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The charity making life better by water

Keeping history alive

We’re proud to be the custodians of one of the largest – not to mention oldest – collections of working industrial heritage in the UK. We’re responsible for both the finest of details and incredible feats of engineering on a huge scale, from the humble milestone to the soaring Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. It's a job we don't take lightly.

Workers in high vis and hard hats laying flagstones in old stone building
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I see my job as protecting special features, places and landscapes that are valuable and have contributed to our history. We need to balance the pressure for change, which events like flooding and development inevitably bring
Ruth Garratt, heritage advisor

What’s the challenge?

We have some of the UK’s finest examples of Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian engineering and architecture in our care, not to mention places with a history that goes back much further. The passage of time and exposure to the elements take their toll. The upkeep and repair of these important features needs a careful hand, sensitive not only to the preservation of our heritage but also to the changing demands of modern life.

When maintenance becomes necessary, the parts needed are not mass produced – we handcraft all our lock gates in specialist workshops. We take pride in this, but it also means repairs can be expensive, requiring specialist knowledge and bespoke training for our colleagues.

The role we play

It costs millions of pounds every year to keep our canals, bridges, locks and historic buildings in working order. Many are hundreds of years old and need special care, an expert eye and plenty of attention. Our specialist teams and volunteers also bring forgotten waterways back to life, reinvigorating long lost parts of the UK’s canal network.

We oversee repairs to aqueducts hundreds of feet tall, to reservoirs holding vast amounts of water, and to hundreds of locks, bridges and towpaths stretched along thousands of miles of canal.

Caring for our heritage

We are the keepers of the third-largest collection of listed buildings in the UK. We have more than 2,700 of them in our care, including:

  • aqueducts, such as Pontcysyllte in North Wales, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • bridges, including opening bridges
  • docks and wharfs
  • weirs, some of which now generate power for local businesses
  • lock houses, cottages and even pubs
  • boat lifts, such as at Anderton in Cheshire
  • tunnels, such as Standedge which burrows for 3.5 miles beneath the Pennines.

Our waterways also encompass 46 Scheduled Ancient Monuments, seven historic parks and gardens, six battlefields and four World Heritage Sites.

Our archives hold thousands of historic images and records offering a glimpse of 250 years of life on our waterways. Our museum collections also house incredible examples of tools, personal items, tow horse equipment and boats which would have been put to work on the water over the years.

Restoring waterways

We work with local groups to bring derelict canals back to life. Since the turn of the millennium, and thanks to the hard work and dedication of thousands of volunteers, we’ve restored more than 200 miles of forgotten canals.

Why it matters

Our unique waterways are a national treasure and of international importance. We can't let them fall into disrepair.

Canals are navigated by a wide range of boats, from working vessels to leisure craft. They’re also a home to many. The future of boating, angling and wildlife – of travel, living, working and relaxing on water – depends on a canal and river network in good repair. There's plenty of life left in them – for the next 250 years and beyond.

Kingfisher in flight with small fish in its beak

Support our work

We need your support to keep canals and rivers alive. Donate today to make a difference

Explore more

Discover the rich history of our waterways and their significance today

Last Edited: 08 September 2023

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