Thanks to the most-boring holiday in the world ever inflicted on a nine-year-old, I have since then had zero appreciation of canals.
Chugging along all day, at 5mph, unable to get off the boat, I spent the whole week with my nose in books. The only interest came when we went through locks. Meeting a goat tethered at one lockside cottage was a highlight of that day. And the evenings were spent playing Scrabble and cribbage, with an uncle who cheated at both.

Lately, however, I’ve realised that these artificial waterways were not only great feats of engineering, but provide a lasting source of leisure, pleasure, and benefit to wildlife.
Though the week-long boating holiday aspect still doesn’t appeal!

Canals and the Industrial Revolution

The heyday of canals in Britain was the18th century, when they played a pivotal role in the Industrial Revolution, and the growth and prosperity of urban conurbations.
By linking land-locked towns/cities with others, or with the sea, for example, traders could transport raw materials and finished goods in great quantities. This was in an age when roads were poor, and of course it was far easier to transport tonnes of coal on a barge than on horse-drawn carts.

This didn’t just benefit people like mine owners. It reduced the cost of coal for manufacturers, enabling them to open factories and mills. It also created new markets for their products. And it boosted ports and the shipping trade.

Existing cities grew, and new ones sprang up, the canals made profits for their owners (who charged for their use). And building a canal looked for a while like a licence to print money.

Of course, it didn’t last. For a new ‘licence to print money’ soon came steaming over the horizon: railways.
They didn’t kill off the canal trade – in fact, canals were still being used for freight as late as the 1970s.
But from the mid-19th century on, trade dropped and dropped, leaving more and more canals literally stagnating.
Some were filled in, housing and other developments left others un-navigable. As did nature – fallen trees, and tangles of weeds.

Neglected, but still loved

After the Second World War, canals were nationalised – and as the government of the day didn’t get round to doing anything much with them, they just ‘sat there’ – neglected, but still a source of pleasure for anglers, dog-walkers and anyone who enjoyed walking on a quiet towpath beside water.
Inner-city canals may have become a dumping place for shopping trolleys and other rubbish. But from the creation of the British Waterways Board, in 1963, an appreciation of canals as a leisure facility started to truly take off.

A new lease of life

Today, there are many enthusiastic canal preservation and restoration societies. And property developers have realised the value of watersides, converting old industrial buildings into flats, pubs and other uses.

Away from urbanisation, meanwhile, canal towpaths are tranquil place, popular at the weekend with – in the case of my recent experience – dog-walkers, anglers, joggers, and cyclists.

Footnote:

This piece was inspired by exploring a stretch of canal with my dog.

It also inspired me to rewrite a song, as there were no rubbish bins, leaving me swinging a small black bag till I got back to ‘civilisation’:

Squirrels to the left of us, squirrels to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with poo.

More information

Since 2012, the waterways have all come under the responsibility of the Canal and River Trust.

The BBC has some canal photos, and a short audio programme on restoration:

 

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