The origin of canals in Britain and their demise in the face of railways. The history of traditional narrowboats.
British Waterways and Canals - a short history
BY DAVID ROSS, EDITOR
The vexing problem of transportation
By river, that's how. Until the 18th century most heavy goods were transported within Britain by river. And it isn't hard to see why. A healthy horse could pull a cart laden with two tons. That same horse could pull a river barge weighing one hundred tons. But by Tudor times the navigable rivers were gradually silting up. Several acts of Parliament were passed to keep the rivers clean, but by the 18th century the rivers could not keep up with the demands of the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. It was time for a change, and canals provided that change.
The Canal solution
One of the major difficulties of canal transport was that there were no standards. Canals were built by individual entrepreneurs to take local goods, and each canal was built to its own width and depth. Boats from one area could not fit the canals in another area. To keep costs down many canals were built with locks only 7 feet wide, and the boats just 6 inches narrower than that. These 6'6" boats are the classic British "narrowboats" that we still see today.
The death of canals... and revival
Railways killed the canals. By the late 1800's canals were no longer viable, and many fell into disuse. In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in canals for pleasure use. Vacationers in search of the slow lane can rent a narrowboat (don't worry, they are very easy to pilot) or stay on a hotel boat for a leisurely cruise - top speed 4 mph! One of the pleasures of canal travel are the lock keeper's cottages. It was traditional for lock keepers to try to outdo each other in creating beautiful gardens; there is now a national competition for the best lock-keeper's cottage garden.
Canals to visit
A few of the major canals you may wish to visit include Regent's Canal in London, the Kennet and Avon, the Shropshire Union, and the Grand Union Canal, among dozens of others. And here's one final tidbit of canal trivia you can use as an ice-breaker at your next party : there are more miles of canals in Birmingham than in Venice! Remember, you heard it here first.
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