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Transport / Mass transit

Four things we learned about the UK’s waterways from Chris Clegg’s Canal Time Map

In my ever-present efforts to satisfy the cartography-minded readers among you – i.e. all of you – I stumbled across an interesting map of England’s inland waterways.

What causes Chris Clegg’s Canal Time Map to stand out is that, unusually, it’s scaled by time rather than distance, showing how long it would take to travel around the UK via narrowboat.

Such a map can only work when most other variables such as route and speed are fixed, which is true of the inland waterways, where boats can only travel at 4mph.

With this in mind and a sprinkling of other assumptions, our man Chris has created this handy tool for all types of boaters. Somewhat unfortunately, due to the collapse of waterway industry in the early 1960s, the map now mainly services retired leisure boaters, but I’m sure they appreciate it.

The north. Click to expand. 

Here are four things you can learn about boating from the map:

1) Travelling by water is slow. Really slow.

It takes 45 hours to get from St Pancras to Oxford by boat. If you were going to take public transport, the journey would be less than an hour and a half. So this isn’t ideal unless you’ve got a particularly gruelling working week to spare, but what if you needed to take a lot of luggage to Oxford, like, say 30 tonnes of coal for example? No, okay, it’s still a terrible idea. Driving still takes under two hours and now days we have big trucks and nice roads. You can see why industry on our inland waterways died out.

2) The weather doesn’t just delay trains 

The south. Click to expand.

Within the instructions on how to use the map, you can learn quite a lot about the unpredictability of the inland waterways. The timings are worked out based on “normal” conditions. Abnormal conditions would include “low pounds, ice, strong flow on rivers, excessive weed growth, or water shortage restrictions requiring waiting at the locks.”

Excessive weed growth is becoming a greater problem in the warm months, while ice restricts movement in the depths of winter. As we all saw earlier this year, trains are just as susceptible to freezing weather but if waterway traffic is to compete on the slow and steady mantra, reliability is crucial.

3) Choose your crew wisely

“An experienced and fit crew of 3 adults” is required, along with a whole host of other things, to travel at the speeds specified by the map.

“Fit” is fairly subjective and considering boating on the canal network is now predominantly an activity for the retired, I’m not sure many crews could still accurately be described in this way. An “experienced” crew member is just as hard to come by – judging by my friends, who will show up eagerly for a day of “beers on the boat”, yet rarely return for a second time after the realities of spending a day struggling to open locks. So unless you’re a 19th century boating family, best treat these times with a pinch of salt.

4) It’s (a lot) bigger than you think

From Wales to the Norfolk Broads. Click to expand.

It’s not something you’re really going to get to grips with from the odd walk along the canal around Kings Cross, so it’s easy to forget just how the UK waterway network is. To travel from Guildford to Lancaster by canal, one of longest direct journeys possible, would take upwards of 160 hours. There are 2000 miles of canals across the country, with a tiny proportion in cities like London.

They are living relics of England’s industrial past and have been preserved for our pleasure. Get out there and get exploring.

All images courtesy of Chris Clegg.
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