The Water Road: Paul Gogarty Examines the History of Britain's Extensive Network of Canals and Explains How, after Years of Neglect, It Is Undergoing a Major Overhaul

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WHEN TOM ROLT MADE A 640-kilometre narrowboat journey through the Midlands in 1939, he found closures, dereliction and unbridled pollution; conditions he summed up in a single observation: "The Trent is so black and foul after its journey through the Pottery towns that even the grass shrinks from its banks." The story of Rolt's journey, first published in 1944, was felt by many to be an obituary to the country's first modern national navigation.

Two decades later, the writing was on the wall. The 6,840 kilometres of waterway that had existed in 1840 had shrunk to just 4,465 kilometres and what was left was in a terrible state of disrepair.

It was at this point, however, that things slowly began to change. The Inland Waterways Association (formed by a group that included Rolt) began asserting more influence and local volunteer groups started to clear stretches of canal in their spare time. The tide slowly began to turn, but no-one would have predicted the extraordinary transformation that has taken place over the past decade.

There are currently as many stretches of canal opening or reopening as there were at the height of the late 19th century's `canal mania'. British Waterways, which oversees the lion's share of the network, is spending an average of 1million [pounds sterling] per week on restoration. Among the current projects is the opening of the Ribble Link, which was planned 200 years ago, and the reopening of the Standedge Tunnel, the longest, deepest and highest ever built. Victorian engineering marvels, such as the Anderton Boat Lift in Cheshire, have been restored, and in Scotland, the incredible Falkirk Wheel--the only revolving boat-lift in the world--is now fully operational. Most significant of all has been the framing of a new wisdom, learnt almost by chance, that where urban waterfronts are reborn, so are inner cities.

Although Birmingham was once the pioneer of architectural barbarism, the renaissance of the Brindleyplace waterfront at the city's heart is serving as a blueprint for the rest of the country. Leeds, Nottingham and Manchester have all seen similar inner-city resurrections, and the on-going Paddington Basin development in London--centred on the Regent's Canal--is the largest urban regeneration project in the country. Rail passengers should soon be able to alight at Paddington and step straight onto riverboat taxis that will speed them to work.

I was fortunate enough to bear witness to this remarkable renaissance during a recent four-month waterborne journey of my own. On my 15-metre rented narrowboat Caroline, I travelled through each of the cities mentioned above, covering more than 1,450 kilometres and working my way through 628 locks.

`The Cut' is the generic nickname bestowed on the entire canal network, recalling England's first itinerant navvies, or navigators, who made the literal cut in the landscape for our first modern national navigation, and in so doing cut a history deeper than the chariot tracks left by the Romans. It was the Romans, predictably enough, who dug the first man-made canals up on the Fossdyke and Witham--two Lincolnshire navigations I visited in the course of my journey.

But it was James Brindley, above all others, who was responsible for the creation of the world's most concentrated network of waterways designed solely for navigation. This virtually illiterate, self-made man had a vision of a `grand cross of canals that would link the Thames to the Severn, Mersey and Trent, a vision that helped give wing to the Industrial Revolution. Before canals existed it was very much a hit-or-miss affair whether a tonne of coal, carried over appalling roads by a pair of ponies and a cart, would ever arrive. Once canals appeared, however, you could load 30 tonnes onto a boat and predict precisely when the cargo would arrive. The increased efficiency led to a drop in prices that brought innumerable goods within the budgets of ordinary people for the first time. …