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Welsh Canals: Our Built Environment Superstars


Written By:

John Jackson

Industry Editor

Business News Wales

The pandemic and increasing concerns about the environment are changing the way people live. One resulting change is the renewed interest from British citizens taking holidays here in the UK. In this article, John highlights the attractiveness of Welsh canals as a tourism destination, discussing the personal wellbeing benefits of venturing out and visiting these peaceful and environmentally rich destinations.

Pre-pandemic I found myself with an hour between meetings and rather than sit in the office I asked if there was anywhere I could go for a walk. To my surprise I was told the path behind the building led to a canal and soon I was walking on the towpath of the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal. In less than an hour, I enjoyed being in a peaceful waterside setting, had the opportunity to see the wildlife on and alongside the canal, walk across the Afon Lwyd aqueduct and say hello to some passer-by. Just seeing the narrowboats made me think how good it would be to jump on board and navigate more of this waterway, but reality meant it was time to return to work. What really stuck me, even on this short walk, was just how peaceful it was, and how quickly I could disconnect and truly relax.

Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal at Goytre - Canal River Trust

At thirty five miles long the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal has a lot of relaxation to offer, and the same can be said of the Llangollen, Montgomery and Swansea Canals. Providing a source of natural recreation couldn’t be further removed from their original purpose to transport materials and freight, and historically I’m sure you’ll have learnt at school how it was the advent of the railways that made canals redundant and that as a consequence many fell into disrepair. However and thankfully, this important part of our industrial heritage continues to be protected and improved through the work of the Canal & River Trust charity.

Dog on a boat on the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal - Canal River Trust

Talking about the work of the Trust, Mark Evans, Chief Executive for the Canal & River Trust in Wales explains:

“The canals in Wales have a vital role to play in the health and wellbeing of communities as well as offering significant socio-economical and green benefits to the country. The pandemic highlighted the central role they play in the towns and villages they run through, with thousands of people discovering the free, accessible blue spaces on their doorsteps.

“The Trust’s research shows that spending time by water, whether it be during a lunch break, daily commute or just a weekend stroll, really can make people feel happier and healthier. Many communities live close to our waterways in Wales, and with ever increasing rates of obesity, stress and declining mental health, the waterways are uniquely placed to make a significant contribution to improving wellbeing.

“As most of the canals are over 200 years old, with the locks, bridges and aqueducts still in active use today, they need active maintenance to keep them open for boating, tourism, cycling, walking, and a whole host of other activities.

“Tourism is high on our agenda. We have a Masterplan for the Trevor Basin which aims to be a catalyst to transform the site into a world class destination. Proposals include a new visitor hub, car park, footpaths, river bridge, woodland activity and education centre, glamping & camping, a tree top walk, improved landscaping and plots for future development. Wrexham County Borough Council also confirmed the Masterplan is one of their key strategic projects.

“Partner working is important in helping to achieve this goal. Using a grant from Swansea City Council, Swansea Canal Society purchased one of our properties alongside the canal. We are working with the Society to look at how we can create a ‘canal centre’ with their new building and an adjoining building that we have retained. In January, a £128,000 project to upgrade the towpath along the Swansea Canal from Trebanos to the county boundary got underway. The Welsh Government is supporting the project through their Active Travel Fund. We were pleased to receive a £254,000 grant from the Welsh Government’s Sustainable Management Scheme Natura 2000 fund for environmental enhancement work along the Montgomery Canal from Brynderwen Lock to Freestone Lock. The project includes vegetation management and clearing canoe portage points.

“This is a new golden age for canals in Wales, with opportunities to transform their living heritage into destinations that can be appreciated by holidaymakers and bring in money to support the Welsh economy while making a real difference to the lives of those in the diverse communities they run through.”

At a time when we are increasingly looking for ways to relax and at the same time exercise, canal towpaths are perfectly placed to provide a switch-off from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. With a choice of canals to choose from there’s no shortage of spectacular views and if you’re feeling just that little bit more adventurous you can venture across the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Llangollen canal. Of course the towpath isn't the only option and taking to the water on a narrowboat allows you to glide through scenic Wales at a wonderfully slow pace of no more than four miles per hour, ensuring you have plenty of time to savour the experience. To further illustrate the appeal of our canals this article by Jeremy Head (featured on the Visit Wales website) provides a very compelling case as to “Why you should go on a canal holiday in Wales”.

Canal Boat on Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal - Canal River Trust

Canals don’t just offer potential for businesses such as the cafes and pubs that rely on passing trade, they also offer opportunities for other types of businesses that, like narrowboat hire companies, could be based on the water itself. An interesting example of this is Word on the Water, a London based bookshop on a barge, and with a little imagination and entrepreneurial spirit it's possible to visualise a raft of independent narrowboat based businesses operating across the Welsh canal network.

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct - Canal River Trust

The pandemic and increasing concerns about the environment are changing the way people live, and it is encouraging to see how this is resulting in a renewed interest in taking holidays here in the UK. This bodes well for our canals and hopefully we can look forward to seeing them become an increasingly popular destination for both regular exercise, day trips and narrowboat based holidays. All of which have the potential to increase spend amongst the canalside businesses and in the towns and villages they run through. The Canal and River Trust is playing a key role to ensure a positive future for canals in Wales, and their work is allowing these historic waterways to play an important role in supporting personal wellbeing, whilst also helping to increase spend in what are often small independently owned businesses.

Often in the built environment we get captivated by big urban regeneration projects, in contrast canals show there is real value in embracing what we already have, bringing it back to life, maintaining it and giving everyone the opportunity to enjoy it, and in doing this canals are adding much needed social and economic value to our built environment.