Canals: From Waterways to Trackbeds for the Railways

Canal tunnels were dug through hills and mountains to keep the waterway continuous. The Blisworth Tunnel on the Grand Union Canal is one of the longest navigable tunnels in Britain.

However, railways are now a staple of Britain, a convenient way for people and goods to travel all over the British Isles. But, this wasn’t always the case.

Before the implementation of the railways, horse drawn carriages and canals played a major part in the transportation infrastructure of Britain. The creation of canal systems boomed in the eighteenth century and was fueled by growing industries that required goods and materials to be effectively and efficiently transported around the country.


While transport networks were built on the canals of Britain, the invention of the steam train would forever change both freight and passenger travel. Railways quickly replaced canals as the desired form of freight transportation. Rail networks were rapidly constructed across Britain, as this fast new form of transportation gave industries unrivalled transport speed and haulage capacity.

In some instances, these rail networks were even constructed over the filled in locations of the neglected canals that once dominated the British freight market. 

The Beginnings of British Canal Systems 

Canals in Britain are often associated with the more recent times of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however British canals have far more ancient origins. The first canal-like structure in Britain was built almost two thousand years ago.

The Fossdyke, constructed by the Romans around 50 AD, formed a link between the River Trent and Lincoln. The Fossdyke worked as both a drain and a navigational aid, and wasn’t the only canal-like structure of Roman Britain.

Long stretch of a canal
Roman Origins: The Fossdyke is often considered one of the oldest canals in England. It was originally constructed by the Romans around the 1st century AD. Image Credit: Graham Hogg

Not far from Fossdyke was Caerdyke. This ancient canal stretched forty miles across the countryside, connecting major settlements in Roman Britain.

Read More: What Happened to Britain’s Roman Roads?

The miles-long man-made waterway was used in a way similar to its later canal counterparts, with the theory that it was primarily used for the easier transportation of heavy goods and supplies across Roman Britain.

It is thought that Caerdyke was particularly useful in transporting goods between the major towns of what became modern day Cambridge and York. Moving forward to the times of Tudor Britain, the construction of canals was again a hot topic. In 1566, in an England under the rule of Elizabeth I, the Exeter Canal was built in Devon.

The canal took two years to complete and was designed to create a bypass for an unfavourable section of the river. When completed, the canal had three locks, including the first pond lock in all of Britain.

63,000 Tons Were Transported

In the 1600s the canal was extended and was still used as late as the mid twentieth centuries, albeit with additions and alterations that occured over its hundreds of years of its history. By the end of the 1930s, 63,000 tons of product was moved on the canal every year. 

Excavation of a section of Caerdyke 1
Excavation of a section of Caerdyke 1990. Caerdyke is believed to have originated as a Roman civil engineering project, likely constructed during the 1st century AD. The purpose of this immense earthwork was to act as a drainage and flood defense system in the fenlands of East Anglia.

While the canal is not as extensively used for industry as it once was, it does still exist today, and areas of it are popular water sports destinations. The Exeter Canal and the canals of Roman times weren’t the only canals to be built across historic England.

Read More: Ancient Villages Now Sitting on the Bottom of Reservoirs

Major canals were built throughout British history. A prominent canal was constructed in Lincolnshire in 1670, and other notable canals constructed in Gloucestershire and Lancashire in the 1700s are just some of the examples of Britain’s historic canal networks. 

The Age of the Canals 

The eighteenth century saw the construction of canals across the British Isles reach new levels. With new developments and technology sweeping the nation at the onset of the industrial revolution, industry and manufacturing in Britain was booming.

With the age of mass production beginning, moving large quantities of materials to factories and mass amounts of finished products from factories to consumer centres became vital.

Canal builders designed and built impressive features like locks, aqueducts, tunnels, and reservoirs to navigate challenging landscapes.

The horse drawn vehicles on the roads of the day simply couldn’t compete with the haulage capacity of the canal networks. Even in the cases when canal boats were still pulled by horse powers, with horses alongside canals pulling loaded canal boats, the haulage capacity each horse could pull for a vessel on water far outweighed the weight a horse could pull on a land vehicle.

Read More: Mapping the Past With LiDAR, But What is LiDAR?

While rivers provided one potential avenue for water-based transportation, these came with inconvenient complications. The natural route of rivers didn’t always link the industry and manufacturing powerhouses with consumer-based areas.

Rivers also could have inconsistent depths or widths which could make them difficult for freight boats to navigate. There are two noted periods of intense canal construction recorded in the 1700s, the first taking place for roughly eleven years starting in 1759, and then again another intense period of canal construction was seen from the late 1780s to the beginning of the 1800s.

While these  two periods saw a particular focus on canal construction, overall the construction of new transportation infrastructure was booming throughout the 1700s and 1800s, but these. 

The Bridgewater Canal 

Driven by industry, the age of canals began. In 1776, the Bridgewater Canal was built. Inspired by the Canal du Midi in France, it was arguably the first canal in Britain that was completely independent from following the course of an existing river.

Medieval house on the edge of Bridgewater Canal
Worsley Packet House, overlooking the Bridgewater Canal in Worsley, Greater Manchester.

It was designed to move coal from Worsley into Manchester. Along the canal, just one horse was needed to transport a huge thirty tons of coal, an achievement impossible by land travel.

Read More: The Largest Pre-Historic Hillforts you Should Visit

It was so successful that it has been linked to disrupting the price of the coal market in Manchester and sparking a frenzy of canal construction that would last for subsequent decades. The canal was heavily used, and it is reported that at one point three million tons of cargo was being moved via the Bridgewater Canal. 

The Rise of Railways 

While the canal had become an integral part of the transportation system in the eighteenth century, the nineteenth century saw their reign threatened with the risk of the railways. The invention of the steam engine and subsequent construction of the railways revolutionised both industry and passenger transportation across Britain.

The year 1825 saw the first steam powered railway come to fruition in the UK. Connecting Stockton and Darlington, this early railway was used to transport minerals.

A bridge over an abandoned canal
Often railways used old canal beds. Image Credit: Nick

By 1830, a rail line had been opened between Manchester and Liverpool that transported both passengers and goods, and by 1870 the rail network had boomed to come to boast over 13,000 miles of rail network across Britain. 

Just as the canal network had offered benefits that traditional horse-drawn land transportations couldn’t practically compete with, the railways offered advantages beyond the capabilities of the canal networks. 

Read More: What Remains of Rural Railways After Dr Beeching Wielded His Axe

One of the key advantages that the railways provided was speed and haulage capacity.  Trains could also transport larger levels of freight than a canal boat had the capacity to do.

Goods being transported by train between Manchester and Liverpool would reach their final destination up to eight times faster than if they were to make the same journey via the canal system. Trains could also transport twenty times the cargo as the canal boats. 

As more industries began to move transportation to the increasing railway networks, many canal systems began to fall into neglect. The waterways simply couldn’t compete anymore with the might of the train system.

From Waterways to Railways 

While many new railway lines were constructed across Britain independently of the railway system, it also wasn’t uncommon for railways to be constructed along the same route as existing canals. In some cases these train lines were built alongside canals, and in some rarer cases, canals were even filled in and railways were built along the actual route of the canal. 

Read More: How Railways Reshaped Rural Britain

In the 1800s a number of canals were filled in around Burry Port to better facilitate the constructing more efficient railway links along the old canal and tram routes.

The new company built a railway from Burry Port to Pontyberem, along the towpath over Pinged marsh, and on the bed of the canal elsewhere. This opened in July 1869. An extension to Kidwelly harbour followed in June 1873, and one to Cwmmawr in June 1886.

While it is understandable to think of the filling in of canals to facilitate railway lines as a historic concept, it isn’t unheard of in the modern era. Within even the last decade there have been plans proposed to fill in neglected canals and turn them into rail lines.

The Longslip Fill and Rail Enhancement Project is one such scheme, the project aims to mitigate flood risks and improve the rail network by filling in sections of a now disused barge canal and constructing six new tracks on top of the filled in area. 

From Business to Leisure Canals

Canals may have been constructed across the UK to provide a quick and effective means of transporting goods. However, for the canals that remain in use in Britain, today they are far more widely used for leisure purposes.

Turf Hotel on the Exeter Canal
Turf Hotel on the Exeter Canal was built in 1825

While there are still some rare commercial transportation practices that take place, these once industry superhighways are now so ingrained in the leisure sector that it has been estimated that some canals have more leisure boats on them than the level of commercial vessels they once serviced. 

The Canals that Built Britain 

The canal systems, while now rarely used for industry purposes, were one a core piece of the transportation infrastructure of Britain. These water highways facilitated the growth of industries and were a key aspect of moving goods in the early days of the industrial revolution.

Read More: Meare Heath Trackway: A Bronze Age Structure

At the arrival of the railway, Britain’s historic canals began to fall into neglect, unable to compete with the haulage capacity and speed of the new steam powered railways. In some instances, even as recently as the last decade, canals have been filled to make way for rail infrastructure. 

While today canals may be dominated by the leisure market, there is no doubt that these historic waterways helped to build the Britain the world knows today. 

Caerdyke, also known as the Car Dyke, is a significant historical feature in England

  1. Roman Origins: Caerdyke is believed to have originated as a Roman civil engineering project, likely constructed during the 1st century AD. The purpose of this immense earthwork was to act as a drainage and flood defense system in the fenlands of East Anglia. The region was prone to flooding, and the Romans constructed Caerdyke to help manage water levels.
  2. Drainage and Transportation: While primarily designed as a drainage ditch, Caerdyke also served as a navigable waterway, allowing small boats to transport goods across the fenlands. It extended for several miles, from near Peterborough to the River Witham in Lincolnshire. The Romans recognized the importance of efficient transportation for trade and communication.
  3. Theories on Its Name: The origin of the name “Caerdyke” is a subject of debate. Some believe it comes from the Welsh word “caer,” meaning fortress or camp, suggesting that it might have had a defensive role. Others argue that “dyke” simply referred to a drainage ditch. The exact etymology remains uncertain.
  4. Medieval and Later History: After the Roman period, the management of Caerdyke likely fell into disrepair. However, during the medieval period and later, there were efforts to repair and maintain the earthwork. It continued to serve as a drainage system for the fens, which were prone to seasonal flooding.
  5. Modern Significance: Today, Caerdyke is a historic feature that can still be seen in parts of the East Anglian landscape. While no longer a navigable waterway, its historical significance has been recognized, and it is protected as an ancient monument. It serves as a testament to Roman engineering and the challenges of managing water in this region.

The Fossdyke is a historic canal in England, and its history dates back to Roman times

  1. Roman Origins: The Fossdyke is often considered one of the oldest canals in England. It was originally constructed by the Romans around the 1st century AD. The primary purpose of the canal was to connect the River Trent, which was navigable, to the important Roman city of Lincoln (Lindum Colonia). This allowed for the transportation of goods and supplies to the city, supporting its growth and development.
  2. Medieval Period: After the Roman withdrawal from Britain, the Fossdyke fell into disrepair, like many Roman structures. However, during the medieval period, there were efforts to restore and maintain the canal. It became an important trade route for goods going to and from Lincoln.
  3. Improvements and Expansion: Over the centuries, various improvements were made to the Fossdyke. During the reign of King Henry I in the 12th century, it was widened and deepened to accommodate larger vessels. The canal was also extended to reach Boston on the east coast of England, further enhancing its importance for trade.
  4. Decline and Neglect: By the 18th century, with the advent of the canal-building boom during the Industrial Revolution, the Fossdyke faced competition from newer and more extensive canal networks. It gradually declined in significance as a trade route.
  5. Modern Use: Today, the Fossdyke is primarily used for leisure boating and recreation. It offers scenic views and a connection between the River Trent and the city of Lincoln. The historic aspects of the canal, including remnants of its Roman origins, make it a point of interest for history enthusiasts.
  6. reservation: Efforts have been made to preserve the historic elements of the Fossdyke. It is recognized as an important part of England’s canal heritage.