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Episode 32: Waterways Chaplains

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Welcome to the Loved Called Gifted Podcast.  This is your place to come for musings about spirituality, identity, and purpose.

I’m your host, Catherine Cowell.



So for this episode of the Loved Called Gifted podcast I’m joined by Gill and John who are waterways chaplains. So thank you ever so much for having this conversation.

J: Thank you for inviting us, yes

C: You’re very welcome. So we met by chance yesterday, didn’t we? I was coming along the canal with a friend, from my hen do, of all things *laughs* and we got chatting because you were sitting by the side of your boat, which is called Faithful. It’s beautiful actually. And we got talking about what it is that you do. So do you want to explain a little bit about what a waterways chaplain is?

J: It’s a bit like Street Pastors, but with different clientele and much better working hours.

*both laugh*

C: I used to be involved in something called Nightchurch, I think that’s similar, we worked with Street Pastors and we would open up a space in the middle of the town centre and just see what conversations we had. So you’re saying it’s a little bit like that.

J: It’s a little bit like that

G: We want to bring Jesus onto the towpath and to people associated with the canals in any way possible but also with having a practical sense to help these people in any way possible because it can be very lonely on the canal system. Suddenly if something goes wrong or you’re trying to get yourself out of a mess, a lot of people don’t know where to turn.

C: Yep

G: Waterways chaplains is always there and always available and will make themselves available to any situation and help in any way possible.

C: So do you know how waterways chaplains got started in the first place?

J: If you go back far enough when the canals were working environments, the Salvation Army effectively operated a chaplaincy along the canals in most areas. If you look at canal boats with funnels, if you see 3 breastbands(?) with 2 red bands between them, that used to symbolise that Salvationists would be welcome.

C: Ohhh! How fascinating.

J: But in 19… I think possibly in the 60s, I can’t remember exactly when, they stopped, because the canals were dying and there wasn’t really any need for them. Then around 2000, somebody in the diocese of St. Alban’s thought there might be a need, so the bishop of St Alban’s sent some people to go and investigate, and the answer was, yes, there was need. So that is when it started. There are now something in the region of 120 of us, some have boats, most don’t. Most operate a fixed patch, some just wander around the network. We are now under the auspices of the Church Army. So effectively we are part of the Church of England in a sense, although the chaplains themselves are from pretty much every denomination.

C: So you need to be a Christian, and you need to be part of a church, and you need to be, as you say, wanting to bring Jesus to the towpath.

J: Yes

C: How would you define a chaplaincy? What is a chaplain?

J: Primarily it’s a caring role, a pastoral role. The spiritual aspect is secondary, our primary role is to make sure people are safe there both physically and mentally. Then spiritually.

C: So what is it, when you say you want to “bring Jesus to the towpaths”, what does that mean to you? What does it mean to have Jesus with you, and bringing that to people?

G: Well it’s actually just like he was, he came, he called the disciples, and then they went to the people. We’re there in a ministerial role as well as helping them in everyday situations, you might get somebody who has cancer, who needs help, can’t keep moving their boat. So to help them to get in touch with Canal & River Trust, to ask them can I keep my boat here. Which we have found Canal and River 

Trust are really good, and they will do that. To be in that role like a hospital chaplain or a railway chaplain, to be there in a practical, but they’re always there in a spiritual if needed.

C: It sounds like if someone wants a bit of help with almost anything, then you’re prepared to have a conversation about that.

J & G both: Yes

J: Often we may act as an advocate for a boater, between them and Canal & River Trust, although what we will tend to try to do is to encourage them to do it. So what we actually try to create is independence, to some extent, so that people can deal with the situation themselves. But almost anything, y’know. If someone was to contact us and say “we’re going through this flight of locks tomorrow, could you help?” If we were free, the answer would be yes. So we can help people through a flight of locks, we can help people with benefit claims, pretty much anything – I suppose so long as it’s legal!

*all laugh*

C: So what’s the most unusual thing you’ve done do you reckon? Or one of the most unusual things you’ve done?

J: The most unusual thing we did was we were travelling along a stretch of canal and we had 3 gentlemen. 2 middle aged gentlemen and one elderly gentleman. They flagged us down. It was actually a father and his two sons. One of the sons said “we’ve walked Dad too far and we need to get him back to our car, can you give him a lift?” So we put him on the front of the boat and he had a boatride for the rest of the day. The two sons decided they fancied walking the rest of the day, they were offered a lift as well.

G: I spent time talking to him and he was absolutely delightful. All his time in the past and how he’d worked, such an interesting career, and it was lovely talking to him. He really had a good day, I think!

C: It definitely sounds like it, yeah.


You talked about benefits claims and things, I’m wondering if people sometimes get stuck in being of no fixed abode and then struggling to make claims and that kind of thing.

J & G both: Yes

J: Yes, it’s getting better. There was a ruling by a high court judge which effectively stated that a boat is living accomodation, and the costs directly associated with the boat and where it is, constitute rent.

C: Right

J: So the licence fee constitutes rent. The mooring fee constitutes rent. So that ruling now means that people can claim those costs as housing benefit or housing benefit elements of Universal Credit.

C: Poverty is not something – I’m thinking about waterways – it’s not something that would immediately come to mind as being something that people struggle with, but it sounds like what you’re saying is that that is an issue for people. 

J: There are estimated to be 15,000 boats that are people’s homes.

C: Right

J: And people take that option for multiple reasons. Either “I’m so well off I can afford a boat and I’m just going to do it”, “I can’t afford anything except a boat and I’m going to do it”. So you actually get the extreme. The reasons people go onto boats, sometimes, is to get away from problems and issues. They think it’s going to be problem-free. It’s not problem-free, it’s just that the problems are different. People on them can be very very poor, and can struggle. There used to be a problem with getting appointments with doctors if you lived on a boat. That now, I believe, has been dealt with completely, because it’s actually illegal not to see the boater on those grounds.


Quite a lot of people just can’t access something because they don’t know. So often we just point people in the right direction to say “you need to talk to these people, you need to look at this website.” Often that will actually help them to solve their problems. Also one of the other things I’ve found with one chap in particular, his problems were so many, he just couldn’t see a way through. It was just a simple case of saying “let’s forget all the others, let’s deal with this one.” His boat had no safety certificate. Because it had no safety certificate, it couldn’t have insurance, because he hadn’t got either of those he couldn’t have a licence to be on the waterway, so Canal & River Trust were starting legal proceedings. So the first thing was for us and him to contact Canal and River Trust to say that the chaplaincy was involved, and we thought we could solve it. We sorted out his boat safety certificate, we actually found some funding for that, normally we can’t find that kind of money but we managed, so now he could insure his boat. He had been out of work and he was now working so he felt he could do this. And then he spoke to CRT about how to repay his outstanding licence fees. But it was just a case of getting everything in order so he could deal with one problem at once. I’m still in contact with him. Every couple of months, I’ll send him a text to find out how he’s doing, and this goes back, what, a year, year and a half, or more. More than a year and a half now, probably getting on for 2 years ago. Every couple of months I’ll send him a text to see how he’s doing, and he’s fine, he’s pretty much sorted.

C: It really makes me think that – you talked earlier about the waterways sometimes being a lonely place, and sometimes when you’re all by yourself with a whole pile of problems and you haven’t got easy access to a community of people or friends that will come alongside you, to help you, actually what you’re bringing then is that mobile community, somebody to walk with them

J: Yes, yes

C: I suppose in the way that Jesus walks with us.

G: But there is a lot of communities done on apps now. I’m part of a boaters women. So people, if you actually can say to them, “are you part of this app?” and they’ll say “ah, no” “well try and join that if you want to”

J: You’re talking about Women on The Cut(?) aren’t you, which is a very helpful one for women who are boating.

G: There’s a community there that look after each other. Because the canal and boaters community is wonderful and they do look after each other. They care for each other.

J: And the community is strung out over 2000 mats(?) That’s part of the problem, and it’s a transient community, so Boater A and Boater B will meet, and they’ll get on really well, and then not see each other for 2 or 3 years.

C: It sounds like sometimes you’ve come across people who’ve either been a bit isolated, or they’re very new to the area so they haven’t found their way in, so you can help them to find their way through.

G: Yes

J: Or I think worst case scenarios, life goes pear shaped, you get a couple who sell their house, buy a boat, and life’s wonderful, and then one of them dies or gets seriously ill. And suddenly their entire world is turned completely upside down, and then what to do, and how to deal with the problems?

G: There are a lot of times where people who are in a situation find out that their partner’s got cancer, or needs an operation, or they themselves need a serious operation, and on that spiritual side, it’s good to be able to hold a hand, pray for them, and I very rarely find anybody that says no. To keep in touch and to say “how are you doing, we’re praying for you”, people are very happy for you to do that, knowing that you’re a chaplain.

C: Yes, that gives you an opening.

G: Yes, yes it does.

C: I used to find that with Nightchurch actually, the fact that we were called Nighchurch meant that people were happy to have conversations about spirituality and about where we were at, that they probably wouldn’t have had if I had just been anybody. It does, it kind of opens a door sometimes doesn’t it?

G: Yes. Being a chaplain does open doors, especially with Canal & River Trust, they trust us. They know we are there for the boater, we’ll do as much as we can to help, as well as look after them. We are very happy to pray and spend time with them. And the homeless on the towpath. There’s quite a lot sometimes. We used to know a gentleman who just had a tent. He lived in a tent.

J: He had this tent, by the side of the canal. I’m convinced Canal & River Trust were turning a blind eye because he kept the place neat and tidy and he wasn’t a problem.

G: And he loved talking to us. If we went past on the boat he’d be waving at us. He knew who we were and what we stood for.

J: The only help he ever took was your homemade cakes!

G: Yes

*all laugh*

C; I can vouch for the fact that your homemade cakes are very, very good!


So tell us about how you ended up getting started with this in the first place? Let’s go back a bit further – how long have you both been Christians?

G: Oh, a long time. When I was 23, and I’m 67 now

C: Ok, for a little while, yeah.

J: And me a year later. So we’re going back to the 80s. So yes, a long time.

C: Were you together at that point?

J: Yes, yes

C: Ohh, ok.

J: We’ve been married for 48 –

G: I think we’d had our first child and we were about to have our second one

J: No, we had two

*all laugh*

C: You had some children!

G: Yes!

*all laugh*

J: We’ve got 4 now. So we’d been Christians a long time –

C: I’m interested in this story. How old were you when you got married, am I allowed to ask you that?

G: I was 19

J: And I was 24

C: Oh goodness! You were properly young.

G: Yes, we were.

C: How did you meet?

G: We were both nurses. We had a bizarre meeting.

J: We met in a mental hospital

G: We were working

C: So you were psychiatric nurses?

G: No, general nurses, but we were doing our psychiatric training.

J: I was doing a 3 month secondment to psychiatry. And Gill was a nursing cadet at that time.

G: I was doing some dancing, mirror dancing, with the patients. John just said to his friend, “she’s not bad looking –

J: for a patient

G: – for a patient”. Because I didn’t have a uniform on because I was doing this dancing. And that’s how we met!

J: We’ve moved around the country a little bit. At that point in time we were living in Wakefield, we stayed in Wakefield until ‘77, and then moved on to Lancashire, and lived there for…

G: 23 years

J: 23 years. Then we moved down near Stratford upon Avon in 2003. Those moves were work related, I left nursing while we were still living in Wakefield and I went into IT. I’ve worked in IT for virtually my entire working life. I was brought up in a little parish church in a mining village in south Yourkshire, went to Sunday school, etc, but had not real faith as such. I knew it all, but I didn’t know it all.

C: You’re pointing at your head, so you’re saying you had an understanding, but you didn’t know it –

J: In my heart, yeah

C: In your heart.

J: My, what-d’y’-call-it? My surrender. Which is why it was a year after Gill. It was just that, it was, “ok, I’ll invite him in”.

C: So what had happened to you? Did you come from a church-y background?

G: Not really. My grand-mum, she was a Methodist, I do believe she was a Christian and my recollection of her was rocking in her chair with me and singing hymns, which I thoroughly loved. I didn’t really go to church. A friend was going to a church supper, which I thought was very sad.

C: *laughs*

G: That she was going to a church supper!

C: Thinking that she ought to have had more fun things to do with her life?

G: Yes

C: So did you go along out of sympathy, by any chance?!

G: No, I babysat for her to go to this church supper, and she got talking to me. I was lonely at the time because I’d moved from my family so we were living in an area that I didn’t know anybody, now to make friends, she brought herr friend and we just had coffee and she just gave me a leaflet. Which was Selwyn Hulmes, people our age will know Selwyn Hulmes. I just shoved it up my sleeve, actually. Got home, John went out and I suddenly remembered this leaflet. So I read the leaflet, I thought “I don’t disagree with that, I don’t disagree that this Jesus died, I don’t disagree that He rose again, not quite sure about this Holy Spirit bit…” It said “say this prayer” so I got on my knees, that’s what you do, I put my hands together and I said this prayer, and suddenly, I knew Jesus had walked in the room. Don’t ask me how I knew that, but I did.

C: Wow, that’s a real kind of encounter.

G: So I had an encounter not in the church but outside the church. But of course, John took a bit longer.

C: So what was your moment?

J: It wasn’t a moment. Somehow I’d got invited to a full gospel businessmen’s international dinner. That’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it?

C: Yes. I’ve seen the advertising for that. I’ve not been, not being a full gospel man, but I have, yes.

J: So I said to Gill I’d go, I’d come with you, but there’d better not be any of this ‘Alleluia, praise the Lord’ stuff. And guess what the first words said at that meeting were?

G: Alleluia, praise the Lord! And I’m thinking “no…”

J: The guy who spoke at that dinner really spoke to me. For want of a better description, it was very difficult to leave there unsaved. But that was the turning point where I was really really arguing with God about this. Now actually, to argue with God if you’re not sure God exists, is a bit futile really.

C: You’ve sort of already given in, almost.

J: the moment you’re talking to God about it, you’re trying to negotiate a settlement that is reasonable, that you can cope with. In the end I gave up and decided there was never going to be a settlement I could cope with. That I was just going to have to give in. 

G: I knew. I said “something’s happened to you. Have you given your life to Jesus?” I wanted to open all the windows and scream out “Hallelujah”. He said “yes, but don’t say anything”!

*all laugh*

G: He has this wonderful extrovert wife who’s spent a really long time –

C: “I’m going to tell the world!”

G: “Tell the world, you know!”

C: How did you know what had changed?

G: Well he had changed. He wasn’t arguing about me saying anything. His mannerisms had become more gentle. I’m thinking “wow, what’s happening here?” I just knew. It’s like there was a shine about him that I hadn’t seen before, and he just had changed. Which is what happened with me, I suppose. In that respect, he knew I changed. He knew I didn’t know anything about the bible or anything like that. And suddenly I was starting to read the bible and understand things. He thought “it’ll be a phase, she’ll give up”. Well, I’m still here.

*all laugh*

J: I did actually think it was just a phase she was going through. “She’ll be alright in 6 months or so”. We’re now…a few years on.

C: So what difference would you say being Christians, having had that encounter with God, what difference has that made in your lives?

G: I think we became a family. We became a really close family. God gave John a word – as for us and our household, we will always follow the Lord. And my 4 children all follow the Lord. One’s a missionary, one’s a children’s worker.

J: In a church

G: In a church. One plays the drums

J: In church

G: In church. And one’s great with the youth. They’ve all got children of their own, and their wives are all Christians. So in that respect I really believe God called us to be disciples, which coming back to chaplaincy, we’re still disciples. But as retired, we are now available much more to be able to do what God called us to do.


C: So how has your understanding of God changed over the years? What might you say now that you might not have said 20-30 years ago.

G: I’d say I’ve got a bit more wisdom! *C & G laugh*

J: I’d say I think God is more forgiving than I thought He was. Much more. And I’m just glad I’m not God! Coz that would be really sad for everybody.

G: I think understanding God’s love and grace over the years, has taken a long time. I think I started out where God was the God of the old testament

C: So rules and smiting?

G: Yes, and behave yourself, and I think I learned the 3 Bs, what we’d call the 3 Bs.

C: Which is?

J: Believe, Behave and Belong.

G: Yes

C: But the other way around

J: Yes, churches often get these the wrong way around. Because we expect people to behave before they believe, before we let them belong. In actual fact we actually need to take it the other way around and let them belong.

C: So God’s already invited them to belong.

J & G: Yes

J: And then maybe they’ll believe, and once they believe, eventually they may behave.

G: But that’s up to God to speak to them, and we’re not here to judge.

C: So there might be a change in the way that somebody chooses to live their life, but that’s not where it starts? So what you’re saying is that over the years, your understanding of God’s including and loving of people very much for you now comes first, whereas a number of years ago the ‘you need to do the right thing’ might have come first.

J: yes, to some extent. I wouldn’t be quite as rigid as some of the people who we knew in our first church. Old style brethren.

C: So when you say “to some extent”, you’re saying you’d already got some of that understanding?

J: *sighs*

G: Well I certainly did

J: Well I never felt anybody was irredeemable.

C: So you have shifted, but you’re saying you weren’t as far into the legalistic view of God as wanting to organise everybody’s behaviour

J: But I’m now much more…

C: So it’s been a growth of an understanding that you already have the kernel of?

J & G: yeah, yeah

J: I think so, yeah

G: I think you do grow in wisdom when you get older. I think what was black and white for me, I was a very black and white Christian when I first gave my life to Jesus. I would say there are grey areas which I can understand more and can accept more now. And would love anybody.

C: It’s really interesting because actually all that you’ve described when you’ve talked about meeting people on the waterways, you haven’t talked about what anybody believes about anything, you haven’t talked about how they live their lives, what you have talked about is coming alongside people who are in need or who need a bit of company, and simply being there, unconditionally.

J: Yes, yeah

C: It sounds like what you’re saying is that you’re extending that welcome that Jesus has for everybody.

G: Yes

C: It almost sounds like, well, it does sound like, that everybody you encounter on the waterways, belongs. Yesterday me and my friend only had to walk past your boat to be on your patch.

G: *laughs* Yes you did. We told you. It was lovely to find out that you’re getting married.

C: Yeah, that was delightful.

J: We have a very, very fluid parish. We’re not here to judge people’s lifestyles or morals or anything. We’re here to come alongside people. I had a wonderful conversation with a gentleman in Stratford base many years ago where I said “hello, I’m a waterways chaplain, how are you doing?” He said “I’m an atheist!” I said “oh, good” and then we continued to chat for –

G: an hour and a half!

J: And I left him and I gave him a leaflet, one of our leaflets, and said “you may be interested in this, if only to give to another boater who needs our help”. At which point he took it. And I have always used that approach with people who are a little bit anti initially, it’s “this leaflet isn’t for you, it’s for you to give to another boater who needs help”. Because they’re not taking it because they need help, they are taking it so they can help somebody else.

C: And you are not implying that they are in need of help.

J: Correct.

G: But we do have some lovely bibles

J: Good News For Everyone

G: Good News For Everyone

J: Which used to be the Gideons

C: Oh, I didn’t know about that

J: I’ll get one later, you can take one away with you

G: And we’d like you to have it for your wedding

C: Ohh, thank you, that’s really kind!

G: We also have a prayer that we give out that was written by a boater

J: It’s a little fridge magnet

G: My vision is that every boater has one. That’s what I want to see, that’s my vision as being a chaplain is that every boater could have one of these prayers on my boat. It’s lovely, I find most people – in fact, I’ve never had somebody not take one either. Because it’s specifically for the boaters. It’s a boaters prayer. Yes, we do big ones, y’know.

C: So as I become elderly you can give me a large print!

G: There are some very elderly people on the canal. You just chat to people on boats, you’re at locks. The men chat if you’re in a double lock, they’re usually driving. There are some really good women drivers who like driving, but mainly the women like opening the locks and they will chat away. This lady, they were doing the locks coming down Stratford actually, and this lady could hardly see, she was waiting for an operation and she could hardly see, I just suddenly thought, “this poor lady and her husband”, he was jumping off the boat running to the next lock, sorting it out, jumping back on the boat, the boat was getting further to the point I had to jump on the boat and reverse it, it was getting further into the other side of the canal. In the end I turned back and I went up and did the locks for them, to which my family was wondering where on earth I’d got to coz I’d disappeared!

C: So you’ve given me a copy of this lovely prayer, and it’s your prayer that all boats should have a copy of this?

G: Yes

C: So I’m wondering, Gill, do you want to finish off for us by reading your prayer for people on their boats?

G: Ok.

Heavenly Father, your Son Jesus Christ stilled the storm, bringing peace and safety to those in the boat. We ask that this boat may be a place of safety and peace, and that by Your Spirit, we may bring your peace to others. Amen.

C: Thank you very much



Hope you enjoyed this episode of the Loved Called Gifted podcast. If you’d like to get in touch, you can email You can find a transcript of this podcast at and that’s also the place to go if you’re interested in the Loved Called Gifted course or if you’d like to find out about spiritual direction or coaching.

Thank you for listening.


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