Follow the brown signs
Gosh, I never knew that!
There are even more boats now skimming around the British canal network than there were during “canal mania”, the heyday of canal building.
A little bit of history
The potential of using canals, inland waterways and rivers to transport people and goods around began in Britain during Roman times, probably the earliest British canal is the Fossdyke which was built in around 120 AD, which is still navigable and connects the River Trent to Lincoln. But the canal building age really came into it’s own during the 1700s when the advantages of transporting goods by water were tapped into by businessmen and engineers alike. By connecting up all the major rivers through a canal network the whole country became far more accessible and goods could be moved to places they’d either never been able to reach before or were an off-putting-bone-clatteringly-tedious-mud-track-wagon-trip away. Significant advances in technology at the time and the ever gathering pace of mechanised production processes pushed forward an unprecedented boom in British output and the Industrial Revolution had begun, changing the face of the modern world forever. So as the roads were still just emerging from their medieval potholed past it was the barges and narrow boats that began ploughing the waterways with coal to fuel the factories that were churning out more than they ever had before and then ploughing back carrying the factory produce for sale and export. It’s no great surprise that Josiah Wedgewood of fine ceramics and pottery fame was a key investor and champion of the canals, his drastically reduced “broken in transit” statistics must have made him a happy man. The importance of the canals during the early days of the Industrial Revolution was massive, the inland waterways and the boatmen working on them made up it’s solid backbone and allowed Britain to lead the world on advances in technology, engineering and industry.
It was the coming of the railways in the mid 1800s that changed the fortunes of the waterways network and as many canals were in direct competition with the railways to transport goods a lot of them were purchased by the railway companies. By the 1930s competition came not just from the railways but also the improving road system and slowly the ill funded canals began falling into disrepair and many were abandoned, becoming dangerous and unsightly scars in both urban and rural areas. Just after WWII however the Inland Waterways Association was set up, initally by 2 insightful men who saw that by leaving the canals to become decayed and unused it meant abandoning a significant piece of our history and way of life that would be lost forever. During the last 60 years the tireless work and campaigning that the IWA has done and continues to do, is immense. Canal and waterways volunteers have to be the most dedicated and hardy mob of volunteers imaginable, these guys not only dedicate their time for free but also their blood, sweat and tears too. Thousands of canals all over Britain have been re-dug, re-built, re-structured and given the massive overhauls needed (some taking decades to complete) to make these spectacular feats of human endeavour available for us, the general public, to enjoy once more. There are now around 3,500 miles of canals and navigable inland waterways throughout Britain, all open for visitors to enjoy, and the number is still rising. These important and heroic canals might not seem relevant to you in modern times, but it is these waterways that were quite literally blazing trails for the modern, privileged, accessible and opportunity filled world you live in today.
What the experts say
“Canalside attractions come in many forms but most have a common theme: the value of our rich heritage as an industrial nation is epitomised by our canal network, much of which still carries boats more than two centuries since its construction. Around ten waterways museums explain and enliven the story of a transport system that made the industrial revolution possible and led to Britain’s prosperity as an industrial nation. Canals are part of our roots. There are working wonders of past engineering like Telford’s amazing acqueduct in north Wales or the grand spectacle of five locks combined into one at Bingley. Yet most of the network is endowed with reminders of a past age of transport. Just a few steps from London’s Camden Market you’ll find structures built for horse towing, the grooves left by the towing ropes on canalside infrastructure, and engineering designed to save expensive water. In the countryside too are reminders galore, including quaint and beautiful humped-backed bridges and locks that still operate as they did in the eighteenth century. The slow-paced world of our canals is living history and is rightly treasured as an asset for the future as well as of the past.” Martin Sach, Chair of The London Canal Museum
Organisations, official bodies and great links to places where you can find out more
Waterscape – The leisure section of the British Waterways Association website, providing all the information and inspiration you will ever need for a trip out enjoying British canals and waterways (there are also some brilliant maps of Britain’s canals and rivers on there too, and I love them, obviously)
A brilliant PDF about the huge restoration projects and revival of the waterways published by the British Waterways Association
CanalPlan - Is an independent and inspiring site by a chap called Nick, providing an interactive guide to the inland waterways of Europe. It allows you to plan a watery journey giving you distances, times, locks and other useful information about your canals and waterways across Europe. Brilliant to browse even if you’re not planning a canal holiday (although chances are you will be after only a few minutes on the site!).
CanalWorld.net - The largest and most active canal forum, where anyone can discuss canals, waterways and boats, getting information on everything from recommended trips and outings to solving technical engine problems.
Jim Shead – This website is quite frankly a big old WOW! through the medium of 4,000 web pages. Jim has put together an unbelievably comprehensive site with so much information and interestingness it’s impossible not to get lost there for a good few hours. You can answer questions like “how many miles of waterway are there?” or “how has the canal and river system grown and declined over the years?”, see full lists of major aqueducts and canal tunnels and explore the “seven wonders of the waterways“. Totally brilliant and inspiring stuff.
The Golden Age of Canals - The BBC documentary about the saving of the British Waterways, featuring home movies from volunteers and charting the birth of the IWA.