The vexing problem of transportation
Pretend for a moment that you are the abbot of a monastery somewhere in Britain. The year? Any time between the Dark Ages and the 18th century. You have sent your holy relics on a road trip to raise money for a new abbey church. But the best stone for your new church lies over 100 miles away. A hundred miles over roads that are impassable in wet weather and beset by brigands. How do you transport the building materials you need?

A canal aquaduct over the River Irwell
A canal aqueduct over the Irwell

The river solution
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
The most influential early canal was built by the Duke of Bridgewater in 1759 to carry coal from his mines at Worsley to Manchester. The Duke's engineer, James Brindley, became the 'pop star' of the canal set, and for the next dozen years, he was in constant demand to create canals for other entrepreneurs.

Towpaths and locks
Many of these early canals were powered by men, who pulled the barges with ropes from the banks. Later, towpaths were built beside the canals to allow horses to do the work. Most canals simply joined rivers or navigable streams. To counter changes in water levels between these rivers, locks were used, sometimes in flights (there is a flight of 30 at Tardebrigge on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal and 29 at Devizes on the Kennet and Avon).

Narrowboat at Stoke Bruerne, Northamptonshire
A traditional narrowboat at
Stoke Bruerne, Northamptonshire

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 1800s 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 is 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.

Waterways holidays in the UK
The Victorian Age