Britain has more than 3,000km of canals, many of them interconnected in a network stretching from the Caledonian Canal in the Highlands of Scotland to the Kennet and Avon Canal in England’s West Country. Britain was the first country to establish a nationwide canal network, dating back to 1761 with the construction of the Bridgewater Canal between Worsely and Manchester. Yes, the Grand Canal in Venice is far older, but in truth it follows the course of an ancient river. Also, the canals of Venice have evolved as dozens of small islands were linked together by small bridges, their shorelines defined by embankments and the walls of centuries-old ornate buildings constructed end-to-end on top of wood piles sunk into the lagoon.
Of course, Venice is synonymous with canals, primarily because these waterways provide the main transport links for the city’s residents and visitors. Free of highways and cars, traffic congestion in Venice instead features vaporettos, gondolas, barges and other vessels.
Venice is also renowned for its architectural riches, and attracts more than 20 million visitors annually. With such a world-renowned and enviable reputation, many canal cities in northern Europe lay claim to being ‘the Venice of the North’, most notably Amsterdam, Bruges, Copenhagen and St Petersburg. Even Birmingham has a dubious claim to the title as it has more miles of canals through its precincts than Venice.
A LANDSCAPE TRANSFORMED
Birmingham also marks the end of the Grand Union Canal, Britain’s longest, which stretches 220km north from London. Originally, this and other British canals transported large quantities of raw materials, most notably coal, iron ore and china clay, to the smelters and factories of the Midlands and northwest England. Many canals were linked to the country’s major river systems by locks, tunnels and aqueducts, transforming the British landscape in the process. However, the advent of the railways saw freight shift from slow moving canal and river barges to fast, steam-driven trains. By the mid-19th century, much of Britain’s canal network had become economically unviable and derelict.
Ironically, the lack of speed which led to narrow boats and barges being abandoned, is the primary reason for their popularity in the high-speed 21st century. A speed limit of just six kilometres per hour on Britain’s canals means the narrowboat is the least intrusive mode of transport upon the country’s landscape. The ease with which these colourful vessels slip into view along placid stretches of water makes them an essential focal point for photography.
As their name suggests, narrowboats are barely two metres wide. The ideal length is less than 17 metres as this makes one navigable through the entire canal network. For many of their owners, these vessels are also home. They are often beautifully painted and adorned with deck furniture, plant pots and ornaments, and add a welcome splash of contrasting colour and foreground interest to the gentler background hues of green verges and drooping boughs of willow.
The rural setting of many of Britain’s canals, with ample trees and colourful boats, may favour a wide-angle view for many pictures, but there is plenty of scope also for longer focal lengths. A tighter crop using a longer lens is ideal for filling the frame with the brilliant colour and design details of many narrowboats. In the spring and summer months many decks are decorated with potted plants, providing even more photographic potential, as well as a seasonal context to the image.
Canals also attract as much birdlife as any natural river system and their importance to conserving Britain’s wildlife has gained in significance as more canals are restored to their original condition. Yet canals also feature extraordinary examples of engineering and there are many sites where structural spectacles are just as remarkable as the beauty of the countryside they traverse.
For example, dozens of aqueducts can be found in Britain’s canal network, standing out as impressive landmarks in a valley landscape. The longest and most famous is the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal, rising more than 300 metres above the River Dee Valley in North Wales. It is the subject of many photographs, usually from one end of the aqueduct looking down its entire length, with a narrowboat in the foreground, or shot from a distance on the valley floor with the multi-arched span running across the width of the viewfinder frame.
By contrast, the Standedge Tunnel on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal is regarded as the most claustrophobic stretch of waterway: it cuts through solid rock beneath the Pennines in Yorkshire and is more than five kilometres long. Nearly an hour is needed to see light at the end of this tunnel.
NORTH SEA CROSSING
Across the North Sea are two of the best known and most picturesque canal cities in northern Europe – Amsterdam and Bruges. However, the ambience of both locations is starkly different.
Amsterdam is a capital city with a bustling, busy street life by day and night. Indeed, many of Amsterdam’s canals and crossings are lit at nightfall, as are the boats that ply the water, thereby providing the photographer with the perfect subject for night photography with light trails and reflected highlights on the water. Yes, you can crank up the ISO for a faster exposure, but you still need to bring out the tripod to keep your camera still when making a long exposure to record the light trail of a canal boat moving into frame, without blurring the rest of the background illuminations.
A canal boat tour is one of the best ways to explore Amsterdam and gives a unique perspective to this historic city from a position close to the waterline. Like Venice, Amsterdam is a very popular destination with tourists, so your chances of getting a clear view are improved if you choose a week day, avoid high seasons and find the boat with fewest passengers. Window seats obviously are the most popular, so make sure you’re one of the first to board. Of course, there is much to see from both sides of the boat so be ready to move from side to side. Again, this is more likely on a sparsely occupied boat.
Street level is best for photographing the distinctive façades of Amsterdam’s houses reflecting on the canals. Alternatively, try a longer focal length to crop closely on street details mirrored on the surface of the water. For a different angle, simply use the many bridges to take shots looking down on the boats and barges that pass beneath. Amsterdam’s canals are busy with a diverse variety of vessels and you never need wait long for another to pass.
Unlike Amsterdam, Bruges is a small and quiet Flemish backwater, not far from the North Sea, but with a reputation as a more romantic, peaceful and less congested location. It is therefore an easier place for exploring the canals and making photographs in an unhurried manner.
Bruges is also the setting for one of the most famous viewpoints in northern Europe: the tall, octagonal Belfry of Bruges. It rises above a row of picturesque Flemish houses immediately adjacent to the main canal basin formed by the junction of the Groenerei and Dijver canals. A popular location for framing this shot is a quay called Rozenhoedkaai, and with a wide-angle lens, this stretch of water is broad enough to include a reflection of the belfry and the neighbouring waterfront buildings.
Although very photogenic at any time of day, it is the blue hour of dusk that attracts most photographers, providing the sky is relatively cloud-free. A clear sky transforms into a range of layered blue tones after sunset and the still waters of the canal basin (so long as the air is free of wind), provide the perfect mirror-calm surface for eye-catching and colour-saturated reflections.
As with night photography of Amsterdam’s canals, a tripod is essential for producing the sharpest, most detailed shots at this hour, with exposures of around 15 to 20 seconds required.
The walk along the canal from Rozenhoedkaai is full of photographic interest as boats cruise the waters past historic buildings and bridges, including one made from gravestones. The bridge on Meestraat is worth crossing for the attractive views it affords looking down the canal to a parallel bridge on Peerdenstraat.
FLIGHTS OF LOCKS
Britain may not have a renowned and historic ‘canal city’ like Venice, Amsterdam or Bruges, but the undulating terrain of much of this country’s rural landscape has resulted in some ingenious and innovative feats of engineering with a very different photographic potential.
Flights of locks are among the most striking and challenging subjects on British canals. Resembling gated steps of water, they are designed to enable narrow boats to ascend (and descend) inclines along their course. The 29-lock Caen Hill flight on the Kennet and Avon Canal in Wiltshire is a much photographed example and often framed using a telephoto lens in order to get the compressed perspective that makes each lock look closer than it really is. It rises 72 metres at a 1:44 gradient over a distance of three kilometres.
On a similarly impressive scale is the Tardebigge Flight on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal: it features no fewer than 30 locks to raise the canal more than 65 metres. Unsurprisingly, these can be difficult subject to frame head-on, but that can be offset by the variety of viewpoints along their course.
With a national canal network as extensive as Britain’s, photographers have a range of subjects and settings as diverse as the countryside itself. For this reason, canals are likely to remain a fixture of the landscape for many more generations to come.
This was published in the January 2018 edition of Geographical magazine.
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