At the Canal & River Trust we care for 2,000 miles of canals and rivers in England and Wales. Around 270 miles of our inland waterway network is made up of navigable rivers, which all have their own unique charms and challenges.
We look after a number of rivers ranging from smaller waterways such as the River Soar to vast historic routes such as the River Severn and River Trent. All of the rivers we look after are navigable and while all of them have their own character they do have many features in common.
What’s the difference between a canal and a river?
All rivers are natural (they are created when rain falls in the hills and flows down to the sea). Canals are man-made and were built to carry goods from one place to another by boat.
How did some rivers become ‘navigable’?
The earliest inland navigations were natural watercourses, which were crudely adapted to aid navigation. Many rivers were widened, deepened and even straightened to allow boats to travel on them. Flash locks and weirs were added to a number of rivers and these made passage upstream and downstream much faster than had been possible before.
When the canals were built at the height of the industrial revolution, to serve areas without a waterway suitable for navigation, many rivers benefitted from the new engineering techniques being developed. They were fitted out with state of the art Victorian locks and connected to the fast-growing network of inland waterways.
How did we end up caring for a number of rivers in addition to canals?
Many of our canals and some navigable rivers were once owned by the railway companies, who bought them up from the 1850s onwards. When the railways and their assets were nationalised in 1947, these canals and river navigations were transferred to the British Transport Commission before being transferred to British Waterways in 1962.
We generally don’t own the rivers themselves, although we do manage the navigation on them.
What does it take to care for a navigable river?
Rivers vary from canals in their maintenance requirements. They don’t need reservoirs to feed them and they don’t tend to have waterway walls (unless we’ve built a wharf or moorings) so there’s less to go wrong. Where there are towpaths we generally don’t own them and rivers also have less grass to mow, as we only cut it at lock sites and there are fewer hedges to cut back.
However, it’s not all great news as far as our waterway budgets go. The locks and weirs on rivers tend to be far larger than their canal equivalents and so repairing them and replacing them does cost a lot more. We still have to dredge our rivers and the workboats that we use have to be much larger than they do on a canal.
How is boating on a river different to boating on a canal?
You need a lot more skill to go boating on a river than you do a canal as they can be subject to strong currents, which can push your boat around. You also have to plan your trip out as some of our river locks are tidal and this means that you can’t pass through them at all times.
We’ve got lock keepers at many of the locks on our rivers and at all of our tidal river locks. They possess a great deal of knowledge about local conditions and how to keep you and your boat safe.
Last date edited: 21 August 2015