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The UK’s impressive canal network is a testament to the engineering prowess the country has always boasted. From the industrial revolution to present day, canals have played a vital role in shaping the country’s transportation and trade routes.

Today, canals provide us with an enhanced public realm and access to scenic routes, even in urban areas. However, there are still many miles of canal in need of restoration.

Canal Mania

The origins of canals in the UK can be traced back to the Roman era. Early waterways served primarily as transportation routes for the movement of goods. However, it was during the 18th and 19th centuries, known as “Canal Mania“, that the true canal revolution took place.

Inspired by the success of the Bridgewater Canal which connects the North West from St Helens to Manchester, a flurry of canal construction projects kicked off.

The industrial revolution brought unprecedented change to the UK and canals played a pivotal role in facilitating the transportation of materials and goods.

Famous canals such as the Grand Union Canal and the Leeds and Liverpool Canal were constructed during this period. They helped to revolutionise trade and contributed to the economic growth of the nation.

Manchester, Bolton, and Bury Canal

During the Industrial Revolution, the Manchester, Bolton, and Bury Canal played a vital role in connecting the thriving industrial towns, enabling the efficient transportation of goods and materials. Constructed in the late 18th century, it became an essential pathway of commerce, facilitating the movement of coal, textiles, and other commodities. Its innovative design, including impressive locks and aqueducts, showcased the engineering brilliance of the era’s visionaries.


With the rise of rail transport in the mid-19th century, many canals across the UK faced a period of decline. Railways offered faster transportation, and their development rendered many canals obsolete.

The Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal was included in this decline and suffered many breaches, contributing to a dwindling use. It was eventually closed in 1961 with around 60% of its original length left dry.  

Resurgence and Restoration

In the 20th century, canals witnessed a resurgence in popularity, this time for leisure and tourism purposes. Boat-based tourism and leisure activities contribute approximately £2.5bn to the economy each year.

Restoration projects have revived historic waterways, turning them into picturesque routes for boating and recreational activities.

Studies into Rochdale Canal, which reopened in 2002, found it drew in roughly 4 million visitors, spending £18m a year in the canal’s vicinity. But canal restoration doesn’t just benefit the economy, it also helps protect and improve the natural environment, reconnecting habitats and contributing to biodiversity net gain.

Looking forward

Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal Society was formed in 1987 to restore, preserve and improve the historic canal. It has been integral in several key moments since the canal’s closure. These include the Meccano-style bridge, which was installed in 2012 and the launch of the successful restoration scheme for the Middlewood Locks end of the Canal in Salford.

Now, for Watson Homes, restoring the canal is a significant aspect of our Creams Mill development.

Our plans include repairing the canal breach at Nob End bringing the 700m stretch of the canal back into water for the first time in 87 years. We’ll also be creating new public walkways and seating areas alongside the canal, making this revitalised environment accessible to all residents.

The canals in the UK demonstrate industrial progress and play significant cultural significance. From their beginnings as trade routes to their modern-day resurgence as leisure destinations, canals continue to inspire.

To read more about how we’re planning to restore the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal, and our other plans at Creams Mill, head over to our website:   

You can also follow Watson on LinkedIn for more updates.