Catching Up with the Cotswold Canal Trust
Updated: 4 days ago
Last October, Stroud District Council, in partnership with the Cotswold Canal Trust, announced that they had secured £8.9 million of National Lottery Heritage Funding to restore 4.5 miles of canal near Stroud. The completion of this project in 2024 will not only reconnect the waterways between Stroud and Stonehouse, but it will also reconnect both towns to the national inland waterway network. After 70 years of isolation from the country’s main canal & river network, the impact that this restoration will have on the local communities cannot be overstated. The opening of the waterways will, according to Jim White when he spoke to ITV last year, bring in “visitors, jobs, social health and well-being”; with an estimated £5.5 million more being pumped into the local community and a complete transformation of towpaths and green spaces that have been abandoned since the 1950’s.
This development is one significant step in forwarding the mission of Cotswold Canal Connected; an ambitious, nationally significant canal, archives, and biodiversity project.
This mission is the restoration of vital sections of derelict canal to reconnect Stroud Navigation with the UK's waterways; creating one of the UK's largest biodiversity corridors. The project will re-connect local communities in the Stroud Valleys, Stonehouse, Gloucester, and Severn Vale with one of England's most important industrial mill areas; and it will create significant social, economic, and cultural regeneration for all communities. The restoration of 6km of historic canal also paves the way for the only East-West national inland waterways connection in Southern England.
Following previous National Lottery Heritage Fund investment, this will catalyse regional economic regeneration, improve the well-being of thousands, engage new audiences, provide creative learning, and support vital recovery efforts in the wake of the pandemic. The canal partnership has overwhelming support from over a hundred collaborative partners and through an ambitious and creative activity plan. At its core, Cotswold Canal Connected is a heritage project primed to improve lives, change attitudes, and regenerate communities.
If you’re local to Stroud, or simply a news-savvy citizen of Gloucestershire, I suspect that none of this is news to you. What you probably don’t know, however, is that we at Dashing Bear were commissioned to create a promotional film that supported the Canal Partnership in their presentation to the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible for the Canal Partnership to meet with the Fund Assessors for their formal visit in July. As a result, the Partnership tendered for strong ideas from local filmmakers to help tell their incredible story. We rose to challenge, cracked out the strongest pitch, and were hired by the Canal Partnership to begin production on the film that would go on to support the Partnership in their effort to persuade the Fund Assessors to support the canal restoration.
The filming process was intense. We had to interview and film 49 people, including volunteers, project leaders and members of the public, along nine miles of the canal in just three days. And if this wasn't enough, the colossal amount of footage gathered then had to be fully edited, and the final product completed, in just shy of two weeks. With our signature efficiency and total focus on crafting a fine-tuned narrative, we were more than able to meet these challenges and produce a film that we are still incredibly proud of. And knowing that successfully crafting a powerful story would do even a little bit to help the Canal Partnership reinvigorate the local community was a huge motivator for us.
It's been almost six months since the National Lottery Heritage Foundation commited funding for the restoration, and even longer since we worked with them to produce the film that helped them secure it, so we decided to check up on the Cotswold Canal Trust and look back on our successful joint operation. I sat down with Aimee Louise-Malcolm, Fundraiser and Ambassador for the Cotswold Canal Trust, who was more than happy to share some of her reflections.
"The video certainly played a part", says Aimee, "but it wasn't the 'why' behind the success of the proposal. The people were behind its success". There was already, to paraphrase her words, a larger human story at play here. What made Dashing Bear, and Dave (our head of production) in particular, so helpful was our ability to come in on the tail end of their hard work and help them make this one crucial step in a much larger mission. "Dave has a knack for telling human stories", she continues, and his skill is that he can effectively "condense waffle into precision" and "put everyone at ease".
Aimee, quite justifiably, puts a great deal of emphasis on the sheer number of interlocking efforts and events that led to this acquisition of the fund's support; and she didn't hold back at drawing my attention to the bigger picture. The funding secured from the National Lottery Heritage Fund is matched by almost £6.2m of fundraised income from the local community and Cotswold Canal Trust members; alongside Public Sector Partners, Stroud District Council, Canal and River Trust, and Gloucestershire County Council investing public money and an army of volunteers giving over £3.3 million worth of their time. "This stage alone required 2 years of development", she says, and the sudden emergence of the pandemic could have undermined everything. The standard process, in which the Heritage Fund would visit the trustees and the project would be presented and discussed, was suddenly out of the question; and the general feeling amongst Aimee and her colleagues was that a Zoom meeting just wouldn't cut it.
The Canal Partners needed to find a way to get the fund to feel the energy, expertise, and commitment that was, and remains, central to the project; and they saw film as the best medium to do it. "We could have lost all of the momentum that had gone into the work so far" and not taking the risk of crafting a video would have "wasted all that energy". When it came down to picking the right production company, Aimee was careful to stress that the focus was not on a low budget; the Trust needed somebody who could best present the ideas behind the project and, from that, secure the required funding. We beat out the competition because, at the end of the day, Dave himself brought a well-researched approach. "Dave got to grips with the idea before he even met up with us...he knew the tone, and we could see that he wanted to work on the project and that we could trust him to deliver on it". As detailed above, the filming process was challenging and yet entirely rewarding. And the rest, as they say, is history.
But it's this history, too, that Aimee would like to flesh out a little; and her reflections on what has happened since give a great deal of perspective. One thing she challenged was the assumption, naively made by me and I suspect by many others, too, that the £8.9 million secured is sitting cozily in a Trust bank account. "There's always a lag between when a grant of this size is awarded and permission being given to start work"; legal factors and land permissions, for example, make the process slow, deliberate, and careful. And, remember, the Trust is a charity: so even when the money is released, it's the Stroud District Council that will control the budget and tie every penny of it to the project. "Our project is so complex and yet so brilliant", she says convincingly. "We're the conduit to fulfil the mission of the Heritage Fund" and, at bottom, "they're paying us to achieve their charitable objectives - to create spaces and places".
Aimee isn't letting herself get trapped in the Trust's success, though. "We still have to raise another £1.2 million for phase 1B the canal restoration", she says, but she also emphasises the greater impact of the restoration and the other efforts the Trust are undertaking. By revitalising the industrial heartland through the canal rejuvenation, "we are improving the ways in which people work, commute and live" and will ultimately pump an extra £1.37 million into the local economy. The Trust is likewise involved in fostering "inclusive and cohesive communities" through a positive promotion of youth activity. And, in partnership with the innovative engineers and the specialist team at Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, they are taking modern approaches to their missions that focus on "creating spaces that people can use and enjoy".
Looking forward, Aimee expects that the financing of the fund's rejuvenation will be completed later this year; but she doesn't at all see this as a bad thing. "Spending public funds is precious and must be done carefully", she says, and the steadiness of the process ensures that the money is used in the most transparent way possible. Her attention is currently drawn to the extensive volunteer work taking place, from the work at Blunder Lock to the May reopening of the Trust's charity book and music shop at Brinscombe Port, and the Trust are likewise thinking about the upcoming semi-centennial celebration of their foundation in 1972. "We're a lean organisation", Aimee says with pride, "volunteer-led with all ongoing costs paid by the membership". It's easy to see, in light of their lean-ness, how the trust has survived and succeeded for so long; and it's even easier to see that their success will continue long into the future.