The surprising rebirth of canals
For readers of a certain age, 1968 was quite a memorable year. Dad’s Army and The Morecambe and Wise Show hit television screens, Cliff Richard’s annoyingly catchy Congratulations was runner-up in the Eurovision Song Contest, and political protest paralysed cities across the world.
At a guess, though, few remember the 1968 Transport Act. But if you’ve ever admired smart new homes on the banks of a canal in Birmingham, London, Manchester, Leeds or elsewhere, the odds are those properties owe their existence to that law.
It created a national body – then called British Waterways and more recently the Canal and River Trust (CRT) – which recognised that development could be a way of resuscitating canals that had become derelict citycentre eyesores.
“After 1968, canals came to life with homes. London was first with Limehouse Basin, then City Road, Wenlock on the Regent’s Canal, and more recently Paddington Basin. Birmingham, Manchester and other cities followed suit,” explains James Lazarus, head of property development at the CRT, which is charged with bringing back to life Britain’s 2,000 miles of waterways.
The revolution is far from over, and Lazarus speaks enthusiastically of the next big thing in terms of canalside living – a 1,200-home scheme at the Icknield Port Loop on Birmingham Canal nestled between the city centre and affluent Edgbaston.
He wants it to emulate the recent success of Granary Wharf in Leeds, which he regards as an exemplar in the world of canal renovation. “Some years ago you wouldn’t have gone there after dark, but now it has homes, a hotel, restaurants, bars and people all living next to and enjoying the waterside,” he says. “This is how it should be.”
Contrary to popular perception, canals are more popular now than ever – even if those who actually go on the water tend to be tourists and riverboat residents, rather than the freight carriers for which most waterways were originally dug.
Britain’s canals now host a record 38,000 licensed boats, a quarter designated as primary residences. This number has boomed as the capital’s house prices have become more out of reach for young people, with the average house boat costing a fraction of a bricks and mortar property.
You can travel by canal as far as London to Lancaster, and towpaths – be-
The planned regeneration of the canal in Birmingham, left; a canalside flat, main, in Maida Vale, £1.9 million with Knight Frank