An introduction to the British Canals

According to the Canal & River Trust, the charitable organisation tasked by the UK government with managing most (but not all) of the canals in the country as well as some (but also not all) of the rivers, there are two thousand miles of these waterways which we are free to enjoy. You can see a map of them on the CRT website

Free, incidentally, means free only if you are a pedestrian on the towpath since boaters, anglers, kayakers and other waterway users do actually have to pay a licence fee but I’ll come back to that later.

There are also canals which are controlled and operated by separate charities and trusts outside of the remit of the CRT. Many of these are in the process of being restored after falling into disuse decades ago. Examples include the Wiltshire and Berkshire canal; the Lichfield canal; the Chesterfield canal and many others. There’s an excellent list of these projects on the “Canal Junction” website

Equally, whilst the CRT looks after several of the UK’s rivers, many are instead operated by the Environment Agency which is a government department. You may think, as many do, that it is peculiar to have some waterways managed by a charitable Trust and others by the government, and that wouldn’t it be better if they all came under one body..?

That is certainly the view of the IWA – the Inland Waterways Association – a group without which we would not have the restored canals of today, since it was largely courtesy of their formation and campaigning in the late 1940s and 1950s that the canals were brought back to life for leisure use as we know them today. More on that in a moment or two.

However things are what they are and even as recently as June 2019 the decision to keep the status quo has been reaffirmed by the government.

This means that whilst the CRT operates (amongst others) the Rivers Trent, Severn and Weaver, the EA manages the non-tidal part of the Thames from London all the way up to Cricklade, as well as the Nene from Northamptonshire to the mouth of the Wash, along with many others.

Then there are rivers such as the Avon at Stratford up to Warwickshire, which is managed solely by the Avon Navigation Trust, and the Wey Navigation in Surrey which is controlled by the National Trust.

I mention all this apparently tedious administrative detail because as a boater you need to know who runs the bit of water you want to take your boat on because a licence for one does not necessarily cover you to go on the others. This is not as horrific a conundrum as it might sound however, since if you’re just taking a narrowboat on the canals then you’re probably just going to need a CRT licence but it pays to check.

One other detail of immediate note is that there are broadly (this is a pun which you’ll recognise in a second) two types of canal in the UK: narrow canals and wide – or broad – canals.

Frustratingly, the canals in the north and south of England tend to be broad, suitable for craft up to maybe 12 feet width whereas the canals in the middle of the country – through which you’d have to go if you want to traverse north-south or vice versa – are narrow, the maximum width of craft being just six feet, ten inches. These width restrictions are not imposed by the canals themselves as such but by the locks, tunnels, aqueducts and other structures you find around the network.

This means if you buy a widebeam boat, the only way to go from north to south or the other way round is to crane the boat out of the water once you get to the narrow bit, load it onto a flatbed lorry, transport it up the roads to the next wide bit of canal, and unload. I’ll return to this conundrum in later pages on this site.