In 1759 the Duke of Bridgewater paid the engineer James Brindley to pay hundreds of navvies to dig a canal linking Manchester with the Duke's coal mine in Worsley to stoke the Industrial Revolution and make lots and lots of money, which he did.
Floating the cargo, rather than dragging it by packhorse and cart, was so efficient that the price of coal fell in half. Everyone wanted a piece of the pie so a period of frantic canal-digging known as Canal Mania ensued. Some canals were never finished, others had barely opened before they went bankrupt, but eventually more than 2,000 miles of new waterway were added to the rivers, lakes and lochs of England, Wales and Scotland. At their peak, 4,000 miles of navigable waterways laced Britain's landscape.
In this goldrush, most canals were made cheaply, with locks made to take shallow-draughted boats less than 7' wide but as much as 72' in length. The so-called narrowboats could carry 30 tons at a time. They kept the factory furnaces burning, but coal was only part of the picture. Boats were loaded with gravel for bricks to build our cities, lumber for ship-building, rubbish for landfill, gunpowder, even lime juice - if it fitted in a boat, it was cargo.
But the party didn't last long. By the 1830s the steam locomotive had turned up and the combustion engine was on its way. Industrialists started to go off the idea of floating things around and get back to dragging them along on wheels. Railways were laid right next to the waterways, where the land was flattest, to take hundreds of tons of cargo at a time and move it at unheard-of speeds. Later, lorries would take cargoes door to door in one go. Hand-shovelling a boatload of coal onto a cart and then shifting it again into a coalhouse made a lot less sense to the new champions of efficiency.
The boatmen and women started to feel the pinch. To cut costs they gave up their homes and moved on board, living in cabins six foot square, the bunks criss-crossed to fit in a whole family. They painted their new homes in bright colours - red, green and yellow - and kept going, generation after generation, until their whole world was a waterway. The land people barely noticed the boatpeople, who in their turn more or less lost contact with life on land.
By the time the First World War juddered to a halt, the writing was on the wall for the working boats. By the 1930s the channels were silting up, the bridges were collapsing and locks went unrepaired. A clutch of die-hards pressed on but by the time of the Second World War most had disappeared. The canals were being filled in or were just forgotten like old roads.
At about this time, one L T C Rolt bought a narrowboat, Cressy, fitted a cabin along its full length, and set out for an unlikely adventure through the watery wasteland. The canals were in such bad shape that at times he had to pole his boat over silt or dig his own channel. Eventually, he wrote up the story. Much to everyone's surprise, presumably also his own, Tom Rolt's book was a seed falling on fertile soil. Up and down the land, our native lovers of infrastructure - the people who like buses, railways, old bridges, and the like - were sharing the book about Cressy's voyage. Soon, they were grabbing shovels and digging out the canals, or going on 'campaign cruises' to stop the rot.
The first waterway to be saved by feverish, do-it-yourself digging and a bit of bolshy campaigning - a pastime then enthusiastically organised by the volunteers' own Inland Waterways Association - was the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal in 1947. In 1948, the canals were lumped into the nationalisation of the railways. More waterway restorations followed. These early successes sparked a nationwide campaign, which eventually culminated in a political coup. In those days, politicians were more disposed to bold action, not least the estimable Barbara Castle, who as Labour Minister for Transport and a canal fan herself, decided to assume responsibility for the waterways. Her Transport Act of 1968 made restoration and maintenance of most of the surviving waterways a statutory duty of the state.
Thank James and his navvies, thank Tom and Cressy, thank Barbara and her childhood canal holidays, thank the working boat people, thank the people in anoraks shovelling silt. (Grr, if you must, thank the profiteering Duke.) The canals are only here today because of a people's victory.
Folks started to use the canals more, too. Boats were being built again, this time with live-aboard cabins along their length. Canal holidays became a thing (long before EasyJet's cheap jaunts to Spain were a thing). Retired couples sold their homes and sunk the proceeds into floating palaces for the cruising season, every brass fitting agleam. Community narrowboat associations sprang up to give kids a day out. A few hardy folk even started to live on narrowboats year-round - crazy dudes! Divorcees, eccentrics, loners, solitary writers and artists started to jump aboard in search of anywhere that wasn't the rat race.
Then, probably only in the last decade or so, came a tidal wave of young couples - circus performers, journalists, musicians, activists, resting actors - all looking for a way to live low-income lives without crossing wealthy landlords' sticky palms with silver. They told their mates, who work for the Guardian, and the Guardian told the world, and now there are more boats than ever before on Britain's waterways.
Which is something to celebrate - and not necessarily sustainable in the long-run. So a few of us are wondering what will happen and what we can do to keep it all sweet.