The Slow Road (A journey around the English Waterways) — Mike Ogden — 4th January 2016.

Mike told us that, in the past, a few sep­ar­ate rivers were joined by canals to form a huge con­nec­ted water­ways system. This was a strictly com­mer­cial enter­prise aimed at trans­port­ing freight to fuel the Industrial Revolution. The canals now fit seam­lessly in to the land­scape and are mainly used for our leis­ure enjoy­ment.

Mike used his pho­to­graphs of the canals and of his narrow boat, Little Mester, to take us on a trip around the system, start­ing at West Stockwith near Chesterfield. The canal leads to the River Trent at a tidal lock worked by a lock­keeper (usu­ally the locks are worked by the boat­ers them­selves). The fall from the canal to the river is 15 feet.
The trip upriver towards Gainsborough with the tide behind the Little Mester passed larger barges car­ry­ing gravel head­ing down­river. He passed by Newark and on to Nottingham then off the river onto the Trent and Mersey Canal, whose bank side has been much developed here. The canal leads to Burton then Rougely and Fradley Junction where it joins the Coventry Canal.
The locks on the canals were narrow because they were more eco­nom­ical than wide locks to build, used less water (always an import­ant con­sid­er­a­tion on canals) and led to the con­struc­tion of the Midland narrow boat. The boats were ori­gin­ally horse drawn and diesel engines did not come into use until the rail­ways were begin­ning to kill off the canals. The men of the diesel-engined narrow boats needed to carry more freight to make a living and some boats pulled a second barge, called a butty. These were known as a ‘work­ing pair’.
It was a hard life but it gave rise to an unique art form used to dec­or­ate the boats — rose and castles. A ser­i­ous prob­lem for the boat­men came with winter weather when the canals became sta­tion­ary as they froze up. When the boats didn’t move the boat­men did not earn money.
The Coventry Canal led to the Oxford Canal at Hawkesbury Junction where the Oxford Canal has a stoplock that stopped one canal ‘steal­ing’ water from the other. Eventually the canal joined the Grand Union Canal, which was provided with wider locks to try to increase the com­mer­cial use of the canal. This canal led to Northampton, down 17 locks to the River Nene where some of the locks are guil­lot­ine locks which need a large wheel turn­ing over 100 turns to lift the gates.
At Peterborough there is a drop down a lock onto the Fens and on to Bedford where the canal ends.

We were then taken back to the Grand Union at Milton Keynes then through 57 locks in 35 miles on the way to London. Mike went by the Paddington arm across north London to Little Venice, then past Regent’s Park to Campden Lock (ori­gin­ally the stables for the London canal net­work and now a massive market devel­op­ment). He trans­ferred to the Thames Tideway and rode the incom­ing tide up through the Pool of London, under Tower Bridge and past the Houses of Parliament (built of Yorkshire stone all car­ried to London by river and canal).

At Teddington Lock the Thames becomes non-tidal. It is an eleg­ant river used as a play­ground for the wealthy and not so wealthy. From London to Oxford is 114 miles by river because of the wind­ing.

Finally we were taken up to Birmingham. This city claims that it has more miles of canals than Venice and that it is the canal cap­ital of England and heart of the English canal system.

The canals are now man­aged by the Canal and River Trust that took over the role from British Waterways in 2012.