Secrets of the towpath

Rope grooves, toll points and glow-in-the-dark mileposts: how to seek out clues to our waterways’ industrial past on your next walk

 

Over the past 250 years, the canals of England and Wales have seen many changes, such as the progression from horse to engine power and the shift from commercial transport to leisure. But while the way people use canals has altered significantly, there are still signs of the canal’s old life around – if you know where to look. Here are five reminders of the canal’s industrial past you can find around the network.

Rope grooves

On many bridges and bollards you can see rope marks caused by the tow rope when cargo-laden boats were pulled by horses. The marks can be seen on stone, wood or metal structures, and were often exacerbated by the fact ropes would become more abrasive as they got wet, heavy and dirty. Some bridges had long strips of iron placed at their corners to protect them from rope marks – and these too often have thick deep grooves, a physical reminder of the canal’s horse-drawn history and the sheer weight of the cargo that was carried along these waterways.

Mileposts and boundary markers

Most canals had milestones every mile or half-mile so bargees would know how far they had to travel with their cargo. Barge companies charged customers by weight and distance – ton and mile – so it was important to keep track of the distance covered. Markers could be made of stone, iron or wood and some had special paint so they could be seen in the dark. Similarly, many canals had boundary markers laid by canal companies to show the extent of their territory, a few of which have survived. In 2016, the Heritage Lottery Fund gave £36,600 to the Canal & River Trust to restore and refurbish mileposts. Particularly fine milestones can be seen on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.

Strapping posts

Another leftover from the canal’s horse-pulled heyday, these strapping posts were made of wood and iron and placed on the towpath at sharp corners or before locks. A boatman would wrap his strap – or rope – around the post as he drew alongside and use the tension to slow or turn the boat. These were particularly important when you were otherwise entirely reliant upon the momentum of the horse for speed and skilled boatman could get impressive degrees of control. Strapping posts came in wood and metal and in various designs. While a few old posts survive, others have been re-introduced as they still provide a service. Head to the Shropshire Union for some good ones.

Horse ramps

These are slopes built into the edge of the towpath, often around busy areas such as near railway bridges and roads, or on narrow towpaths. They were designed for horses that fell into the canal, possibly startled by a sudden noise, and needed a ramp to get them out the water. Many can be seen along the Regent’s Canal, one of the noisier and busier canals, but they can found on canals all over the country. Some canals instead used kicking stones – pieces of uneven stone embedded along the edge of the towpath to act as a warning to horses they were getting too near the edge. Outside London, you can see horse ramps on the southern sections of the Grand Union, the Leeds & Liverpool and the Huddersfield Narrow Canal.

Toll points

Canals were originally private enterprises created for commercial transport, so they charged the people who used them. Tolls were collected from toll points or islands that were usually located at busy locks or where two canals met. The canal often narrowed at a toll point so only a single boat could pass, ensuring nobody slipped past without paying. There are surviving examples throughout the network – pretty much anywhere there’s a bottleneck – including in Birmingham and London at King’s Cross and Little Venice. There are also surviving toll houses, such as the recently restored houses at Anderton Boat Lift in Northwich, where the Trent & Mersey Canal connects to the River Weaver.

Marcus Peaston