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Wednesday, 23 July 2014

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Carrying waterways across the landscape

WE tend to take canals for granted these days – now that they have become a quaint way to spend a leisurely holiday in the countryside.

It was a different story in the 18th and early 19th centuries when the Industrial Revolution saw canals such that at Ulverston used to move heavy materials and promote new factories.

The role of canals in the North West was explored by Dr Alan Crosby in a day of transport talks for the Centre for North West Regional Studies at Lancaster University.

Dr Crosby said: “The canal network and the infrastructure of the canals was of crucial importance because of its innovative nature.”

They introduced viaducts, cuttings and locks – which allowed barges to move up or down hill – on a grand scale, using some of the best architects of the day.

The Lune Aqueduct on the Lancaster canal was the work of John Rennie.

Dr Crosby said: “He was one of the greatest engineering architects of his day. It is a superb, classical piece of architecture.”

The canal from Kendal to Lancaster was built to carry agricultural products, lime and slate but ran out of money.
He said: “It was left isolated, an uncompleted project.”

People at the time were astonished at the solutions found to move a waterway across – or even above – the landscape.

At Burnley a 70ft embankment a mile long carried the canal above the rooftops.

He said: “It was quite an astonishing achievement.”

Rivers had been improved for navigation through the centuries but it was the North West in the mid-18th century which started to link towns with mines and factories by purpose-built canals which did not rely on natural watercourses.

Early examples like the Duke of Bridgewater’s Canal and the Sankey Navigation were quickly copied and improved on to dramatically reduce the cost of bulk transport.

He said: “Barges going down a canal could carry so much more than a series of carts.”

However, the canals of the North West developed as a series of private ventures with little or no thought given as to how they might link up. Many others were planned but never built.

He said: “The topography of the North West was so much less congenial for canal construction than the topography of the Midlands.”

It was long thought that canals took over from pack horses, were then replaced by quicker movement on improved “turnpike” roads which in turn were made redundant for heavy haulage by the railways.

Dr Crosby argues that the industrial use of roads, canals and railways overlaps.

He said: “Roads and canals continue in importance during the railway age.

“They work together. Many later turnpike roads have links with railway stations.”

Canals halved the cost of coal coming into places like Manchester – and vastly increased demand for it.

There were no planning or environmental issues to worry about. The promoters got permission from Parliament simply for the route.

Canals led to the creation of new industrial communities and factories along their banks.

Burscough in Lancashire developed around a manure wharf to deal with barges bringing Liverpool’s night soil in the days before modern lavatory plumbing.

He said: “Canals became lined with all sorts of industrial premises.”

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