Posted 15th Jan 2018
Mike Clarke, canal historian and the Canal & River Trust explains how the canal system came out of a post-war decline to became the treasured leisure destination it is today
Following the nationalisation of the canals, railways and ports in 1948, it was suggested that many of Britain's smaller waterways should be closed.
However, the need for further legislation that would be required to achieve this meant the waterways survived, albeit being significantly underfunded.
It proved to be fortunate for the canal system that 'Narrow Boat', a book by Tom Rolt, was published at the end of the Second World War. It described his journey around a system which was in decline, but also one with an unspoilt charm.
His descriptions of this unchanged way of life which survived on canals proved to be attractive to many, with increasing amounts of leisure time and, during the post-war days of austerity, a longing for the certainties of the past. An important result was the formation in 1946 of the Inland Waterways Association (IWA), as a way of fighting for the preservation of and investment in Britain's waterway system.
An uphill battle for the canals
For a number of years, the development of canals for leisure proved to be an uphill battle, which requires a complete change in attitude for a traditional cargo carrying industry. Yet gains were made, with the Ellesmere Canal (now known as the Llangollen) brought back to life in 1955.
In 1963, the British Waterways Board was established, but it was not until Barbara Castle's Transport Act of 1968 that the leisure value of canals was officially recognised and the waterways were given public money to support their use for recreation.
To push for further improvements, practical restoration-projects were started by enthusiastic canal societies and the IWA, amongst them being the restoration of the Kennet & Avon, Peak Forest and Ashton canals from the 1950s to the 1970s. Once again, the importance of canals to local communities was beginning to be realised, though this time for leisure and recreation.
Local communities and economies
The successful canal restorations were carried out by enthusiasts in the 1960s and 70s, together with the innovative reuse of canals in Birmingham's city centre which were planned by British Waterway's Architect Peter White, leading to a re-evaluation and recognition of the benefits of canals to local economies.
These works proved to be a catalyst for urban regeneration in Birmingham and elsewhere, encouraging the growth of 'brown-field' redevelopments long before the term became fashionable. Today, the heritage value of old industrial architecture has become widely accepted, with many canalside buildings now finding new uses, ranging from museums and leisure centres to pubs, restaurants, offices and Manhattan-style loft conversions.
The traditional use of canals are not forgotten, but as a way of assisting modern life, canals will not just move heavy goods - fibre-optic cables are hidden below the towpath to carry the traffic of modern information technology and also using the waterways to transfer water from regions of surplus to areas where it's most needed.
These operations prove to be the hidden aspects of the canals, with most people seeing them as a place of leisure, from walking, boating and cycling to fishing and enjoying their industrial history and wildlife.
It was in 2012 that the Canal & River Trust formed, with the government passing the control of our waterways to the new charity.
Text, information and image courtesy of the Canal & River Trust