Path alongside a navigation canal

wind shimmers willow
    a single leaf falls to earth
  russet hues abound

Waterfowl shepherding their families through the weeds, the riverside life of water vole and bulrush, willow trees brushing the gentle water, anglers at peace with themselves; here is tranquility, here is the country come into the city.

During the 18th century, the major highways in Britain were the waterways - a network of canals connecting the newly-industrial cities with their markets. The canal boats or barges which plied the waters were originally horse-drawn, and the upkeep of the paths on which they walked were as vital to trade as the canals and vessels. In most places, the path was wide enough for two horses to pass side by side, and were generally continuous (although long, narrow tunnels were a problem - often the horses were led overground whilst the barge was manhandled through, frequently by the barge crew.)

Lock keepers were charged with keeping the paths clear and well maintained, and for many years this continued. However, with the advent and growth of the railway system, the canals gradually feel into disuse, and the towpaths became wild and overgrown. Largely forgotten by the most people, they were not entirely neglected; as most canals ran into major commercial centres, they provided an important wildlife corridor allowing flora and fauna to flourish in urban areas.

Nowadays, with the growth of the canal system as a leisure resource for pleasure and holiday craft, British Waterways have improved and upgraded many of the urban and rural paths, although in these days you are more likely to see a jogger than a horse along the nation's towpaths, which have risen out of their briared state to become once again become important resources, this time for the nation's walkers, riders and cyclists.

I have memories of the Nottingham canal towpath, running from the castle out through the suburbs of Beeston, and of country walks through the willows and overlooking the native heath and gorse. The further out I go, the more the country opens up, revealing the abundant beauty of hedgerow, wood and coppice. The locks and cottages bespeak an age long past, when time moved slowly and the narrowboats plied their patient trade through England's waterways, each one a snapshot of time.

Tow"path` (?), n.

A path traveled by men or animals in towing boats; -- called also towing path.


© Webster 1913.

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