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Britain's other river system: established during the Industrial Revolution, Britain's canal network is enjoying a resurgence. And the combination of colourful narrow boats, impressive aqueducts and water-loving wildlife offers photographers a wealth of canal-related opportunities.


For most people, the Industrial Revolution conjures up images of child labour in noisy cotton mills and a forest of chimneys in northern England belching smoke and soot over the roofs of cramped terraces. Little thought is given to the network of canals built to provide a direct route between factory, port and quarry for the transport of raw materials and finished goods on long, open-hold barges.

Long after child labour was abolished, the mills shut down and smelters demolished, nearly all of the canals remain, really restored and now given a new role, providing a welcome leisure diversion for the nation's rapidly growing urban population. Britain has more than 3,000 kilometres of canals, stretching from the Caledonian Canal in the Highlands of Scotland to the Kennet and Avon Canal England's West Country. This network of manmade rivers is the oldest national canal system in the world, started in 1761 with the construction of the Bridgewater Canal between Worsely and Manchester.


While the railways are rightly regarded as the greatest transport legacy of the Industrial Revolution, it was the canals that provided Britain with its firm modern national transport network. Long before Robert Stephenson drafted the blueprints of the Rocket, or Sir Thomas Telford laid his first mile of track, canals provided the means for the efficient transport of large quantities of raw materials, most notably coal, iron ore and china clay, to the smelters and factories of northwest England.

By the mid-19th century, the British landscape had been transformed by a network of inland waterways linked to major river systems by locks, aqueducts and tunnels. Unsurprisingly, many of the engineers who built canals adapted their experience and disciplines to the development of the railways. After all, railways shared the same basic requirements of canals: a straight and true course, as level as possible no matter what the terrain. However, a river barge was far slower than a steam train, and it wasn't long before freight moved off the barges and onto the railways, causing large chunks of the canal network to become derelict.

Fortunately, canals have found new life supporting hundreds of residential houseboats as well as weekend leisure and narrow-boat holidays. A 4mph (6.4km/h) speed limit on the inland waterways means the narrow boat is the least intrusive mode of transport upon the British landscape. Indeed, the ease with which they slip into view makes these vessels an essential ingredient in the photography of these atmospheric scenes.


Whether you're on the deck of a chugging narrow boat watching the landscape glide by, or taking in the scene of a picturesque stretch of waterway, canals provide a wonderful array of subjects to photograph. Narrow boats--so called because they are just tinder seven feet (2.1 metres) wide and around 50 feet (15.2 metres) in length--make appealing subjects in their own right. In undulating rural settings, a narrow boat adds a welcome splash of colour and foreground interest to the gentler background hues of green. Canal banks with grass verges and draped with drooping boughs of willow make an idyllic backdrop for the contrasting reds, yellows and other warm colour tones found on so many narrow boats.

A tighter crop with a longer lens allows for compositions that fill the frame with brilliant colour and design details that adorn the boats' decks. In the spring and summer months, many narrow boats are decorated with potted plants, providing even more photographic potential, as well as a seasonal context to the image.

Moorings are often crowded with boats lined against the water's edge, giving you plenty of time to set up your camera and tripod to compose your shot. Remember, narrow boats are people's homes, so if people are on deck relaxing, or going about their business, exercise courtesy by asking if they mind you photographing their boat. Many moorings are adjacent to waterside pubs, and on a bright, sunny day, few settings seem more representative of the British landscape.


It can be easy to forget that these inland waterways are entirely manmade. They attract as much birdlife as any natural river system, and their importance to conserving Britain's wildlife has gained in significance as more canals are restored to their original condition. Yet canals are extraordinary examples of engineering and there are many sites where mechanical and structural spectacles are more noteworthy than the beauty of the countryside they traverse.

There are dozens of aqueducts in Britain's canal network, many of which resemble the classical structures of Ancient Rome. The longest and most famous is the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal, extending more than 300 metres across the River Dee Valley in North Wales. It's the subject of many photographs, usually from one end of the aqueduct looking down its entire length, with narrow boat in the foreground, or shot from a distance on the valley floor, with the multi-arched span running across the width of the frame.

Flights of canal locks provide another distinct photo opportunity. These resemble gated steps of water to enable narrow boats of ascend (and descend) inclines en route. The Caen Hill Flight of locks on the Kennet and Avon Canal in Wiltshire is a much-photographed example and is often framed using a telephoto lens in order to get the compressed perspective that makes each lock look closer than it really is. More impressive still is the Tardebigge Flight on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, where no fewer than 30 locks are employed to raise the canal more than 65 metres.


Probably the most challenging canal structures to photograph are tunnels. The oldest were built before the days of steam and provided very little clearance. This was deliberate, as it enabled the small crew on the earliest industrial barges to lie on their backs and 'walk the roof' of the tunnel, helping to push the barge through to the other end, where normal service would resume from tethered horse power on the canal path.

But that was then. Today, a photograph of a colourful narrow boat emerging from a canal tunnel in a pool of sunlight sounds like a straightforward shot, but you need to be prepared to spend plenty of time waiting and listening. If, instead, you're on the boat in the tunnel, then flash will be necessary to illuminate the scene and provide a very different mood and tone to the more familiar narrow-boat scenes. Just remember to mind your head.



by Stuart Fisher, Adlard Coles

Nautical, pb, 25 [pounds sterling]


by Brian Roberts,

Geo Projects, pb, 12.95 [pounds sterling]

Dos & don'ts of photographing canals


Your research. Ordnance Survey maps, the British Waterways website and guidebooks are worth studying for key information about stretches of canal that you intend to photograph

Take a selection of lenses: from wide-angle for scenic studies to telephotos for isolating details and making tightly framed compositions

Bracket your exposures. On bright days with the sun overhead, the surface water will reflect highlights that could fool your camera meter into underexposing. Adjust your exposure manually and compare results on your monitor


Venture anywhere that's closed to the public. Canals are like highways and present similar hazards. Locks, in particular, are dangerous places

Miss the wildlife opportunities. Waterfowl are right at home on many canals, so pack the gear that you would normally use for bird photography: telephoto zoom and tripod, remembering to fire the shutter using a remote release

Stand too close to the water's edge. It sounds obvious, but falling into a canal is no laughing matter--even less so when there are narrow boats on the move
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Title Annotation:GEO photo
Comment:Britain's other river system: established during the Industrial Revolution, Britain's canal network is enjoying a resurgence.
Author:Wilson, Keith
Date:Apr 1, 2010
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