My interest in canals and associated subjects started in the year man first walked on the moon following a weeks holiday on the River Avon. A second holiday travelling around the ‘Stourport Ring’, led me to join the Inland Waterways Association. An advert in Waterways World provided the opportunity to sign up for a weeks course in Canal Art at ‘The Hill’, Abergavenny and I became hooked canals, canal history, canal architecture and canal art.
A Brief History of Canals
The English Canal system was built in the 1700’s and was Britain’s first national transport network although built by many different companies to many different standards. The main network, radiating out from the Midlands, was built to accommodate boats seven feet wide and seventy-two feet long. The cross-country routes in the North and South of England were built to take boats up to fourteen feet wide but of varying length. Much of the network was very successful and profitable until the coming of the railways who by and large wanted to see their end. Many canal companies limped on until the Second World War when the remaining canals became very run down through excessive use like the railways. After the war the canals, together with the roads and railways, were nationalised and by the end of the 1960’s the canal system seemed to be standing on a knife edge. On the narrow canals commercial carrying had all but ended and many miles of canals were in a sorry state. There was much talk about many waterways silting up forever or being filled in. However, the British public seem to like a ‘lost cause’ and thanks to the efforts of the Inland Waterways Association, founded in 1946, an increasing number of people were actively promoting the restoration and development of the canals. It was hoped that commercial traffic could return to the larger waterways with a leisure use being developed on the smaller ones.
By the mid 1970’s an increasing interest resulted in an explosion of boats available for hire. This had spin offs in many directions including a souvenir market for items painted in the traditional patterns of ‘roses and castles’. People who had enjoyed hiring boats bought their own or wanted a property that back onto a canal. Many new groups sprang up to promote the restoration of individual canals that were thought to be lost forever. In the last twenty years, there has even been a few new waterways built. In 2012 the British Waterways Board, who had managed the canals since the 1960’s, evolved into the Canal and River Trust. This new body gave people the opportunity to make monthly subscriptions to help keep the network viable and develop it in new ways. Many inner-city industrial sights fronting canals have been transformed into sort-after locations. The centre of Birmingham, near Gas Street Basin, is a prime example and very recently the Regent’s Canal, behind King’s Cross station in London.
Today our canal networking is thriving again and there are now more boats on the network than during the height of commercial carrying. There is also an increasing number of people living on canal boats, especially in areas like London and Manchester where house prices are so expensive. In retirement, people are down-sizes, buying a boat and spending months exploring. Social media has created any number of groups to look at the past or share information on all subjects associated with the canals. 2021 sees the 75 anniversary of the Inland Waterways Association, the body that helped drive all these changes forward.
Time for the simple pleasure
in all that we found,
To absorb the history in presentation,
as we wandered around.
Time to walk the towpath
To meet hard rivals in competition;
Time to study the story
of narrow boat life.
To admire the colourful ingenuity
of the hard pressed wife.
Time to share the team work,
the primary colours in miniature homes,
Time to look at the museum,
the careful display that speaks of the past,
Time to think of families,
their small floating homes,
hardworking times in all whether, long hours but….
Happy and free of Mill life.