Volunteer Journal #75 (UK Edition) – Thames21

Sometimes the greatest thing about volunteering is the people you meet.

I worked with Thames21 in London, an organization dedicated to cleaning up the waterways in and around the British capital.  Specifically, I got to use a log carnival-like hook to pick plastic pieces out of Regent’s Canal (which is celebrating its 200th birthday!).

During the muddy fun I met Ben Fenton, Thames21’s Big Waterways Clean Up 2012 Coordinator. Because of his service to the country, Ben was also one of 8000 people picked from 64 million British citizens to carry the Olympic torch. A cool personal fact like that, combined with his high spirits in the muck while dragging up plastic bags, coke cans, toys, etc. meant that I had to interview him.

How did you get involved with Thames21?

5 years ago I gave up my job as a photographer and moved to London, I wanted to do something worthwhile and work outdoors. After several unsuccessful interviews at Thames21 they realized they couldn’t get rid of me and created a job for me.

I’m still here, and still enjoying it, I have coordinated a wide range of projects for Thames21 including creating a community garden with volunteers with mental health problems, developing an online map of waterway ‘treasures’, researching inclusive volunteering, engaging 16-25 years old volunteers and running the East London project.

You studied Environmental Science at university - Why get involved with the waterways rather than other environmental groups?

I have always been interested in water, I find it fascinating and relaxing. London lacks wild places, but I think the waterways are veins of wilderness and hugely important for Londoners. Many people don’t know they exist and I love taking them to these places for the first time. Additionally, we do a range of work, so I don’t get bored; one day I’m canoeing, and the next planting reed beds!


What's the most rewarding part of your job?

The most rewarding part of the job is definitely the people. Every event brings new faces, as well as the regulars who are a great bunch.

What's the strangest thing you've ever pulled out of the river?

We’ve pulled out all sorts: wedding rings, guns, messages in bottles, and thousands of mobile phones. I’m not sure of the strangest but my favorite find was an Anglo Saxon Spearhead from the 9th Century!

What's it like to be chosen to carry the Olympic torch?


What an honor! It was an amazing experience, and one I will never forget. I am very very honored to be nominated amongst such an amazing group of people.

Many congrats to Ben! Go to the Thames21 Facebook page to see the Olympic torch action.

Thames21 has regularly scheduled cleanups, so if you live in the London area I highly recommend spending a morning cleaning up with the crew.  I’ve volunteered with 75 different projects and this was the first time pedestrians stopped to say thank you to the volunteers as we cleaned.