Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Re-discovered Waterways: the Canals of Great Britain


By John Shepard

A week navigating a classic narrowboat along the Llangollen Canal in western England and northern Wales is time travel. The destination: an extraordinary moment in the history of western civilization’s relationship with its water resources—a sliver in time that, if largely forgotten in North America, is being wholeheartedly celebrated in the United Kingdom. 

Wedged between the birth of the industrial revolution and the rise of the railroad, the period when canals ruled the land didn’t last very long. But in the United States, between 1816 and 1840 more than 3,300 miles of canals were built east of the Mississippi River. In the U.K., where early canals for irrigation and a few for transportation date to Roman times, an incredible 4,800-plus miles of canals were built between 1760 and 1850. Industrial canal systems also grew like arteries across the European continent during this period.  

These canal networks represented one of early industrial society’s great efforts to control surface waters in service to human enterprise. The canal craze was fueled by the need to transport cheaply and safely resources required for manufacturing as well as the goods produced by newly mechanized industries. As inadequate road networks were in their infancy, a solution evolved from river navigation (rivers being the first true highways) by channeling water through networks of constructed canals. The canals sometimes paralleled rivers to take advantage of their relatively gentle gradients, but offered more controlled and consistent navigation conditions than did free-flowing streams. Also, engineering advances made during the 1700s that gave rise to tunnels, locks, dams, aqueducts, and reservoirs enabled builders to overcome major barriers thrown up by the landscape. 

The U.K.’s canals, which were mostly financed by industrialists, were key to the country's preeminent industrial power during Queen Victoria’s reign. Britain's colonial empire was, in turn, funded by this industrial wealth. In the U.S., states and eventually the federal government joined private companies in building canals that connected the eastern seaboard with the vast interior, a critical step for economic growth and westward expansion.

Piloting the Isadora—our 7’ wide, 52’ long rented narrowboat with two staterooms—felt like navigating a giant pencil. Throughout our 43-mile journey, the winding channel was often barely wider than our 15-ton, diesel-powered vessel. We meandered through rolling English farmlands and followed the contours of Welsh valleys to eventually parallel the River Dee until we reached the canal’s source just upstream of the idyllic highland town of Llangollen. A tow path, harking back to the canal’s earliest days when boats were pulled by horses (and today popular with cyclists, strollers and dog-walkers), was a constant companion. Steering our cozy houseboat by a tiller at the helm demanded vigilance through blind turns and one-way-only passages beneath dozens of graceful stone-arched bridges. We encountered about 30 narrowboats daily, despite it being off-peak September; testament to the growing popularity of recreational canal boating along the 2,000 miles of navigable canals and waterways in the U.K. today, all of which are managed by the Canal and River Trust. Some narrowboats, with their roof-top container gardens, wood stoves, and solar panels, were clearly long-term, off-the-grid residences.

Crossing the Pontcysyllite Aqueduct.
We also negotiated two of the Llangollen’s hand-operated locks, two lengthy tunnels, and two magnificent aqueducts, including the longest and highest aqueduct in Britain, the World Heritage Pontcysyllite Aqueduct. Completed in 1805, its 1,000-foot span across the River Dee valley cradles the canal's water in an iron trough beside a tow path, both of which rest atop a series of graceful iron arches and stone pillars. 

The lack of a railing on the canal-side of the aqueduct gave the helm an unobstructed, dizzying view of the valley floor 125 feet below. Keeping a grip on the tiller, puttering along at less than five miles-per-hour (top speed for a narrowboat), it was the perfect place to marvel at the ingenuity embodied by a human-made river that traverses the sky as well as the land. 

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