Exploring Britain’s canals

We have recently published Britain’s Canals: Exploring their Architectural and Engineering Wonders, a beautiful and insightful exploration of our inland waterways, written by canals expert Anthony Burton, with photography from Derek Pratt. In this extract, Tony writes about John Rennie’s stunning aqueducts.

The Dundas aqueduct (below), named after the canal company’s chairman, Lord Dundas, could be thought of as the engineer’s tribute to the elegance of Bath. It is built from the same oolitic limestone, so closely associated with the city that it is popularly known as Bath stone. There was a source of stone near at hand at Bathampton, so there was no problem with supply. The stone has a very special quality, notably a rich honey colour, that can seem almost buttery on a fine, sunny day – and it is admirably suited to the neoclassical style fashionable in Bath.

3 - Dundas Aqueduct - IMG_3389 -

Because we think of canals in an industrial setting, it is easy to forget that the age in which they were built was also the age of the great Georgian architects. John Rennie was to provide his own architectural embellishments. The Avon itself is crossed by a single semicircular arch, with relieving arches on the land to either side. Pilasters decorate the piers between the arches, above which is a deep dentil cornice. The whole structure is topped by a balustrade, with the individual supports elegantly curved. As with all the best Georgian architecture, the effect is enhanced by the careful attention to proportion and detail.

The other aqueduct, at Avoncliff, is notably less attractive. It has none of the architectural detailing of Dundas and was built from the local ragstone, which has not worn well and as a result there has been a lot of rough patching to the stonework over the years. It is not, however, without its interest as it is a reminder that, like other canals, the Kennet and Avon was built to serve industry. There is a pair of watermills, one a woollen mill and the other a flock mill, down by the river, and originally a tramway – an early horse-drawn railway – ran along the towpath and over the aqueduct, which explains the width of the towpath.

4 - Lune Aqueduct - IMG_0856 -

Rennie’s other great work was the aqueduct (above) that carries the Lancaster Canal over the River Lune, just outside Lancaster. This is a massive structure, 664 feet (202m) long, crossing the river on five semicircular arches at a height of 61 feet (19m). It uses a similar classical language to that employed at Dundas, but the effect is very different. Lancaster is a northern working city and was then a busy port, not a spa attracting the wealthy and fashionable. Here, the local stone is tough millstone grit, so instead of the smooth ashlar of Dundas, the blocks on the Lune aqueduct are left uncut, presenting a rough, uneven face to the world, known appropriately in architectural terms as rusticated. This is an aqueduct that we actually know a great deal about, as detailed records have survived from the construction period, giving us an insight into what was involved in creating such a grand structure.

Britain’s Canals is available now (ISBN 978-1-4729-7195-1, RRP £18.99) through all good bookshops, or direct from our website with a 10% discount: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/britains-canals-9781472971951