550 navvies and one JCB

A dirty weekend for pounds 6!" cried Judith Moore, the organiser, with a merry laugh. "That's got to be a deal!"

More than 550 men and women evidently agreed - for there they were, swarming like plastic-helmeted ants in the dry bed of the Thames & Severn Canal, cutting scrub, dragging brushwood, building huge fires, hacking out roots, covered in dirt and smuts, but all in high good humour.

This was Dig 95, the 25th anniversary of the Waterway Recovery Group, last weekend, when "navvies", as they call themselves, gathered from far and wide for a birthday celebration, and to boost the efforts of the Cotswold Canal Trust, a local body dedicated to the restoration of the waterways between the Severn and the Thames.

Such is the call of the canals that one man had come down from Glasgow, and another, Major David Cousins of the Royal Logistic Corps, had driven all the way from his base in Germany just to work. "I've been a navvy for 18 years," he said, "and I just had to come for the 25th."

For the rest, it was a cheap outing, since each person paid only pounds 6 for two days' food and two nights' accommodation at RAF Kemble, a deserted airfield nearby. Living conditions were spartan - people slept on the floors of office blocks - but they ate like kings in one of the empty hangars, mountains of food being provided by two volunteer cooks, Josie Fisher and Maureen Amos, leading a team of 40 volunteer caterers.

"They're the most important people in the whole show," said Judith Moore (in everyday life a project manager for IBM). "If the navvies weren't fed properly, there'd be a riot." So the cooks were up at 5am, and a full- scale breakfast beginning at 7am was signalled by reveille beaten out on saucepans. On Saturday evening, after seven or eight hours in the field, the workers returned for showers, supper, a theatre show and a ceilidh, fuelled by good Gloucestershire ale from the village brewery in Uley.

The result of all this enthusiasm and organisation was that, for an outlay of perhaps pounds 3,000, more than pounds 300,000 worth of restoration work was completed. It seems ironic that, just as the canals were dug by hand in the 18th century, so now most of the labour is again manual. To be sure a JCB, loaned with a driver by local firm Bison Plant, was excavating two feet of silt from the bed of the waterway, and restoring the canal's original profile along a specimen stretch, but for the rest, it was man- and woman- power that counted.

Few sights are sadder than that of a derelict canal. With lock gates broken, the water drains away, bushes and trees invade, litter is dumped. Parts of the Thames & Severn had not been touched for 50 years, so the first aim of the weekend was to remove scrub from three miles of towpath and from some stretches of the bed.

Much specialist work was also in progress: the 20ft-high brick wall of Willmoorway Lock was being rebuilt, as was the elegantly arched bridge at the lock's eastern end. Amateurs were not let loose on skilled jobs - but as a professional brickie gave the lock wall a new face, brute force was being applied to heave out the roots of an apple tree which had burst the coping stones on top of the wall. A scatter of dark-red apples on the mud in the bottom of the lock epitomised the decay into which the whole system had fallen.

It will be years yet before any boat can ply the 35 miles from the Severn to the Thames. Many difficult obstacles remain, not least main roads, which need modern bridges (and large financial grants from benevolent authorities). There is also a collapse in the roof of the tunnel at Sapperton, the highest point in the run.

Yet the volunteers are far from daunted. They point to substantial achievements already under their belt - three locks fully operational again, 14 substantially restored, long stretches cleared of weed, scrub and rubbish, a new lifting bridge built - and they are confident that it will once again become possible to navigate from river to river within their lifetime.