Coolcanals: Waterways Directory & Information Guide. Waterside Walks & Cycling, Boating & Holidays in the Waterways Outdoors


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History & heritage

What are canals? Who built them? And why?
It's a story of trade and innovation, with entrepreneurs such as Wedgwood and Cadbury, and the genius of engineers such as Telford and Brindley. The canals were built over 200 years ago yet are very much part of today. On the waterways, past meets present not just in museums - there's living evidence all around.

Today's canals are for leisure, yet this green retreat was originally built by the sweat of navvies for the profits of industrialisation. The engineering feats of the era created canals for essential transportation in the golden age when British manufacturing was dominating world economics. The Industrial Revolution couldn't have happened without canals, the 4mph motorways of the time. The purpose of canals was to transport raw materials and goods for the growing manufacturing business in Britain. Factories shot up, operating along the inland waterways, and the success of canals as a tranport system led to the Industrial Revolution and Britain's boom in prosperity.

Most canals were built for boats 7ft wide by 72ft long, aptly called narrowboats. Some were wider, up to 14ft, and accommodated wider boats called barges. Initially working boats were crewed by men alone, but at the start of the railway era, canals became less lucrative so, for economic reasons, a boatman's family had to move lock, stock & barrel onto the working boat which became the family's home too.

Decline & boom
Competition from the railways eventually brought canals into a deadly decline, and many were abandoned and left to decay until the second era of 'canal mania' launched over a century later with the leisure industry. Standing for the status of material power and urbanism and created for speed by Victorian man, canals now paradoxically offer his descendants the space in which to slow down from the very urban success canals helped build.

How still waters run up & down hills
Canals are 3ft-deep linear troughs of still water, running ingeniously up, down, and through the contours of Britain. Tunnels, aqueducts, swing bridges and staircase lock flights take narrowboats where nature never intended - yet this is a manmade union between physics and nature which is unique, graceful and undeniably beautiful...
How a lock works Power, beauty and simplicity make locks the mystery and marvel of the canals: their simplistic genius lives on since they were first constructed and still, even by a child's small hand, the turn of a handle can carry a steel narrowboat in hundreds of tons of water up and down hill by means of a narrow chamber and a set of gates and paddles. Two centuries on, the physics and engineering still fascinate the onlooker, and the romantically painted black and white arms stretching out from the locks give the landscape its character too.

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