England is known for many things, but one thing it certainly should be known for is its canal system. Starting in 1759 with the construction of the Worsely to Manchester canal, the canal system grew to reach a heyday in the middle of the nineteenth century. Then the railroads came along and the canals fell into disuse.
One distinctive feature of English canals is their extremely narrow width. When looking up English canals, the most common image is of a waterway that almost looks like you could jump over it. Actually, there are two English canal networks: Broad and narrow. Broad canals had locks fourteen feet wide. Narrow canals had locks seven feet wide. This was to save on construction materials, but may have contributed to the rapid decline of the canal network as the narrowboats, only six and a half feet wide and also fairly limited in length, could only carry so much. A train could move much more coal, for example, in the same time.
The very first canal propulsion was by human muscle. Rapidly, however, it was realized that there was a better way. For most of the heyday of the canal period, barges were pulled by horses. The horses used were smaller than draft horses, of types called ‘cobs’ or ‘vanners’ – in fact the breed most Americans call a ‘gypsy vanner’ was developed primarily to pull canal barges. Unlike in the United States, mules were not used to work the canals in any number. The horse would walk along the ‘tow path’ next to the canal, often led by one of the owner’s children. Special bridges were built on many canals so that if nearby land use necessitated moving the tow path from one side of the canal to the other, it could be done without unhitching the horse. Many canals went through tunnels. These tunnels did not have tow paths. The men on the boat would, instead ‘leg’ or ‘plank’ the boat through the tunnel. Lying on their backs on planks, they would ‘walk’ along the tunnel walls while a woman or child led the horse over the hill the tunnel went through. Later, steam powered barges were used. Canals could also deal with gradient by means of locks. At Tardebrigge, on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, a flight of thirty locks survives. Narrow canal locks have the advantage that the gates can be opened by hand.
After the railroads took over duty, the canals fell into disrepair. Many were filled in, but their tow paths remained legal rights of way and are often used as cycle paths. By the 1970s and 1980s, however, a major canal restoration movement came about as people set out to preserve and, in some cases, restore the waterways. Many old narrowboats were purchased and restored. With their living quarters enlarged to fill the entire cargo bay area and the addition of modern diesel engines, they can be rented by the week as a vacation home. Some people who live along canals own a narrowboat instead of an RV. Broadboats, which are larger but can only be sailed on rivers and broad canals, are also available. Modern narrowboats are also constructed and rented and sold. Some companies offer short trips on horse-drawn boats. A few companies will rent a horse-drawn boat, although often only to people who can demonstrate experience with equines.