Once the backbone of British industry the United Kingdoms extensive canal network was abandoned when faster methods of transporting goods were invented. As the network started to gain more use from the leisure and tourism sector things improved giving us plenty of opportunity’s for canal walking in the UK.

Bridgewater Canal, Runcorn

Bridgewater Canal, Runcorn

Historical Overview

By the beginning of the 1970,s almost all commercial traffic had stopped using the canals to transport goods and switched to road transport instead. A small canal tourism industry just about kept some canals open for traffic but many routes were declining into a bad state of repair and closed.

falkirk wheel

The Falkirk Wheel

All over the country volunteer groups were formed with the task of restoring and maintaining the network. Managing to re-open some of the already closed canals paved the way for increased funding as awareness of the network for business and tourism grew.

As money became more readily available big restoration projects were completed alongside the endless work still being done by the groups of volunteers.

Today the canal network is busy with leisure craft and many jobs have been created around this industry with canals seen as more of an heritage issue more now than anytime since the last commercial barges stopped using them in the 1960,s.


The Benefits of Canal Walking

The very nature of canals make them great for walking long distances with flat long sections of towpath and the locks bunched together on short hills. The condition of the towpath is usually good if you are walking one of the bigger canals and does tend to be at it best when near a big city or populated area, while some of the smaller routes are easily passable but can sometimes get a little muddy especially after rain.

Good direction signposting on canals usually with some idea of distance to the next town or city gives indication of your walking progress and speed. The older miles markers can sometimes be hard to find as most are built into the towpath and can get hidden by plants.

If your all walked out its easy to leave the canal network by one of the many exits and find transport home, please be aware if your out in the wilds you will most likely not find reliable public transport back to home base. I like to at least have some idea of transport options when walking a new piece of canal. The saves on more walking than needed which can be worse when your tired.

Always something to see when canal walking from colorful barges to wildlife and the beautifully constructed bridges and tunnels on the network. Taking a camera will usually yield some good photo’s especially if your into the various wildlife that call canals their home.

Canal Safety

Pontcysyllte aqueduct

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

There’s nearly always a verge between the towpath and the water but if you have to walk close to the water to avoid puddles or other objects do so carefully.

Canals may not be very deep in places but its basically stagnant water and not very pleasant or good for you (speaking from my own unfortunate personal experience).

You may dry off quickly in the summer but believe me when I say that the smell just doesn’t go away until you’ve changed clothes and showered.

Even on the brightest day take a torch with you, there are long tunnels on some canal routes and it can get very dark inside.

Walking canals at night is not really advisable, not only for the risk of ending up in the water but also from a personal safety point of view. Canals are usually out of site of houses due to distance or natural barriers and this does tend to attract a few groups of children and adults after dark.

We’ve walked and wild camped on the UK canals but have always made sure we are off the canal, away from any built up area and far away from the towpath before bedding down for the night.

The Future

With fossil fuel price becoming a problem for road haulage company’s canals are once again being giving serious consideration for transporting materials with plans to upgrade and even extend the existing network. This increased use should in theory keep existing canals in use and hopefully open up some of the routes that were mothballed years ago.

Lets hope that this slice of history is there for future generations to enjoy.

Bridgewater canal photo courtesy Wikipedia Falkirk wheel photo courtesy Wikipedia Pontcysyllte aqueduct photo courtesy Wikipedia

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