Spring is a wonderful season to spend on our canals. The waterways bring nature from the countryside into the heart of our towns and cities – we’ve even seen signs of otters in central Birmingham – and you’ll see blossom and wildflowers blooming, hear birdsong, and maybe take some time to sit and watch the boats go by.
The canals become increasingly alive as more boaters take advantage of the kinder weather, working their way through historic locks as boats have done for hundreds of years. As the charity that looks after a 2,000-mile canal network in England and Wales, the Canal & River Trust’s (the Trust) teams of engineers, ecologists, lock keepers and more are out and about on these waterways, and are passionate about protecting these special places.
If you’ve walked along a towpath, paddled a kayak on a canal, or been on a narrowboat trip, it’s likely you’ll have visited a waterway looked after by the Trust. Launched in 2012, the Trust took over the guardianship of canals, rivers, reservoirs and docks across England and Wales, heralding the next chapter in the renaissance of the waterways.
The work of the Canal & River Trust
The Trust is the custodian of one of the UK’s largest collections of industrial heritage, the keepers of the third-largest heritage estate and the nation’s oldest working heritage network. It brings free, open and accessible green space by the water to the doorsteps of so many. Around 2.5 million people live within one km of their local waterway in the West Midlands region, with 15 million visits to the region’s canals and rivers every month.
The Trust is responsible for looking after the condition of the 33 waterways in the West Midlands, from the 100 miles of the Birmingham Canal Navigations, which give rise to the saying ‘we’ve got more canals than Venice’, to the peaceful Shropshire Union, and the Llangollen, which crosses the border into Wales and is home to the World Heritage Site Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, the highest navigable aqueduct in Britain.
Today in the West Midlands, the Trust has 520 miles (837km) of canals and rivers, plus scheduled ancient monuments and listed buildings. In 2021 our canals were showcased in Coventry as part of Coventry 2021 UK City of Culture, and last year our canals played a key part in celebrating the region as part of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.
Then and now
The canals were the lifeblood of Birmingham and the Black Country. At their height, during the Industrial Revolution, they were so busy that gas lighting was installed beside the locks to permit round-the-clock passage of freight, and a near-tidal effect was produced as swarms of narrowboats converged on the Black Country collieries at the same time every day. But when freight declined, the canals fell into disrepair. The Trust is working hard to maintain their legacy and transform them from unloved places into welcoming spaces.
The pioneering canal engineers from 250 years ago would never have imagined how their canals would be playing such an essential role in our society today – for leisure and recreation, a haven for wildlife and nature, supporting local economies and enhancing the health and wellbeing of millions. Equally, they couldn’t have known how severe the impact from a changing climate would be.
Canals under threat
These centuries-old canals are an intrinsic part of the nation’s landscape, with the sight of a narrowboat, lock or a humpback bridge a familiar one to many. But this vital resource is facing more challenges than ever – our canals are once again under threat.
The Trust’s sees first-hand the damage climate change is causing to the ageing network – with floods washing away canal banks and droughts forcing temporary closure of stretches to preserve water. Each year, the list of repairs and restorations gets longer, more complex and costly, as more work is needed to strengthen the resilience of this historic infrastructure. We repair masonry and brickwork, fix leaks, replace lock gates and carry out major works to improve reservoir safety, strengthen the resilience of high-risk embankments, culverts and historic structures.
Just this month, hard-working teams in the West Midlands have dealt with any number of tasks as the season gets underway, from urgent lock paddle repairs on the Trent & Mersey Canal to tunnel repairs near Kidderminster. This work is often interrupted by unexpected incidents; for example, a car recently struck a canal bridge near Dimmingdale in Staffordshire, causing thousands of pounds of damage and closing the navigation until it could be made safe. As well as costing money to fix, these incidents take our teams away from their day-to-day maintenance work.
On the positive side, we’ve recently submitted applications for Keep Britain Tidy’s Green Flag Award for the Stourbridge Canal and the entire length of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, to join the growing list of West Midlands canals achieving the required quality standards, thanks to the hard work of our teams and volunteers making these spaces great places to visit.
Pressure on resources
The Trust’s existing annual government grant (fixed with no allowance made for inflation over the period to 2027), is reducing significantly in real terms. Beyond 2027, it seems highly likely the Government will seek to reduce its annual grant contribution, piling further pressure on the resources available to look after the network in the longer-term, leading to a cycle of decline and neglect.
The Trust is a stand-alone charity, having to work within the funds available and it faces difficult decisions daily. While we continue to call on the government to sustain support for our nation’s waterways, we’re asking the wider canal community, our visitors and the many communities along our network that rely on us as their own back garden, to act now for canals.
There are many ways you can help. Talk to your neighbours, friends and family about what we do, sign up to Canalathon or take the Plastics Challenge pledge, become a Friend or try volunteering. See their website for details.
Let’s bring communities together and inspire a new generation of community volunteers and help secure the future of our precious waterways.