Britain is networked by a canal system which is now largely used for recreational purposes. Hoseasons operates canal boats on almost all of them where you can barge thru england. Originally they were a cheap way to carry the new industrial goods but were gradually superceded by the railways in the 19th century. Canals are artificial waterways constructed for drainage, irrigation, or navigation. Irrigation canals carry water for irrigation from rivers, reservoirs, or wells, and are designed to maintain an even flow of water over the whole length. Navigation and ship canals are constructed at one level between locks, and frequently link with rivers or sea inlets to form a waterway system.
The first major British canal was the Bridgewater Canal 1759-61, constructed for the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater to carry coal from his collieries to Manchester. The engineer, James Brindley, overcame great difficulties in the route. By 1761 it had opened as far as Stretford, and was extended to the Cornbrook wharf in Manchester by 1763. The canal, which was sold to
the Manchester Ship Canal Company in 1887, continued to be used for goods traffic until the mid-1970s. By 1805, Britains canal network extended some 3,000 miles linking many of the country's natural river system. Today, many of Britain's canals form part of an interconnecting system of waterways some 4,000 km / 2,500 miles long. Many that have become disused commercially have been restored for recreation and the use of pleasure craft. Inns line the route of many canals and sitting outside in the summer at a canalside inn watching the world go by can be a delight. One inn in Netherton near Dudley in the Midlands, has actually installed an old canal barge inside the building and uses it as the serving bar.
The Dry Dock is also filled with lots of highly decortated canal related furniture and is located just below the junction of three canals. The Midlands was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution and therefore also the birthplace of Britain's canal network. The Grand Union, Shropshire Union, Trent and Mersey, Staffordshire and Worcester, Worcester and Birmingham and the Macclesfield canals all bisect the Midlands area linking the River Trent near Nottingham with the River Severn at Worcester and the River Nene near Northampton.
There are many canal systems around the UK where level changes have resulted in a series of locks. Installed to allow boats or ships to travel from one level to another, the lock has gates at each end. Boats enter through one gate when the levels are the same both outside and inside. Water is then allowed in (or out of) the lock until the level rises (or falls) to
the new level outside the other gate. The lock gates close in a V shape so that the weight of water does not force the gate open when the water levels are different on each side.
The first canal aqueduct in Britain, across the River Irwell at Barton, was opened in 1761. The longest navigable aqueduct in Britain is the Pontcysyllte in Clwyd, Wales, opened 1805. It is 307 m / 1,007 ft long, with 19 arches up to 36 m / 121 ft high.
The Caledonian Canal in northwest Scotland, 98 km / 61 miles long, links the Atlantic and the North Sea. Situated between the Moray Firth and Loch Linnhe, the canal was constructed as a transport route to save the long sail around Scotland. It is one of Scotland's largest marina facilities. Of its total length, only a 37 km / 22 mile stretch is artificial, the rest being composed of loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness. Thomas Telford began construction of the canal in 1803 and it was completed by 1822.
The Crinan Canal located in Argyll and Bute unitary authority, Scotland, links Loch Fyne and the Firth of Clyde to the Sound of Jura and the Minch. Completed in 1801, it replaced the long sea-passage around the Mull of Kintyre. The canal is only 7 m / 23 ft wide, too narrow and shallow for heavy commercial traffic today, but yachts, pleasure cruisers, and a few fishing boats continue to navigate its waters.
The Forth and Clyde Canal is located in central Scotland, joining the River Forth to the River Clyde. It flows east for 60 km / 37 miles, from Grangemouth on the Forth to Bowling on the Clyde, and divides Scotland at its narrowest part. The canal was completed in 1791 and closed to navigation in 1963. It has now been lovingly restored both for boating and recreational use.
The Ashby Canal runs for 22 lock free miles through pleasant countryside and skirts the Civil War battlefield at Bosworth Field.
The Birmingham Canal links the City of Birmingham to the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal and the start of the Shropshire Union Canal at Aldersley, just north of Wolverhampton. The canal passes through Smethwick and under the M5 at Oldbury. There are two branches off the canal at Dudley, where the famous Dudley tunnels pass under the town. The Dudley tunnel starts from the basin at the fabulous Black Country Museum and surfaces at Parkhead Locks. The Netherton tunnel starts at Dudley Port and surfaces at Bumble Hole where Cobbs Engine house can be found along with the excellent Dry Dock Pub. Both tunnels are more than a mile in length. The canal continues through the Black Country industrial areas of Tipton and Coseley before reaching the city of Wolverhampton. It passes by Wolverhampton's racecourse,
Dunstall Park before meeting the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal.
The Caldon Canal starts just south of Stoke on Trent and meanders into the Staffordshire countryside, running for a short distance along the River Churnet. It has some extremely attractive stretches and the isolated Consall Forge must be visited.
The Coventry Canal leaves the Trent and Mersey Canal at Fradley Junction and runs for 38 miles up 13 locks to Coventry. It is neither a long nor outstandingly attractive canal but it was, and still is, an important link between the northern and southern canal networks. Leaving Fradley Junction, the canal first cuts across flat wooded land, passing an old World War Two airfield, to Tamworth and Fazeley where the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal goes off to join the Birmingham Canal System. Spoil heaps from the old coal mining industry soon rear unusual shapes on the skyline, though much of the mining and quarrying scars have been quickly covered by landscaping and wild growth. Hawkesbury Junction used to be a bustling canal centre where boat people would take a rare opportunity to socialise while waiting for their next loads of coal from the local collieries. There's a stop lock, designed to prevent water belonging to one canal company being used by an adjoining canal company, in this case the Oxford Canal Company whose canal starts here. The Coventry Canal carries on through the suburbs into Coventry. There is a pleasant flight of 11 locks at Atherstone. They are partly in town and partly in countryside. Atherstone holds a football match on Shrove Tuesday which follows 12th century rules!
The Grand Union Canal is part of the eastern portion of the canal system of Great Britain, connecting London, via Northampton and Leicester, to Nottingham and the River Trent. The Grand Union Canal leaves the River Thames at Brentford and climbs over fifty locks up into the Chiltern hills. It descends then climbs again to a new summit in Birmingham, 137 miles and 166 locks. The Leicester section branches north at Braunston and climbs a little less less steeply before falling to join the River Soar which flows into the River Trent. It has 59 locks and is 66 miles long. The Paddington Arm and Regents Canal in London go close to the city centre, through Regent's Park and London Zoo to meet the Thames again at Limehouse Basin. The climb up to the Chilterns goes through some beautiful scenery, especially through the partly 17th century Cassiobury Park. Stoke Bruerne and Braunston are old canal towns. Just north of the Northampton Arm, which gives access to the Lincolnshire Fen district, you pass Weedon barracks, built here two hundred years ago because it was thought to be the place in England farthest from any possible coastal invasion. There are long tunnels at Blisworth and Braunston. The line into Birmingham goes through Royal Leamington Spa, fashionable in Victorian times and Warwick, famous for its medieval buildings and castle. The Leicester section is interesting and varied, leaving the main line at Norton Junction south of Braunston and joining the River Trent near Kegworth. The canal section before Leicester is very rural at times and has two tunnels at Crick and Husband's Bosworth and staircase locks at Watford and Foxton. Foxton is the site
of a steam powered Inclined Plane which replaced ten locks and lifted narrowboats 75 feet. It was opened in 1900 but suffered from mechanical and structural problems and the locks were reopened in 1908. For the last twenty miles or so the route is along the River Soar which is a tributary of the Trent. There is some very pleasant river scenery along the Soar.
The Kennet and Avon Canal is located in the south-west of England linking the Thames at Reading with the Avon at Bath, a distance of 145 km / 90 miles. Designed by Scottish engineer John Rennie, the canal was built 1810, closed in the 1950s, and reopened 1990. The Kennet and Avon is an impressive feat of engineering, made up of two river navigations and a linking stretch of canal. It runs from the Severn Estuary near Bristol to the River Thames at Reading, over 100 miles long with more than 100 locks, some magnificent engineering and crossing some of the most beautiful scenery in southern England. It was only reopened in 1990 after decades of dereliction. The Avon Navigation cuts through wooded hills and the famous Avon Gorge on its way to Bristol and then meanders up to Bath. The canal then climbs the Caen flight of locks to Devizes and runs amidst rolling hillsides along the Vale of Pewsey towards Hungerford to descend through pasturelands, woods and watermeadows to Reading and the junction with the River Thames.
The Lancaster Canal was built early on in the canal revolution but with a break between the northern section from Preston up to beyond Lancaster and the southern section from Wigan to near Chorley. The problem was the Ribble valley. The canal was never profitable enough for the considerable engineering works, locks or aqueduct, which would have been needed to cross the deep valley. The southern section became part of the busy Leeds and Liverpool Canal but the isolated northern section became a backwater. The northern terminus at Kendal can no longer be reached, the canal was culveted when the M6 motorway was built across it in the 1960's. The canal runs for 42 lock free miles through pleasant pasturelands, overlooked for most of the way by the foothills of the Pennines, from which hang gliders often soar. Just
north of Lancaster the sea shore is only a few hundred yards to the west and you can see the sands of Morecambe Bay and across to the magnificent mountains of the Lake District. There is a short branch to Glasson Docks, which has six locks. The canal is peaceful right through the year and the lack of locks makes it ideal for those who want a relaxing
holiday or novices who want to avoid locks. The canal was engineered by John Rennie, and the bridges and aqueducts are built on his usual massive classical scale. The five arched Lune Aqueduct is 660ft long and commonly accepted as one of the wonders of the canal world.
The Leeds and Liverpool is easily the longest canal in Britain of 127 miles. It links the north west seaport of Liverpool with the Aire and Calder Navigation at Leeds, forming a through route between the Irish Sea and the North Sea. The canal climbs away from the Lancashire plain into the Pennine hills from Wigan, up the famous 21 locks, through the once proud cotton towns of Blackburn and Burnley where victorian mills can still be seen. The summit level goes through some fine moorland scenery over the 'backbone of England' , plunging through the mile long Foulridge tunnel. It then begins to descend amidst remote and beautiful countryside through the market town of Skipton into the Yorkshire Dales and on towards the bustling city of Leeds and the heart of the West Riding of Yorkshire. After Leeds, the Aire and Calder Navigation opens up a fascinating range of Yorkshire waterways, some once industrial, some very rural. The Yorkshire Ouse takes you to the ancient cities of York and Ripon. The South Yorkshire Navigation leads to the restored basin at the heart of the city of Sheffield. The Leeds and Liverpool is a barge canal, built with locks 60 feet long and 14 feet wide, reaching a height of 487 feet above sea level on the summit at Foulridge. The locks between Liverpool and Wigan are longer at 72 feet, as are the 2 on the branch to Leigh, where the junction with the Bridgewater Canal allows boats to reach the narrow canals of central and southern England. A second branch links the canal at Burscough with the River Ribble via the small port of Tarleton.
The Llangollen Canal leaves the Shropshire Union Canal just north of Nantwich in rural Cheshire and climbs through deserted Shropshire farmlands to cross the border into Wales near Chirk. It then cuts through increasingly hilly countryside to finish alongside the River Dee tumbling out of Snowdonia, just above Llangollen. The 41 mile long Llangollen Canal is probably the most beautiful canal in Britain, certainly it's the most popular. The scenery varies from isolated sheep pastures to ancient peat mosses, from tree lined lakes to the foothills of Snowdonia. The canal has three major engineering feats. The aqueducts at Chirk and Pontcysyllte were built by the engineers Thomas Telford and William Jessup and were among the first to use cast iron troughs to contain the canal. At Chirk the trough is supported by conventional masonry arches but at Pontcysyllte the trough is exposed and sits atop 120 foot high slender masonry towers. When you cross it by boat there is an exhilarating sheer drop on the non-towpath side! Constant landslips on the stretch from Trevor to Llangollen meant closing the section for two years to rebuild long stretches of the embankments above the
River Dee and encase the whole canal in a concrete trough.
The Manchester Ship Canal which links the city of Manchester with the River Mersey and the sea; length 57 km / 35.5 miles, width 14-24 m / 45-80 ft, depth 9 m / 28.3 ft. It has five locks. The canal was opened in 1894, linking Manchester to Eastham in Merseyside. The canal transformed Lancashire's economy by making Manchester accessible to ocean-going craft. In particular, it led to the development of the cotton industry as raw cotton was transported east along the canal to Manchester and the finished textile products were shipped west to the Merseyside ports. Although the area has suffered industrial decline, the canal is still in effect the `port of Manchester´, handling approximately 16 million
tons per year.
The Oxford Canal starts by the River Thames in Oxford and runs for 77 miles, mainly through quiet rolling countryside, to near Coventry where it connects with the midlands canal system. At one time it was the main transport route from the midlands to the south of England and it is now one of the most beautiful and popular cruising canals. From world famous Oxford, founded nearly a thousand years ago and with its many University Colleges, the canal heads north through pleasant pastures, through the old canal village of Thrupp and passing close to the magnificent Blenheim palace, Winston Churchill's birthplace. The countryside becomes more isolated with rolling hills around the old
village of Lower Heyford, neighbouring Upper Heyford had a large USAF base. The Oxford Canal, built early on during the canal mania period, is a contour canal following the contours around hills, rather than having cuttings and embankments like later canals. The course is very winding in places and often looks much more like a river. Above Napton it twists and turns so much that the Napton Windmill, only a few miles distant, is visible for many hours, and in many different directions! The northern section begins below Napton locks. The section up past Rugby was straightened in the nineteenth century, almost halving the length of the original winding route. You can still see the remains of some of the straightened out loops and the entrance to the old Newbold Tunnel is near the churchyard. The new tunnel is at right angles to the old one and is of fairly generous dimensions, having a towpath on both sides. It joins the Coventry Canal at Hawkesbury Junction.
The Rochdale Canal runs from Sowerby Bridge in West Yorkshire, England, to the Bridgewater Canal in Manchester. Opened in 1804, it uses the lowest pass through the Pennines. Its banks are lined with factories, many of them in ruins; it is now closed to navigation.
The Shropshire Union Canal runs from the edge of urban Wolverhampton through some of the most underpopulated areas of England to the River Mersey at Ellesmere Port, about sixty miles in all. The scenery is often quite dramatic, with sweeping views across to the Welsh Marches and the ancient volcano of The Wrekin; from the long embankments and with the atmospheric heavily wooded deep cuttings, a number of which were reputed by the old boat people to be haunted. The northern end of the canal is at Ellesmere Port which was a transhipment port from canal to sea-going ships. The old docks now house The Boat Museum which has a unique collection of ex-working boats and waterways exhibitions. The canal was one of the last built and borrowed from the latest railway building methods, taking a direct line cross country, on embankments and through cuttings. These were massive undertakings, Shelmore embankment took six years to build and Woodseaves cutting is 100 feet deep. Nearly all the locks are bunched together in flights. This made for quicker working by the boat people because locks could be easily prepared in advance of the boats. The Shropshire Union was formed by the union of a number of canals, that from Nantwich to Chester was built to broad barge standards, and many miles of little used branches through Shropshire were abandoned early in the 20th Century. There are long vistas across open farmlands towards mid Wales and across to Cheshire and Staffordshire from the high canal embankments. There are many elegant high bridges that span the deep cuttings common on the Shropshire Union Canal. The sides of the cuttings are so steep in places that landslips are common and sunlight rarely penetrates. Despite this plants and mosses cling to every available slope.
The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, leaves the wide River Severn at Stourport and potters along twisting river valleys and then through some remarkable sandstone scenery around Kinver. It skirts the edge of suburban Wolverhampton and then crosses the wide open farmland of Cannock Chase before joining the Trent and Mersey canal near the beautiful Tixall Wide. It is 46 miles long with 45 locks. Stourport is a fascinating inland port, much of the port area little changed from the eighteenth century. There are four interlinked basins, clock tower and the old Tontine hotel, built by the Canal Company in 1788, overlooking the Severn. Kidderminster was a centre for carpet production and is now the terminus of the Severn Valley Steam Railway. Kinver village and the surrounding sandstone hills get many visitors, as does the Vine pub which sits right alongside the lock at Kinver. Towards the northern end of the canal is Stafford which has many fine old buildings and is worth a visit and also Tixall Wide where the canal opens out to become more like a tree lined lake with views of Tixall Gatehouse. The canal has two sets of unusual locks, at Bratch and Botterham. The two locks at Botterham are a staircase, locks placed close together which share gates. The Bratch locks are not a staircase but there is only a few feet between them. Both sets of locks can be confusing to work through for the first time but there are instructions posted about how to work the locks and Bratch normally has a lock-keeper on hand to help during the summer.
Just north of the junction with the Shropshire Union Canal near Wolverhampton there is a narrow cutting just over half a mile long through rock, which is not wide enough for boats to pass. There are passing places. Birmingham sits on a plateau about 200 feet above the surrounding countryside, and would probably have been passed by by early canals which were intent on linking the Rivers Trent and Mersey and Severn. Local merchants funded a meandering 10 mile canal to serve local coalfields but the rapidly developing Industrial Revolution led to over 180 miles of canals and 216 locks being built over the next 100 years and Birmingham became the heart of the narrow canal network. Even the coming of the railways did not slow the growth of trade, over eight and a half million tons a year were being carried at the end of the nineteenth century and canals and railways worked together to supply the 'Black Country's' industry and population. There were over 40 basins where goods were trans-shipped. Canals serviced the canalside factories, railways carried raw materials in and products out to the the country and world. Commercial trade disappeared in the middle of the twentieth century and 54 miles of canals were closed, but the remaining network is still a uniquely interesting area to explore, overflowing with industrial heritage, tunnels, flyovers, factories and warehouses. The city of Birmingham is making maximum regeneration use of the space and life that canals can bring into the heart of urban areas and building some stunning waterside developments. The Birmingham Canal Network can currently be accessed from five directions. From the north the link with the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal climbs the 21 Wolverhampton locks to join the 'new main line' built by Thomas Telford in the 1820's to straighten James Brindley's twisting contour route. He made use of deep cuttings and embankments and the wide canal had a towpath on either side. From the south comes the Worcester and Birmingham, and from the south east the Grand Union Canal. The Birmingham and Fazeley Canal comes in from the east, forming a network through the centre of the city of Birmingham. The Dudley Tunnel, closed to powered craft, gave access from the west. Boats now use the wide Netherton Tunnel with towpaths either side and gas lighting built to overcome the bottleneck caused by the old narrow tunnel. There were also links in the north east area to the Staffordshire and Worcestershire at Hatherton and to the Coventry Canal at Huddleston. The two large loops of canals in the North Eastern area served coalfields, especially those around Cannock which were the last to close in the 1960's. Subsidence has always been a major problem because of mining activities. Lappal Tunnel (11,385 yards) which gave a faster link to the Worcester and Birmingham was closed in 1917 due to subsidence, though even it now has a society planning to reopen it.
The Stratford-Upon-Avon Canal runs for just 25 miles from the Birmingham suburbs to the River Avon in Stratford on Avon. There are 54 locks. Although the canal is fairly short it goes through some enchanting countryside in the very Heart of England, cutting through the Forest of Arden with its ancient oaks, and falling gently across quiet rolling countryside and watermeadows to the Avon and Stratford. The area has numerous Shakespearean links. Although the canal initially prospered it suffered badly from railway competition. The lower section from Lapworth to Stratford became almost disused early in this century and was almost closed in the 1950's. However there was a campaign to restore it for pleasure boating and it was taken over in 1960 by the National Trust. It was reopened after restoration work, much of it by volunteer labour, in 1964. This success gave impetus to many other restoration schemes and greatly increased interest in the use of canals for pleasure cruising. Once it leaves the Birmingham suburbs the canal passes through nothing other than small villages until it reaches Stratford. The delightfully named neighbouring Warwickshire villages of Preston Baggot, Wootton Wawen and Wilmcote are all attractive with old houses, churches, inns and Halls or Manors. Lapworth is an interesting canal junction where a short spur connects to the Grand Union Canal which runs parallel close by. The final descent through the Stratford suburbs is uninspiring until you pass under a low bridge and come out amongst hordes of visitors in Stratford Basin, alongside the River Avon and the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. The canal has one tunnel at Brandwood near King's Norton Junction where it leaves the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. It has three interesting aqueducts with cast iron troughs, the largest at Bearley (or Edstone) near Wootton Wawen. There are unusual barrel-roofed lock cottages along the canal. Stratford Basin is right in the visitor heart of Stratford Upon Avon.
The Trent and Mersey Canal begins, as you would expect, within a few miles of the River Mersey, near Runcorn and finishes in a junction with the River Trent in Derbyshire. It is just over ninety miles long. It is one of the earliest canals, built by James Brindley, with much of historical interest, passing through some pleasant countryside. It struggles from the Cheshire plains up thirty one locks, often called Heartbreak Hill, to cut beneath Harecastle Hill in a spooky and watery tunnel one and three quarter miles long. It passes through the industry of the Staffordshire Potteries out into rural Staffordshire and then Derbyshire. Shardlow near the River Trent, is one of England's best preserved canal towns. Josiah Wedgwood was involved in getting the canal built and the Wedgwood factory and museum are canalside just south of Stoke on Trent. The canal is known for its tunnels, at Harecastle, Barnton, Saltersford and Preston Brook. Saltersford has a kink because tunneling started at different points and didn't quite meet in the middle! Preston Brook has a large central chamber where a collapse was repaired, and cruising through the pitch dark confines of Harecastle tunnel is an experience nobody forgets! Anderton lift carried narrowboats down to the River Weaver near Northwich.
The Worcester and Birmingham canal links the two cities, built to connect the River Severn in Worcester to the Birmingham Canal System via a quicker route than the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. At first, because of opposition from other canals, there was no direct connection in Birmingham, the last few feet of canal in Birmingham were left uncompleted. These days the ring formed by the two canals and the river makes a popular two weeks holiday route. The canal travels through some very pleasant countryside, climbing from the Severn through rolling fields and wooded cuttings and slicing through a hilly ridge south of Birmingham. At Bournville is the Cadbury's Chocolate Factory which has tours and exhibitions. Cadbury's had a fleet of immaculately painted narrowboats which carried their raw materials to the factory. There is also the village built by the firm for its workers and two half timbered houses which were moved here from other parts of Birmingham. The canal has four tunnels, the longest at Kings Norton near the junction with the Stratford Canal is just under two miles long. Steam tugs were used from the 1870's to haul strings of narrowboats through the four tunnels. There's also the famous flight of thirty locks at Tardebigge, hard but interesting work for boat crews. The Worcester and Birmingham canal is well known for it's locks, 58 in all climbing 428 feet from the level of the River Severn in Worcester up to Birmingham. Originally it was planned to use lifts to greatly reduce the number of locks and to save canal water. However there was some concern over whether the lifts would be robust enough, and good water supplies were secured by building reservoirs at Tardebigge and later at Upper Bittal, so locks were built instead. Tardebigge reservoir was below the canal summit level so a steam engine was used to lift the water above the locks. The engine house still stands. One lift was built, but it was not reliable and became the top lock at Tardebigge. This accounts for it's great depth, fourteen feet, one of the deepest on the canal system.