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Walking the Waterways

Walking the Nene Way on the River Nene


Walking by the canals and rivers that make up our Inland Waterways can take many forms, from a short gentle stroll to a record breaking endurance hike. So what is the attraction of walking by a waterway? To start, of course, we must mention the mystical draw that being beside water has for us all, whether it be a wide ocean or a tiny stream, but beyond this there is a sense of a world apart that we get when we step away from the busy road and join an ancient route that still retains the charms of a bygone age while providing the tranquillity and recreation that is so valued today.


Rivers were our first inland waterways highway and were often navigated by various means, such as sail, oar, polling or towing by rope from the bank (bow-hauling). On some rivers towing, by man or horse power, became the usual means of propulsion and towpaths were built to aid this process. A towpath is an ideal way to walk by a river, by definition it is always close to the water, but many rivers have now lost their towpaths completely or in part.

The River Thames above Teddington still retains it original towpath but much of it has been made discontinuous by the disappearance of the many ferry services that once made the connection at the points where the towpath changed sides, from one bank to the other. The Thames Path is a route that makes use of much of the original towpath but which has sections away from the river to overcome the lack of ferries.

Another river walk is the 210 mile Severn Way, from the source at Plynlimon to Bristol, which links Wales and England and is the longest river walk in Britain.


Nearly all canals were built with towpaths, there were exceptions such as the Caledonian Canal and the Manchester Ship Canal, and the canal network still provides a connected towpath system for walkers. There are over 3,400 miles of navigable waterways in this country and more than 70 per cent of us live within five miles of a canal or river. If you want to find a waterway near you just click on the Local button on the navigation bar at the top or bottom of any page.


Although we speak of rivers and canals they are not really entirely different categories. We tend to think of rivers as natural watercourses but few really are. From before the Norman Conquest rivers and streams were held back by man made weirs and diverted into artificial channels to provide fishing places and power for mills. Later many rivers were improved for navigation purposes and artificial cuts, or canals, were made to install locks and to by pass difficult sections of river. Some of these rivers now have considerable sections of artificial channels, such as the River Lee, the Calder and Hebble Navigation and the River Wey, which all have towpaths.

Walking the Towpath

Although towpaths were once the private property of navigation companies, and the public excluded or discouraged in many areas, today they are open to everyone whether they be walkers, anglers, cyclists or boaters. You are free to walk the towpaths wherever you discover them and will generally find them peaceful places where you can see wildlife and an occasional passing boat but in some spots the towpath may be busier and you may find you are sharing it with anglers with long fibre carbon rods, cyclists and boaters mooring boats and working locks and swing bridges. This can cause friction although it need not if everyone is patient and treats other towpath users with understanding and respect.

Organised Walks

If you would like to go on and organised walk with a group of people there are many organisations that cater to this requirement. Organisations such as the Ramblers Association organise walks all over the country, some of which will include waterway walks, details of these will appear in the local press and on websites covering the area. The Inland Waterways Association also has local walks from time to time, as do the Railway & Canal Historical Society for those interested in the history of our waterways.

Maps and Guide Books

There are waterway books written specifically for walkers (see Walkers' Guides Books for a list) but most waterways guides include information for both walkers and boaters, for example the Nicholsons Ordnance Survey Guide Books that show the towpath and the immediately surrounding area as well as giving a lot of interesting and useful information.

The Ordnance Survey Landranger Maps will always be a favourite with many walkers. If you want to know what OS maps cover a particular waterway this is shown on the table of distances on the page for the relevant canal or river.

Organising a Walk

When organising a small informal walk there is little to be done other than decide where to go how to get there, where to park, how to get home (or back to the car) and decide on what arrangements are needed for refreshments. For longer walks or for larger groups there are more things to check and plan.

Stoppages on canals and rivers are made from time to time for maintenance purposes. These stoppages can be part of a planned programme, usually carried out in the winter months, or emergency stoppages that may occur at any time. From a walker’s point of view many of these stoppages will not matter as if, for example, a lock is closed for repair then the towpath will usually still be open. However you may sometimes find you are walking beside a dry canal. There will also be times when the towpath is closed but the waterway is still open. This can happen because of bank slippages or for scheduled towpath repairs. Navigation Authorities will be able to supply information about stoppages on their waterways, in the case of British Waterways and the Environment Agency these are available on the web.

Clashing Events: Organisers of events should inform the relevant navigation authority of the event and the expected numbers involved in the event. When planning an organised walk you should check that it does not clash with another event that would cause problems. For example, while anglers in a fishing competition will expect a few other towpath users to pass by, it would not be comfortable for either party if a large group of walkers was to pass by while anglers were moving their rods to let boats pass.

Duty of Care: As the walk organiser you have a duty of care to people you invite on the walk. You should assess all the risks involved, the likelihood of each risk occurring, the consequences and what steps you will take to minimise the risks. This should be written down in case you need to demonstrate that you have considered the risks involved – nothing is risk free but health and safety must be considered. You should obtain liability insurance for your event. Ideally, your insurance should cover any medical problems that occur during the event, as well as incidentals such as damage to land and property. Contact an insurance provider to discuss your event and the coverage they offer.

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Jim Shead Waterways Photographer & Writer
Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
Home Introduction Waterways List Waterways Map Links Books DVD Articles Photo Gallery
Features Contact me Glossary Boats Events List History Local Waterways Help Photo List