THE DIARY: Star columnist Colin Drury looks at an under-used Sheffield resource

Helen Horby at part of the Northbank that is being cleaned up near the Wicker.
Helen Horby at part of the Northbank that is being cleaned up near the Wicker.
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We need to keep our waterways in the Loop

WHAT most surprised Hellen Hornby was how many people didn’t even know the river was there.

“We’d go into community groups and ask people if they’d ever thought of spending time by the water and we’d get blank looks,” she says. “Some would ask where the water was and we’d have to tell them: it’s just down the road.”

She scans the River Don a moment.

“But maybe that’s understandable. When you’re raising families and working hard, that takes priority. Life can become functional.”

It was against such a background that, two years ago this month, the Blue Loop project was founded.

The idea was simple: to introduce some of Sheffield’s most deprived urban communities in Burngreave, Attercliffe, Darnall and Tinsley to the natural beauty of the eight-mile circle of walkable waterways running right through their neighbourhoods.

The £100,000 scheme aimed to encourage more people to use this natural resource formed by the River Don and Tinsley Canal meeting firstly in the city centre and then again at Tinsley Locks.

And to say it has been a success is a bit like saying the Don is slightly damp.

In those two years some 15,000 people have either volunteered to do maintenance work, attended educational sessions or been involved with events such as 2010’s On The Waterfront festival.

Fifteen local schools now take regular classes on the banks while 106 young people have received waterway-based training resulting in 32 accredited qualifications.

And, most importantly perhaps, the anecdotal evidence suggests more people from those communities are now spending time on the waterways outside of organised events.

“I think they’ve learned to love it,” notes Hellen, who runs the project on behalf of Sheffield’s River Stewardship Company, based in West Street, city centre.

Now as the scheme’s initial two-year funding from Natural England comes to a close, several other grant bodies – including the National Lottery – have contributed to keep it running.

There’s just one condition: the scheme has been such a success, it will now be widened to include other rivers and other communities.

“When you think about what we’ve achieved on a relatively small budget, it’s great we’re being enabled to carry on,” says Hellen, 35, of Nether Edge. “This loop of waterway is just such an amazing natural resource and wildlife habitat, and it feels great that people who live nearby are now making the most of it.

“You know, people often say they love Sheffield because it’s so easy to get to the Peak District but that’s not the case for everyone. Not everyone can get out there because of time or financial constraints. But they can enjoy this little haven. And it’s good for them. It’s healthy.

“I remember one lad – he was only 15 or 16 – he was so stressed out all the time, worried about getting a job. We took him down to the river and I saw him transform. He chilled out. He became a calmer person. It can have that effect on people. I don’t think I saw him again but I like to think he got that job. I like to think he still comes down here.”

n Find out more at www.theblueloop.org