Studying linear, watery places: canals in the UK

by Maarja Kaaristo

There is a network of over 4000 miles of inland waterways in the United Kingdom, consisting of a number of  tidal and non-tidal rivers, canals, lakes and estuaries, some navigable for vessels of different size, some non-navigable, minor, (almost) forgotten. Of these, canals represent a fascinating result of human fluvial modification of the landscape and the creation of new, socio-natural hydro-landscapes. In this post, I will discuss how canals have been going through substantial and dynamic transformation throughout their existence, where various aspects, such as transportation, dereliction, dwelling or leisure have been in the foreground at different times.

The UK canals were built mostly in the second half of the 18th century, also known as the ‘Canal Age’. The first one not following an already existing waterway, Bridgewater Canal, was opened in 1761, connecting Manchester to Worsley and thus bringing down the price of coal. The (compared to the roads) fast and reliable canal transport played a key role in Industrial Revolution and the ever increasing canal network became an essential infrastructure. The train, car and the air systems that Urry discusses in his 2007 book Mobilities, were thus preceded by the canal system. This system consisted of new waterways literally cut into the face of the earth, profoundly changing the landscape and featuring a number of engineered constructions such as locks, bridges, tunnels or boatlifts. These would of course mean nothing with the central materiality of the canals – water – that had to be directed and sometimes coaxed into numerous assemblages with other materialities, such as the boats. The canals also had to be governed and managed by various national and navigation authorities. Moreover, of course it were the people who built them invested in them, lived and worked on them and near them.

Over the course of the 19th and 20th century, as the train and then air transport gathered prevalence, the canal network became obsolete with many Britain’s narrow canals being left derelict and increasingly unused. For example, on 18 January 1961 The Guardian reported that local authorities in Manchester had decided to calculate the costs of closing the Ashton Canal. The potential closure was regarded to be beneficial for various purposes such as health and safety, road building, more land made available for development as well as ‘putting an end to mosquito breeding, and the weeds and odours of decay’. The specific material properties of the canal, those to do with its connection to ‘nature’, were seen as retrograde and the stagnant canal water a metaphor for general backwardness.

However, with the publication of L. T. C. Rolt’s book Narrow Boat in 1944, the foundation for a new narrative for the canals had emerged – that of history and both industrial and environmental heritage. Newly founded Inland Waterways Association started campaigning for the restoration of the canals and even though, at first it seemed to be an uphill struggle, eventually succeeded. On Ashton Canal, where commercial traffic had ceased in 1957 and the last leisure boat forced its way through in 1961, a huge volunteer gathering dubbed ‘Operation Ashton’ saw 600 volunteers working on repairing the canal during one weekend exactly 50 years ago – in 1968. One of the key strategies here was to reclassify as many waterways as possible from the transport and ‘reminder’ to leisure use. The value of the canals as spaces for leisure and tourism became apparent, and this value had to be both co-created and co-produced with the canal users, most vocal of whose were first the restoration activists and holiday boaters.

Contemporary canals as a place are an amalgamation of a variety of elements from the physical (heritage) infrastructure which has to be managed and repaired, the water in the canals and the people on the boats and near the waterways with their different usage and experiences as well a multitude of ideas about the meaning and value of the canals. The towpaths, where horses used to tow the boats carrying the cargo, now contain thousands of miles fibre optic cables, as the mobility of goods has transformed into mobility of information. The growing re-development of the formerly industrial urban waterfronts have brought about both urban regeneration, but also gentrification and homogenization. The canals are socio-natural entities, green and blue corridors in the urban spaces and play a role urban cooling; they are an important fixture of the rural landscapes, inseparable part of the ‘rural idyll’, as well as habitat for various flora and fauna but simultaneously places of industrial heritage.

The canals are its materialities, temporalities, ideas and values, everyday life, embodied experiences, structures of authorities, the non-human inhabitants and humans such as boaters, anglers, joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers, runners, people working on the canals and others. Canal dwellers call them ‘linear village’, highlighting the social relationships in constant formation on the canals, but perhaps they are also rhizomatic, with their multiple entryways, intersections and amalgamations as Deleuze and Guattari describe the rhizome in their 1980 book Mille Plateaux. Therefore, there is an abundance of watery topics to study and it is important to ask about the strategies and practices for the successful management of these watery places, so that indeed the canals would be ‘making life better by water’ as the recently launched new Canal and River Trust motto says.


Read more on the everyday life and tourism on the UK canals:

Kaaristo, M. & Rhoden, S. (2017) ‘Everyday life and water tourism mobilities: mundane aspects of canal travel‘, Tourism Geographies, 19(1), pp. 78-95