Monday, November 14, 2011

The British Canal System

James Brindley,
engineer of the first canal
My first big surprise with the canal system was to find out how old it is. I had somehow assumed that all those canals had been built at the same time the railways were built in the second half of the 19th century. But in fact the canal system is 100 years older: The first long canal was constructed in 1761 and the heyday of the canals was in the second half of the 18th century. The main reason for those huge projects was to get coal from the mines into the big cities. Transport with horses on roads was expensive and unreliable whereas canal boats were much cheaper and predictable. With the advent of the canals the price of coal was halved! More and more canals were built by different companies and were sometimes running parallel for several miles. But 50 years later the canals got a big competitor: Railway - and railway would eventually and almost completely replace canal transport.

In the first half of the 20th century most of the British canal system had fallen into disrepair. Only very few working boats were left and due to lack of maintenance some canals could not even be navigated any more. But in 1939 British writer Tom Rolt decided to spend his honeymoon on a narrow boat touring the canals and write a book about it. Very unexpectedly this book would trigger the renaissance of the British canal system after an unpromising start. First WW II intervened and then no publisher wanted the manuscript because there seemed to be no market for it. But when it was eventually published in 1944 it became an immediate success with both public and critics and stirred a new interest in canal boating as a form of recreation. The timing is very important here: The decrepit canal system was nationalised in 1947 and many canals were facing closure. Rolt's book and the Inland Waterways Association, a group co-founded by Rolt prevented closures through campaigning and created a lot of public interest in the canal system.

Today British Waterways runs the 2,200 miles long canal system that is used by approximately 35,000 boats. There is almost no commercial traffic left on the canals. Almost all boats are serving a recreational purpose and many people actually live on their boat year round. British Waterways maintains the canals, bridges, locks and tow paths and supports the boaters with water points, sanitary stations and rubbish disposal. The use of the canal system is free for hikers and cyclists on the the towpaths, but boaters have to pay for a license in order to use the canals. The price depends on the length of the boat: John with a 18 m boat pays 790 £ per year for his license that allows him to use the canals and all its services including short term mooring for up to 14 days at one spot. Only long term mooring costs extra. Boating has become incredibly popular in the UK and has created its own subculture. There are magazines ("Canal boat"), an internet forum ("Canal world") and tons of boat yards, marinas and boat shops.

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