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How were canals built?

7th May 2021

The canals have become a quintessential part of British culture and history. Maybe you live in a city and walk along the canal to escape the hustle and bustle of the city centre. Or maybe you live in the countryside and you use the convenient footpath along the canal to get to the closest village.

Either way, a walk along the canal has become a staple part of British life. No one alive can remember a time without canals - and it is easy to forget that these waterways are not a natural phenomenon. In this blog post, we look at why the canals were built and how an entire transport system was created using water.

Why are canals built?

Canals were built to connect the United Kingdom. As a transportation system, the waterways allowed goods to be transported with ease. Before there were cars and trains and planes, the most efficient way of transporting goods was via the waterways. There were horse drawn carts, but boats were quicker and could carry more. Unfortunately, natural water supplies, such as rivers, were not situated in the most convenient of places - so the British Canal system was built.

Prior to the 1700s, canals were predominantly created and owned by aristocratic landowners to carry agricultural products in southern England. However, in light of the growing industry in the UK, soon the Government became involved in the production process – for a canal to be built, an act needed to be passed and there was usually a degree of public support.

How were the canals built?

Building the canals during the Industrial Revolution was a long and strenuous process which took many years to complete:

Step 1 – The canals were designed by famous designers, such as Thomas Telford. Designers drew up the plans and then handed them over to an independent contractor. The independent contractors had the responsibility of building a specific length of the waterways. They then assembled a large crew of skilled workman and labourers.

Step 2 – After the crew was assembled, they began by digging out the channel according to designs. The crew would begin by digging a channel to the specifications of the design. The sides were supported by wooden frames in the deeper sections to avoid the walls collapsing on the workers. The work could be very dangerous – across the world, canal construction claimed many lives. In the French attempt of building the Panama canal, over 22,000 died.

Step 3 – Once the channel was dug, it had to be waterproofed. Canals have waterproof foundations so that the ground doesn’t just soak up the water. The materials used to line the ground depended on the area the canal was being built in, for example, those areas close to limestone stores would line their waterways with the stone.

Step 4 – While the canals were being waterproofed, the locks were built. A canal lock is built into a canal system to raise and lower boats between stretches of water of different levels. The contractor would instruct his crew to use brick, stone and wood to build these iconic parts of the canal.

Step 5 – Finally, the canal was filled with water from local rivers and streams redirected into the canal. Rain and reservoirs were used to top up the water supply in canals when they got low.

The British Canal System is a huge part of our heritage – without them, the Industrial Revolution would not have occurred. The canals have been preserved, and a holiday along the waterways is one of the best ways to experience British history. Speak to one of our experts here at ABC Boat Hire today. Alternatively, discover our full selection of canal routes we have available today.

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