Canals are simply manmade rivers, which have historically been used to transport goods by ship, especially before cars were commonplace. They are stilled used due to low cost, but mostly today in many countries are used more for the leisure industry, with barges being hired by tourists. Canals often provide good riverside walks and cycle ways, although the steep banks means you have to keep dogs and children on a tight rein.
Water Ways: A Thousand Miles along Britain’s Canals is the perfect guide to these amazing feats of engineering, built to carry the rural to the city, and the urban to the country. Saved from extinction as a ‘slow highways network’, canals have become a peaceful haven in our too-busy age. Today there are more boats on canals than during their Victorian heyday. Jasper Winn spent a year exploring them on foot and by bike, in a kayak and on narrowboats. He discovered a world of wildlife corridors, underground adventures, heritage, new boating communities and remote towpaths. He also meets walkers, boaters, volunteers and eccentrics who have made the waterways (most people live within 5 miles of one) their home.
Most canals contain a lock, which enables boats to sail through different levels of water. Worldwide, there are two types of canals: waterway canals are the most common, which connect two bodies of water to help ships sail through. Aqueduct canals tend to transport water between areas, either for agriculture or human use (most canals are not fit for drinking water).
Some of the best-known canals worldwide are the Suez Canal (that connects the Red and Mediterranean Sea), the Panama Canal (which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean) and the Bruges Canal (which connects the Belgium city of Bruges with the North Sea).
In England, the problem with most canals (especially in urban areas where they are used for tourism) is that the water is dirty and often full of litter, and the canal banks often also need clearing up. In Britain, canals are filled with plastic and litter. Not only is this unsightly and not good for tourism, but the rivers are home to many native creatures like otters and beavers and could cause harm. So let’s see how we can keep our canals clean, for all species.
- Never drop litter near canal paths, always take items with you. Also avoid disposable items like straws or plastic cutlery, all of this can harm native wildlife, if it falls into the river.
- If you see blue-green algae, keep both you and dogs away as it can be harmful. It looks like a shimmering blue-green layer on the surface, and sometimes makes the water look a different colour. Report it to Canal River Trust, who can clean it up, and put up warning signs for the public.
- Join a Towpath Taskforce Team. You can volunteer to weed gardens, clear litter, repair tow paths, plant hedges and paint locks, whatever’s needed. You’ll be trained to safely use equipment and have experts on hand to help. Just wear outdoor suitable clothing and sturdy cloths, and bring your own packed lunch and waterproofs. You could alternatively join a Canal Camp, a volunteer working holiday which includes cheap accommodation, transfers and free cooked food.
- If you sail a boat in a canal (like a barge), download the Green Boating Guide, which has lots of free tips to keep our canals safe and clean. You’ll discover practical tips, and find how diesel-powered boats can be more than 90% carbon-neutral.
Safety Tips Near Canals
Whether a canal is deep or shallow, all are dangerous as they have dirty water and steep sides. Many have rubbish lurking below opaque waters, like broken class. Canal water is also untreated so could contain chemicals if they have been illegally disposed. Most canal water is also icy cold, even in summer.
- If walking by canals, plan your routes and tell others where you are, and stay away from the edge (keep dogs on leads and children to hold your hand).
- Wear suitable clothing and check the weather before you go. Take your phone and a whistle, in case you get into difficulties.
- Keep to well-lit areas, and never go near ice (never throw balls or sticks on ice, if dogs are nearby).
- If you see someone in trouble, call 999, keep talking to the person and throw a line or tree branch, if you can.
Books about Canals
Three Women and a Boat is the true story of Eve, who left her 30-year career to become a free spirit; Sally – who waved goodbye to her indifferent husband and two adult children. And Anastasia, an independent narrowboat-dweller, suddenly vulnerable as she awaits a life-saving operation. Together they embark on a journey through the canals of England. As they glide gently – and not so gently – through the countryside, the eccentricities and challenges of canalboat life draw them together, in this tender and unforgettable story.
The Bookshop That Floated Away is the tale of a strange business plan that landed on the desk of the bank manager. With pictures of rats and moles in rowing boats and quotes on Cleopatra’s barge, the manager said no to a loan to buy a black-and-cream narrowboat and a small hoard of books. But The Book Barge opened six months later, and enjoyed the happy patronage of local readers and a growing number of eccentrics. As Sarah Henshaw set off for six months chugging the length of the country, books were bartered for food, accommodation, bathroom facilities and cake. During the journey, the barge suffered a flooded engine, went out to sea, got banned from Bristol – and on several occasions floated away altogether. This book follows the ebbs and flows of her journey, as she sought to make her vision of a floating bookshop a reality.