Britain’s Canals​—Still Fascinating


By the early 19th century, some 4,000 miles [6,000 km] of canals crisscrossed England, Scotland, and Wales. Why were they constructed, and who use them in the 21st century?

BRITAIN’S 18th-century industrial revolution demanded a cheap and speedy system for transporting raw materials and finished goods. Prior to that time, teams of horses had been used to carry packs or haul wagons over roads that in winter became so heavily rutted and deep in mud that they were impassable. On the other hand, one horse alone could smoothly and quickly tow a canal boat carrying as much as 30 tons.

In 1761 the Duke of Bridgewater had a canal constructed to transport coal from his mines to customers in Manchester, ten miles [16 km] away. This not only brought financial gain to the duke but also halved the cost of Manchester’s coal. By 1790 a more ambitious scheme, the Grand Cross canal system, eventually linked four important rivers and connected England’s industrial heartland to seaports. Britain’s canal age had begun.

Construction and Use

Skilled engineers, among them James Brindley, a self-taught man who undertook all his works without any written calculations or drawings, developed ingenious methods of construction to channel water across miles of varied terrain. The resulting aqueducts, tunnels, locks, and bridges built by teams of laborers known as navigators, or navvies, are still seen as remarkable achievements.

“Narrow boats,” open wooden vessels about 70 feet [20 m] long and 7 feet [2 m] wide, were built to carry bulk freight, such as coal, lime,  limestone, kaolin, iron ore, bricks, and flour. These boats were drawn by horses walking along towpaths on the canal banks. “Fly boats” provided an express service for urgent or perishable cargoes and traveled nonstop, their crews working throughout the night.

On some canals, teams of horses, changed at regular intervals, pulled streamlined boats carrying up to 120 passengers at an average speed of ten miles [15 km] an hour. Like the fly boats, they had priority over other craft and, on the Bridgewater Canal, carried a large blade mounted on the bow to cut through the tow rope of any other vessel that got in the way! With the coming of the canals, ordinary people had for the first time the opportunity to travel over long distances cheaply and comfortably.

Life Aboard a Narrow Boat

Life on the cut, as the boat people called the canal system, was arduous. Their work was heavy and often dangerous. Being always on the move, they had little opportunity for education and became increasingly detached from the people around them.

This narrow-boat community developed a distinctive folk art, decorating their vessels with brightly colored landscape scenes, floral motifs, and geometric patterns, which covered the outside boat surfaces and continued into the cabin, located at the stern. These living quarters, measuring just ten feet [3 m] by seven feet [2 m], accommodated the boatman, his wife, and their children. But boat people made up for their lack of space through ingenious fittings concealing foldaway beds and storage lockers. Crocheted lacework hung from the shelves, and fancy china and shining brass ornaments around the cooking stove reflected light. This all conveyed an impression of coziness and warmth. The hardworking boatman’s wife, despite her many duties and the dirty cargo so often carried, managed to keep her family and their boat spotless. Even the decorated ropework around the tiller was proudly scrubbed to a brilliant whiteness.

 Canal Decline​—And Use Today

In 1825, as the canal network was nearing completion, George Stephenson opened the Stockton and Darlington Railway, one of the first public railways to use steam locomotives. Within 20 years, railways were taking trade from the canals, which then started to fall into disuse and disrepair. Some were even purchased by railway companies to thwart competition. Following World War I, this decline continued as new and better roads were constructed. Even optimists did not think the canals could survive much longer.

However, thanks to the work of individuals and groups over the past 50 years, that has not been the case. Although some boats traveling along the canals still carry freight, others have been converted for use as permanent homes or vacation cruisers. It is now possible to explore more than 2,000 miles [3,000 km] of canals, passing through some of Britain’s most beautiful and unspoiled scenery. Narrow-boat enthusiasts have also revived old traditions, and regular waterway festivals make them known to a wider public. Indeed, as a result of the popularity of these brightly decorated leisure craft, there are now more narrow boats on the canals than in the heyday of commercial traffic, and canals are being restored at the same rate as they were being built 200 years ago.

Even so, only a small portion of those enjoying the canals today are boaters. Why? Because the restoration of the waterways created a network of “linear parks.” These give recreational access to previously little-known townscapes and countryside for walkers, cyclists, and fishermen, who all make use of the towpaths. Reservoirs built to maintain canal water levels have become important wildlife habitats, and the canals themselves sustain a wide variety of plant, bird, and animal life.

The building of Britain’s canals ushered in a dramatic era of change​—but one with a curiously ironic twist. The same canals now provide a way of escape from the pressures of the modern-day world they helped to create.

[Box/​Picture on page 14]


Very few tunnels have a tow path. So before the advent of self-propelled boats, the only means of getting a narrow boat through was by the dangerous practice called legging. A pair of planks was fitted to each side of the bow of the boat. Boatmen lying on their backs along the planks, which they gripped with their hands, pushed the boat through the tunnel using their feet against the wall. In the darkness, lit only by a single candle, it was easy for a legger to miss his footing and fall into the water, sometimes being fatally crushed between the hull and the tunnel wall. Britain’s canal network once had 42 miles [68 km] of tunnels, and professional leggers were employed on the longer ones. The longest tunnel, now reopened at Standedge, Yorkshire, measures three and a quarter miles [5 km].

[Credit Line]

Courtesy of British Waterways

 [Box/​Pictures on page 15]


Since water cannot travel uphill, what happens when a canal meets rising ground? It can follow a contour line to stay on the same level, which will make the route longer, or perhaps flow along a tunnel cut through the obstruction. As a third option, the waterway can be raised by means of locks. These consist of a chamber linking two water levels, which has a gate at each end. After a boat enters a lock, both gates are closed. The lock is then filled with more water to raise the boat to its next level, or it is emptied to lower the boat​—depending on which is needed.

What if former locks cannot be restored? This was the challenge faced in Scotland, where a major project has connected two long-abandoned canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh. It was not feasible to rebuild the flight of 11 locks at Falkirk that once joined the Union Canal with the world’s oldest sea-to-sea canal, the Forth and Clyde. The ingenious solution is the Falkirk Wheel of unprecedented design, a rotating boat lift 115 feet [35 m] in diameter. This wheel can transfer eight vessels, four at a time in two opposing lifts, from one level to the other, each trip taking just 15 minutes.

Described by The Times of London as “an astonishing feat of engineering,” the wheel is reflected in a large circular pool, which has moorings for over 20 boats.

[Credit Line]

Top right: Courtesy of British Waterways

[Box/​Pictures on page 16, 17]


In recent years my wife and I, senior citizens, have enjoyed a tranquil vacation by boating along canals. Why tranquil? First of all, we are away from all the motorway traffic and the lust for speed. In a narrow boat, you can chug along at no more than three miles [5 km] an hour. Why such a low speed? To avoid creating a wake that might damage the banks of the canal. As a result, people walking their dog along the old tow path will often overtake us!

Another advantage of the slow pace is that we have time to take in the scenery and even say hello to passersby. And the scenery can be magnificent. We usually rent our boat in South Wales on the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. It stretches for some 33 miles [50 km] from the Welsh border up to the Brecon mountains that rise to over 2,900 feet [886 m]. Every now and then, we get a little excitement when we reach the locks and the boat has to be raised or lowered to a different level.​—See the box on page 15.

The boats are fully equipped and extremely comfortable. Some even have two double bedrooms, each with its own shower and toilet. There is also central heating in case of a chilly evening. We normally do our own cooking, but if we feel like taking a break, we can stop and have a tasty meal at one of the eateries that border the canal.

It is all very peaceful, especially early in the morning when the canal is like a mirror, reflecting the trees and the hills. Everything is so quiet that the birdsongs are clearly identifiable. Herons keep a silent vigil on the banks as they slowly and sedately move ahead of us.​—Contributed.

[Credit Lines]

Courtesy of British Waterways

Top right: By kind permission of Chris & Stelle on Belle (​belle)

[Picture Credit Line on page 13]

Courtesy of British Waterways