Comeback of the Canal: Britain's Historic Man-Made Waterways-5,000 Kilometres of Canals and Navigable Rivers-Are Undergoing a Remarkable Renaissance

By Pegler, Lynn | Geographical, April 2009 | Go to article overview

Comeback of the Canal: Britain's Historic Man-Made Waterways-5,000 Kilometres of Canals and Navigable Rivers-Are Undergoing a Remarkable Renaissance


Pegler, Lynn, Geographical


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Take a walk along your local canal and you might notice a quiet revolution sweeping across the country--sailing along at six kilometres per hour.

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Derelict and unloved in the latter half of the 20th century, the waterways of Britain have benefited from millions of pounds of regeneration investment over the past decade. The introduction of the National Lottery and the Millennium Commission coincided with a national drive to reinvent our canals as places for fun, relaxation and tranquillity.

A major turning point came in 2000 when the government published the Waterways for Tomorrow white paper, which set out its vision for the network. John Prescott, deputy prime minister at the time, championed the cause, and government funding suddenly became available to tackle the huge backlog of maintenance work. Regeneration schemes popped up everywhere. Engineers who, only 20 years before, had been filling in urban canals found themselves digging them out again.

About 320 kilometres of canal have been added to the network since 2000, and major new visitor attractions have been opened at the renovated Anderton Boat Lift in Cheshire; the Falkirk Wheel, the impressive 21st-century boat lift in central Scotland; and at Standedge Tunnel, Britain's highest, longest and deepest canal tunnel, carved through the Yorkshire Pennines. Only recently, canals were being restored more rapidly than they were being built two centuries ago.

Leisure boats are returning in their thousands, and millions of people enjoy cycling, walking or angling along the towpaths. Wily developers have also been quick to get in on the act: living by an attractive canal can add up to 20 per cent to the value of a property. Water has been a major regeneration catalyst, particularly in our towns and cities.

URBAN RENEWAL

Robin Evans, chief executive of British Waterways, the government body that manages about 70 per cent of Britain's 5,000-kilometre navigable network, is well aware of the power of water. 'In this hurly-burly life we lead, many of us are very fortunate to have on our doorsteps these beautiful, tranquil waterways where we can feed the ducks, glimpse a kingfisher or watch the brightly painted narrow boats glide by,' he says. 'That beats living next to a main road or working in an office block, and this is something that local authorities, RDAs [regional development agencies] and developers have increasingly woken up to in the past decade.'

Public lottery funds have unlocked other grants from RDAs and local authorities eager for change. Formerly neglected, weed-strewn canal basins in cities such as Leeds, Birmingham, Nottingham, London, Gloucester and Manchester have been restored and are now surrounded by swanky new offices, restaurants and apartments.

One developer, Brian Jervis of Valley and Vale Properties in Manchester, is so convinced of the added value brought by water that he was prepared to sell his land to British Waterways for a nominal 1 [pounds sterling] to enable it to carry out the first phase of the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal restoration in Salford.

At 6.8million [pounds sterling] per 500 metres, it's not cheap. But the project will restore an important link into Manchester's River Irwell and has included the creation of two new tunnels, a new deep lock and two balancing ponds, the refurbishment of an existing lock, the widening of a bridge, the excavation of a filled-in channel, and the installation of a back-pumping system.

As part of the team managing the project, British Waterways engineer Fran Littlewood needs no convincing of the merit of her work. 'Everybody wants to be by water,' she says. 'It has a very calming effect. I cycle to work along the Bridgewater and Manchester ship canals and it's a great way to start the day.'

City centre schemes are always fraught with engineering challenges, but the British Waterways contractor Volker Stevin has delivered a transformation that must gladden the hearts of those who live and work in the area. …

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