THE UNFLOWING WA­TER

A gen­tler sort of project suits the still­ness of late sum­mer – so we tracked down eight of the loveli­est canal walks…

Country Walking Magazine (UK) - - Discover | Canal Walks - WORDS: JASPER WIN N

IT’S VERY RARE that ob­so­les­cence ben­e­fits any­one. Ex­cept when it comes to canals.

In their brief life­span as an in­dus­trial trans­port net­work, canals changed the world. They al­lowed ma­te­ri­als to be shipped across the coun­try from source to city to port. They made en­trepreneurs rich and en­gi­neers fa­mous.

And then, in a puff of lo­co­mo­tive steam, they were ren­dered point­less: hideously slow, out­moded and in­ef­fi­cient, their thun­der stolen al­most overnight by the rail­ways.

But ob­so­les­cence, in this case, did lots of us a favour. Canals are scenic. They are quiet. And most im­por­tantly, ev­ery one of them has a well-made foot­path run­ning along­side it.

That last ben­e­fit is down to horses, of course. In the days be­fore pow­ered boats, tow­paths were built to al­low horses to pull ore car­ri­ers and coal skiffs along the net­work, mak­ing use of the handy fact that a horse could pull 50 to 100 times more weight on wa­ter than it could on a cart.

Back in the 1770s, the no­tion of walk­ing tow­paths for plea­sure would have seemed as trans­gres­sive as hik­ing along to­day’s rail­way em­bank­ments or mo­tor­way hard shoul­ders. But when the canals went the way of the dodo and Be­ta­max, the tow­paths be­came foot­paths, and to­gether this net­work of wa­ter­side ways un­locked a whole new ad­ven­ture through ru­ral Bri­tain.

Long walk or short walk? The Grand Union pro­vides 137 miles of off-road hik­ing, whereas the Trent and Mersey’s War­dle Branch is a mere 150 feet long. Ei­ther has its in­trigues to re­veal and sto­ries to tell.

The first won­der­ful thing about canal walks is ease of nav­i­ga­tion: just fol­low the tow­path. You’ll also (as a rule) avoid hills: it’s the na­ture of canals to fol­low con­tours to find the flat­test route.

Then fac­tor in wa­ter­side pubs and cafés, no cars and – maybe best of all – the sheer va­ri­ety of Bri­tain’s wa­ter­ways. With more than 2000 miles of walk­ing spread across 130 dif­fer­ent canals and nav­i­ga­tions, you could end up keen to do them all in a chal­lenge as com­pelling as Munro bag­ging – but with­out all the climb­ing.

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