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  • Writer's pictureTallulah

Who is responsible for canal towpaths?

The canal towpath is the road or path which runs alongside an inland waterway, such as a canal or river, and they were traditionally used by horses and gangs of men to pull barges. Today, the towpaths are rarely used for towing, but they are still enjoyed by many recreational walkers and cyclists, as they provide a safe space away from road traffic. Towpaths throughout the UK have a fascinating history and there are many organisations, such as The Rothen Group, that are committed to maintaining these areas for everyone to enjoy.


A brief history of towpaths


Although boats and barges were able to use sails, there were times when the winds were not favourable, and a solution was needed to improve the speed of transportation. In the late 1700s towing path companies began to build pathways along riverbanks, starting with a section of the River Severn, however traffic was limited due to toll charges.

As demand for goods grew, artificial canals and their towpaths provided quick transportation, with horses used initially to pull boats along the channel. During the industrial revolution mechanical engineers designed more inventive ways to pull boats. A great example were the railway tracks along a section of the Shropshire Union Canal, where small steam trains were used to pull the boats. However, the rapid advancements in steam and diesel power, meant that new boats quickly became a much faster and straightforward form of power.


Why is canal towpath maintenance important?


Historically, towpaths were private, as the canals and the land they were built on were both owned and operated by private companies. Although the canal system was nationalised in 1948, the towpaths were not public rights of way, and the Transport Act 1968 did not include any requirements for the government to maintain the towpaths which ran alongside the waterways.


In the following years British Waterways, which is known today as The Canal & River Trust, removed the requirements for a permit to access the towpaths. Today, the leisure use of the pathways is promoted and free access to towpaths is now available along the majority of canal towpaths. These details are included within the legislation that the Canal & River Trust must follow, which is designed to ensure the canals and their towpaths are preserved and well-maintained.


Towpath condition varies around the country, from grass tracks to wide urban stretches, and when maintained they provide many benefits. Not only are they more accessible and appealing for recreational users, but they promote tourism, protect the heritage of the canals, and also encourage regeneration, as they often form parts of wider walking and cycling networks.


Although, one of the most important reasons for maintaining towpaths is to protect the waterway habitats, many of which have been established since the canals were first used. These areas significantly contribute to biodiversity, so careful maintenance is needed to both conserve and manage these important habitats.


How are canal towpaths maintained?


The development and maintenance of towpaths requires planning, with factors such as usage, features, locks bridges, health and safety, rights of way and the ecology all impacting maintenance plans. There are various good practice guidelines which should be followed so that all parties are able to benefit from towpath access:

  • If a waterway does not have a towpath, new paths should be installed to encourage access to the waterway network.

  • If a towpath is impassable, it should be reinstated to provide continuous access wherever possible.

  • Clear signage should be installed and well maintained to allow users to follow the route easily.

  • The width of the towpath from the canal edge to the boundary on the opposite side should ideally be at least 2 metres in areas with heavy use, and 1.8 metres in rural areas.

  • The minimum headroom should be 2.2m beneath bridges and 2.5m along other stretches, with vegetation well maintained to provide sufficient clearance.

  • The surface of the towpath should be free from potholes, vegetation growth and able to drain freely.


The following are some examples of projects which are completed by contractors such as The Rothen Group, to ensure towpaths are maintained and accessible for all:

  • Protection of important heritage areas and structures

  • Arrangement of access agreements, utilities, and wayleaves

  • Changes to the width or surface of the towpath to ensure it is accessible to everyone, such as the resurfacing with a new hard-wearing material.

  • Installation of defined access points, links to other footpaths and clear signage

  • Maintenance of woodland, hedges, embankments, and scrub vegetation along the water’s edge to preserve and enhance the natural environment.


Much of the work completed within towpath maintenance projects involves external contractors, who have the skills, experience and equipment needed to both plan and complete the works required. The specialist engineers will always try to ensure the towpaths stay accessible during maintenance, with any works completed quickly to minimise disruptions.


Who to contact if you spot a damaged or dangerous canal towpath


Although maintenance plans are in place to keep towpaths in good repair, there are times when pathways are damaged and potentially dangerous. It is important to report serious damage or potential danger as soon as possible, so the appropriate teams can be sent to the towpath to complete repairs. The easiest way to report an incident is by phone during normal office hours, using the number: 03030 404 040.


The Rothen Group – Experienced canal towpath engineers


Every UK towpath has its own unique character, with the surfacing material, the width of the towpath, the heritage structures and the environment all impacting the feel of the path. Here at The Rothen Group, we are responsible for the maintenance of many towpaths across the UK, and through our experience we are proud to be familiar with many towpaths across the country.


As a team, we are committed to protecting the heritage of the canals and towpaths, and we always endeavour to complete projects in a way which maximises the benefits of the pathways for everyone. If you would like to find out more about how we can assist with a towpath maintenance project, please contact The Rothen Group today and we will be happy to help.


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