Stacking up

Abigail White pays homage to our sturdy, stalwart canal bricks, which will be receiving much essential care during the winter works.

Over the next few months the Canal & River Trust are carrying out repairs and restorations to the many thousands of bricks found along the entirety of the waterways. Here's our lowdown on the humble, historic building block.

When canals were first installed in Britain, bricks were used for the construction of locks, lock approaches and bridges. For the stretches between locks, clay lining or piling was used rather than bricks, simply because brickwork was such a labour-heavy, time-consuming task.

In locks, the deterioration of brickwork is usually caused by the constant wetting and drying of bricks when the locks are emptied and filled. In winter this can lead to frost damage. Impact damage by boats is another contributing factor.

The original bricks
These were handmade by the many brick manufacturers that operated in Britain in the 19th and early 20th century, and local bricks were used for local sections of the canal. They tend to have a rounder, more distinctive shape than today's bricks – some people say they look like they're smiling! The Canal & River Trust try to salvage and reuse as many original bricks in their restorations as possible.

Today’s bricks
These are often machine-made so tend to look more uniform and lack the 'character' of older bricks. However the Trust try to source modern bricks that match the original brickwork and occasionally even go so far as cosmetically ageing the bricks so they blend in more.

To stay faithful to the mortar used for the original brickwork, the Trust use traditional lime mortar for re-pointing and restorations. They use a particular grade of natural hydraulic lime (which can set under water) depending on the type of restoration they're carrying out.

Dams and draining
For localised repairs a small dam is placed around the area so it can be drained, or if the restoration is focused on a high level of the canal wall the water level may only need to be lowered slightly, so that the navigation can be kept open without much disruption.

Last date edited: 18 December 2014

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