The Highways Of The Past: Discover England’s River Canals

Before the development of railways and later on, trucks, river canals were the highways of Europe and the United Kingdom. They were developed in Britain for hundreds of years until modern transportation methods rendered them obsolete, but they have found a new role with recreational boating. Their heyday was around a 200 or 150 year period starting with the Industrial Revolution and ending with the development of trains.

For years the canals were abandoned, but today they are once again increasing in use with abandoned and derelict canals being reopened and restored back into use. There is even the construction of some new routes.

The History of The Navigatible Canals of Great Britain

The earliest history of the canals of Britain dates back to the Roman period – but during these times, they were used more for irrigation than for transportation. The Romans did make use of some navigable canals (like the Foss Dyke) but not on the scale as later on.

  • Earliest Canals: From The Roman Period

The navigable canal network grew as the demand for industrial transport increased. They were important in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution as the primitive roads of the time were just incapable of handling the required volumes of traffic. The roughshod and juddering roads were not suitable for transporting fragile items like pottery.

Compared to these roads, the canal boats were much quicker and were able to carry greater volumes. One example of how they transformed transport, is that the coal of coal fell by 75% in Manchester after the Bridgewater Canal arrived was completed.

Through the 18th and early 19th centuries technology of the canals improved and the canals were able to go straight up and down hills with a series of locks. Aquaducts were built to cross valleys while tunnels were cut through other hills.

  • Railways: Rendered The Water Canals Obsolete

But by the mid-19th century, the writing had appeared on the wall for the charming British highway system. Railways were being developed and soon well outpaced the canals. Some of the canals became unusable and became filled with weeds, rubbish, and silt – a few were even converted to railways.

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The Navigatable Canals of Britain Today

Most of the canals in England and Wales are now maintained by British Waterways (formerly the Canal & River Trust) and the Environment Agency – although there are also other canals managed by other organizations.

Most of the canals of the UK are able to handle boats with a length of between 55 and 72 feet (17 and 22 m).

  • Manchester Ship Canal: Built In 1894 Was Then The Largest Ship Canal In The World Handling Ships Of Up to 600 feet (183 meters)

Today there are around 4,700 miles (7,600 km) of navigable canals and rivers throughout the United Kingdom – with the vast bulk being in England.

  • Total Navigable Canals: 4,700 miles (7,600 km)
  • Total Connected Canals: 2,700 miles (4,345 km)
  • Speed Limit: The Speed Limit For Most Of The Canals Is 4 mph (6.4 km/h)

Of those 4,700 miles of navigable canals, around 2,700 miles (4,345 km) are connected into an interconnected system. Most of them are part of a single English and Welsh network from Bristol to London, Liverpool to Goole and Lancaster to Ripon, and connecting the Irish Sea and the North Sea. All of these canals can handle narrowboats of 7 feet or 2.1 meters wide and no longer than about 56 feet or 17 meters.

The main interconnected routes not connected to this large system are those found in Scotland.

Related: The Best Way To See The Nile River Is By Cruise, Here’s What To Know Before You Book

Hiring Holiday Narrowboats In England

“Your boat comes with, TV, bedding, fully equipped kitchen, flushing toilet and central heating. Whether it’s a short break or 2 week holiday we can advise on local places of interest and of course the best canalside pubs!”

River Holidays

Today it is easy to hire narrowboats in England and is a great way for those who would really like to see and discover all the charm of England at a slow pace. This is a great option for those with a bit more time.

  • Facilities: Narrowriver Boats Have All The Comforts Of Home

River Holidays offers rental riverboats to access The Kennett and Avon and Oxford canals. With them, one’s narrowboat holiday will start and finish at Sutton Courtney, near Abingdon, South Oxfordshire, a beautiful part of the countryside. They provide training on how to use the boats as well as other need-to-know info like navigation rules, etiquette, locks, boat safety, and boat facilities.

“A canal boat holiday offers you the chance to visit waterside villages, historic cities and stunning countryside, all from the comfort of your floating holiday home.”

Waterway Holidays

Another company offering riverboat holidays in England is Waterway Holidays. They offer a large range of rental options all around the country. Putting along with one’s narrowboat on the English canals is going to be a completely different experience than having a cruise down the mighty Mississippi!

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