A guide to canal bridges

13th January 2023

Bridges are structures built for people to cross over bodies of water, like rivers and canals. In the past, bridges were made of logs and other natural materials, but as people learned more about engineering, they were able to build bigger and more impressive bridges. In this guide, you’ll learn about the history of canal bridges, we’ll highlight some of the most exciting canal bridges you can experience on our routes.

The history of canal bridges in the UK

Canals are manmade, which presented a problem for landowners when waterways were established in the 18th century. Canals divided estates and farms as well as interrupted roads. To combat this, bridges were needed to connect communities.

Often, bridges were designed by canal engineers, and most still in operation were built between 1760-1840. There are two main types of canal bridge - fixed and movable bridges.

Fixed bridges

Fixed bridges are the most common types of canal bridges. Early in the industrial revolution, stone humpback bridges were built for agricultural or road traffic. Where the canal cut into wealthy landowners’ estates, grand stone bridges were built in order to impress the masters of the estates. An example of this is the Drayton Turret Footbridge, which is located on the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, near Drayton Manor. The gothic grade II listed footbridge is located on the Birmingham Ring from Kings Orchard Marina.  

Later, cast iron bridges were built. These were preferable to stone bridges as they were more resistant to erosion and wear. Iron bridges could also be built taller and wider in order to make navigation under narrow bridges easier.

In the 19th century, the rail network brought more bridges to the waterways. These include spectacular viaducts and aqueducts. The most impressive of these is the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in Llangollen. There are a number of different routes from ABC Boat Hire that allow you to experience the aqueduct in Llangollen. Including, a 7 night trip to Llangollen and return from Whitchurch Marina and Llangollen and return from Wrenbury Mill.   

Moving into modern times, the redevelopment of Salford Quays near Manchester has a number of modern bridges, which are innovative examples of modern engineering and can be experienced on a number of routes from Anderton Marina.

Movable bridges

Movable bridges are less common than fixed bridges on the waterways and consist of drawbridges, which are otherwise known as bascule bridges. You’ll also find turn bridges that swing or swivel from a fixed point. And finally, vertical lift bridges that lift users up and over the canal.

Drawbridges are fairly common on the Llangollen canal and are operated by the boat user, either manually or with a windlass.

Turnbridges or swing bridges work like opening a gate, so that the narrowboat can pass through. Some of the routes which give you the opportunity to cruise through a swing bridge include a short getaway around the Birmingham Mini Ring from Alverchurch Marina or the Cheshire Ring from Wrenbury Mill.  

There are only a few vertical lift bridges in operation, as they are costly to maintain. One of the few bridges includes the Turnbridge Lift Bridge in Huddersfield. In the past the bridge was manually operated with a windlass, but is now electric following refurbishment in 2002. The Turnbridge Lift Bridge is located on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal.        

To find out more about the different routes on offer across the UK, check out our featured routes and short breaks. Or, if you’d like more information, including ways to pay, contact our helpful team today.


< Back