What are Canals?

The United Kingdom has a large network of canals and inland waterways. These canals have a very interesting heritage and are considered to be a very important part of the country, but what are canals and why are they there?

What are canals?

Canals are man-made waterways which are designed to serve a purpose. This purpose is normally either water conveyance or vehicular passage. These waterways usually have integrated features which allow users to exert greater control over the flow of the water. Features like dams and locks also enable users to have more control over the water level, meaning that canals are less likely to flood than natural waterways are. If canal levels do start to rise because of heavy rain, it is normally possible to release water in a controlled way. In some cases, water may be released from natural waterways into the canal system to try to reduce flood risks.

A canal can be a completely original structure which is built in an area where there was no previous waterway. Some of these canals are dug out of the ground so that they are on a level with the surrounding earth. Other canals are created by piling earth up (known as dykes or levees) to create a raised central channel. The type of canal which is constructed can depend on the intended usage and the geography of the area in which the canal is scheduled to be built.

A canal can also be adapted from an existing waterway. Modifications can be made to streams or rivers to help to increase human control and make the waterway more navigable. The process of canalisation can include; dredging, damming, widening and reinforcing the banks of the stream or river. The works can also involve rerouting the path of the water.

A water bridge (also known as a navigable aqueduct) may need to be created to allow the water to pass over a large valley. These bridges can prevent the need for a series of locks which would be required to allow passage up and down the hills. Alternative ideas, such as boat lifts may also be used to allow for larger changes in level. The Falkirk Wheel is a prime example of a boat lift which can be found in Scotland.

Canals in Britain

The first canals in Britain were built by the Romans as a method of water supply and irrigation. Like Roman roads, Roman canals tended to be long and as straight as possible. They were used as a way of directing water to areas where there were no natural water sources or where more water was needed. An example of this type of canal is Foss Dyke in Lincolnshire. Foss Dyke was subsequently improved during the eleventh century.

During the Industrial revolution, the number of canals in Britain and the UK began to increase rapidly. There was an increased call for navigable waterways to help to improve the transportation of goods and raw materials. Manufacturers were struggling to transport heavy goods using horse-drawn road vehicles, because of the weight and volume of the products. Barges made it easier to move larger loads over longer distances. Although most of these barges were still pulled by horses, it was much easier for them to move larger loads across the water than it was for them to pull heavy wagons over land. It is estimated that a floating barge is able to transport around 30 times more coal than the amount which can be transported using a horse-drawn cart.

Over time, many of these barges were converted to run on coal or alternative fuel sources. This allowed barges to transport even heavier loads whilst also reducing the reliance on animals. Without the need for horses, barges were able to pass through longer stretches which the horses previously found to be completely impassable. Canals such as the Manchester Ship canal were expanded so that they would be more suitable for larger, non-horse drawn vehicles.

Canals began to go into decline in the UK once rail network started to expand. Rail transport became a more sensible option for industrialists who were hoping move large quantities of goods or raw materials quickly. Some canals were forced to close and they fell into disrepair. It was only in the latter part of the twentieth century that canals started to become more popular for recreational usage.

Britain’s Canals Today

Canals are now considered to be a source of pleasure to many people. It is possible to rent residential boats for a holiday and cruise around parts of the canal network. Other people live aboard canal boats all year round. Living onboard a canal boat can be very different from living in a bricks-and-mortar home, however many people find that it is a very interesting and rewarding experience.

The canals in Britain have started to become great places to spot wildlife and interesting plant life. Thousands of species of fish, birds, insects and mammals now live in or close to Britain’s canal networks. Some animals which were previously nearly extinct in the UK, such as otters, have now been reintroduced to some of the country’s more peaceful stretches of canal. The Canal and Rivers Trust has stated that they are committed to keeping the canal network as clean as possible, so that new wildlife will be able to continue to flourish without risk from human canal users.