Introduction to Canals: History & current usage
( See History of the British canal system for a detailed history.)
Canals first saw use during the Roman occupation of Great Britain, and were used mainly for irrigation. However, the Romans did create several navigable canals, such as Foss Dyke, to link rivers, enabling increased transportation inland by water. Great Britain's canal network was steadily increased, but grew massively in the 18th century as the demand for industrial transport increased, and new canals were constantly added until the mid-19th century.
Traditional working canal boats
This large inland network was used as a transport system. Roads at the time were unsuitable for large volumes of traffic, and road vehicles were unable to transport large amounts of materials quickly. Canal boats proved more than adequate for this task, and so canals were constructed between industries, and between cities and ports, with vast amounts of materials from manufactured goods to coal and lumber being transported. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, the canals enjoyed great success, thriving in the late 18th and early 19th centuries before railways replaced them as the major goods transportation method in the latter part of the 19th century.
As trains, and later road vehicles, became more advanced, they became more economically viable than canal boats, being faster, cheaper to run, and able to carry much larger cargoes. The canal network declined, and many canals becoming unusable, filled with weeds, silt and rubbish. Some canals were even converted to railways.
However, in the latter half of the 20th century the canals saw a rise in popularity through their use by holidaymakers, who often rented a 'narrowboat' and roamed the canals visiting places they passed through. Canal-based holidays became popular due to their relaxing nature, cheap costs, and huge variety of scenery available; from inner London to the Scottish Highlands. For this reason the canal system was renovated and disused parts were reopened. As a result of this growing revival of interest, there are now even some new routes under construction for the first time in a century, linking navigable rivers and existing canals. A project called the Jubilee River, which diverts flood waters from the River Thames in Berkshire, is already open, but it was designed to look and act like a natural river, and it is not generally counted as a new canal.
The aim of bodies such as British Waterways (which owns about half of Britain's inland waterway network) is to fully reopen all disused canals. There is now a large waterways network of canals and navigable rivers throughout Great Britain, with most canals being linked to other canals, navigable rivers or the sea. In May 2005 The Times reported that British Waterways was hoping to quadruple the amount of cargo carried on Britain's canal network to 6 million tonnes by 2010 by transporting large amounts of waste to disposal facilities.
See History of the British canal system for a detailed history.