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Although transportation traffic has decreased along canals since they were first built more than 200 years ago, the canal network is popular with many leisure users. However, the increase in leisure traffic is relatively recent, and there are still stretches of the canal system which require restoration if they are to be preserved.


Canal restoration projects have returned hundreds of miles of waterways to their former glory, although work is still ongoing with trusts, charities and societies all working hard to fight further decay and closures. Here at The Rothen Group, our team of engineers are proud to work with local authorities, landowners, and restoration groups to complete many aspects of canal restoration.

canal bank restoration uk
canal lock restoration

Why is UK canal restoration so important?

Across the UK, it is estimated that there is still 1,800 miles of waterways requiring restoration, many of which are canals, and with the Canal and River Trust estimating that 10 million people visit canals every year, it is clear that these networks deserve to be restored. No two waterways are ever exactly the same, and canals often benefit from unique features such as bridges, locks, boat lifts, aqueducts and period buildings, many of which are historically significant. There are many great examples, including the following:


  • The King’s Norton stop lock which features guillotine gates

  • The classical style of the Dundas aqueduct

  • Three Bridges in London which allows the Grand Junction Canal, a railway line, and a road to cross over each other.


Aside from the heritage importance, restoring these otherwise abandoned waterways also provides many economic and societal benefits. The refurbished canals and marine construction can trigger regeneration, with the waterways attracting visitors, investors and ultimately creating employment and economic growth. A great example is the ambitious development organised by the Lapal Canal Trust, which will see a stretch of the 200-year-old Dudley canal restored, and it is predicted that the work will act as a catalyst for economical and ecological growth across a large part of South Birmingham.

Who can restore canals?

Just 50 years ago, if canals were not needed to move goods, they were often regarded as a waste of space, but thanks to passionate heritage charities and many volunteers the waterways across the UK are experiencing a revival. Many of the charities, trusts and organisations were spurred on by a commitment to protect these waterways for future generations, and although restoration works are in full flow, there is still plenty of work to do.


In an effort to coordinate efforts, the Waterway Recovery Group was established in 1970 and as the economic and social benefits of restoration soon became apparent, British Waterways took a more supportive stance. Today, the Canal & Rivers Trust has replaced British Waterways and the organisation actively supports many of the restoration projects which are taking place throughout England and Wales. 


Restoring a waterway is a complex process, with many organisations involved during the project, from the initial feasibility studies through to the construction work itself. These professionals include engineers, ecologists, builders, planners, historians, and volunteers who are all passionate about restoring the network, many of whom form water restoration groups.

How are old canals restored?

During any canal restoration project there are several key stages, often beginning with the definition of the restoration project so that an overall vision can be created for the completed canal. This will include analysing potential issues, such as whether the restoration aligns with the plans of the local authority, the budget available, any environmental impacts and whether there are any protected structures.

A large-scale project could include the restoration of the channel, the banks, and the structures along the stretch of water, with a focus on the protection and enhancement of the original canal. However, due to constraints with budgets and resources, restoration work is often focused on key areas such as:

  • Improve access for walkers

  • Creating green space alongside canals to encourage existing habitats and promote biodiversity

  • Protecting and accentuating heritage features

  • Managing the natural flood risk

When is it a good time to review canal restoration?

Although there are canals which are no longer navigable by boat, there are plenty of public towpaths which are still enjoyed by the public, so it is important that these are maintained and safe to walk along. If a canal falls into disrepair, the canal bank may start to degrade which puts the embankment and towpath at risk of collapse, making these restoration projects urgent. 


There are specialist teams within the Canal and River Trust which carry out regular inspections every two months, so in theory if there is an issue with lock gates, banks, towpaths, or silt build up, it should be noticed quickly. If an inspection finds an issue which is not a safety or environmental concern, the best time to review potential works is likely to be when the canal restoration could significantly help the regeneration of an area. If the local councils plan supports a restoration project, it is much more likely that funds will be available to aid the completion of the project.

How long will it take to restore a stretch of canal?

There are several stages involved in every canal restoration project, including evaluation of the area, designing concepts, raising funds, the technical design and planning of the works, and the construction itself. As you can imagine every restoration project different, so timescales can vary significantly depending on the scale of the project and the teams involved. Although, small projects can often be completed within a few months if funds are available and the teams are ready, it can take years for large scale canal restoration projects to be completed.

How to report dangers or hazards on a canal?

Despite regular inspections, there may be times that a potential danger or hazard appears along a canal. If you spot an issue, please report it to The Canal & River Trust using the phone number: 0303 040 4040 during office hours. If the issue is an emergency and lives and property is at risk or a crime is being committed, please can 999, then inform us on our emergency number: 0800 47 999 47.

Canals were once considered a revolutionary transport system and we are passionate about restoring these waterways to their former glory, especially as there are so many benefits to the environment, the users, and the economy. Today, there are more registered boats on UK waterways than at the height of the industrial revolution, and we are committed to offering the services needed to help restore the vast canal network. To find out more about the professional restoration services offered by our experienced team of canal engineers, please contact The Rothen Group today, your canal contractor specialists. 

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