The Canoe River Cleaner – Up the Grimsby Creek, With a Paddle

23
October 2023
23
October 2023

John Ashbrook

I'm a Senior Writer. I put words together to create sentences. Hey, I'm doing it now! If it needs words, the call goes out: "This is a job for John!" My red phone rings, I slide down my pole, switch my laptop batteries to 'power' and my turbines to 'speed' then I begin typing. What am I going to type this time, I wonder? Let's see ...

James Elliott calls himself “The Canoe River Cleaner” – which is a fairly self-explanatory description of what he does – he paddles down the river Freshney in Grimsby, fishing out the rubbish that everyday folks leave behind. But that doesn’t sufficiently communicate the impression he has made, locally.

CMA_James-Elliott-the-canoe-river-cleaner



His example has become a focal point of civic pride, bringing others out, armed with litter-pickers and bin-liners, to keep the river clutter-free for pretty much its entire length, until it empties into the basin at The Riverhead. Jim is encouraging and empowering locals to care about their river in an unprecedented way.

As I’ve gotten to know Jim, I’ve learned that he’s at his happiest when he’s outside, surrounded by nature, sharing it with others. He sees a lot to be proud of in Grimsby. For him, our little town is a biodiverse habitat for wildlife which is, let’s be honest, not how most of us perceive Grimsby. However, when he began paddling and picking litter, he soon learned that he is not alone in seeing the beauty and the value in our long-disregarded river.

Importantly, Jim is no tree-hugging luddite – he has a very skilful social media presence, which he’s used to gather an elite corps of brave souls around him, who have taken stewardship of the river. He’s a great networker, too, which has led to some pretty high-profile coverage of his story, including on the BBC.

But, of course, merely appearing on The One Show pales by comparison by getting profiled by CMA.

It’s worth mentioning that Jim doesn’t see himself as an entrepreneur, and certainly has little desire to be ‘inspiring’, but he is both those things. He cannily uses the profile he has built to achieve the only goal which really matters to him: protecting Grimsby’s rivers.

Table of contents:

Meeting Mr Blue Sky

Jim invited me into his office – the canoe – and we had a good long chat about what he does, why he does it and how he goes about it. But first, a little back-story:

How I first met The Canoe River Cleaner…

Where I live, I’m a couple of streets away from the Duke of York Gardens – or ‘The Boulevard’ as it’s better known. Back in 2020, I was working from home during the pandemic lockdown, as many of us were, and I’d take a walk in The Boulevard at lunchtime. The park is on the banks of the river Freshney, and it was very quiet back then, with no-one around. So, I’d stand on one of the bridges, enjoying the silence and watching the little dramas playing out between the ducks and the swans.

Then, one day, a fella paddled past in a canoe. That was unusual in itself, but what was remarkable was that his canoe was overflowing with the rubbish he’d pulled out of the river. I didn’t speak to him – I am English, after all – but I did think that was an extraordinary thing to see in what was feeling increasingly like a post-apocalyptic world.

A few days later, the same thing happened again; Jim paddled past with his canoe piled high with the plastic bottles and pram wheels he’d fished out of what was now a noticeably less-murky river. This time I threw caution to the wind and nodded at him. I got a cheery “Afternoon” back.

The next time I saw him, he was actually on foot, walking along the river banks with a bag of trash and a long-armed litter-picker, surgically removing crisp packets and drinks cans from the undergrowth. Now I was actually at eye-level with him, I felt emboldened enough to engage in conversation.

“Nature doesn’t want anything from us,
just to be left alone.”

James Elliott – The Canoe River Cleaner

We talked about how much cleaner the river was these days, talked about the local family of swans who had recently hatched a clutch of fluffy new cygnets. Then, we started talking about The Electric Light Orchestra because, it turns out, we have similar taste in music.

Jim also talked about the problem of people feeding white bread to the ducks (more on that in a bit) and how simply telling kids not to throw their rubbish in the river (and, let’s be honest, it isn’t just kids) doesn’t work because it can make people resentful and, if anything, more likely to throw litter.

So, instead, Jim was using the much more zen approach of maintaining a reasonably cheery demeanour while leading by example. He didn’t tut about the litter, or moan about it, he just picked it up. He still does.

And, back then in 2020, it was already beginning to work.

Historically, that river – particularly where it runs through the West Marsh – has been something of a slow-moving landfill. People tossed their rubbish in there because, well, what’s one more plastic bottle among thousands? But now, because Jim is working the river regularly (“giving it a tickle” as he says), it is staying clean and, therefore, people are thinking twice about tossing their rubbish in there.

With that single bank-side conversation, I realised that Jim wasn’t just picking up litter out of a sense of civic pride (which he certainly has) or obsessive compulsiveness (probably a bit of that, too). No, he’s doing it because his real interest is the biodiversity of the river and the environment around it.

As Jim says: “Nature doesn’t want anything from us, just to be left alone.” So, he spends his time making as little impact on nature as possible, whilst patiently persuading the rest of us to do the same.

That’s some real blue-sky thinking there, which betrays a keen understanding of human psychology. A lot of Jim’s success comes from knowing how to speak to people on different levels and knowing how to approach them to yield a more positive reaction. As he puts it: “The river doesn’t look as nice as it does because I’ve just run around shouting at everyone”.

It’s all about winning hearts and minds. Jim understands that the river isn’t as important to everyone as it is for him, but with a steady stream (!) of positive messages and good PR, he can make everyone understand the river’s environmental value, and that may make them hesitate, think twice, and take their rubbish home with them. “I’m not turning everyone into Greta Thunberg,” Jim observes, wryly, “I’m just trying to shed a positive light”.

Yes, the river looks better when it isn’t full of floating debris, but – more importantly to Jim – removing the litter takes away the hazards that might kill the animals or endanger the plant life. Picking the litter is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Sometimes, local anglers will bemoan the fact that the river has otters in it – I’ve personally heard the complaint: “They eat all the fish”. Really? All the fish? How big are these otters, exactly?

Jim, on the other hand, will point out that the presence of otters is proof that the river is a healthy and thriving habitat that is able to support a wide variety of wildlife because, if it wasn’t, an apex predator like the otters wouldn’t be there.

Nor, for that matter, would many of the fish the anglers come for.

Launching The Canoe River Cleaner

It all began during lockdown. Jim was on furlough, forced into idleness, and he’s not the kind of person who copes well with being bored. So, he bought himself a canoe. Y’know, as you do.

This allowed him to reintroduce himself to nature, which he’d really been missing since his childhood days exploring the countryside around the Wybers estate, where he grew up.

Then on Boxing Day, 2020, after Jim had enjoyed his Christmas (possibly a bit too much) he felt the need for some fresh air to clear his head.

Additionally, there had been various reports in the local news that the river was so choked with rubbish and weed that the rats could walk across without getting their feet wet.

On this fateful Boxing Day, Jim decided he’d had enough. “That’s one of the things that annoys me most,” he admits, “People moaning about the litter, moaning about the mess, but not doing anything about it.”

So it was that Jim’s wife, Lindsey, suggested, if he wanted to do something about it, he should jump in his canoe and … do something about it.

Jim launched himself into The Haven (the stretch of The Freshney that runs through the town centre) to give it a tidy. As his canoe filled up with detritus, a few passers-by noticed what he was up to, took a few photos, shared them on their socials and, suddenly, Jim was a social media phenomenon.

It’s worth pointing out that Jim wasn’t the first person to take personal responsibility for doing something about the rubbish in the river. A lot of good people had been – and still are – quietly doing great work, fighting against the rising tide of trash.

But, partly because it was Boxing Day and partly because he was using his canoe, he just caught the imagination of the Twittering classes. The mainstream media picked up on the story and Jim had inadvertently paddled into the spotlight. He was suddenly enjoying his fifteen minutes of fame.

Jim’s very honest about enjoying the acclaim. Having people notice what he was doing made him feel good. Encouraged, he continued launching the canoe at weekends (when work permitted) and became something of a fixture on the Freshney.

Then, later in 2021, Jim was made redundant.

This could have been a disaster but, instead, Jim saw it as an opportunity. He did some serious soul-searching and decided that, rather than going back into his career of sales, he’d try to make a living cleaning the river.

That would mean approaching it seriously and doing it full time.

Keeping The Canoe River Cleaner brand afloat

CMA-Canoe-River-Cleaner-logo

With the help of his friends Damian Quinn (who created Jim’s first logo) and Richard Baker (who offered help and advice on his branding, as well as creating promotional videos), Jim found himself running a business.

Part of the need for a strong brand was so he could employ his sales skills by approaching local businesses for sponsorship and partnership opportunities.

Having a clear, familiar brand helped him get through the doors into the offices of the people he needed to see.

He found that the recognition he’d received in the local paper and on the TV helped massively with those conversations.

Jim’s unique selling point – and the reason people from across the town recognise him –  is the canoe. This – combined with his easy-going nature and wicked sense of humour – make him a genuine character; someone you speak to and remember! That’ll be his years of sales training and psychology coming into play. Jim is a character – and that’s an important part of his personal and business brand.

But, the work still needs doing. Day-in, day-out. “That’s what I do, first and foremost.” Jim points out, “I clear the mess up. Then, I come back home, do a social media post about it – a positive post, not a moaning one – and link a few people into it. Then, the next day, I rinse and repeat.”

Where Jim stands out is in his imagination for presenting a range of different posts. Sometimes, he’ll put photos of the rubbish he’s collected – with a link to Lilliput who will collect it for him. Alternatively, he’ll write a post praising the other litter-pickers who work with him – The Freshney Comrades, as he calls them. Or, he might just shoot a video enjoying the splendid flora and fauna from his unique perspective on the water – while the local family of swans glide majestically by, ignoring him.

Jim understands the importance of varying his socials, but his skill seems to come naturally: “I think I must have inadvertently picked that up from working in sales and reading psychology.”

And, when I ask about his process, he thinks for a while, then decides: “I have a series of filters in my head, I suppose. When I’m doing a post, I’m constantly thinking: Right. That’s going to upset that group of people. And this will upset that other group of people. I don’t want to upset anyone, so I’ll alter it.

Jim tries to produce content that works for 20-somethings and pensioners. Why? Because the older residents are typically more likely to have a sense of civic pride, while younger residents are more concerned about the environment. Everyone gets to play their part.

Sometimes inspiration for a social post just strikes. A few days before I spoke to him, Jim had fished a shopping trolley out of the river (still a sadly common occurrence) and was wheeling it along when he met up with Richard, one of the Comrades he was working with that day, who had also found a trolley. So, they were both walking along pushing shopping trolleys.

Jim saw the opportunity to have a bit of fun, so talked a passing pedestrian into taking a picture of them both, which he then turned into a caption competition here.

CMA-Canoe-River-Cleaner-caption-competition
For me, the winning caption was: “Aldi young dudes”

An intelligent engagement post like that is a great way of passing on your message without people noticing they’re being educated. It’s a canny marketing strategy. Not that Jim would call it that.

His process is quite simple – he often responds to what has happened that day that is noteworthy, or simply does something different from the day before. Then he applies his filters, to make sure he isn’t going to accidentally annoy anyone. He crafts his posts, considering every word, sometimes taking as long as an hour on the text (speaking as a copywriter – I feel that pain). Finally, he runs it past upper management (his wife, Lindsey) because it’s always a great idea for a fresh pair of eyes to check your work. Then, after all that, he may still decide against posting it.

Weirdly, our process is not dissimilar. It’s a sensible approach to social content. Far too many posts arrive online with too little thought behind them. The good, effective stuff is thought about, even agonised over. A tweet (if that’s what we’re still calling them) is only 280 characters, but that means every character has to count!

The Freshney Comrades

Partly in response to the online profile Jim has built around his brand, and partly because there were already people working to keep their local stretch of the river clean. Jim has assembled his own team of garbage Avengers – known as The Freshney Comrades.

CAM-Canoe-River-Cleaner-Freshney-Comrades-collage
Power to the People! A collage of Comrades! Jim often celebrates their hard work with social posts like this.


Firstly, he divided the river into five sections – The Haven and Riverhead are looked after by the council then, upriver, is the Comrades’ jurisdiction. Different teams look after different sections. Jim has supplied them with the tools of a litter-picker’s trade and, a couple of times a week, they organise themselves (mostly without Jim’s involvement) to take a walk and litter-pick down the banks. If they find something that’s in the river and out of reach, or is too heavy, or dangerous, they’ll contact Jim through their group-chat and he’ll sort it.

Friendships have blossomed among this hardy breed. They certainly share an ethos with Jim, as well as a love of the river. So, he’s certainly found his tribe or, rather, he’s made his tribe.

Why is feeding bread to ducks wrong?

Taking your kids to the river to feed stale bread to the ducks is something that generations of parents have done. It turns out that we’ve all been doing more harm than good. The bread isn’t good for wild birds and can even stop them eating the food they actually need. What’s more, when people throw actual slices of bread into the river, they’re really just creating pollution. The birds won’t eat the bread, so it’ll rot and create mould which poisons the water.

One of the things Jim wanted to achieve when he first started taking responsibility for the health and welfare of the river, was to communicate this message about not feeding bread to wildfowl. 

As with the ‘don’t drop litter’ message, he has found a softly-softly approach to be far more effective than approaching people and running the risk of embarrassing them in front of their kids. As he was litter picking, he’d have a few bags of wild bird food about his person and he’d offer a trade: your-bag-of-mouldy-bread-for-this-bag-of-nice-fresh-bird-food. Everyone was happy because everyone was getting something – most especially the swans and ducks.

But approaching one person at a time wasn’t especially efficient. What he really needed was some signage. But something permanent, that wouldn’t get torn down or surrender to the weather. Something that would talk to the young people he wanted to reach.

So, QR codes, he thought! Then Jim approached the council to get permission to put his plaques in certain key locations, and he also approached Blackrow Engineering – one of his key supporters – to design some simple metal plaques.

He also approached the local environmental protection group, Grimsby in Bloom, to see if he could secure some funding for the project.

Much to Jim’s surprise, everyone said “yes”. So, dotted around the river, firmly screwed into the fishing platforms or the concrete wall by James, one of the Freshney Comrades, you’ll now find these plaques, with a QR code that will take you to this article, written by Jim, explaining what to feed wild birds and why.

Putting his best foot forward

His endeavours aren’t restricted to paddling up the creek, he also does a lot of walking. Yes, he walks the banks with his litter-picking Comrades, but he also takes people on nature walks.

He takes care to point out that he’s not an ecologist, nor even an ornithologist – but he knows enough to make the walks informative and entertaining.

Jim sees the walks he does with groups of children as a crucially important way to share his message – because children take the messages to heart. They become mini-advocates.

Although he does refuse to take his message into schools. Rather, he prefers to get the school out into the countryside and deliver the message there – where kids can see nature and interact with it.

“You give them a sticker and they’re off. They will run home and tell their parents that they mustn’t feed the swans white bread. And that’s great. I see the power in that. They’re the next generation; they’re the ones who are going to live in the world we’ve created. So, if they learn early about how important the environment is, that will mitigate issues for the future. It’ll make my job a little bit easier and make the place just better for everyone.”

Jim sees what he’s doing as being complementary to every curriculum. After all, the world needs bankers and engineers and factory workers and scientists, but education needs to instil in all of them a universal respect for nature.

“I think you can only do that when you’re young,” admits Jim, “You have to get kids out into nature. Why not do maths outside once in a while?”

Which strikes me as a great idea – it’ll help normalise caring about nature. It won’t be compartmentalised as a subject distinct from all others, it’ll be integral to everything we do. One can’t help but feel that, had we threaded a respect for the environment through the fabric of our kids’ education for decades, we may not now be staring down the gun-barrel of environmental collapse.

Movement & Meditation

CMA-Canoe-River-Cleaner-movement-&-meditation
Jim, in a rare moment of sitting still, modelling some ‘Movement & Meditation’ merch

Jim makes no bones about why he works to help people with their mental wellbeing – because he’s faced his own struggles.

“I had anxiety about being a salesman.” He admits, in a refreshingly matter-of-fact way. “I was told by a therapist to sit down and meditate. But, how do you go from having panic attacks to sitting cross-legged and imagining a calm sea? I couldn’t do it.”

So, Jim tried to locate some middle ground – a space where he could relax and get out of the anxiety spiral. For him, this proved to be walking, canoeing and litter-picking. And, what did they all have in common?

Out of this came a notion Jim simply calls ‘Movement and Meditation’.

“I couldn’t sit and meditate. It didn’t work. So, for me, it’s not so much about doing nothing. It’s about doing something different in a different place. Something easy and repetitive.”

Jim jokes about being a bloke and, therefore, unable to think about two things at once. “When you have a litter picker in your hand, you don’t think about your mortgage, or your job, or your failed relationship or whatever you’ve got going on. Why? Because you’re picking a crisp packet up. You’ve stopped the cogs for a while.”

Being an (albeit reluctant) entrepreneur, Jim developed a way he could monetise this and help make a difference to other people: through his CIC.

All Things Good & Nice

Cleaning rivers and converting the locals to his cause isn’t the only thing Jim does to stay afloat. He has also set up a CIC – a Community Interest Company – called All Things Good and Nice. Initially, he says, this was simply so he could open a business bank account so that, when he got a bit of company sponsorship, or an award from the National Lottery, there was somewhere official and above-board for the money to go.

Through his CIC, he arranges regular country walks and other wellbeing activities. And he schedules his walks for Monday evenings. Why?

“When I was a salesman, I would go out on a walk on what is historically known as the worst day, which is a Monday. What else is happening on Monday night? Nothing – but I’d have my walk to look forward to. It cheered me up!”

Jim then began to see the power of connecting with nature. He noticed his country walks were positively affecting his wellbeing. And, of course, there are many benefits, especially for early intervention and mitigation against mental health issues like stress.


“Now,” Jim continues, “through the CIC, we go out in the middle of the countryside, rain or shine, daylight or dark.  It’s a powerful way of connecting with nature.” Even in the dark depths of winter, with head torches, the group of walkers has built a real community that looks forward to their regular weekly walks with Jim.

Jim does an introduction to the walk – gives walkers an idea of what they’ll encounter along the way – then encourages them to chat, moan, vent and otherwise get off their chests anything that is a burden. “You’re among friends,” he advises his walkers, “so, just let it out.”

In order to develop his commitment to promoting good mental health and mindfulness (as well as supplementing his income), Jim has taken a part-time job with NAViGO Health and Social Care CIC, where he will be bringing nature-based activities to their service-users, including canoe trips and nature walks.

One-to-one canoe trips

Employing a similar rationale, Jim takes people for a paddle in his canoe – as a very different way of getting in amongst nature.

Jim understood that he got so much personal benefit from just paddling along, observing nature from the unique perspective of water level, that it made perfect sense that others would benefit from it too.

“It’s like being immersed in nature,” he explains, “Because you are! The river is obviously the lowest point in an area, so everything’s above you. I’ve had deer jump over the river, almost over my head as I’m drifting along. It’s a different way of observing nature and there’s so many benefits to it. I get so much enjoyment and pleasure and peace from this it would be selfish not to share it.”

CMA-Canoe-River-Caleaner-1-2-1-canoe-trips-image-1
CMA-Canoe-River-Caleaner-1-2-1-canoe-trips-image-2
CMA-Canoe-River-Caleaner-1-2-1-canoe-trips-image-3
CMA-Canoe-River-Caleaner-1-2-1-canoe-trips-image-4

Jim managed to secure some funding from the Care Plus Group to support these one-on-one canoe trips. And they’re purposefully one-on-one – just him and the client. It’s purposeful that the client sits in front, with their back to Jim, so there’s no eye contact. He says he’s been amazed at how forthcoming people are when they’re looking out at nature. 

“We just stop the clocks for about three hours and have a paddle. Like I say: movement and meditation. It’s amazing the benefits a canoe can bring. A lifetime of adventures!”

And the canoe has also afforded him a business and a whole new way of life.

And the Award goes to…

Recently, Jim’s work was recognised when he was presented with ‘ The Environmental Award’ by David Rose, the chair of CPRE – The Countryside Charity. This was partly down to the restless efforts of Freshney ward’s Independent councillor, Steve Holland in supporting the work of Jim and the Freshney Comrades.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Jim has had a brush with red-carpet glory; in fact, he’s on his way to having a slack handful of awards and nominations.

In 2022 he won the Radio Humberside Make a Difference Award for ‘services to the environment’.

Then, earlier this year, he was nominated for the NELC Civic Award for Environmental Impact where was runner-up to the legendary Frank Sparkes (who has been diligently litter-picking Cleethorpes’ North Wall area since Adam was a lad).

Jim couldn’t have been happier to see Frank win, since they’ve both dedicated their lives to the same vocation. What’s good for one litter picker is good for them all.

After all, as we say in Grimsby with both literal and figurative meaning: a rising tide raises all boats!

Grimsby: the rising tide

Grimsby is important to Jim, because it’s his home. He’s raising his kids here. But he doesn’t have that affinity with our fishing heritage that informs a lot of people’s civic pride. Instead, his relationship with the town is much more contemporary. He likes the people here!

“When I was a salesman, I’d go to work at eight, sell a car, come back, open the whiskey bottle. So, Grimsby was just the background. My relationship with people was based on taking money from them.”

But what he does now means he’s constantly meeting good, inspiring, positive people – like himself. Or, at least, the himself that no-longer sells cars and feels stressed about it.

“I feel that every creative person I meet, every CIC I speak to, everyone who wants to make Grimsby a better place – they want to help each other, because we’re all in it together.”

James Elliott – The Canoe River Cleaner

“There’s good people everywhere.” Jim now says, “You just gotta look. I think, in Grimsby, because of the lack of money for, well, anything to do with art, or with being creative, we’re culturally quite far behind more well-developed cities. But that struggle has had a positive effect in that we all lean on each other.

“I feel that every creative person I meet, every CIC I speak to, everyone who wants to make Grimsby a better place – they want to help each other, because we’re all in it together.”

The tide is definitely turning, culturally. Here at CMA, we’ve seen that ourselves, and written about it in our interview with local entrepreneur, Jo Smedley of Red Herring Games and our discussion with Piers Phillips, a (very) fine local artist. 

Grimsby can be perceived (certainly from outside) as something of an underdog and some people (again, typically, from outside the town) are quick to judge Grimsby on things that may have happened years ago, not what’s happening now.

Furthermore, for someone who loves nature, there are a lot of green spaces to be found. If you feel the need for a spectacular sunrise – head for Cleethorpes on a Sunday morning, grab a coffee and enjoy the light show. If, on the other hand, you want to ramble through traditional English countryside – head for The Wolds.

Grimsby is perfectly situated to offer nature-lovers a wide variety of habitats and experiences. Wherever you are, you’re about a ten-minute drive from the beach or from the countryside. Grimbarians often allow themselves to forget that, as they trudge along, looking at the pavement or their phone screen.

Finally, I asked Jim about his plans for the future. What lies downriver?

“Nothing. I have no dreams, no hopes, no desires!” He’s laughing while he’s saying this, but he means it. He’s happy where he is. The happiest he’s ever been, in fact.

“I’ll be honest, I’m really content. I just want to rinse and repeat what I do every day. I don’t want to compromise it by doing anything different. I’m by no means lazy or complacent; but this just works. I could do this forever. Or, at least until my knees give out.”

The pandemic did this to him. Jim and his wife, Lindsey, had some serious conversations about it and they both decided it was okay to manage on a lot less. Consequently, Jim has reached that point of contentment where he’s no longer striving to chase after things. He knows that comes at a mental cost and it comes at a financial cost. If you have dreams, you have to pay for them. So, Jim has made his reality into his dream.

CMA-Canoe-River-Cleaner-partners-with-Nunns-Mazda
Jim picking up his electric car from Nunns Mazda

It takes a village…

Jim’s winning personality and his natural ability to bring people ‘on side’ is one of his great strengths. Especially when it comes to looking for funding to keep doing his good work. Caring for the Freshney is certainly not going to make him rich – but he’s fine with that. Never-the-less, he has bills to pay, like anyone, so has a need to bring money in through partnerships and sponsorships.

To keep the business afloat – and much as Jim resists thinking of it as such, what he’s doing is a business – he needs the money to keep flowing.

As well as tapping various funding streams, Jim has also done a deep dive into local businesses who offer him support and sponsorship. Here are those businesses which are helping The Canoe River Cleaner keep his head above water.

(Listed alphabetically)

Blackrow Engineering

“They sponsored me from the beginning. They provide me with money, which is great, and also help me out now and again. For example – they fabricated the swan plaques with the QR codes on them.”

Brianplant

“They sponsored me from the start as well. It was really important, back in those early days, to have businesses like Brianplant take me seriously and put their hands in their pockets. That gave me the impetus to keep going and keep growing.”

Care Plus Group

“They’re a social business that provides community health and care services across Grimsby. They gave money to All Things Good and Nice, my Community Interest Company, for my one-on-one canoe trips to aid with mental health, and also for my kids nature walks. They’re helping me do my work and, hopefully, I’m helping them do theirs. That’s what it’s all about, surely.”

DataPlan

They’ve come on board in the last year to offer financial support, which is great.”

eFactor

“They gave me financial support and a lot of advice from the start, too. It’s great how many people and organisations there are out there who are prepared to take a punt on a bloke in a canoe with a mad idea about cleaning the river. Without their support … I don’t know what state the river would be in.”

Grimsby in Bloom

“I do a lot of work with Grimsby in Bloom, particularly Elaine and Glynn. We utilise their Pavilion Cafe for the nature walks we do and, also, I do a bit of work with them on their annual Environment Day among other things. They’re really good people.

Haith’s

“Simon King, Haith’s CEO, hosts a podcast called Nature Space which has had some pretty big hitters as guests, including Iolo Williams and Chris Packham. And me.”

After appearing on the show – which you can hear here – Jim was talking about his mission to stop people feeding white bread to the birds – So Haith’s supply him with correct bird food, which he can distribute for free, in order to spread the word and encourage best practice.

Lilliput Waste Disposal

“Paul and Heather from Lilliput have been great. From my earliest days, they collect the waste that we’ve fished out of the river, and they even help with litter picks.”

myenergi

“As part of my drive to be more sustainable, I have an electric car, very generously donated by Nunns. Well, to keep this on the road, myenergi also stepped-up and supplied me with one of their amazing Zappi EV chargers which was … (wait for the pun) … free of charge!”

NAViGO Health and Social Care CIC

“They have also been really helpful and supportive of my efforts for a while; particularly with my wellness activities. And, of course, I now have a part time job bringing nature-based activities and experiences to their service users. This helps support what they’re doing and what I’m doing in several ways!”

North East Lincs Council

“The council supported me from the outset, too. I worried that they might see what I was doing as some sort of criticism but, no, they welcomed my plans. They’ve been really helpful and supportive.”

Nunns Mazda

“I have a great connection with Mazda. They love sharing my posts with a ‘where has our car been today’ type spin. This kind of social media coverage is great for their profile, great for my business and great for environmental awareness.”

So, courtesy of Nunns, Jim gets the chance to slip into a little of his old car-dealer patter: “This fully-electric vehicle contains a lot of sustainable materials – such as cork, really soft vegan faux leather seats and door cards made from recycled plastic bottles. It’s very comfortable with some fabulous safety features and is a great little runabout.”

Swift Fulfilment

“Working with Swift Fulfilment is a fairly new development. They’re part of a project which helps autistic individuals to gain employment or to at least see what employment is like. They’re sponsoring me monthly and, in return for that, I will be doing canoe experiences for their autistic employees.”

Torr Engineering

“Scott, from Torr, was there from the beginning. He helped me with setting up my websites and he’s still on hand for any technical advice I need. That was incredibly valuable and probably saved me a mint when I was first getting going.”

Twist & Flip Gymnastics Academy

“I’ve done many nature walks for the young members of the Gymnastics Academy. This came about because Twist & Flip’s owners, Nicky and Mark, came along to a few of my Monday night ‘All Things Good and Nice’ walks and we got chatting. Now, they sponsor me. It’s amazing how this sort of networking just happens naturally.”

There are other sponsors, but they prefer to stay under the radar. They don’t want Jim to make a fuss about them, which he completely respects.

Soda Folk’s can-do attitude

It hasn’t escaped my notice that you can see Jim’s face (and canoe) on the can of Soda Folks’ Root Beer. It turns out that came about because of his social media presence. They noticed his posts and got in touch.

Indeed, they were one of the earliest companies to show Jim support. As he concedes, “If I was just ‘Litter Picker Jim’, I wouldn’t be on their cans. The canoe made me interesting.” That’s the power of his brand!

Jim explains that part of the Soda Folk is to champion people in their local community. Jim was one of the worthies they made ‘community champion’. Then, partly because of the uniqueness of Jim’s story but also, I suspect, because he is a very likeable fella, and a good advocate – they decided they wanted to get a bit more involved – they made him a ‘Can Hero’

This ultimately led to a sponsorship deal with Jim, and his face decorating their Root Beer offering. Which, in turn, resulted in some positive PR.

Although it was their idea to associate him with their reduced-sugar root beer, Jim couldn’t be happier about it because it’s actually his favourite fizzy drink.

“I adore it.” Jim confirms, “So, to be the face of root beer is amazing. And a bit weird. Doing what I’m doing, I expected to get a few pats on the back from a few local well-wishers. But, to be recognised by a massive company like that, and for them to put my face on one of their products, it’s just crazy. Awesome, but crazy.”

Jim scratches his chin and thinks about that for a moment, then admits: “I have to pinch myself, sometimes, like when I see the cans in the supermarket and think – That’s my face on there! More importantly – it’s the river Freshney on there! They have some lovely copy on the side of the can about what we’re doing with the river. They didn’t have to do that, so it’s a great bonus!”

How you can help

Given Jim’s deliberately limited ambitions, he knows running his business as he does will never be too financially demanding – but he still lives in the real world of bills and mortgages and tax and licences, so he still needs an income.

If you’re a local business, a great way to help Jim would be to get in touch – via his website – and discuss a possible sponsorship or partnership.

If you want to keep track of Jim’s adventures, he’s on social media every day, always with something different, interesting or fun. Find him on Facebook and LinkedIn.

On the other hand, if you fancy buying one of his one-to-one canoe trips or a fun and informative nature walk for your family, you can visit his online shop. They’d both make for a unique gift.

Jim also offers a range of merch, from t-shirts to a calendar of his photos of the river and its wildlife, shot from his unique perspective.

Or, for a risibly small sum, you can support Jim every month through his Ko-Fi page.

It’s all about the flow … of cash.

John Ashbrook

I'm a Senior Writer. I put words together to create sentences. Hey, I'm doing it now! If it needs words, the call goes out: "This is a job for John!" My red phone rings, I slide down my pole, switch my laptop batteries to 'power' and my turbines to 'speed' then I begin typing. What am I going to type this time, I wonder? Let's see ...
4.7 3 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
1 Comment
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Matthew Pattinson

Amazing work by The Canoe River Cleaner, aka Jim Elliott, keeping our rivers clean. His dedication is turning heads and rallying a community to keep our waters pristine. Major kudos to the businesses supporting this cause! Let’s keep the river running wild and free.

Last edited 3 months ago by Matthew Pattinson