NN Editorial October 2023


I have now finished my summer cruise and am pleased to say back at my home mooring.

It’s hard not to sink into a depression, Autumn on its way, lack of funds, increasing structural failures, lack of dredging, looming canal closures……

I started to think about the reasons behind the current canal network demise. The system started at Worsley, so that the Duke of Bridgewater could extract more coal from his mines and distribute it to a larger group of customers. A sound economic reason. The idea soon caught on as manufacturers saw the benefits of being able to consume larger amounts of fuel and safely deliver more produce. The birth of the industrial revolution. All went well until the birth of the railways as they offered faster and ultimately cheaper deliveries. So canal use began to decline along with the profits, further degraded by reliable road transport.

Tom Rolt bought his narrowboat Cressy in 1939, converted it to a home and travelled 400 miles. He then wrote “Narrow Boat”, about his travels which was published in 1944. The fact that it has never been out of print gives weight to the passion for canal life. It’s publication led to the meeting with Robert Aickman and the formation, with others, of the Inland Waterways Association(IWA), a fighting force for the maintenance of the network.

The canals were used during the world wars for transport but in 1947 under the post-World War II Labour government, Britain’s canals were nationalised, later to become British Waterways. The IWA started its campaign but Aickman began to have policy disagreements with Rolt. Aickman wanted to campaign to keep all of the waterways open as leisure resources, whereas Rolt had sympathies with the traditional canal workers and believed it necessary to prioritise which canals could be kept open to preserve their way of life. The dispute led to Rolt being rather dictatorially ejected from the IWA.

With the introduction of CRT the canal network ceased to be a (for profit?) nationalised business and was designated a charity. That should have brought about a complete change to the business model. Although aided by government for a time, it was instructed to become a self financing organisation. A model is only as good as the assumptions it’s built on; it can be a house of cards built on faulty predictions.

The modern network is for the benefit of walkers, runners, cyclists, fisherman, canoeists/kayakers, paddle boarders and boaters. So a lot has changed since the original formation of the IWA. There is now a plethora of organisations representing the interests of a vastly expanded group of users.


Those users should be seen as customers, listened to and drive the income for CRT. In return for which they are entitled to expect good vegetation maintenance, a supply of unpolluted water in the canal, a navigable network and value for money.

The Government claimed 11 years ago the Canal & River Trust was launched on a wave of support “The new charity will give people who visit and love the waterways a greater role in making them cleaner and more beautiful than ever”. “Every penny donated by the public to the Trust will be spent directly on conserving, restoring, and enhancing the waterways.” and yet we face canal closures again, I find it quite hard to say it’s been an unqualified success.

The fundamental questions of what to preserve, how to maintain what we have and where the funds come from needs to be reviewed by a team that includes all the user ‘communities’.

Enjoy the canals while you can….