Britain's Other River System: Established during the Industrial Revolution, Britain's Canal Network Is Enjoying a Resurgence. and the Combination of Colourful Narrow Boats, Impressive Aqueducts and Water-Loving Wildlife Offers Photographers a Wealth of Canal-Related Opportunities

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For most people, the Industrial Revolution conjures up images of child labour in noisy cotton mills and a forest of chimneys in northern England belching smoke and soot over the roofs of cramped terraces. Little thought is given to the network of canals built to provide a direct route between factory, port and quarry for the transport of raw materials and finished goods on long, open-hold barges.

Long after child labour was abolished, the mills shut down and smelters demolished, nearly all of the canals remain, really restored and now given a new role, providing a welcome leisure diversion for the nation's rapidly growing urban population. Britain has more than 3,000 kilometres of canals, stretching from the Caledonian Canal in the Highlands of Scotland to the Kennet and Avon Canal England's West Country. This network of manmade rivers is the oldest national canal system in the world, started in 1761 with the construction of the Bridgewater Canal between Worsely and Manchester.


While the railways are rightly regarded as the greatest transport legacy of the Industrial Revolution, it was the canals that provided Britain with its firm modern national transport network. Long before Robert Stephenson drafted the blueprints of the Rocket, or Sir Thomas Telford laid his first mile of track, canals provided the means for the efficient transport of large quantities of raw materials, most notably coal, iron ore and china clay, to the smelters and factories of northwest England.

By the mid-19th century, the British landscape had been transformed by a network of inland waterways linked to major river systems by locks, aqueducts and tunnels. Unsurprisingly, many of the engineers who built canals adapted their experience and disciplines to the development of the railways. After all, railways shared the same basic requirements of canals: a straight and true course, as level as possible no matter what the terrain. However, a river barge was far slower than a steam train, and it wasn't long before freight moved off the barges and onto the railways, causing large chunks of the canal network to become derelict.

Fortunately, canals have found new life supporting hundreds of residential houseboats as well as weekend leisure and narrow-boat holidays. A 4mph (6.4km/h) speed limit on the inland waterways means the narrow boat is the least intrusive mode of transport upon the British landscape. Indeed, the ease with which they slip into view makes these vessels an essential ingredient in the photography of these atmospheric scenes.


Whether you're on the deck of a chugging narrow boat watching the landscape glide by, or taking in the scene of a picturesque stretch of waterway, canals provide a wonderful array of subjects to photograph. Narrow boats--so called because they are just tinder seven feet (2.1 metres) wide and around 50 feet (15.2 metres) in length--make appealing subjects in their own right. In undulating rural settings, a narrow boat adds a welcome splash of colour and foreground interest to the gentler background hues of green. Canal banks with grass verges and draped with drooping boughs of willow make an idyllic backdrop for the contrasting reds, yellows and other warm colour tones found on so many narrow boats.

A tighter crop with a longer lens allows for compositions that fill the frame with brilliant colour and design details that adorn the boats' decks. In the spring and summer months, many narrow boats are decorated with potted plants, providing even more photographic potential, as well as a seasonal context to the image.

Moorings are often crowded with boats lined against the water's edge, giving you plenty of time to set up your camera and tripod to compose your shot. Remember, narrow boats are people's homes, so if people are on deck relaxing, or going about their business, exercise courtesy by asking if they mind you photographing their boat. …


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