People taking canal boat holidays in England will be able to enjoy leisurely trips along well-managed waterways, through fine countryside and bustling cities, often with modern waterside developments. But, of course, it was not always that way.
As the canal network around the West Midlands testifies, back in the days before railways these were vital arteries for transporting goods manufactured during the industrial revolution, taking the wares from the towns and mines around the country.
Now, it seems, those days could be back, with a new report by transport think tank Midlands Connect arguing that using the canals more to transport goods could help address a number of logistics problems.
Head of Strategy at the thinktank Richard Bradley said this would help reduce emissions and pollution produced by goods being transported by road. He remarked: “This isn’t about taking a step back in history but using all the infrastructure we have and finding new ways and new plans to use everything we have.”
Of course, this won’t mean people cannot go on using canals for leisure. After all, the slow pace of transportation means that by definition, fast moving consumer goods like perishable foods could not be transported this way. Any use of canals would be only part of the solution, diversifying freight to reduce traffic and pollution, but not eliminating HGVs from roads.
Indeed, it may be that the canals of the Midlands are even better for recreational users in the years ahead if the report’s recommendation is taken up, since it will be important to maintain the routes well to ensure smooth passage for boats carrying goods.
It may surprise some people encountering the readily navigable canals of England today to learn that many of them were clogged up and impassable a few decades ago, literally forgotten backwaters from a bygone age.
Thankfully, decades of restoration work by British Waterways enabled them to establish new uses for leisure and today they are looked after by the Canals and Rivers Trust.