Discover the Attractions of the UK Canal System
If you are travelling overland in the United Kingdom, you will certainly notice the canals, as they seem to be everywhere. But what you might not realise is that the canal network can have some stunning attractions, or occasionally provide you with much needed facilities, in your motorhome.
Many of you might not know that there are two kinds of long-term travellers in the United Kingdom, roaming the country from east to west, north to south, and that they hardly ever cross paths. Van dwellers and people cruising on canal boats.
We first learned about canal boats, when Yasha’s sister and her husband bought one, and set off on their own nomadic way in 2014. When we returned to Europe, after our time in South America, we caught up with them as soon as possible. They had visited us in Peru , to get a taste of our life, and now we had the opportunity to get a taste of theirs.
There are two kinds of canal boats: a narrowboat, which can travel on all canals, and wide-beams, which are nearly twice the width and limited to a select few of the British canals.
Once you step inside a narrowboat, you’ll find that it’s not so much different to a motorhome. They have a small galley kitchen, some seating which converts to a bed, and often a cassette toilet. They also have water tanks, which need to be filled regularly. So canal boats rely on similar services to those you need for your RV. If you can find service points for boats, where you can get in with your camper, you’ll find almost everything you need… Just ask!
We recently found this at the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, a UNESCO World Heritage listed canal bridge. Being a tourist attraction, there was enough space to park overnight (and free, which is a lovely exception for the UK), a toilet building with a dedicated room to empty our cassette toilet, and at the wharf across the canal a water point to fill our tank. What more can you ask for?
But this post is not really meant to point you to the canals only for their services. Since I mentioned the UNESCO World Heritage List, you might guess already: the British canal system features some amazing technical marvels, well worth seeing!
The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
There are many good reasons that the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct [roughly pronounced as Pont-ker-sulth-tay] is so famous. This aqueduct was conceived in the latter part of the 18th century, by the engineers Thomas Telford and William Jessop, and it opened for traffic in 1805. It spans 307 metres, and is over 39 metres at its highest point. This makes it the highest canal or river aqueduct in the world.
The understructure is made from 18 arched stone pillars, which carry a series of cast-iron troughs. It holds 1.5 million litres of water. The ironwork was supplied from the foundries at Shrewsbury and nearby Cefn Mawr. Along one side there’s a towpath that you can use to walk across this bridge.
Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.
Now, these kinds of structures cost enormous amounts of money. To find investors for such a project there must a strong economic incentive. Certainly, none of the pleasure boats, mentioned above, would pay for such a bridge. Which brings me to the history of the English canal system.
The Canals in Great Britain
The first canals in Britain were constructed by the Romans, mainly for irrigation, but some were also built to transport goods. They figured that a barge, pulled by a horse, could carry much more than the horse itself. But it took until the early industrial revolution for an extensive canal network to be constructed. For a century-and-a-half the first canals were the main transport routes to ship coal, iron ore, slate, pottery, and the finished iron and steel products. All boats were still towed by horses (as in Roman times), hence the towpath on one side of every canal.
The last canals were financed and constructed in the mid to late 19th century – right when the steam engine was about to wipe out the commercial viability of transport by slow narrowboats along winding canals. Trains quickly took over most major haulage.
One major disadvantage of canals is that for most of the way they have to follow the natural contours of the land. So they hardly ever take a direct path from A to B. Necessary features, like series of locks and aqueducts, are expensive to build and maintain, and slow down boat traffic even more. Tunnels and aqueducts are usually one-way traffic only, and all locks are hand operated.
More about the history of canals in Great Britain on the site of the Canal & River Trust.
Which brings me to the next engineering marvel: boat lifts. Soon after the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct we were able to visit one of these lifts.
The Anderton Boat Lift
The Anderton Boat Lift is the oldest boat lift in the world, which is still in use. It’s one of only two boat lifts in the UK. It can lift boats from the River Weaver 15.2 metres up to the Trent and Mersey Canal.
In its heyday, the region was a major river transport hub. It was a costly and lengthy exercise to unload river boats and carry all freight up to the canal boats for further transport. After dismissing the idea of installing a series of locks to connect both waterways, this lift was opened in 1875.
After a half hour wait, we were lucky enough to watch two boats using the lift at the same time. One was going up, the other coming down. There’s also a large modern visitor centre with facilities, a snack bar, and some exhibits about the history of the Anderton Boat Lift. This site is accessible to wheelchair users, and free.
Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.
Since I have already mentioned two boat lifts in the UK, I will include the Falkirk Wheel, although we haven’t been to this one yet!
The Falkirk Wheel
When commercial canal traffic declined, many of Great Britain’s waterways fell into disrepair. This also happened to a series of locks in Scotland, which connected the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal – a major connection between Glasgow and Edinburgh. The renewed interest by leisure cruisers finally led to the idea of reopening this connection.
But instead of re-constructing the old locks, it was decided to build a modern 21st century structure, the Falkirk Wheel. This is the only rotating boat lift in the world – and quite an impressive structure to see. You will find it near the town of the same name: Falkirk.
As I have shown you, there are quite a few sights along the canal system in Great Britain which are worth visiting. My list is by no means complete as, for example, there are also several famous flights of locks, like the Caen Hill Flight in Wiltshire, England. All are fascinating sights to experience some of the history of the canals in Great Britain.
Or, if you’re not visiting England in your own camper vehicle, why not hire a canal boat? It will be a unique holiday experience. There are plenty of companies, where you can hire canal boats as a tourist. Often you can moor up right in the centre of historic towns and villages.
Canals and Motorhomes
As I mentioned, the canal network not only makes for interesting stops, it can also provide much needed services for people travelling in a motorhome. But please be respectful: always ask permission, treat the facilities with utmost care, and don’t leave any rubbish behind! Only then will future visitors be able to find the same amenities we have come to value.
Wikipedia about narrowboats
Wikipedia about the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
Canal & River trust about the Anderton Boat Lift (with video!)
Wikipedia about the Falkirk Wheel (with video!)
The Instagram page of the Canal & River Trust for further inspiration to visit the canals.