Canals of the United Kingdom

Canals of the United Kingdom

The canals of the United Kingdom are a major part of the network of inland waterways in the United Kingdom. They have a colourful history, from use for irrigation and transport, to becoming the focus of the Industrial Revolution, to today's role for recreational boating. Despite a period of abandonment, today the canal system in the United Kingdom is again in good shape, with abandoned and derelict canals being reopened, and the construction of some new routes.

History of commercial carrying

"See History of the British canal system for a more detailed history."
Canals first saw use during the Roman occupation of the south of Great Britain, and were used mainly for irrigation. However, the Romans did create several navigable canals, such as Foss Dyke, to link rivers, enabling increased transportation inland by water.cite book |last=Hadfield |first=Charles |authorlink=Charles Hadfield|title=British Canals An Illustrated history|pages= p.28 |year=1974 | edition = Fifth edition |publisher=David & Charles |isbn=0-7153-4863-9 ]

The United Kingdom's navigable water network grew massively as the demand for industrial transport increased. The canals were key to the pace of the Industrial Revolution: roads at the time were unsuitable for large volumes of traffic. A system of very large pack horse trains had developed, but few roads were suitable for wheeled vehicles able to transport large amounts of materials (especially fragile manufactured goods such as pottery) quickly. Canal boats were very much quicker, could carry large volumes, and were much safer for fragile items. Following the success of the Bridgewater Canal (the first modern artificial canal in Britain), other canals were constructed between industrial centres, cities and ports, and were soon transporting raw materials (esp coal and lumber) and manufactured goods. There were immediate benefits to households, as well as to commerce: in Manchester, the cost of coal fell by 75% when the Bridgewater Canal arrived.

As the Industrial Revolution took hold in the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, the technology allowed canals to be improved. The early canals contoured round hills and valleys, later ones went straighter. Locks took canals up and down hills, and they strode across valleys on taller and longer aqueducts and through hills in longer and deeper tunnels.

However, from the mid 19th century, railways began to replace canals, especially those built with the standard narrow (7 ft) bridges and locks. As trains, and later road vehicles, became more advanced, they became cheaper than the canal system, being faster, and able to carry much larger cargoes. The canal network declined, and many canals were bought by railway companies. Narrow canals became unusable, filled with weeds, silt and rubbish, or converted to railways.

There was a late burst of wide-waterway building (eg the Caledonian Canal, and the Manchester Ship Canal), and of invention and innovation by people such as Bartholomew of the Aire and Calder company, who conceived the trains of nineteen coal-filled "Tom Pudding" compartment boats that were pulled along the Aire and Calder Navigation from the Yorkshire coalfields, and lifted bodily to upturn their contents directly into seagoing colliers at Goole Docks (their descendants, Hargreaves' tugs pushing three coal-pans trains to be upended into hoppers at the Aire power stations lasted as late as 2004). However, the last new canal before the end of the 20th century was the New Junction Canal in Yorkshire (now South Yorkshire) in 1905. As competition intensified, horse-drawn single narrowboats were replaced by diesel powered boats towing an unpowered butty, and the boatman's family abandoned their shore homes for a life afloat, to help with boat handling and to reduce accommodation costs - the birth of the legendary "boatman's cabin" with bright white lace, gleaming brass and gaily-painted metalware.

Constant lowering of tolls meant that the carriage of some bulky, non-perishable, and non-vital goods by water was still feasible on some inland waterways - but the death knell for commercial carrying on the narrow canals was sounded in the winter of 1962-1963, when a long hard frost kept goods icebound on the canals for three months. Most of the remaining customers turned to road and rail haulage to ensure reliability of supply and never returned. Some individual waterways (especially the Manchester Ship Canal) remained viable for longer, and there were still hopes for development, but "Containerisation" of ports and lorries mostly passed the waterways by. The last major investment development of the inland waterways was the enlargement of the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation in the early 1980s to cope with barges of standard European dimensions that (in the depression of the 80s) never came. The scale of the futile hopes of those days can be appreciated by the occupants of a holiday narrowboat nearly lost in a lock built for the barges that were going to sail down the Rhine, across the North Sea, and up to Doncaster. Today even the Manchester Ship Canal does not convey cargo ships to the docks in Salford, which have become little more than a 'water feature' for the apartments, offices and cultural institutions of 'Salford Quays' that have replaced the wharves and warehouses.

Growth of leisure use

In the latter half of the 20th century, while the use of canals for transporting goods was dying out, there was a rise in interest in their history and potential use for leisure. A large amount of credit for this is usually given to L. T. C. Rolt, whose book "Narrowboat" about a journey made in "nb Cressy" was published in 1944. A key development was the foundation of the Inland Waterways Association, and the establishment of fledgling weekly boat-hire companies, following the example of such companies on the Norfolk Broads, which had long been used for leisure boating. The authority responsible for the canals, British Waterways Board, encouraged this process from the late 1960s by operating a fleet of holiday hire boats, initially converted from cut down working boats.

Holidaymakers began renting 'narrowboats' and roaming the canals, visiting towns and villages they passed. Other people bought boats to use for weekend breaks and the occasional longer trip. The concept of a canal holiday became even more familiar when the large agencies that dealt with Broads holidays began to include canal boatyards in their brochures. Canal-based holidays became popular due to their relaxing nature, self-catering levels of cost, and variety of scenery available; from inner London to the Scottish Highlands. This growth in interest came just in time to give local canal societies the ammunition they needed to combat government proposals in the 1960s to close commercially-unviable canals, and to resist pressure from local authorities and newspapers to "Fill In this eyesore" or even to "Close the Killer Canal" (when someone fell in one). It was not long before enthusiastic volunteers were repairing unnavigable but officially-open canals and moving on to restore officially-closed ones and demonstrating their renewed viability to the authorities.

Local authorities began to see how a cleaned-up and well-used waterway was bringing visitors to other towns and waterside pubs(not just boaters, but people who just like being near water and watching boats (see gongoozler). They began to clean up their own watersides, and to campaign for "their" canal to be restored. As a result of this growing revival of interest, there are now even some new routes under consideration, and one under construction (the Fens Waterways Link) for the first time in a century, linking navigable rivers and existing canals. Large projects such as the restoration of the spectacular Anderton Boat Lift, or the building of the startling Falkirk Wheel attracted development funding from the European Union and from the Millennium Fund.

Present status

There are now thousands of miles of navigable canals and rivers throughout the United Kingdom. Most of them are linked into a single English and Welsh network from Bath to London, Liverpool to Goole, and Lancaster to Ripon, and connecting the Irish Sea, the North Sea, the estuaries of the Humber, Thames, Mersey, River Severn, and River Ribble. This network is navigable in its entirety by a narrowboat (a boat 7 ft wide) no longer than about 56 feet. There are also several through-routes not connected to the main network (eg Glasgow to Edinburgh via the Falkirk Wheel, and Inverness to Fort William via Loch Ness.

The aim of campaigning bodies such as the Inland Waterways Association is to persuade British Waterways (which owns about half of Britain's inland waterway network) to fully reopen all disused canals. In May 2005 The Times [,,172-1606736,00.html reported] that British Waterways was hoping to quadruple the amount of cargo carried on Britain's canal network to six million tonnes by 2010 by transporting large amounts of waste to disposal facilities.

The speed limit for the majority of inland waterways in the United Kingdom managed by British Waterways is four miles per hour,cite web|url=|author=British Transport Commission|title=General Canal Byelaws 1965] whilst on some larger waterways the limit is increased to six miles per hour. All speed measurements on BW waterways are expressed in terms of speed over the ground, rather than speed through the water.

List of canals

The following list includes some systems that are navigable rivers with sections of canal (eg Aire and Calder Navigation) as well as "completely" artificial canals (eg Rochdale Canal).

Canals in England

*Aire and Calder Navigation
*Andover Canal
*Ashby-de-la-Zouch Canal
*Ashton Canal
*Barnsley Canal
*Basingstoke Canal
*Baybridge Canal
*Beaumont Cut
*Birmingham Canal Navigations (a company owning many canals around Birmingham and the Black Country, including the Birmingham Old Main Line and the Birmingham New Main Line) ("see BCN Main Line)
*Birmingham and Fazeley Canal (part of Birmingham Canal Navigations)
*Blyth Navigation, Suffolk
*Bridgewater Canal, Greater Manchester and Cheshire
*Bridgwater and Taunton Canal, Somerset
*Bude Canal
*Bumble Hole Branch Canal
*Calder and Hebble Navigation
*Caldon Canal
*Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation
*Chester Canal (now part of the Shropshire Union Canal)
*Chesterfield Canal
*Chichester Canal
*Coalport Canal
*Coventry Canal
*Cromford Canal
*Dearne and Dove Canal, South Yorkshire
*Derby Canal
*Digbeth Branch Canal (part of Birmingham Canal Navigations)
*Dorset and Somerset Canal
*Driffield Navigation, East Yorkshire
*Droitwich Canal
*Dudley Canal - Dudley Canal Line No 1 and Dudley Canal Line No 2 (part of Birmingham Canal Navigations)
*Ellesmere Canal (much of which is now known as the Llangollen Canal)
*Erewash Canal, Derbyshire
*Exeter Canal
*Fairbottom Branch Canal
*Fletcher's Canal
*Foss Dyke
*Gloucester and Sharpness Canal, Gloucestershire
*Grand Junction Canal (now part of Grand Union Canal)
*Grand Union Canal
*Grand Western Canal
*Grantham Canal
*Hatherton Canal
*Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canal
*Hertford Union Canal, London
*Hollinwood Branch Canal
*Horncastle Canal
*Huddersfield Broad Canal
*Huddersfield Narrow Canal
*Ipswich and Stowmarket Navigation, Suffolk
*Islington Branch Canal
*Kennet and Avon Canal
*Lancaster Canal
*Leeds and Liverpool Canal
*Leven Canal
*Lichfield Canal
*Limehouse Cut, London
*Liskeard and Looe Union Canal
*Llangollen Canal
*Louth Navigation
*Lydney Canal
*Macclesfield Canal
*Manchester Bolton & Bury Canal
*Manchester Ship Canal
*Market Weighton Canal
*Melton Mowbray Navigation
*Middle Level Navigations
*Montgomery Canal
*Newcastle-under-Lyme Canal
*North Walsham & Dilham Canal, Norfolk
*North Wilts Canal
*Nottingham Canal
*Oakham Canal
*Oxford Canal, Oxfordshire
*Peak Forest Canal
*Pocklington Canal
*Regent's Canal, London
*Ribble Link
*Ripon Canal
*River Lee Navigation, Hertfordshire, Essex, London
*Rochdale Canal
*Rother Link
*Royal Military Canal
*Salisbury and Southampton Canal
*Sankey Canal
*Selby Canal
*Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation
*Shrewsbury Canal
*Shropshire Canal
*Shropshire Union Canal
*Sir Nigel Gresley's Canal
*Sleaford Navigation
*Somerset Coal Canal
*Southwick Ship Canal
*St. Columb Canal
*Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal
*Stainforth and Keadby Canal
*Stockport Branch Canal
*Stort Navigation
*Stourbridge Canal
*Stratford-upon-Avon Canal
*Stroudwater Navigation
*Tame Valley Canal (part of Birmingham Canal Navigations)
*Tavistock Canal
*Thames and Medway Canal, Kent (also known as the Gravesend and Rochester Canal)
*Thames and Severn Canal
*Titchfield Canal
*Trent and Mersey Canal
*Ulverston Canal
*Uttoxeter Canal
*Weaver Navigation, Cheshire
*Wardle Canal, Cheshire
*Wednesbury Old Canal (part of Birmingham Canal Navigations)
*Wey and Arun Junction Canal
*Wey and Godalming Navigations
*Wilts and Berks Canal
*Worcester and Birmingham Canal
*Worsley Navigable Levels
*Wyrley and Essington Canal (part of Birmingham Canal Navigations)

Canals in Northern Ireland

*Broharris Canal
*Coalisland Canal (Tyrone Navigation)
*Dukart's Canal
*Lagan Canal
*Newry Canal
*Shannon-Erne Waterway
*Strabane Canal
*Ulster Canal

Canals in Scotland

*Aberdeenshire Canal
*Caledonian Canal
*Crinan Canal
*Dingwall Canal
*Forth and Clyde Canal
*Glasgow, Paisley and Johnstone Canal
*Monkland Canal
*Union Canal (originally known as "Edinburgh and Glasgow Union Canal")

Canals in Wales

*Aberdare Canal
*Glamorganshire Canal
*Kidwelly and Llanelli Canal
*Llangollen Canal
*Monmouthshire, Brecon and Abergavenny Canal
*Montgomery Canal
*Neath and Tennant Canal
*Swansea Canal

Canals that have been abandoned or are not navigable

*Andover Canal
*Arbury Canals
*Bentley Canal, Wolverhampton/Walsall
*Bradford Canal, West Yorkshire
*Brown's Canal – A one mile long canal built around 1801 that connected to the River BrueThe Canals of Southwest England "Charles Hadfield" Page 190-191 ISBN 0-7153-8645-X]
*Caistor Canal, Lincolnshire
*Cann Quarry Canal
*Car Dyke
*Chard Canal
*Cinderford Canal
*City Canal, London
*Coombe Hill Canal
*Charnwood Forest Canal
*Croydon Canal, London
*Donnington Wood Canal, East Shropshire
*Eardington Forge Canal A 750 yard long canal built between 1776 and 1781 connected to the Severn below Bridgnorth.cite book |title=The Canals of The West Midlands (third edition) |last=Hadfield |first= Charles |authorlink= Charles Hadfield (historian) |year=1985 |publisher=David & Charles |location=Brunel House, Hewton Abbot, Devon |isbn=0715386441 |pages= p.62]
*Fletcher's Canal, Clifton, Salford
*Galton's Canal, Somerset
*Glastonbury Canal
*Grand Surrey Canal, London
*Grosvenor Canal, London
*Hackney Canal, Devon
*Horncastle Canal, Lincolnshire
*Itchen Navigation, Hampshire
*Kensington Canal, London
*Ketley Canal, East Shropshire
*Leominster Canal
*Nutbrook Canal
*Ouse Navigation, Sussex
*Par Canal, Cornwall
*Parnall's Canal, Cornwall
*Pidcock's Canal
*Portsmouth and Arundel Canal
*Rolle Canal (Also known as the Torrington Canal)
*Shrewsbury Canal
*Somersetshire Coal Canal
*Stamford Canal
*Stover Canal, Devon
*Thorne and Hatfield Moors peat canals
*Tremadoc Canal A short canal running between The river Glaslyn and Tremadoc. The canal was opened in about 1815 and ran for thirty-five years before being replaced by a tramline.cite book |title=The Illustrated History of Canal & River Navigations 3rd edition |last=Paget-Tomlinson |first=Edward |year= 2006|publisher=Landmark Publishing Ltd |isbn=1843062070 |pages=pp189 ]
*Ulverston Canal
*Westport Canal, Somerset
*Wombridge Canal, East Shropshire

Proposed canal routes

*Rother LinkPlanned canal which would connect the Chesterfield Canal at Killamarsh, via the River Rother through to the Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation, thus creating a new cruising ring and encouraging boats to visit the Chesterfield Canal.

* Grand Union Canal (Slough Branch)Extending Slough Arm of the Grand Union Canal south to join the River Thames. [cite web | title=IWAAC Inland Waterway review 2006| url=| work= Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council| accessdate=2007-09-23|format=pdf]

* York Stream (Maidenhead)Making the York Stream fully navigable for boats and linking to other nearby canals and navigable rivers. [cite web | title=The Maidenhead River Project| url=| work=Maidenhead Waterways Restoration Group | accessdate=2007-09-23]

* Bedford and Milton Keynes WaterwayConnection from Grand Union Canal at Milton Keynes to the River Great Ouse near Bedford. This link will finally enable broad-beam boats to travel from the north to the south of the inland waterway network. [cite web | title=Bedford & Milton Keynes Waterway| url= |work=Bedford & Milton Keynes Waterway Trust| accessdate=2007-09-23]

*Fens Waterways LinkThe Fens Waterways Link comprises several new waterways and improvements to current routes. It will create new circular routes and in conjunction with the Milton Keynes and Bedford Waterway, it will be connected to the rest of the country's waterways via the Great Ouse. [cite web | title=The Fens Waterways Link| url=| work= Environment Agency Waterways Team| accessdate=2007-09-23]

* Upper Avon Extension (Warwick)This proposed connection from River Avon to Grand Union Canal via Warwick is subject to much local opposition. [cite web | title=Upper Avon Extension (Proposed)| work= Inland Waterways Association| url=| accessdate=2007-09-23]

Canal features


Canal aqueducts are structures that carry the canal across a valley, road or railway. Dundas Aqueduct is built of stone in a classical style. Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is an iron trough on tall stone piers. Barton Swing Aqueduct opens to let ships pass underneath on the Manchester Ship Canal.

"For more, see List of canal aqueducts in the United Kingdom"

Boat lifts

*Anderton Boat Lift
*Falkirk Wheel
*Falkirk Helix
*Combe Hay Caisson Lock

=Inclined planes=

*Hay Inclined Plane
*Foxton Inclined Plane
*The Underground Incline


Locks are structures that raise or lower boats from one water level to another. Where a large height difference has to be overcome, locks are built close together in a flight such as at Caen Hill Locks. Where the gradient is very steep, a set of staircase locks are sometimes used, like Bingley Five Rise Locks. At the other extreme stop locks have little or no change in level but were built to conserve water where one canal joined another. An interesting example is King's Norton Stop Lock which was built with guillotine gates.

"See also" List of canal locks in the United Kingdom.


* Blisworth Tunnel
* Braunston Tunnel
* Bruce Tunnel
* Butterley Tunnel
* Crick Tunnel
* Dudley Tunnel
* Harecastle Tunnel
* Husbands Bosworth Tunnel
* Lapal Tunnel
* Netherton Tunnel
* Norwood Tunnel
* Saddington Tunnel
* Sapperton Tunnel
* Standedge Tunnel
* Wast Hills Tunnel

Canal boats

* Bastard boats or Statters (12' / 3.65 m beam; wide boats on Manchester, Bolton & Bury)
* Broad-beam boats (called "wide boats" on the Grand Union canal, 2.2 m to 4.3 m beam)
* Cabin Cruisers
* Fly boats (long and short; on the Aire and Calder Navigation)
* Keels (on Aire and Calder Navigation)
* Long boats (narrow boats used on the River Severn)
* Narrowboats or Narrow Boats (approx. 7' / 2.13 m beam; originally working boats on Midlands canals; now mostly pleasure boats)
* Severners (used on the River Severn)
* Short boats (on Northern canals such as Leeds & Liverpool, Calder & Hebble, Aire and Calder Navigation)
* Sloops (on Aire and Calder Navigation)
* Starvationers used in the Worsley Navigable Levels and the Bridgewater Canal.
* Trench boats (for 6' / 1.83 m locks on the Trench, Telford Arm of the Shrewsbury Canal)
* Tub boats (used on various canals including the Bude Canal and the Grand Western Canal)
* White boats (on Aire and Calder Navigation; with white side decks for working at night)
* Wide-beam narrowboats (more than 4.3 m beam)

Canal museums

* National Waterways Museum, Gloucester
* London Canal Museum
* Stoke Bruerne Canal Museum, Northamptonshire
* Ellesmere Port Boat Museum

Canal engineers

*James Brindley
*James Dadford
*John Dadford
*Thomas Dadford
*Thomas Dadford, Jr.
*James Green
*Sir Edward Leader Williams
*Thomas Telford
*John Rennie the Elder

See also

* Canals of Ireland
*Geography of the United Kingdom
*History of the British canal system
*Waterways in the United Kingdom
*Waterway restoration
*List of navigation authorities in the United Kingdom
*List of waterway societies in the United Kingdom
*World Canals Conference
*Canal ring


External links

* [ List of principal navigations]
* [ London Canal Museum]
* [ Waterscape]
* [ British Waterways]
* [ UK Canals Network]
* [ Search for information about the inland waterways]
* [ UK Government Inland Waterways Policy]
* [ UK canal route planner]

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