Week-long freeze ahead! Canal charity reminds people of towpath safety


With forecasts of a week-long freeze for the North of England and seasonal festivities beginning for many, the UK’s largest waterways charity, Canal & River Trust, reminds people of ways to keep safe along its 2,000-mile network of canals and rivers this winter.

Narrowboat in snow. Photo NBTA
Photo: NBTA

The nation’s waterways are beautiful places to spend time, especially when it’s frosty and snowy. While canals and rivers look great on Instagram – the risk of slipping, tripping or falling into the cold water can increase during winter.  Towpaths are wet and icy; snowfall can conceal objects like boat mooring rings and ropes, which can be tripped over; people are easily distracted while using their mobile phones or are tipsy from festive celebrations.

Anne Gardner-Aston, director of health and safety at the Canal & River Trust, said:

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“Canals and rivers look beautiful in the frost and snow, and it’s no wonder people want to head to the towpath for a mood-boosting wintery walk or to grab that perfect festive shot for socials.  But with cold temperatures and shorter daylight hours, it’s important to remember to take care when walking, running or cycling by water.

“When it’s freezing, it’s too easy to slip on ice or wet ground and fall in.  Even if you’re a regular towpath visitor and know the area well, you could end up in cold water with one wrong step. So, our message is to take care near the water’s edge, especially festive drinkers celebrating in waterside bars and pubs. Go with someone or tell someone where you are going.

“While frozen canals look beautiful, no one should ever attempt to walk on or test the thickness of the ice.  Dog walkers are advised to keep dogs on leads during a freeze in case they run onto ice and to never follow their pet onto a frozen canal.”

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Top safety tips if you fall into the water this winter:

  • The shock of falling into cold water will cause you to gasp.  Float on your back while you get your breathing under control. Use your hands to help you if you need to, and it’s okay if your legs sink a bit. Then, call for help.
  • If you can’t stand up, float on your back until help arrives.

Top safety tips if you find someone in the water this winter:

  • Stay on the towpath – DO NOT enter the water to help them.
  • Call the emergency services straight away.
  • Tell the person to float on their back.  It will help them control their breathing while the cold shock passes.
  • Once their breathing has calmed, shout to them to swim to you if they can.
  • Lie with your whole body on the towpath, try to reach them with a scarf or a long stick.
  • If they can’t swim to you, tell them to keep floating and try to find something to help them stay afloat, like a football or an empty bottle.

For more information on how floating can save your life when you are in difficulty in the water, visit the RNLI’s #FloatToLive campaign – https://rnli.org/safety/float

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Families should keep young children within sight and explain the importance of avoiding the edge. The Trust offers free water safety assemblies to primary schools in person or online.  To book an assembly or for more information about teaching children how to stay safe near water, go to https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/explorers/water-safety

Find out more about staying safe near the water, visit: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/safety-on-our-waterways/winter-water-safety

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