It was the biggest challenge of our Big Spring Clean campaign yet – clearing up litter from the entire 18-mile length of the Newry Canal, all at the same time.
But the volunteers who tackled the job were more than equal to it. Under the co-ordination of the Inland Waterways of Ireland (IWAI) Newry and Portadown branch, some 125 people rolled up their sleeves and gave the canal a good clean-up last weekend.
Secretary Geraldine Foley said the 18-mile waterway was divided up into eight sections and a number of groups took responsibility for a particular stretch – everyone from the Scouts and McDonalds to Asda and girls from a GAA club.
"It averaged out at about 12 people along each section. We advertised it with posters along the towpath," she said.
"The canal attracts 200,000 visitors a year and is the second most used long-distance path in Northern Ireland after the Causeway coastal walk."
The canal dates back to 1741 and was the first to be built in the UK and Ireland. It runs from the Point of Whitecoat, just south of Portadown, to Victoria Locks at the sea south of Newry.
The waterway meanders through the Armagh, Banbridge, Craigavon, and Newry and Mourne council areas on its journey from Lough Neagh to the sea at Carlingford Lough. The canal's towpath was used by the horses that pulled the canal boats, known as lighters. While the line of the canal remains intact, the waterway is now derelict, but IWAI are hoping it can be restored to navigation.
IWAI volunteers carry out work along the canal through the winter, cutting back vegetation and preserving the stonework.
By the end of the weekend clean-up, volunteers had gathered 100 bags of rubbish, several bikes and traffic cones – and even a dead sheep that had washed into the waterway during floods. Meanwhile, 115 car tyres have been retrieved from the canal in the past month. IWAI work parties always feature a communal navvies lunch, which was replicated on the Big Towpath Tidy.
"I've been overwhelmed by the response we've had, not only from volunteers wanting to litter pick but also from businesses and local government agencies that I've approached for support," Geraldine said.
"We decided to try having a simultaneous Big Lunch for volunteers at the end of each stage to celebrate our efforts and to chat with other volunteers in that spirit of neighbourhood and community fostered by the Eden Project's Big Lunch campaign.
"The restoration of the towpath has been a phenomenal success over the last decade and it's now time the next step was taken – bringing boating life back to the canal."
The clean-up was part of our Big Spring Clean campaign, a joint drive with Tidy Northern Ireland and DoE Rethink Waste to galvanise 50,000 people across Northern Ireland to clean up their local area this spring.
how to join in
Joining in the Big Spring Clean is easy. All you need to do is register an event or join an existing event online at www.bigspringcleanni.org, order your free clean-up kit and get stuck in. Don't forget to tell us how successful your event was afterwards. Your local council will help by supplying additional kit and will collect the rubbish gathered. For more information, check out the website, email firstname.lastname@example.org or Tidy NI directly on 028 9073 6920.