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