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The History of British Canals
The history of canals, and the British canal system in particular, starts in the time of the industrial revolution. However, Britons have been navigating the natural inland waterways since time immemorial, whether it was a simple short distance ferry or a long haul method of transporting people, animals, and produce to and from markets.
Then things changed dramatically, over two centuries ago. During the industrial revolution, a number of entrepreneurs fed up with the bumpy, cart rutted 'roads' of the industrial heartlands that damaged the goods and were seasonally unusable, saw the potential for developing a smooth, reliable way of transporting fragile items like glass, earthenware and china, and heavy or bulk goods, efficiently, safely and cheaply the length and breadth of the country.
A British canal network system was developed linking raw material and fuel suppliers like quarries and mines, with the manufacturing centres like 'the potteries' in Staffordshire or the mills of Leeds in Yorkshire through to other main town, cities and exporting deep water ports and harbours like Liverpool and Gloucester.
The canals were owned and operated by private canal companies and the boats were occasionally sail powered or more often horse drawn. Canals meandered across the countryside as surveyors, engineers and 'navies' tried as best as they could to follow the lay of the land at the same level for as far as they could, constructing embankments to assist in the endeavour or creating vast embankments and deep cuttings to go in straight lines.
Locks had to be built to raise or lower the level of the canal where needed. Tunnels were dug out to go through hills where it was not economical to take the canal round and aqueducts built to cross valleys, wide and narrow. They then utilised and controlled the natural flowing rivers and vast reservoirs, with pumping systems, and sluices to keep the canals at an even operating depth.
As the canals were overtaken by rail, and later motorways, the canals have dramatically changed from a working environment to become part of the leisure (pleasure) industry of the UK. Today most, but not all, of the British canal system and some navigable rivers are controlled by 'British Waterways' with over 3,000km of the inland waterways network, most of which is connected. The regional Environment Agencies control most of the remaining navigable waters, followed by a few remaining private Canal Companies.
With ongoing repairs, dredging programmes, restoration and development projects across the country, there is always something going on.
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