Writing as a Druid for other Druids (mostly) I hardly need explain the spiritual and environmental importance of rivers. We know about that. Canals are a whole other thing, and I think it’s worth taking some time to talk about why they matter.
The canals in the UK were constructed right at the beginning of the industrial revolution, when roads were little more than tracks, and horses still dominated them. The canals allowed easier movement of the coal and ore necessary to start the revolution, building the engines that would later put the canals out of business. Horses towed the first narrowboats before the technology for such engines had been imagined.
The canals themselves are stunning feats of engineering and a tribute to the ingenuity of our ancestors. They were bought and paid for in the blood, pain and death of the many navies who dug them with hand tools. That’s a heritage I think needs recognising. Their coming changed the landscape dramatically, and allowed a previously unthinkable movement of goods.
From the first, people living on boats had no ethnic affiliation, they came to work, and came out of need and poverty. This is a tradition modern boaters uphold – we live and work on the canals, sometimes very closely with the waterways, and we tend to do it because, like our ancestors of tradition, this is what we can afford.
The UK has lost a frightening amount of wetland in the last hundred years or so. Canals are not an ideal substitute, because the water tends not to flow, and the banks aren’t ideal for a lot of wildlife. Even so, many water birds use them, and the areas around them. Kingfishers, bats, owls, herons. The towpath is often a toad path on wet summer nights. Swans and ducks breed here, water voles can survive here in the right spots. From an environmental management perspective, canals are also huge water reservoirs, able to contribute to the management of either too much or too little water, depending on what climate change throws at us.
There is a huge urban heritage of canal buildings. In cities, canals and towpaths are green arteries, allowing wildlife to get around. Isolated populations of wildlife are doomed. Those that are connected can survive and thrive. Canals have a huge part to play in this. The towpath provides space for insects and may well have a hedge alongside it, too, this is a vital resource. The towpath is a safe place for walking, running and cycling, usable in most weather conditions. It’s possible to canoe on many canals as well. The scope for exercise and relaxation is a significant consideration – canals are good for human health.
Transport by boat is quieter and more efficient than putting lorries on the road. We could reinvent the canal system as a greener solution to transport. Bristol has boat buses, taking advantage of its waterways. Many urban areas are basing much needed regeneration around canals. It’s so easy to make an attractive, vibrant urban area when you have controlled water in the mix.
The canals are a fabulous and important resource, and there is so much scope for good here. If Canal & River Trust get things right, they could make an enormous positive contribution to the life, health, culture, heritage, and environment of the UK. In all fairness, there are a lot of good projects out there, but those should be entirely what CRT is about. This is one of the reasons it is so important that the charity stops wasting public money and time monitoring how far boaters move, and gets on with looking after the water voles and re-opening derelict canals.