The orchestra of our waterways

Although places of peace and reflection, our waterways are rarely silent. Peter Watts charts the distinctive sounds of our canals

Sounds of the canal


People love the canals because they are quiet. They seem to provide a space for silence and contemplation, a sense of calm that comes from being close to water and away from the noise of traffic in this fantastical manmade trough, lined with green and blue and sunken a few feet below the world above. Even in the centre of a city, you only need to walk the shortest distance from busy urban basins that babble and bustle with chatter to find long stretches of waterway that are as quiet as rural bridleways or village churchyards. But if you are looking for total silence, you’ll be disappointed. Even in the most secluded corners there will be the inevitable sounds of the canal, a unique orchestra of the waterways that finds repeated patterns in places that are miles apart.

First is the unmistakable sound of the canal boat itself, or more specifically its toy town engine. The choppy clockwork chug-chug-chug of a narrowboat engine sounds like a beefy lawnmower or a weedy helicopter, filtered through a translucent distorting layer of water. It isn’t the most relaxing sound – we’re not talking whale song or leaves rustling in the breeze. A diesel engine can sometimes sound more like a cat throwing up a furball or a robot’s death rattle. But despite that, the sound is strangely comforting, particularly when a boat is passing you from behind, the sound gradually rising and then drifting away again as it fades into the distance. Perhaps it’s because it sounds as if it belongs to another age, and so contains all the consolations of nostalgia? Perhaps it’s because if you spend any time around a canal, it’s a sound that will rapidly become intimately familiar, like a personal theme tune that acts as a constant like to a special place. Some gongoozlers believe that each engine has its own unique patina, and they can identify the make of an engine purely from its sound much like a certain sort of music fan can distinguish a Gibson Les Paul from a Fender Stratocaster.

Another sound that is commonplace and richly varied along the towpath is birdsong. Most common is the penetrating quack of a mallard, but there’s also the honk of geese, the squeak of coots and grebes and the chirrup of moorhen. And in the hedgerows, you can hear the chatter of sparrows, tits, wrens and reed buntings.

Remarkably, not only are these sounds pleasant to listen to, they’re actually good for the brain. In 2017, researchers in Brighton published findings that monitored the heart and brain of subjects listening to natural sounds – water, wind, birds – and recorded an increase in parasympathetic responses, which allow the body to relax and function. Lead author Cassandra Gould van Praag PhD, a research fellow at the University of Sussex, says, “I would definitely recommend a walk in natural surroundings to anyone, whether they’re currently feeling frazzled or not. Even a few minutes of escape could be beneficial.” So that’s definitely something to bear in mind next time you’re considering whether to work through lunch or take time out to sit beside your local waterway.

One of the most relaxing sounds is simply that of water. Canals are still so there’s no babbling brooks to enjoy, but you can still hear the swash of water lapping against the towpath wall whenever a boat passes, sending a gentle wake towards the shore. Or the soft sigh of water following the receding putter of engine like a smattering of applause at a concert. If moored boats are nearby, it creates an accompanying symphony of related sounds: the creak of straining ropes, the muffled thud and scrape of fenders, the groan of rocking boats.

For those who live on boats, other sounds illuminate the canal by day and night. You can trace the entire arc of a day through sound, from mornings that begin with the creak of hatches opening and thumping against the boat side. Winter mornings and evenings are bracketed by the rattle of coal as it fills metal scuttles. Lunchtime brings the steady trudge of joggers and barking of walked dogs, excited by the presence of water. Throughout the day, there are salutations hurled from passing boats, or urgent instructions as a narrow boat comes into moor.

At the weekend, there’s the metronomic chop of axe against wood as another snaffled builders’ palate is splintered into kindling. On wet days, there’s the reassuring metallic patter of rain against the boat roof, as if the sky is emptying endless packets of frozen peas above your head. At all times of day, conversations from pedestrians come in and out of focus like a badly tuned radio, snatched words, forever taken out of context. Then, as night descends the quietest conversation echo off the brick walls and bounce against the flat surface of the canal, amplified against the silence of the night as if they were being screened on a giant cinema. You’ll know it is morning again when the first boat goes chugging past, like an alarm clock you never need to set. A canal is peaceful, but it’s never quiet.

Plan your next day out with our online guide to places to visit along our canals and rivers.

Maria Centola