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Waterway Magic: The Canal & River Trust casts a spell

Take a walk along your local waterway. How does it make you feel? Calm, peaceful, in touch with nature?

"If you enjoyed the experience, you’re not alone, and you can discover more about waterways on the morning of Thursday 11th June at the Mechanics Institute in Manchester, for the third annual Canal & River Trust, Manchester and Pennine Waterway Partnership Outburst." 

Last year more than 17 million people visited a canal. Walkers, boaters, joggers, anglers and cyclists are being attracted to the nation’s waterways in record breaking numbers. More and more boats are cruising our canals and nearly 400,000 volunteer hours have been donated by waterway enthusiasts keen to see them stay in tip top condition.

TV producers also love these quirky blue ribbons of tranquillity and this spring, hundreds of thousands tuned in to enjoy armchair cruises with Timothy West and Prunella Scales, and BBC’s former political editor John Sergeant.

"Forget the image of rusting shopping trolleys - canals have re-invented themselves for the 21st century."

This quiet revolution has been spreading through the country since the late 1990s. Britain’s 2,000 miles of canals and navigable rivers, created during the Industrial Revolution, have undergone a remarkable renaissance.

Derelict and un-loved in the latter half of the 20th Century, they’ve benefited from millions of pounds of regeneration investment, pumped into them over the last two decades. The introduction of the National Lottery and the Millennium Commission coincided with a national drive to re-invent our canals as places for fun and relaxation.

Regeneration schemes were popping up everywhere. Engineers, who only 20 years before had been filling in urban canals, like the Rochdale, suddenly found themselves digging them out again.

Around 200 miles of canal have been added to the network since the millennium and major new visitor attractions have opened at the renovated Anderton Boat Lift in Cheshire, the amazing new 21st century Scottish boat lift, the Falkirk Wheel, and at Standedge Tunnel, Britain’s highest, longest, deepest canal tunnel carved through the Pennines.

"Living by an attractive canal can add up to 20% to the value of a property."

Wily developers have also been quick to get in on the act. Water has been a major regeneration catalyst, particularly in cities like Manchester. Two trans-Pennine canals, the Huddersfield Narrow and the Rochdale canals were restored to operation a few years ago and in their wake have come impressive urban villages like New Islington and Piccadilly Village.
Instead of turning their backs on our once maligned canals, bars and restaurants like Dukes 92 and the Rain Bar, and the Bridgewater Hall in central Manchester now embrace their waterside setting as an attractive selling point. 

Looking after this national legacy is a constant challenge. The role used to be carried out by the public sector quango, British Waterways, but three years ago all its assets were transferred to a new charity, The Canal & River Trust. The Trust was given BW’s £460 million property portfolio, an £800 million funding guarantee to cover the next 15 years and set sail to create a bright new future for Britain’s heritage waterways.

“Becoming a charitable trust is one of the best things to happen to our canal network”, said David Baldacchino, local waterway manager of the Trust’s Manchester & Pennine Waterway. As a civil engineer with British Waterways he project-managed a number of major construction and restoration schemes, but can now see many advantages to becoming a Trust.

“Keeping a 200-year-old canal system in good working order is a constant challenge. But now instead of the public sitting back and pointing the figure when things go wrong, we can invite them to come and help out as volunteers.

“This fantastic national heritage belongs to all of us and it’s up to all of us to take good care of it. At its very basic level this means not chucking traffic cones and other rubbish into the water. Fly tipping is unpleasant for local residents and costs us valuable resources to clear up.

“We are constantly striving to improve the waterway environment, creating better towpaths, replacing lock gates, protecting wildlife habitats, and volunteers can play a tremendous role in really making a difference."

"The Trust provides the professional expertise, but all sorts of residents have formed themselves into regular work parties and are achieving amazing results.”

At Great Ancoats in Manchester, one such group meets on the last Sunday of every month. Jon Stopp has been a lead volunteer for nearly four years. He explained: “This group started in 2012 with just a handful of local residents doing a few litter picks and tidying up the vegetation to make the canal look nicer. 

“The network has now grown to some 400 enthusiastic volunteers, including lots of young professionals who live in the smart new apartments at New Islington and Ancoats Mills. We have also expanded geographically to take on substantial stretches along the Ashton and Rochdale canals and the new marina.

“The new local free school has also got involved and ambitious new plans to green up the canal corridor and create a wonderful new nature reserve have won support from Manchester City Council, the People’s Postcode Lottery and the Trust.

“Everyone who uses the canal, either for leisure or their daily commute, is going to benefit from the improvements,” he added.

Fund raising has become a major task for the Trust and more than £7 million has been raised since its creation three years ago. In Manchester & Pennine Waterway alone, over 4,200 volunteer days have been notched up this year and 17 groups have formally adopted their local stretch of canal.

The Trust is divided into 11 waterways, supported by a local partnership management group made up of volunteer specialists who each bring particular talents or expertise to help provide strategic guidance.

Walter Menzies, former chief executive of the Mersey Basin Campaign and visiting professor at Liverpool University, is the chairman of the Manchester & Pennine Waterway.

His passion is our waterways and how they can transform lives. He explained:

“It's time we all realised that green - and blue - infrastructure is as important as transport, energy, digital."

“It's time we seized the opportunity to establish Manchester as the capital of the North's waterways and made the most of this wonderful asset. From lovely chocolate box dream canals in Cheshire to gritty challenging stretches in the south Pennines - it all comes together in Manchester. Nobody in Greater Manchester is far from a canal.

“We're just at the beginning of the transformation of Canal and River Trust into one of the most dynamic charities and its Manchester and Pennine Waterway Partnership - which I chair - is an ambitious team. There is nowhere else in the country with so much potential to develop resilient, sustainable and thrilling waterways to benefit our economy, the environment and of course the people who live and work in and around the North's capital.”

Again, please do join us on Thursday 11th June at the Mechanics Institute in Manchester for the Canal & River Trust's annual general meeting. Places are limited so please register your interest with Tracey Jackson at or call 03030 404040.

We will be joined once again by Jo Bell the unforgettable canal laureate, Richard Parry Chief Executive of Canal & River Trust, Jessica Bowles from Manchester City Council and many others.

Is Manchester the capital of the North's waterways? How exactly is the Macclesfield Canal leading the country? These and many other questions will be explored. If you are interested in presenting a five minute soapbox session on a waterway related subject of your choice - please let us know your proposed title. 

Keep up to speed with Manchester & Pennine CRT news on twitter - @CRTManPennine