Its almost impossible to spend any time in Britain and not find yourself marvelling at some ingenious engineering project of epic proportions dating back to the 18th or 19th centuries. That immense burst of creativity and energy, the Industrial Revolution, changed society, art, politics and economics for ever, and has left an indelible mark on the landscape of these islands.
A few legendary names recur, associated with some of the most extraordinary engineering feats in an age renowned for the extraordinary. John Rennie (1761-1821) is one of the most luminous of alumni of this period. Rennie made his name building canals, but he was also rightly famous as the builder of exquisitely designed bridges (including Waterloo Bridge in London) and aqueducts. He was responsible for dozens of projects during his lifetime, including the docks at Liverpool, East Indian Dock in London and the Leith Dock outside Edinburgh.
Call me a nerd, but it was with some excitement that I set out to walk south on the Rennie-built Lancaster Canal to visit one of his most famous creations, the glorious Lune Aqueduct. The route would take me from the village of Holme all the way, 15 miles later, to the centre of the City of Lancaster. Along the way I’d pass some of Rennie’s lesser known achievements, including the Tewitfield Locks, the smaller Keer Aqueduct and a host of bridges.
Rennie was a genius. If you want proof of this, straight from the ‘strange but true’ catalogue comes this: Rennie spent one and a half years driving sixty specially imported Russian tree trunks into the River Lune, to act as the foundations of the aqueduct. Over 200 years later, they are still the foundations of the aqueduct. Wood doesn’t rot when it is permanently wet – who knew? A little risky, given the huge cost of the Lune Aqueduct and that this giant structure took years to construct. The aqueduct became a tourist attraction – JMW Turner visited to paint it.
Every structure along the canal – bridge, aqueduct, swing-bridge – is numbered. As you walk you either count upwards or downwards as you go. My journey south took me from bridge number 153 to bridge number 99. Which, in a 15 mile journey, gives some idea of the level of construction that went into building an 18th century canal. Refreshingly, the canal is still being used. I passed dozens of canal boats, some holiday rentals, others homes. The artistry of canal boat painting is also alive and kicking.
The route is a lovely mix of landscapes, largely cutting across country through sheep, cattle and arable farms. At the sizeable village of Hest Bank, I took a quick detour to catch sight of the coast. This area of Morcambe Bay, known as the Kent Channel, is where the River Kent empties into the estuary. This provided access to the Irish Sea and the world in the 18th and 19th centuries. When the Lancaster Canal opened, Hest Bank was its closest point to the sea.
A specially constructed wharf allowed ships to load and unload goods onto the canal, connecting the canal to the world. This part of the estuary is notorious for its incredible tides and shifting sands. When the wharf fell into disuse around 1850, it was quickly submerged by sand. It reappeared in 2001, when tidal activity moved millions of tons of sand. This movement of sand – from Hest Bank to Grange – follows a cycle that occurs every 150 years.
My final destination, Lancaster, is an historic city (of which more later). The canal gave it an enormous economic boost at the end of the 18th century (when its involvement in the Transatlantic Slave trade was diminishing), but connecting the city to other industrial cities required a man of Rennie’s genius. This is evident when you pass over the Lune Aqueduct. When you arrive into the city you can still see the canal-side warehouses and factories which thrived off this new form of transport.
These new industries gave the Lancaster Canal its nickname, ‘The Black and White Canal’. The abundant white limestone of south Cumbria was required to manufacture iron, steel and glass in Lancashire, while black coal from mines in Wigan was needed to power the steam engine driven factories of England’s heavily industrialised North West.