Take a history lesson

Did you know?

Almost two thirds of households near our waterways are disadvantaged. Support our community projects along canals and rivers.

Explore our rich heritage and learn more about the history of our canals

Explorers education volunteer with children Explorers education volunteer with children

Many of our canals were built at the height of the industrial revolution. They have seen 200 years of history and, thanks to our specialist teams, stepping foot onto our towpaths is like walking into a living museum where you can touch all of the exhibits.

Living history on the canals

Here are a few things to look out for.


Back when our canals and rivers were used to transport goods up and down the country, boatmen and canal companies needed thousands of mile markers to help them work out how far each boat had travelled. Many of these mile markers can still be spotted on our network.

Ellesmere Port, Shropshire Union Canal Ellesmere Port, Shropshire Union Canal

Rope marks on bridges

In the early days of the waterways horses pulled boats up and down the country with ropes. In fact, the entire infrastructure of our canals and rivers was built for the horsedrawn era, with clear towpaths and smooth curves on bridges and buildings to avoid snagging towlines.


Our canals and rivers are home to dozens of aqueducts of many different sizes. These ‘canals in the sky’ are testament to the ambitions of our famous canal engineers and they still look just as impressive today as they did 200 years ago.

Did you know… As part of the construction of the renowned Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, ox blood was added to the lime mortar used to bind the masonry together. This followed the ancient superstition that the blood of a strong animal would strengthen a building or structure.

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct from above Pontcysyllte Aqueduct from above

Roses and castles

Back in the days when our canals were used to haul goods around the country, many of the families working on the boats aspired to a better life and decorated their boats with paintings of roses and castles.  This tradition has endured and you can still spot roses and castles painted on many traditional narrowboats.


Feared and revered in equal measure since the early days of canal boating, our most well known lock flights have now become leisure destinations in their own right - and a valued part of British canal heritage.

Canal cottages

In the hey day of the canals, when commercial cargo was a common sight up and down the waterway network, it took a considerable number of workers to keep our trunk routes operating efficiently. All of these people needed somewhere to live, and so the lock keeper’s cottage came about.

Canal architecture is above all functional, and this is evident in the design of the traditional lock cottage. Two up, two down and constructed from local materials, the cottages still exude a rustic charm – perhaps due to their enviable locations. Canal cottages are often strategically sited at the top of lock flights and enjoy picture postcard views.

Last date edited: 24 March 2020