15 December 2022 — The Seven(ish) Wonders of Britain's Inland Waterways

Last week we talked a bit about the British inland waterway network—the canals that enabled the transport of goods on the water. Initially, the most common practice was to build contour canals—that is, to follow the contours of the land to avoid costly means of transitioning to lower or higher ground or tunneling. But by 1800 canal builders were becoming more ambitious, and a typical canal journey along a meandering “cut” began to be augmented by more complex solutions, such as tunnels, locks, and boat lifts. They are sometimes referred to as “canal structures.”

a series of water locks leading upward from a canal

One of the oldest type of canal structure is the lock; a series of locks is a flight. Pictured here is the Bingley Five Rise—a series of staircase locks. Each lock shares a gate in common with its neighboring lock. Today, the longest lock flight in the UK is Tardebigge Flight, on the Worcester & Binghamton Canal. A boat transiting this flight will go through 30 locks, and ascend or descend 220 feet. Photo: Boerkevitz, via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1946 the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) was formed to encourage preservation and restoration of the canal system. That same year, IWA co-founder Robert Aickman first published his book Know Your Waterways. For the book, he compiled a list of the “Seven Wonders of the Waterways”—canal structures that were remarkable achievements in their own right. The seven on Aickman’s list:

a red narrowboat transits a water passage in an aqueduct high above the ground

The towpath—today a pedestrian walkway—across the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is lined with a fence. The canal-side edge, however, is just a few inches above the waterline, offering a spectacular—or terrifying, depending on your feelings about heights—view of the River Dee valley, some 125 feet below. Photo by Adrian Pingstone, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the most amazing of Aickman's canal structures is, when you get down to it, just a simple hole in the rock. But what a hole in the rock it is! Standedge Tunnel, on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal is the highest, longest and deepest canal tunnel in Britain.

Work began on the canal and tunnel in 1794, with the optimistic goal of completion within five years. But construction of the tunnel was hounded by problems, including poor organization and water draining into the site, and at the end of those first five years, the canals leading up to either end of the proposed tunnel were completed, but the tunnel was nowhere near passable. There was one year when only 150 yards of tunnel were successfully cleared. There is even an S-shaped curve in the tunnel today, as supervising engineer Thomas Telford (who took over when the tunnel's initial engineer, Benjamin Outram, resigned) discovered that the two portions of the tunnel were misaligned and would miss each other entirely if their courses weren't altered! In all, the project lasted 17 years; the boat Lively Lady made the inaugural passage through, to emerge at the other end greeted by church bells and a band playing "Rule Britannia."

entrance gate featuring image of narrow boat and two sets of legs at tunnel entrance

The gate to the Standedge Canal Tunnel pays homage to the "leggers" who propelled boats through in the days before motorization. Photo: Paul Anderson via Wikimedia Commons.

Even after the completion of the tunnel, making the transit wasn't easy. To reduce cost, the canal was built without a towpath. Boats approaching the tunnel's entrance had to send their horses to be led over the hill, to meet them on the other side. Without horsepower, the boats had to be propelled by manpower—men lying on their backs on boards across the front of the boat, walking the boat forward along the tunnel walls. The canal company hired out "leggers" for the passage.

Of course, there were other noteworthy canal structures in Aickman's time, the list of "seven wonders" was just a convenient means of pointing out some of the most impressive. And new structures were built subsequent to his book. The most spectacular of these was the Falkirk Wheel, which often appears in more recent proposed "Seven Wonders" lists. The enormous rotating boat lift is admired for its beauty, its engineering, and its efficiency. Turning the great wheel requires as much electricity as eight electric kettles!

Rotary boat lift

The Falkirk Wheel boat lift was completed in 2001, connecting the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal. Photo: Sean Mack, via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the things I find most striking about these structures is that they represent an enormous expenditure of manpower, planning, and engineering talent—all to facilitate the progress of a humble horse-drawn boat. They are emblematic of the fact that you never know what you will find when you explore the nooks and crannies of our maritime world.

"Extra Credit"—Videos, this time.

Canal enthusiasts generously share their enthusiasm, and their experiences, via YouTube. Here are but a few links of folks sharing up-close experiences of the "seven(ish) wonders" and some of the surrounding history.


Sea History Today is written by Shelley Reid, NMHS senior staff writer. Past issues can be read online by clicking here.

National Maritime Historical Society

1000 N. Division Street, Suite #4

Peekskill, NY 10566

(914) 737-7878  



Facebook  Twitter  Instagram  YouTube