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.