by Kathryn Knight
The Times, London
Canals have played an important role in British life and history for more than 200 years. The canal building boom in the 1790s changed the face of Britain and heralded the Industrial Revolution.
Now nearly half of Britain's population lives within five miles of the 2000 mile long canal network that crisscrosses the nation, and many millions of people use them for enjoyment: fishing, walking, canoeing and boating.
For British Waterways, management and conservation of the canals involves a complicated struggle to balance leisure potential with preservation of the natural habitats of rare species of birds, fish and plant life.
While boat owners want deeper water and better locks, anglers want good fish stocks and good facilities on the banks of the water. But they also want a serene environment with traditional views from centuries ago.
With canals running through a variety of different landscapes, from major cities to isolated nature reserves, and with responsibility for more than 2000 listed buildings, British Waterways has had to adopt new maintenance methods to reconcile ecological soundness with the needs of the millions of canal users every year.
Their success is reflected in the several prestigious awards won in 1995. British Waterways gained two prizes in the Global British Airways Tourism for Tomorrow Awards, in recognition of their environmentally responsible approach.
Also a joint British Waterways/Birmingham City Council project won an award for "excellence on the waterfront" in a competition organised by The Waterfront Centre, Washington DC. It was shared with New York and Boston, but it was the first time a British city had been a winner. Another project attracted the European prize for Tourism and the Environment, selected from 56 other European entries.
British Waterways is now starting to export its expertise. It has been awarded a number of state contracts by the body that runs the French Inland Waterways, who want to use Britain's experience to develop their own canal network.
"France is a country that in the past has used its waterways for a lot of freight traffic and less for leisure " says Mr. Simon Salem, marketing and communications manager for British Waterways.
"Canal managers there want to know how they can get the waterways to retain their original character while being developed so they can play a large role in the leisure industry.
With a marketing initiative recently launched elsewhere in Europe other contracts in countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands also beckon.
For Britain's own waterways the main problem has been that of sensitive development. "If you get it wrong you destroy the very thing people want to see when they spend time on, or by, the water " said Mr. Salem.
Together with English Heritage the company has produced the first ever Architectural Heritage Survey of the canal network, with a photographically recorded analysis of all its waterways buildings and structures from locks and pumping houses to cottages and tunnels.
Pictured to the left is Birmingham's award-winning waterfront.
Many staff are now sent on training courses to learn the skills necessary to help conserve the thousands of buildings and features. At a series of workshops, workers learn traditional techniques brought up to date so they can turn their hand to delicate preservation work.
But buildings are only one part of the British Waterways heritage with the natural environment often providing more immediately pressing problems. The canal network passes through more than 600 miles of relatively uninterrupted hedgerow, populated by numerous varieties of birds and mammals.
With many parts of the water needing restoration work, Mr. Salem said, British Waterways is often faced with the delicate task of disturbing the natural environment. One major restoration project which illustrates the problem is work on the previously abandoned Montgomery Canal, which runs through England and Wales and houses a number of rare plant species, such as floating water plantain, along its 35 mile length.
British Waterways have now established a number of off channel nature reserves to allow these rare species to flourish while allowing heavy duty work to reopen sections of the canal.
"We had to do this under very controlled circumstances," said Mr. Salem, "but means the canal can be used while the nature is still enjoyed."
British Waterways also invests more than £20,000 each year in fish re-stocking programmes to make sure healthy levels are maintained in the water.
In contrast it has also carried out a number of town centre and urban canal regeneration projects in cities such as Leeds, Sheffield, and the Limehouse Marina in east London. The waterways of such cities often bear the burden of their 200 year industrial heritage and require hefty maintenance and clean up work.
Working in conjunction with Birmingham City Council, British waterways has recently completed a regeneration of the city's canals and devised a complicated water dredging system to remove toxic waste from the canal's murky depths. Special machines dredged 40,000 cubic metres of silt from the water to achieve a dramatic improvement in quality allowing plant life to flourish. The city's canalside is now a busy hubbub with an amalgamation of leisure, business and residential areas running alongside the newly cleaned canal.