Swinton Lock: Navigating the needs of the community

Moored against the soothing water’s edge of the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation canal, Swinton Lock Activity Centre has been at the helm of the local community since its inception in 2004, offering a range of unique services and projects to improve wellbeing.

But during the pandemic, the charity has been on a voyage of its own, navigating the changing needs of the community above and beyond what they ever expected.

At Swinton Lock, their nautical themed activities and programmes allow service users to slow down and unplug from the world on dry land, with the calming effects of the water proven to improve mental wellness. Creativity is also a key part of their offering, with the team working with local artists to provide resourceful and imaginative arts and crafts sessions to their service users.

While their main focus has always been on re-engaging secondary school children who have been excluded from education, in recent years they have worked to reintegrate people of all ages with a disability or social and economic disadvantage back into society. They work in partnership with Operation Stovewood and staff are also qualified to deliver the Freedom programme for those who have been or are involved in domestic abuse/cohersive control.

However, since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, the demand for the service has increased tenfold, with staff working around the clock to connect with the most vulnerable in society. Their programmes have combatted loneliness felt by the shielded community, provided routine and structure to children experiencing anxiety from not being at school, and given young carers respite from their responsibilities.

But Swinton Lock has also become what it never was before, with the team establishing a foodbank that has supported 75 families a week who have been hit by financial hardship during the pandemic.

Later this autumn, they will also be starting a traditional youth club after recognising there was very little youth provision in the area. Thanks to funding from the South Yorkshire Violence Reduction Unit, the youthie will give young people aged ten to 16 a place to go during the evenings instead of being on the streets, with pool tables, DJ decks and a good old fashioned tuck shop. But it will also provide practical and emotional support, with sessions about drugs, appropriate relationships, gangs, water safety and anti-social behaviour.

With immediate access to the waterways, Swinton Lock is Rotherham’s only accredited narrowboat training provider. The charity has two narrowboats, one of which has become a floating classroom where people can also train to be a competent crew member, boat handler or even a skipper. The courses cover everything about handling a 60ft narrowboat, from steering to mooring, knot tying, rescue drills, and how to manage the locks along the canal. All young people referred to Swinton Lock through the re-engagement programme are offered the opportunity to experience the boat including completing boat handling qualifications.

The charity also has plans to turn the second boat into residential accommodation to give families, looked after children and young people experiencing crisis a positive experience. While the boat is sturdy, it’s very old and tired and will cost around £20,000 to renovate. Plans include installing everything to make it homely, including a sleeping area, shower room, kitchen and dining space, as well as new windows and seating. It also needs to be accessible for people with disabilities and mobility limitations.

In the meantime, families can still enjoy a trip onboard their flagship fully accessible narrowboat which can be hired out from as little as £37 per hour for up to 12 people. Since lockdown restrictions have lifted, the charity has seen a surge in demand for boat trips as people look to reconnect with family and friends in a safe environment. This autumn, why not take a relaxing ride down the canal to Doncaster or Rotherham and experience the history, wildlife and interesting locks along the waterway. Everyone on board, whether aged two or 102, is given the chance to steer the boat and the trips have been a roaring success for children’s pirate parties.

As with any charity, Swinton Lock are heavily reliant on funding and grants to continue to operate. But they also couldn’t continue to provide their range of services and trips without the loyalty of their volunteers. In August alone, they relied on over 500 voluntary hours to enable their boat trips to go ahead, so it really is all hands on deck.

Swinton Lock are always on the look-out for new volunteers, particularly to help with manning the boats. You don’t need any formal qualifications or training as everything is provided, from first aid to safeguarding and boat handling qualifications.

For more information about Swinton Lock Activity Centre and the support they provide, or how to get involved, visit www.swintonlock.org or call the centre on 01709 578 778.