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What is waterways heritage?

Waterways heritage in Britain is far more than just the canals and rivers themselves. From the engineering legacy to the heritage skills used to the vibrant culture, our waterways are a unique heritage. Yet they are not a museum, they are a living legacy constantly in use today.

A heritage of infrastructure

Britain’s waterways tell the story of our industrial past. The history of river navigation and canal building led to unique and diverse heritage features.

Originally canals were owned by different companies and each one designed locks and bridges in slightly different ways. Every canal has slightly differently designed lock mechanisms.

Architecture & engineering

Waterways buildings and engineering structures built to serve them are intrinsically waterways heritage. Examples are lock keepers’ cottages, pumping stations and boatyards.

However, there are many other industrial and residential structures built close to canals and rivers in order to make use of these arteries of commerce. These include warehouses and factories.

Similarly pubs, shops and churches were built for the boat people who stopped as they passed through. These are important not just because of their proximity to the waterways but because of what they meant to the people who used them.


Boats are an integral part of waterways heritage. There is a life and vibrancy to a working waterway that is not found on an un-navigable stretch of water.

The evolution of inland waterways craft mirrors the development of navigations. The dimensions of locks (as well as water depth and bridge air draught) have defined the size of boats which are able to navigate the inland waterways.

Each set of waterways has a type of boat most suited to it, with the boats often being known by the navigation they were used on. For example, Leeds and Liverpool “Short” Boats and Thames Sailing Barges.

Waterway heritage details

Heritage also includes those small details of waterways system artefacts such as those designed or evolved to facilitate towing.

Some of these, particularly small details such as starting pins are not obvious. As such, they are at risk from being removed when repairs and maintenance are carried out simply because not everyone knows why they are there and that they are still used.

Waterways heritage skills

The skills needed to operate boats on the inland waterways are alive and continually evolving.

However there are some aspects which need to be supported if they are to continue. In particular, the skills relating to operating historic boats or pairs of boats.

Boatbuilding skills are also an important part of waterways heritage. This is true for the maintenance of existing boats and building new ones which look right in a heritage context. Traditional techniques need passing down to ensure they are not lost.

Landscape & views

The aesthetic of landscape (be it industrial or rural) in which a waterway is situated is also part of the overall heritage.

Views of waterways have value to developers but there needs to be as much thought given to the views from the waterway. Any proposals for change to the waterway environment should be preceded and informed by a full understanding of how it came to be as it is.

The regeneration of Birmingham’s canals has been a great success in terms of regeneration. However, iconic waterways heritage buildings and views were lost in the process.


Waterways heritage is also the culture of the people who live and work on the canals and rivers, both in the past and present.

The boat families of the past developed a distinct culture. This was born out of their isolation from land based communities due to always being on the move. The beautifully painted boats and items such as water cans are well known examples and there are still those who paint in this tradition. However, other less tangible remnants of this culture such as the language are also threatened. This includes names for boat parts and skills, as well as places.

Music and the spoken word have often been important ways in which waterways stories have been passed down. Today’s boaters have evolved their own sense of culture and identity, some of which is based in the old traditions.

There is a community spirit amongst boaters, stemming from a shared love of an alternative but sometimes difficult way of life. They have often colonised lesswell-loved spaces of towns and cities, bringing a vibrancy and identity to spaces which previously felt less safe.


Waterways heritage is falling through the gaps of heritage protection. Many heritage features have already been lost, whilst vast numbers remain under threat.

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Waterways heritage features