|Canal Boats, Narrowboats and Inland Waterways
You might be surprised to learn that every year more than 10 million people visit Britain’s waterways. Fishing, walking along the towpaths, observing and enjoying the wildlife and, obviously, boating are just some of the pleasures of a day out or a holiday on the water.
The glory days of our waterways may be long gone but they are still a national asset, and one that should be cherished. A few decades ago our inland waterways were little more than dirty, derelict ditches; unloved, ignored and neglected. A few working boats struggled to maintain trading in these poor conditions, and pleasure boating was viewed with derision, not surprisingly considering the conditions.
The formation of the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) in 1946 stemmed the decline and started the slow and painstaking raft of improvements, the benefits of which can be enjoyed by us today. It took the IWA many years to convince the government, local authorities and a doubting public that the canals and navigable rivers were a treasure worth saving and investing in.
Today, the waterways are seen as a valuable and aesthetically pleasing part of Britain’s landscape, whether a tranquil slice of nature in a bustling city centre, or a hub of local activity deep in the quiet countryside. Not only do the waterways have a great leisure value, their commercial side is now being re-evaluated as some companies are again using the system to carry freight.
The inland waterway network is huge and links all the major cities, ports and industrial heartlands via rivers and canals. From the late 18th century onwards, boats supplied new factories with raw materials and carried away their finished products.
Unfortunately, with the dawn of the railway age the waterways prosperity was ended. The Victorians saw rail travel as the way forward. Finance was diverted to build the rail network- some railway companies even bought up canals with the intention of neglecting them to negate the competition.
The surviving canals had to reduce their tolls to the minimum to stay in business, which left no money for improvements or to enlarge the canals so they inevitably slipped even further behind the railways.
By the 20th century the advent of road travel and haulage delivered further blows to a system already in its death throws. Sadly, some waterways have been abandoned and neglected so badly that they can only be traced through ancient maps.
Since the 1960s a core of thousands of dedicated volunteers led by the IWA have worked hard to bring the canals and navigable rivers out of retirement and back to something approaching their former prestige. A number of canal restoration projects started in the last quarter of the 20th century; some are still ongoing and some were completed by the millennium. This century partly destroyed canals have been restored and there are even plans to for some new canals to be built to give access to isolated parts of the system.
Thanks to this sterling work, funded by a mixture of government agencies, European agencies and business, hundreds of miles of inland waterways have been brought back to their former beauty and vitality, and can again be enjoyed by people all year round.