Walking the waterways

I'm a firm believer in not overlooking the things that are, quite possibly, right under your nose. So I was pleased when, in a highly publicised rebranding, the Canals and Rivers Trust (CRT) decided to reaffirm that the waterways are relevant to everyone.

Canals 

Having long been a lover of the inland waterways, it seems obvious to me that these vital corridors, containing the essential requirement of life – i.e. water – should be used and enjoyed by more people. But what prompted the Trust to raise the profile to non-boaters?

It would seem that the current renascence in waterways use comes at a time when more and more people are seeing a direct correlation between nature and wellbeing. This is what lies behind the decision of the Trust to embark on a long-term study to measure the impact of the waterways on the public that use them.

The benefits of engaging with nature are so positive that they are being thought of as the ‘Natural Health Service', and not just by the Canals and Rivers Trust. The advantages of reconnecting with nature are not new to those of us who enjoy walking as a pastime. But what might not be so obvious is that the canals of the UK could be right on your doorstep but not considered as somewhere to walk. The fact that they could be easily overlooked is what lays behind the CRT's thinking.

It's not always necessary to travel to great locations in which to walk (although there's nothing wrong with doing that). Sometimes good, interesting and easy walks can be close by. For those who don't feel able to tackle more challenging routes, a towpath – being mainly flat – provides a far more comfortable environment. The close proximity of water, and the wildlife that this attracts, means canal-side paths offer an excellent opportunity to enjoy an accessible walk and some nature spotting too.

This environment is not only of interest to naturalists but also for anyone with a passing fascination in our industrial heritage. With a little detective work, these transport systems can reveal some fascinating insights. And while we are talking about the environment, the CRT is also keen to point out that the canal system passes through some areas of deprivation. As a result, the waterways have become a neglected resource. But these are just the type of areas that can benefit the most from regeneration and broader use.

For walkers, the waterways can not only offer walking routes and time close to nature, but access to the broader canal network. Armed with any one of a multitude of guides highlighting points of interest on or close to the canal or river, walkers can gain almost as much from a journey as boat-users. And that's what the Canals and Rivers Trust are hoping.

For me, the opportunity to enjoy an environment that mixes boats with wildlife and a dash of local history makes for an ideal mix. If using areas like this can bring people closer to nature, with all its associated benefits, then it has to be a good thing.

So if you've overlooked your local towpath, maybe it's worth having another look.

Magazine of the Ramblers

Dominic Pinto


I've been active on the waterway - water and towpath - for many years; first (and still) as a walker along the Grand Union Paddington Arm and Regent's Canals, and the Lee and Stort Navigations, of the London Waterways, crew and skipper for the Pirate Castle Camden Town the last ten years; and most recently as a member of the London and SE Advisory Board (and its predecessor the London Waterway Partnership) of the Canal and River Trust - note no plural!

The role of the CRT inland waterways and navigations - some 2,000 miles in England and Wales - and those of the other navigation authorities is not new, or recently recognised. The unique role is that of a major spine off which the national footpath network often hangs - the Trust's navigations and the River Thames (Environment Agency and Port of London Authority) are the spinal chords whether the Thames Path National Trail or the canal towpath trails ........ and are heavily walked, cycled, and otherwise used off the water, and the problems of success on the water is the congestion and demand for moorings both permanent and temporary.

Not only are the waterways a prime environmental and restful national and local resource, they are also a significant and integral part of one of the most important national resources - water - that itself has to be actively managed as a national infrastructure and not just for the boaters.

I could go on - and would be very happy to do so - and that includes what we now call the Natural Health Service. It's been there for a long time, and well-recognised. What we want is more to know and recognise it, and use it!

The waterways have not been neglected - certainly not since the Trust took over responsibility six years ago; and arguably there was the start of a sea-change well before then, that I saw from when first mucking around Camden Town locks after school in the early 1970s, and walking to and from Kensal Rise in the 1980s.

The waterways importance for the environment - part of the green and blue lung of London - has been well recognised by the Trust and others e.g. from the London Borough of Hackney's 2007 conservation area audit: 'The Regent’s Canal Conservation Area falls into the third and fourth groups*, as it constitutes a well-used public space with an important environmental landscape, and it also represents a unique industrial heritage both along the canal (including the locks, bridges, moorings) and in the industrial buildings beside the canal and in the
canal basins.'

* • Open spaces and their settings: for example, London Fields and Stoke
Newington Common.
• Industrial Heritage: for example, the Regent’s Canal and Waterworks Lane,
Lea Bridge Road.

And later 'In 1964, it was accepted by the government that commercial activity on the Regent’s Canal was almost at an end and three years later the Grand Union Canal was classified as an amenity waterway. Pleasure traffic was at first restricted due to the limited opening hours of the manned locks. But by 1974, all locks on the canal had been altered to become user-operated at all times when lock keepers were made redundant.'

It has been part of our explicit objectives to open up further public use and enjoyment of what constitutes a national historic network, the third largest holding of listed structures as well as museums, archives and hundreds of important wildlife sites. In 2014 there were over 400 million visits to our waterways by nearly 20 million people .......

We have championed and promoted health walks using the waterways; we have campaigned to encourage people visiting the canals to feed ducks and other wild fowl a healthier diet - bread may be traditional but the over 6 million loaves that ended up in the waterway has a disastrous effect on wildlife and causes environmental problems.

That walking is so important, along with other tranquil uses of the waterways, has been and continues to be recognised and supported. The now national Share the Space, Drop the Pace, campaign aimed at cyclists was developed and piloted on the London Waterways.

There is more, much more, that we have been doing these last 6 years - staff, volunteers, and many others through 'adoptions' of lengths of the waterway by groups locally. And Ramblers and Ramblers local Groups can and should be encouraged to get directly involved further beyond expanding the walking and walks along the tow path.

I champion walking among other pursuits for the London and SE Waterways on the Advisory Board ......... and would welcome any and all interest.

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Tom Berry


I enjoyed many a walk back when I was only a nipper in Alperton exploring the London canal network - pretty grim in those days. The towpath was more natural in one sense - before piling became the norm - with little inlets all the way along allowing nature to spill into the water. These days I still appreciate the work that goes into keeping the whole system going not just the Canal & River Trust but small groups working on long derelict waterways. These are new walking opportunities as former towpaths get opened up.
Hopefully, the value of our waterways network will continue to be appreciated especially as a water resource after one of the hottest summer spells on record.

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Andrew Brady


While I tend to agree with the lovely, rosy image created by this article, it fails to answer the question posed early on: "what prompted the Trust to raise the profile to non-boaters?"

The answer is that the CRT is in grave danger of running out of money. When the charity was set up as a successor to British Waterways in 2012, Defra pledged an annual grant of £40m along with an extra £10m if certain targets were met. That additional £10m will decrease every year from 2022, with all the funding set to end in 2027.

The recent rebrand was a desperate bid to increase the charity’s profile among a wider audience. To put it bluntly, the more people who know about and use the canals, the more likely the CRT is to be given more funding in austere times.

Walkers are an easy target. We’re a nation of increasing waistlines and decreasing disposable incomes, so offering a free-to-use outdoors gym is something that will help CRT argue its case when it goes back to Defra begging for more money in the near future.

Do I object to being used as a pawn by CRT? Not really. I love walking the canals. But let’s be clear, towpaths aren’t being maintained because the CRT has our best interests at heart.

Report this comment

Andrew Brady


While I tend to agree with the lovely, rosy image created by this article, it fails to answer the question posed early on: "what prompted the Trust to raise the profile to non-boaters?"

The answer is that the CRT is in grave danger of running out of money. When the charity was set up as a successor to British Waterways in 2012, Defra pledged an annual grant of £40m along with an extra £10m if certain targets were met. That additional £10m will decrease every year from 2022, with all the funding set to end in 2027.

The recent rebrand was a desperate bid to increase the charity’s profile among a wider audience. To put it bluntly, the more people who know about and use the canals, the more likely the CRT is to be given more funding in austere times.

Walkers are an easy target. We’re a nation of increasing waistlines and decreasing disposable incomes, so offering a free-to-use outdoors gym is something that will help CRT argue its case when it goes back to Defra begging for more money in the near future.

Do I object to being used as a pawn by CRT? Not really. I love walking the canals. But let’s be clear, towpaths aren’t being maintained because the CRT has our best interests at heart.

Report this comment