

“Waterways Chaplains help build a bridge between boating communities and land communities

We have access to all sorts of resources.  For example we have RCR (River Canal Rescue) and people can access RCR through us, and there are small grants that might be available. 

There is no guarantee of money – its completely voluntary but there are quite a lot of resources to tap into. Mental health aspects can be challenging. Sometimes its nice to have someone to point you in the right direction.

The other thing we have been involved in is benefits. And its tough as ‘the system says no’ and there is “benefits for boaters” which is a Facebook page run by a boater who is great at helping with these issues. We have a good relationship with CRT (Canal and River Trust) so if they know that we are involved in helping to get someone back on their feet then they tend to work with you.

You don’t tend to fix stuff but act more like a bridge to the community. A lot of it is just communication. So the boater doesn’t have to keep telling CRT what is going on… they can contact us and ask if we are still involved. 

It’s really hard when you’re on the radar with CRT and I think its quite good to have someone out there who can keep an eye on things and make sure they don’t go adrift.

So thats what we are meant to do.”

How can boaters access the Waterways Chaplains?

“We have a website and people can refer to us. But unless people know we exist then they won’t refer us. Raising the profile is hard.

There is referral system so that if someone specifically wanted something then I could deal with it. And I made myself a Facebook page so that I can interact with local waterways things as the Waterways Chaplain and to try and make it a bit more organised. 

Its also important not to take on more than we can do. I am in full time work so I need to make sure that I am giving time that‘s appropriate and that people aren’t not getting the time they ought to just because I am too busy.”

“The Church is a wealth of resources and specialties

Waterways Chaplaincy is new even though it has been going for some years. They want to build it up. It represents the six mainstream denominations: Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Salvation Army and United Reformed and is part of ‘Workplace Matters’ where they try to provide support in the work place.

Chaplains will always respect privacy and treat any conversations they have in confidence... They support people of all faiths or none.

Excerpt from a Waterways Chaplaincy leaflet

I will be asking local churches to walk with me

The Church is quite central in communities and in different villages – if you are boating – you can go to the local Church and meet people and see people. It’s a wealth of resources where you can connect with others who a have specialties. 

As I am on my own walking the tow path, I would prefer to walk with someone else … because then if people don’t like me, at least they might like the other person! So I will be asking local Churches to walk with me. And some Churches have grants and clubs which might be accessible.

I am not sure how its going to work now that lockdown is lifting. I work with vulnerable people and I was also supporting some vulnerable people so I didn’t want to over expose myself and when you don’t know people and they don’t know you then it can be a bit awkward. 

I went to Wolvercote to meet a friend a couple of weeks ago and it was heaving! And I think its really stressful for people on boats who can’t get away – I don’t want to add to that.”

The motto of the Waterways Chaplains 

‘to act justly and to love mercy’  


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