As island dwellers, we are surrounded by water but it’s not just our shores that keep us wet. Our inland waterway network is something to be proud of and features some of history’s finest engineering feats. We take a closer look at the wonderful world of canals across the Shire region
When we think of canals our first thoughts often turn to Venice with its stunning Italianate architecture, ice-cream wielding gondoliers and complex network of watery routes winding through the ancient city. But the Italians were not the first to harness the power of manmade trenches to control the flow of water – that credit is given to the Mesapotamians in approximately 4000 BC who started digging channels to help with irrigation. The method caught on and was quickly replicated across China and India before the super smart ancient Greeks worked out a lock system to vary the height of different sections and the equally intelligent Romans adapted the system for their aquaducts.
‘Boats adorned with flowers and the soft splutter of an engine put most of us in a relaxed mood’
TEST OF TIME
Cut to many thousands of years later and canals still play a major part in transport on a global scale. Exploration and industry would have been hugely hampered without the development of the Suez and Panama canals and today’s World Heritage Sites would be missing no fewer than 65 listings. In Britain the industrial revolution would have been a shadow of the pioneering success it was without our ground-breaking canal system and much of what made our manufacturing sector a world leader may never have reached beyond the inland towns and cities that were behind it. Once the network sprung up across the nation everything from coal and slate to pottery and produce could be easily moved around the country or to ports and ships heading abroad. It is generally considered that the introduction of this transport system was practically a prerequisite to the economic growth of the era.
These days the canal system has taken a back seat from its hectic industrial role and is viewed in general as more of a pretty feature of the country than a necessity. Thoughts of our inland waterways conjur images of lazy days, a slow pace of life and a gentle, pottering existence. Colourful boats adorned with flowers and the soft splutter of an engine put most of us in a relaxed mood as we explore the network, either on foot or by boat, and many of us dream of escaping the rat race to live permanently in one of these miniature floating homes. But it is not just human traffic that enjoys the canals – they also provide an important eco-system for many of our native birds and fish that either lurk in their murky depths of nest along their banks.
One thing it for sure – without the canal network as we know it in this country life would be very different to what it was in our proud industrial past and what it is now in our frantic modern world.
Whether you want to get on, in or just near to the canal network, there are several options available to explore these wonderful waterways
Obviously climbing aboard a colourful canal boat and drifting contentedly along the water is one well-loved way of exploring the network, whether that’s for an hour-long jaunt along an aquaduct or an unhurried two-week tour of the Cheshire Loop. It’s a relaxing way to appreciate the scenery and celebrate of that proud heritage. Boats available can range from two person vessels to huge 12-man barges with multiple kitchens and bathrooms for a luxurious floating home experience. Perfect for a family gathering, canal boats offer a simple escape from the rat race or for groups of friends as a hen or stag party alternative.
Canoeing is another popular pastime – and again one that commands a slower pace of life combined with a little gentle exercise at the same time. Whether you have a team of keen kayakers or are a first-time canoer, the canal network provides an excellent place to paddle with no waves and tides to take into account. The still, calm waterways are ideal, so long as you plan your route in case you come across any locks or other features tricky to navigate. Non-powered vessels will need the right licensing to use the inland waterways – unless you are already a member of British Canoeing or Canoe Wales who get to use the waterways for free. Pick up a day, week or month visitor licence by calling 0303 0404040.
Stand up for it
The latest craze of paddle-boarding, where you stand up to power your long board along the water, is another great way to make the most of our canal system. The sport can only be done on flat calm water so is a challenge on most rivers and even lakes whereas the manmade canal system is the perfect environment. In fact, over in Cheshire the Canal & River Trust charity has signed up its first ever paddle boarding club in a formal adoption agreement – to look after
a stretch of the River Weaver Navigation. Mid Cheshire SUP (Stand Up Paddle) boarders, based in Winsford, have formally adopted 1.8 miles of the river from Winsford Marina to Newbridge. The club, which has more than 20 members, regularly paddles along the river but will now also clean and clear litter from the river banks, as well carrying out wildlife surveys. The Trust cares for 2,000 miles of Britain’s waterways but sometimes struggles to collect rubbish from inaccessible places like reed beds. Paddle boarders are in an ideal position to reach shallow sections close to the river bank which act as traps for plastic, cans and other rubbish.
The right angle
Many angling clubs hold regular canalside competitions and fishermen and women are regular sights along the banks and towpaths.Make sure you have a permit – most fishing rights on the canal network are licensed to local angling clubs. For the stretches not covered by local organisations you’ll need a ‘Waterway Wanderers’ permit which for just £20 will give you access to many miles of canal fishing in England and Wales for a whole year.
On hot summer’s day it can often be tempting to take an extra step and actually cool off in the canal. But this is a step too far and swimming in the canal network is strongly advised against by the Canal and Waterways Trust as well as NHS medics and even wild swimmers who are generally keen to jump into most bodies of water. Canal water sits stiller than most, so can be prone harbouring bacteria and even parasites, especially in urban areas or when storm drains may overflow carrying sewage into the waters. Swimmers risk stomach upsets and a lot of the canals are actually quite shallow so jumping in can be dangerous too. Basically, the canals are best enjoyed from on, or by, rather than in, the water.
DID YOU KNOW?
There are over 2,000 miles of navigable inland waterways in the UK
We are lucky enough to be surrounded by some of the country’s finest canal networks and inland waterway systems. Here, the Canals and Rivers Trust gives us its top five recommendations for exploring what’s on offer in our wonderful region
1. The Anderton Boat Lift is held in such high regards by engineers and boatpeople alike that it has been nicknamed the ‘Cathedral of the Canals’. After more than a century in operation it still leaves visitors in awe as it effortlessly lifts boats and barges the 50 feet from the River Weaver to the Trent and Mersey Canal. An engineering masterpiece, the boat lift was the world’s first hydraulic canal boat lift, designed as a two caisson lift lock and the structure has been designated as a scheduled monument, now protected by its National Heritage status. In July 1872 Royal Assent was granted for the Weaver Navigation 1872 Act, which authorised the construction of the boat lift, which took a total of 30 months to build, costing £48,428 (around £4.2 million today).A world firstIt was formally opened in July 1875 and operated for over 100 years before the effects of continued use and water corrosion began to be felt. In 1983 it closed until 2001 when a £7 million restoration scheme began thanks to a substantial grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It was reopened, along with its new visitor centre and associated exhibition, in 2002 and is now operated by the Canal & River Trust, drawing more than 120,000 visitors each year.
2. The Llangollen Canal has long been a favourite part of the network and that popularity has seen it recognised as one of Britain’s most spectacular waterways – a fact that has been celebrated by it taking centre stage in BBC Countryfile Magazine’s 10th anniversary issue. The focus of the article was a feature on a canal boat family holiday by well-known presenter John Craven who said the 46-mile Llangollen Canal made the perfect setting for an ‘exhilarating’ short break aboard a canal narrowboat for him and his grandsons. Tranquillity and tensionThe area is also home to the Llangollen Wharf and the Chirk Tunnel and in 2009 an 11-mile section of the canal from Gledrid Bridge near Rhoswiel through to the spectacular Horseshoe Falls was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO. This includes some of the finest features of the waterways such as Chirk Aqueduct and of course it’s even more famous neighbour...
3. Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. When it comes to marvels of the industrial age, there can be few sights more immediately impressive than a towering aqueduct, the idea of which was ridiculed initially both by engineering sceptics and the canal builders themselves. The towering structure of Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is probably the best known example and its easy accessibility at Trevor Basin in North Wales makes it an absolute must-see of the canal network. Technical challengeEarly canal builders did not enjoy building aqueducts because the weight of the water meant they needed a very substantial masonry structure to support it. These problems eased slightly when they started using cast iron troughs in the late 18th century as seen on the Pontcysyllte structure. To further strengthen the building process, ox blood was added to the lime mortar used to bind the masonry together. This followed the ancient superstition that the blood of a strong animal would strengthen a building or structure. Whether that vital ingredient helped or not will never be known, but the famous ‘stream in the sky’ has certainly stood the test of time and is now classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Why not park at Trevor Basin and walk across… just don’t look down!
4. The National Waterways Museum. If you’re exploring our fabulous canal network then visit the home of its heritage, The National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port in Cheshire. Sitting at the point where the Shropshire Union Canal meets the Manchester Ship Canal and the River Mersey it is home to one of the greatest collection of historic boats in the world. The museum site occupies the former canal port, designed by Thomas Telford, covering an area of seven acres that was in use until the 1950s. It was founded the 1970s as the North West Museum of Inland Navigation, later The Boat Museum and then the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port.Modern museum The exhibits and visitor experience use interactive and virtual reality technology, so you can truly experience what it was like to live and work on the waterways. The collection of historic boats is attracts visitors and at certain times of year short boat trips along the Shropshire Union Canal are the highlight of any day out.
5. Shropshire Union Canal. One essential part of the waterways that is always worth a visit is the stunning Shropshire Union Canal – and this beautiful stretch has now been recognised with the honour of a prestigious Green Flag Award. These impressive international honours are granted as a sign to the public that the space boasts the highest possible environmental standards, is beautifully maintained and has excellent visitor facilities. The newly crowned section of the Shropshire Union Canal stretches from Audlem to Barbridge Junction and then connects to Middlewich. The waterway joins 219 parks and green spaces across the North West region judged to be some of the best in the country, which is the highest regional total outside London. Flying the flagThe Green Flag assessment report praised the contribution made by dedicated volunteers to keeping the canal in great shape for visitors, commenting that ‘Community engagement and volunteering is very strong on this Waterway. The award-winning renovation of Nantwich Aqueduct is an excellent case study of partnership work with the local community, town council and local companies.’ The award is a great achievement for the Canal & River Trust who work hard to manage the canal. Their spokesperson adds: ‘We are grateful to all those who have given up their spare time to improve the canal and towpath for everyone’s benefit.’
DID YOU KNOW?
The Wardle Lock Branch of the Trent & Mersey Canal is the shortest in the UK
The preservation and restoration of our canal network is a continual process. There is always a call for more volunteers, whether that involves helping count the wildlife or clear the vegetation that grows on the banks, and the Trust are happy to hear from anyone with a few hours to spare. But some areas need even more dedication than others to fully achieve their vision, such as the Montgomery Canal in Powys. It is currently undergoing a major restoration project which will result in significant improvements in water quality and boating opportunities. Widely recognised as one of the most picturesque canals in the country, it offers a quiet, unspoilt area for exploration and is being rescued thanks to the efforts of the ‘Restore The Montgomery Canal’ appeal.
Leading the way
One of those spearheading the campaign and its fundraising work is Michael Limbrey MBE, chairman of the Montgomery Canal Trust, who has been fundamental in bringing the restoration project this far. He said: ‘The Montgomery Canal restoration is supported by canal enthusiasts across the country, with volunteers coming to week-long work camps as well as regular monthly working parties and fundraising events such the Triathlon organised by the Friends of the Montgomery Canal. This brings entrants from up to 200 miles away, many coming year after year, and is a great way to introduce people to the canal and to the glories of
The Montgomery Canal is known for its range of locks, aqueducts and canalside buildings and for its valuable habitats - designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest – so the continued work to restore it to its former glory and protect it for generations to come is a vital project for the local area. The restoration itself is managed through the Montgomery Canal Partnership bringing together voluntary bodies, public agencies and local authorities on both sides of the border. Learn more at Montgomery Canal Forum on 2nd July, 2.30pm at Welshpool Town Hall.
It may seem unlikely that these industrial, man-made structures could become a natural habitat, but multiple wildlife surveys have proved that this is the case and even throughout the most urban areas, these simulated wetlands attract all different kinds of flora and fauna
Canal and river habitats are surprisingly diverse and nature thrives on the waterways. Though built for industrial and agricultural freight, our waterway channels are now among our most abundant wildlife habitats. Other water features, such as rivers, side arms, winding holes and backwaters that feed into the network add to the diversity of aquatic habitats available.
Canals and navigable rivers were colonised by plants and animals soon after construction. Now, 200 years later, many are designated as important nature sites at local, national and international level. Their slow flows and managed water levels provide
a unique habitat that has become a vital resource for wildlife.
Along the towpath and in and around the banks, you will often find nesting birds, sheltering mice, frogs, toads and even burrowing water voles. As the environment allows plenty of wild plants and flowers to grow, consequently this attracts large numbers of insects, vital to the survival of the rest of the eco system surrounding the areas. Due to this abundant food supply sustained by the canals and rivers, surveyors have been able to spot badgers, squirrels, dragonflies, grass snakes, kingfishers and bats to name a few. The canalside embankments, where land and water meet, are particularly valuable for biodiversity. Depending on the structure and vegetation cover, the waterway banks can provide habitats for a wide variety of wildlife including water birds, water voles, crayfish, and the delightful otters.
DID YOU KNOW?
Water voles daily consume 80% of their own bodyweight in food
Even areas that never reached their peak as part of the industrial heritage of the canal system, have a lot to contribute when it comes to the local flora and fauna. Locally the Prees Branch canal in Shropshire is one such richly diverse area.
A spokesperson from the Shropshire Wildlife trust explains: ‘This stretch of canal was built in the early 1800s, a branch of the Llangollen Canal which was abandoned even before it was completed due to lack of financial support. It is valued today as a marvellously long pond, a quiet backwater for all kinds of water creatures and birds such as mallard, moorhen, swans and kingfishers.’
‘Lurking in the depths of the canal are some very rare pondweeds which have earned it protection as a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Yellow water lilies can be seen in summer and otters can be spotted all year round.’
Over in Cheshire, wildlife experts have been particularly pleased to see a growing water vole population, much of which relies on the canalside around Nantwich to make its home. Water voles live in colonies, made up of a series of adjoining territories along a riverbank, which can be up to 2km long. Recently these have been surveyed and filmed as part of a Wildlife Trust project with encouraging results. Project Officer Dr Vicky Nall explained how the trust hoped it would inspire people to keep an eye out for these native creatures when they’re around the canals. If anyone wants to take part in the next survey they are welcome to join in. Email Vicky – firstname.lastname@example.org or Chris email@example.com if you are interested in helping assess a watercourse near you by keeping an eye out for these little mammals.