Our 2,000 miles of canals see a lot of use. They welcome millions of visitors every year – on boats, on wheels, on foot. They provide places where people can unwind, slow down, exercise and forget about the pressures of everyday life. They’re also a home, a workplace and a vital travel network for many.
We work to make sure everyone can access and enjoy canals, whether as a route to work, for a family day out, for a chance to volunteer or as a means to travel by boat across the country.
What’s the challenge?
Our canals and rivers never sleep. They’re in constant use, of a kind their designers couldn’t have imagined. There are more boats using them today than at the height of the industrial revolution. And we’re welcoming record numbers of visitors to our towpaths, all of whom use them in very different ways.
With increased use also comes increased pressures, such as litter, pollution, graffiti and vandalism. The level of service and facilities we provide needs to keep up with demand, and we have a greater responsibility than ever to keep visitors safe both on the water and beside it.
The role we play
We strive to make waterways inviting places for people to enjoy and where nature can thrive.
Our local teams work closely with communities to improve habitat, provide better access, engage people and respond to local needs all along our network. Our important education work is also embedding critical water safety messages where they’re needed most, taking them to young people in schools and youth groups across England and Wales.
Wellbeing and water
It’s a fact – spending just two hours by water can improve our mental health. We run events across the country so people can experience the benefits for themselves, from towpath walks and fishing taster sessions to waterside festivals.
The benefits of spending time by water are even recognised by GPs and wellbeing professionals. Through our social prescribing projects in Nottingham and Leicestershire, health workers can refer patients to activities along local waterways, all of which are designed to help people tackle mental and physical health problems.
Our canals run through some of the most diverse communities in England and Wales. We want our waterways to reflect the people that live closest to them, so they can benefit from time spent by water in an environment that feels safe and appropriate. This means our community projects are just that – co-created with people from all walks of life and run with communities at their heart, helping to make decisions, direct funding as well as do the hard graft.
Our youth development programme is also a key part of our work. Young people have the power to keep our waterways relevant for their generation and beyond. Whether through volunteering, taking social action to improve local life, or developing skillsets for future employability, we offer a wealth of youth engagement opportunities across our network all year round.
Canals were of course built first and foremost for boats, and without boaters, they wouldn’t still exist today.
We license thousands of boats and want every boater to be able to navigate our waterways, access facilities and have an opportunity to voice opinions with us. We support our boating community with information about stoppages and route navigation, to find services and facilities around our network, and to provide guidance on moorings and licences. Our Boaters' Update newsletter reports on all the latest boating news, safety announcements and upcoming events. And our team of welfare officers offer support for vulnerable boaters or those facing challenges with life on the water.
Over time, silt builds up at the bottom of canals, preventing boats from travelling freely. To tackle this we dredge, essentially scooping up sediment from the bottom of canals and removing it. If done incorrectly, this could damage plants and other wildlife, reduce water quality and affect land drainage, so any dredging must be done sensitively and carefully.
Our canals and towpaths offer active, low-carbon and sustainable ways to travel. We’re improving our towpaths all the time to enable more people to use them, whether for leisure, commuting or for exercise. We also support businesses to continue to use our network for transport and to raise awareness of the environmental benefits of moving freight by water.
Safety is very important to us. We also think our canals should be accessible to as many people as possible and that everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy time by water.
Out on the canals, we routinely assess our routes and facilities, addressing safety concerns and improving access wherever possible. And with partners, we educate young people about the dangers of open water, reaching thousands of school children and families every year.
Around 600 miles of our canals have been awarded Green Flag status. To achieve and maintain this we and our dedicated volunteers work tirelessly to clear litter, create new green space and encourage wildlife.
Canals are built by people, for people. Our extensive network reaches all corners of England and parts of Wales, from rural Monmouthshire and suburban Warwickshire to inner city Birmingham and the docks of Liverpool. They bring nature and green space to millions.
But if we can’t see the value of waterways or don’t have the chance to use and enjoy them, we’re less likely to protect canals for the future. By introducing people, especially children, to the incredible history of the waterways, placing a fishing rod in the hand of a beginner or spending an afternoon planting wildflowers on a bank, we can help nurture a love of water that will make a real difference.
Support our work
We need your support to keep canals and rivers alive. Donate today to make a real difference to the work we do