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The charity making life better by water

Keeping Canals Alive in 2023

As we come to the end of 2023, we’re looking back at the work we’ve done to keep canals alive over the past year.

Like most years, 2023 was a busy one. As the UK’s largest canal charity, our role in protecting and revitalising our nation’s canals never stops. Here’s just a selection of projects from the last 12 months.

Looking after our canals and rivers

Engineers in high vis and hard hats at the bottom of an empty canal lock working on the gates

Every winter we undertake a large programme of repair and maintenance work, while the canals are quieter.

Last winter was no different. Early in the new year, we carried out important repairs to protect and preserve ‘The Undercroft’ in Manchester City Centre, while our works to rebuild the Grade II listed Hazelhurst Bridge in Staffordshire continued at pace.

Meanwhile, major works were seen at Toddbrook and Harthill reservoirs in the north of England to secure their futures. Further south, at Crofton on the Kennet & Avon Canal, we updated pumping systems to keep water flowing smoothly.

Providing places for people

Fast-forward to the summer, and we were proud to announce that 50 of our canal and river navigations had been awarded prestigious Green Flag status by Keep Britain Tidy. This totals 600 miles of Green Flag waterways, bringing nature into the heart of our towns and cities.

Group of volunteers walk passed a boat along the towpath in life jackets carrying painting equipment

Our 2022/23 Annual Report & Accounts reported that people continue to flock to our canals and rivers, with an impressive 4% increase in regular visits by those who live nearby.

Likewise, numbers of our wonderful volunteers continue to increase. In spring 2023 we held a series of popular welcome events, so that even more of you could find out about volunteering with us, ask questions and meet other volunteers. At this end of this year, we started the elections process for the Trust's Council, recruiting the next tranche of volunteers who will represent private boating, business boating, volunteers, Friends of the Trust, employees and fisheries/angling.

We were thrilled to see many volunteers recognised with prestigious awards throughout the past year and look forward to welcoming you all again - and perhaps seeing new faces - in 2024.

Many of our valued supporters raised vital funds for our charity by taking part in Canalathon over the summer, as well as third-party events, such as the TCS London Marathon, throughout the year. Congratulations to all of you.

Group of runners enjoying Canalathon in Birmingham

Keeping history alive

We’re proud to care for the third largest collection of listed buildings and structures in the UK and our work to give our past a future never stops. Just before Easter, Anderton Boat Lift re-opened after a £450,000 emergency repair programme carried out by our teams. These repairs were just the first step in an urgently needed major refurbishment programme, aiming to keep this wonder of the waterways open and working.

In May 2023 we completed repair works on the Grade II Listed Dead Dog Basin Bridge on the Regent’s Canal in Camden. Built in 1846, it is the busiest canal footbridge in the country, with over one million people crossing it each year.

In October, we began an exciting £650,000 upgrade on four of the Oxford Canal’s iconic wooden lift bridges, built 250 years ago to allow local farmers and residents to cross the newly dug canal.

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For many people these bridges are the defining feature of the Oxford Canal. I’m delighted that our charity, with the support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery, is able to make them safer to operate and more durable while retaining their unique look and heritage value.”
Ros Daniels, director for London & South East

Helping nature thrive

Work to restore natural habitats by water is an ongoing priority as we improve biodiversity across our network. Restoration of the unnavigable stretch of the Montgomery Canal continues apace, and in August we announced the start of a comprehensive research study into rare plants on this beautiful waterway.

Soon after, September saw the launch of our Big Plastic Pick Up, encouraging everyone to clear wildlife-rich canals of harmful plastic waste.

Meanwhile, our vital Invasive Species Eradication Project, funded by Severn Trent Water, tackled four invasive plant species including Japanese Knotweed, Giant Hogweed, Floating Pennywort and Water Fern

Woman on a sunny canal towpath holding two plants in pots

Delivering through partnership

Through tapping into available funding, we’ve delivered significant towpath improvement projects in 2023, making our towpaths safer for all who use them.

Working with our partner Sustrans, we upgraded many miles of towpaths, including in Market Harborough and Aldermaston. Over in Loughborough, we joined with the Loughborough Town Deal to improve a two-kilometre stretch of the River Soar towpath.

These projects will enable more of us to boost our physical and mental health by spending time by water and amongst nature.

Thousands of us enjoyed a programme of waterside events in 2023, thanks to the ongoing support of our partners. Local angling clubs helped us provide hundreds of Let’s Fish! sessions, introducing participants of all ages to the relaxing sport of fishing.

Let's Fish

Threats to canals and rivers

No re-cap of 2023 could be complete without a mention of July’s news that Government funding cuts are putting the future of our historic canals at risk. At the start of the summer, we issued a start warning that the reduction in grant funding will lead to the decline and eventual closure of some parts of our 2,000-mile network. This was the start of our #KeepCanalsAlive campaign.

As a result, thousands of our incredible supporters emailed MPs across the country in a tremendous show of support that has put our funding firmly onto the political agenda. We will continue to fight for our canal network in 2024 and beyond.

This October saw Storm Babet bring considerable damage to the canals, with hundreds of trees blown down, towpaths washed away and canal banks collapsing. Our colleagues and volunteers attended numerous call-outs as they battled to control water levels and keep everyone safe during what was only the first storm of the autumn.

Unfortunately, the effects of climate change mean that such events are no longer rare. The 250-year-old waterways in our care – the canals, embankments, culverts and reservoirs as well as the bridges, locks and towpaths – and their vital ecosystems are threatened by more extreme weather such as storms and droughts.

Looking ahead

Our canal network needs constant care and attention. Without it, canals face decline and closure, and we risk losing the incredible benefits they bring.

Our planned repair and restoration works for winter 2023/24 are already underway, with an £50m programme of engineering works illustrating the scale of the resource required to protect and preserve the canals.

Thank you for reading our review of 2023. We look forward to seeing you by the water in 2024.

Kingfisher in flight with small fish in its beak

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Last Edited: 07 February 2024

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