Towpaths Policy


As a result of increasing concerns about the deteriorating state of many towpaths in various parts of the canal and river system, IWA published its first policy on towpaths in 1990. In view of the increasing importance of issues such as maintenance standards, cycling on towpaths and conflicts between different users, the Association has issued this revised Towpath Policy.

Waterway towpaths provide well over three thousand miles of near continuous path, where access is permitted to millions of people. In general more towpaths are now walkable than at the time of the first IWA policy, although there are still unacceptable variations in the standard to which towpaths are reinstated and maintained.

This document sets out the users’ expectation of towpath provision and maintenance for all navigation authorities and is intended to be complementary to the standards applied by navigation authorities. IWA believes that the high standard achieved in some areas should be the norm and not the exception. It is hoped that this document will be of guidance to navigation authorities and local authorities, and that it will form a basis for IWA branches and other waterway organisations to judge what are acceptable standards of towpath provision and maintenance.

Statement of Policy

1.  IWA will monitor performance by navigation authorities against their existing standards, promote improvement of standards and, where appropriate, support or oppose new standards.

2.  Where infrastructure provision or maintenance levels are below approved standards or are seen to have declined, IWA will make representations to the relevant authority. This policy applies to all inland navigations.

3.  Without prejudice to a number of existing or future individual urban towpath agreements, the majority of canal towpaths should continue to be permissive footpaths without being public Rights of Way.  On rivers, however, local authorities should be encouraged to designate riverside paths as Rights of Way.

4.  The historic role of towpaths was the means of towing boats by horse or manpower and access to, from and along the waterway by licensees or permit holders. IWA will support the use of a horse, to tow a boat, on suitable paths.

5.  The majority of towpaths are not suitable for the riding of horses. Therefore IWA will continue to support byelaws or other powers that regulate horse riding.

6.  IWA supports sedate cycling on suitable towpaths by individuals, families and small groups. Commuter and recreational cycling should only take place where the safety of the rider can be assured and it does not compromise the safety and enjoyment of other users.   IWA promotes good practice through publishing advice for cyclists on its website, including a Cycling Code which is designed to raise awareness and improve the safety of both the cyclists themselves and others using the towpath.  See IWA’s Briefing Note on Cycling on Towpaths for further advice. 

7.  Towpaths are not suitable for powered vehicular traffic unless otherwise designated. Therefore, IWA will continue to support byelaws or regulations prohibiting access to unauthorised motor vehicles and motor cycles.

8.  IWA will oppose fencing or other forms of permanent barrier being installed between the canal and the towpath other than for exceptional public safety or operational reasons. Fencing under bridges or on lock sides, where it would interfere with safe operation of the lock or access to and from boats, will be opposed. Barriers across towpaths should only be installed where there is a proven need to prevent access by unauthorised traffic, i.e. cars, motor cycles or ridden horses. Where such barriers are lockable, gates as well as a stile or a labyrinth pass must be provided so that authorised users have unrestricted passage.

9.  IWA will continue to support shared use of towpaths and will consider proposals to introduce new activities in the light of their impact on the overall waterway environment and their effect on existing activities.

10.  IWA will support measures to provide and improve general access to and from towpaths and promote the provision of suitable access points and additional facilities, at key locations, so that persons having restricted mobility may take part in all permitted activities that are within their capability.  IWA will liaise with disability action groups to determine best practice.

11.  IWA will campaign for the adoption of work practice, materials and furnishings that are sympathetic to the historic environment into which they are incorporated. All works must have due regard for heritage issues rather than using a “uniform navigation authority style” and should be carried out using traditional materials as far as possible.

12.  IWA will support the use of appropriate recycled materials for towpath repairs and reinstatements where they do not compromise the historic environment or quality of the work.

13.  IWA will encourage, and where appropriate, support measures designed to ensure a clean, safe and well maintained towpath environment.

14.  Towpaths should be actively promoted as a resource for pedestrian usage.

15.  Existing, new or restored waterways and associated structures should have full towpath provision. Towpaths currently impassable should be reinstated.

16.  IWA will encourage the provision of mooring rings and bollards to limit bank damage at frequently used mooring sites. Mooring rings or bollards as appropriate  should always be provided on hard-edged surfaces.

17.  All towpath users should ensure that their activities do not compromise the safety or enjoyment of other users.

18. Restoration schemes should, where possible, reinstate the towpath with a minimum width of 2 metres (the construction of the towpath should conform to IWA policy on "Standards for Construction, Restoration and Maintenance of Inland Waterways"), and in accordance with polices 1 to 17 above.

19. Restoration groups sometimes promote a public path on the line of a canal in order to secure the route. In doing so they should be advised to ensure that in establishing the path they don't compromise construction of the waterway at a future date. It would be as well to consider whether, if the path is generally a Right of Way, any part over the line of the waterway should only be permissive.

Policy Notes: The Policy Notes expand on the Policy Statements and utilise the same numbering.

1 and 2 - Towpath Provision and Maintenance

a) IWA will continue to campaign for all navigation authorities to maintain their towpaths to a high standard.

b) IWA will continue to campaign for the provision of towpaths alongside rivers and other navigations where there are none at present. Siting the path away from the waterway is, in most cases, inappropriate.

c) In recognition of the public amenity value provided, IWA will continue to campaign for additional public funding to maintain and improve towpaths.

d) Where possible, the width of the towpath, from canal edge to boundary fence, should be at least 2 metres. Where the towpath width is less than 2 metres cyclists may be required to dismount in order to ensure the safety of pedestrians, wheelchair users and anglers.

e) The absolute minimum width of the walking surface should be 1 metre, with a 1.8 metre standard for urban and heavily used rural towpaths.

f) The surface should be even and free draining. The waterway edge should be free from holes and substantial tree, shrub or other tall weed growth. The appropriate surface material depends on location and use and should be carefully chosen.

g) In urban areas towpaths should be constructed of brick, stone sets, ash or crushed stone. The latter should be graded to dust and rolled to prevent stones becoming loose and causing a potential source of danger to people, animals and boats. (Note: "graded to dust" or "water bound macadam" or "rolled hogging" are terms used to describe a progressively graded stone mix that consolidates when rolled.) The process of installing hard-edged surfaces should always include provision of mooring rings wherever mooring was previously possible.  

h) Shredded wood is not usually suitable as a towpath surface, except where correctly utilised to assist drainage in cuttings and wet areas.

i) Towpaths containing sets are not suitable for cycling but sets must not be removed where they are a heritage feature.

j) In rural areas with grassed paths a minimum width of 1 metre should be kept close mown as a walking surface, leaving a soft vegetative strip to the canal edge. To encourage the growth of more diverse and less vigorous wild plants, the vegetative strip should be treated like a meadow, being cut to about 50 millimetres, twice a year. The walking surface should be higher than the vegetative strip to prevent ponding.

k) In areas where the towpath is continually wet, such as in cuttings, a French drain should be laid along the base of the cutting on the non-canal side of the towpath to intercept the run-off and direct the water under the path into the canal.

l) The surface of a towpath should be maintained at a minimum height of 150mm above the weir crest level for that pound.

m) It is not acceptable for navigation authorities to propose a no-path standard in its maintenance specifications except through built structures, such as tunnels, through which they were never originally provided. Walking routes over tunnels should be clearly signed and well maintained.

n) The towpath should be continuous alongside the navigation where practicable, except where historically there was a ferry across the channel. Where such ferries no longer exist, the navigation authority will be encouraged to provide a bridge linking the disconnected sections or, where the "line change" is short, establish a new linking path. Where a towpath route is not obvious it should be clearly signed.

o) As a minimum, towpaths should be maintained or restored to their original condition. Where today's traffic and type of use prove damaging, consideration should be given to upgrading the path, such upgrades being sympathetic to both the navigation and the location.

p) The waterway channel should not be narrowed in order to provide a wider towpath, unless this is done to retrieve the original dimensions or in specific circumstances where it is agreed that there is overall benefit and navigation will not be affected.

q) Piling or other bank protection should be completed from sound structure to sound structure or bank wall to bank wall etc. Piling with open unprotected ends (especially short sections) is more prone to wash damage and subsequent bank erosion. This becomes a hazard to towpath users and makes future maintenance more difficult and expensive. Pile tops should never protrude above towpath level. They should always be fully driven or cut level.

r) New sheet piling must always be back filled and levelled to the top edge of the pile as soon, as is possible. Tieback rods and back-piles must be completely covered.

s) As a less intrusive alternative, the use of piles driven to water level, then topped with natural or manufactured stone, or soft edging, up to towpath level, is recommended. This is more aesthetically pleasing than plain piling and improves access for wildlife to and from the water. Soft edging to towpath walls may also be appropriate.

t) In rural areas, where dredged material is deposited on top of the existing towpath surface, or new piling is back-filled, levelling should follow, after allowing sufficient time for settlement to take place, before the towpath is seeded with suitable grass.

u) Stone or similar towpath edges should be repaired before bank erosion caused by boat wash or land settlement becomes a serious problem. Surface potholes should be filled at the earliest opportunity.

v) Where a durable surface, such as brick or crushed stone, has been laid, it must be reinstated as soon as possible after disturbance by maintenance works.

w) Bricks and other debris, from maintenance work, dredging or cable laying etc., must not be dumped onto the land side boundary of a towpath, into the hedge bottom or into the waterway channel.

x) Hedges between the towpath and adjacent land should, ideally, be laid and new plantings inserted into depleted sections. Saplings of suitable tree species growing in the hedge should be protected and allowed to reach maturity where appropriate.  

y) Historic boundary hedges should not be removed. Where hedges are not being allowed to grow for the purposes of hedge-laying, and excluding specimen or single trees, towpath boundary hedges should be regularly cut (reduced in height) so that views are not obscured. They should also be trimmed to maintain an overhead clearance of at least 2.5 metres for the full width of the towpath. Particular attention should be paid to thicker vegetation, which should be pruned back so that growth, within the following year, will not encroach upon the recommended overhead clearance.  

z) Trees should not be allowed to grow in the strip adjacent to the water's edge as roots may damage walls or piling and overhanging branches are a hazard to both path users and boaters.

aa) When hedges and trees are pruned, the material arising should, preferably, be removed from the site. Where that is not practical they should be reduced in bulk by shredding, chipping or burning. Burning must be as far away from the hedge as is possible and not under trees. Care should be taken not to smother existing vegetation. Any unburned remains should be removed. In wide areas, if appropriate, habitat piles or composting heaps may be left for the benefit of small mammals, birds, insects and plant life.

ab) Where the boundary of the towpath is a fence or wall it should be maintained using original materials and method of construction.

ac) Audits of reinstatement work after towpath maintenance or engineering would be a useful way of monitoring and ensuring quality of work.

3. Access and Rights of Way

a) IWA will encourage the inclusion of both urban and rural towpaths in recreational maps prepared by local authorities and outside agencies.

b) IWA will support the adoption of certain towpaths as public rights of way where, in the Association’s opinion, the public interest is better served yet neither the waterway environment nor the interests of those using the waterway is compromised. A condition for IWA’s support is that the local authority should be willing and able to take financial responsibility for any upgrade required, ongoing additional maintenance and servicing that results from increased public use of the towpath.

c) Where not a public right of way towpaths should be registered with the local authority as permissive paths.

4. Horse Towing

a) The unlimited use of horses to tow boats is no longer practical. However, canal and river towpaths should be maintained in a suitable condition for the passage of horses, and boat towing lines. Where such use is practical and does not substantially interfere with mooring and other uses, navigation authorities should assist individuals or organisations planning horse drawn journeys.

b) There are places where the location and superior condition of the path make it suitable for regular horse boat operation. At such locations towing using a horse should be encouraged.
There should be information notices or sign posting in areas where horse towing regularly takes place and boat crews should, where possible, avoid mooring in these areas.

c) To facilitate such passage it is important that convenient means are provided for the horse and towline to pass through barriers & other calming measures. Barriers should, wherever possible, be at locations where it is normal for the horse to pause. (Examples: at locks or moving bridges.)

d) To avoid the snagging of towlines, trees and shrubs should be removed from the area between the walking surface and the channel.

5. Horse Riding

a) Horses should not be ridden on towpaths except where the towpath is also a bridleway.

b) Where horse riding is permitted, there should be notices warning that extra awareness and care should be exercised. Where a path has shared use, horses should not proceed faster than at walking pace.

6. Cycling

a) Cycles have been used as an aid to boating and for access since the start of the mass production of cheap bicycles, around 1900. The introduction of all terrain leisure cycles, the work of Sustrans and the need for cycle routes away from road traffic to meet the requirements of the Road Traffic Reduction Act 1997, has placed increasing pressure for new or continuing use of towpaths as cycle routes.

b) IWA considers that positive management of cycling is preferable to a total ban on cycles or a free-for-all situation. Commuter and recreational cycling should only take place where the safety of the rider can be assured and it does not compromise the safety and enjoyment of other users.

c) A bicycle, used as an aid to boating, is a long established aspect of canal navigation. The use of a bicycle to ride to and from locks can assist in minimising the use of water and reduction of delays. A bicycle is also a useful means of getting help in emergency situations.

d) IWA supports sedate recreational cycling on suitable towpaths by individuals, families and small groups. Cyclists must take particular care when passing walkers and anglers, and be prepared to dismount.

e) Time trials, races and other large group cycling activities are not appropriate on towpaths and should not be permitted.

f) IWA realises that many towpaths are still unrideable and therefore welcomes commitment by navigation authorities to seek and use non-navigation budget funding for the improvement of such paths.

g) There is not a specific speed limit for cyclists, but cyclists must cede priority to other users and have a duty of care to those users.

h) All cycles should have a bell or horn, which must be used to warn other users of their approach, and lights should be fitted and used at night.

i) Navigation authority staff should enforce byelaws and rules relating to cycling. The costs of employing enforcement staff should be funded by income from cyclists or other public funding in support of cycling.

j)  Navigation authorities should be encouraged to compile and publish accurate and consistent lists of towpaths, in their jurisdiction, that are suitable for cycling.

7. Motor Vehicles

a) Motorised cycles, due to their weight and speed, are inappropriate for use on towpaths and should be banned, except where specifically authorised for use by the employees or contractors of the navigation authority, as below.

b) Motor vehicles should be banned from towpaths, except for those engaged on maintenance or operational tasks and those having rights of access to property. However motorised vehicles, electric wheelchairs or tricycles used by disabled persons should be allowed to use towpaths.

c) The unauthorised riding of motor cycles along towpaths is a public danger. Determined offenders often force their way through or around physical barriers. Therefore IWA will support navigation authorities if they seek to prosecute persistent offenders.

8. Fencing

a) Fencing between waterways and towpaths is not normally acceptable for boater safety, heritage and aesthetic reasons. However, permanent or temporary fences are acceptable where there is a significant risk of pedestrians falling from the path and if that fall is likely to result in an injury e.g. at side weirs, feeder bridges, aqueducts tunnels and bank collapse. Any permanent fences or railings should be smooth topped and taken down to ground level at an angle to reduce the risk of ropes snagging. Railings close too or on lock copings are inappropriate as they both hinder lock operation and will hinder rescue in the event of an accident.

b) IWA opposes the permanent fencing off or other obstruction of access to or along any towpath except where this is necessary to ensure public safety. IWA accepts that temporary fencing will be installed to protect the public and workforce where there is a failure of the path and where repairs or other works are being carried out. In such cases a signed diversion should be provided. Temporary fencing and signs should be removed as the end operation of all work programmes. Fences, across towpaths or on to the off side, should not hang over the water's edge. Security can be maintained by short length of fence along the water's edge making a T-shape in plan. Cross towpath fences should have gates as well as stiles to permit fullest access.

c) The use of barbed or razor wire at a level of under 2.5 metres (8ft) is banned alongside public footpaths. IWA believe such a ban should also apply to towpaths. Low level barbed or razor wire should not be used in a new fence and should be removed from existing fences.

d) The use of electric fences adjacent to towpaths is to be discouraged. Where present, they must be adequately signed and installed to approved standards.

e) Where there is a proven case for railings or fences installation must be subjected to a safety assessment looking at both land-side public safety and the safety of boat crews.

(See also IWA’s Locks and Movable Bridges Policy item 1.15)

9. Shared Use

a) In relation to activities other than those addressed elsewhere in this policy document, IWA will support a new activity if it is, by its own nature or by proper segregation, compatible with other then current uses. If not, IWA will oppose the introduction thereof.

b) On Canal & River Trust’s towpaths, all users should be aware of the Waterways Code.

10.1 Access (General)

a) Access should be available, as appropriate, at road bridges and other points. Preferably, access should be on the level, or by ramp not exceeding a slope of 8% (approx. 1 in 12), although acceptable access has been provided on slopes up to 12.5% (1 in 8). If security for animals is needed, a self-closing gate at least 1 metre wide, to accommodate wheel chairs, should be provided and maintained.

b) Where the difference in level between the towpath and road is too great and the space to provide a ramp insufficient, steps should be constructed. Handrails should be provided on the exposed edges of the ramp or steps.

c) Traditionally, most access to canals (as opposed to rivers) is at road bridge crossings. However, where a road runs alongside a canal it may be possible to provide access at more convenient points where access is on the level. Disabled access may be better at road level rather than at bridges, where ramps could be visually obtrusive.

d) The need for towpath users to cross busy roads should be avoided. IWA supports, in principle, schemes to provide pedestrian underpasses or bridges at appropriate locations.

10.2 Access (for people with limited mobility)

a) Obligations are placed on navigation authorities by the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (provisions relating to access effective from October 2004). The Act does recognise that there are circumstances where the modification of structures is neither reasonable nor practical. IWA recognises that disabled users will not have access to all towpaths.

b) There is a variable level of mobility within the population, therefore these notes assume that the Act applies to those that are Registered Disabled.

c) Three levels of mobility have been identified:
•    Independent mobility assisted by a powered chair or by other compact powered vehicle. Those can be accommodated by the standard slopes or ramps, but not steps. They can negotiate urban towpaths and those rural paths with a hard or firm surface.
•    Independent mobility using a manually powered wheelchair. Mostly used by the fit active disabled. Level access or shallow slopes are the safe option. Steps are to be avoided. They can negotiate level firm surfaced urban paths but only a limited number of rural paths.
•    Mobility dependant on the assistance of a person to push a wheelchair. Level access or shallow slopes are a requirement for access. Steps are to be avoided. Due to the weight of the occupant and the characteristics of a wheelchair access is restricted to easy access urban paths and those locations where special provision is provided, such as fishing platforms, improved urban paths or so called honey-pot sites.

d) Security/safety barriers, across the towpath, often restrict the access by those reliant on the mobility provided by wheelchairs. Therefore all barriers, on paths designated for use by the disabled, should incorporate a gate of sufficient width to allow the passage of a wheelchair. It should be at least 1 metre wide and 1.6 metres overhead clearance. The gate should be opened and re-locked by a key, available on application to the navigation authority, by persons who are Registered Disabled.

e) Navigation authorities should clearly sign all paths that are suitable for use by wheel chair users or conversely sign those that are unsuitable for wheelchairs. A map or directory of paths and places having access suitable for wheelchairs should be published.

f) IWA will support the provision of increased access, for disabled people, by the improvement of access points, creating new access points and by improvement of path surfaces.

13. Litter

a) The fouling by dogs of open spaces accessible to the public is a significant health hazard. Because of the increased restrictions in other public areas, towpaths often have a higher density of fouling than the average public park. IWA will encourage navigation authorities and local authorities to apply for and take powers under the Dogs (Fouling of Land) Act 1996 that could make it an offence for owners to allow their dog's excrement to remain on any part of the towpath or its verges.

b) IWA will encourage owners to remove their dogs or horse's excrement and dispose of it at a place where it will not give rise to a public nuisance or health hazard.

c) Litter and dog dirt bins should be placed at intervals on the hedge or boundary side of urban and other well used towpaths and should be regularly emptied and serviced.

16. Mooring

a) At towpath locations recessed rings are the safer option, as they do not present as great a trip hazard to pedestrians as bollards. Rings, bollards or piling hooks on suitable piling should always be used in preference to mooring pins when mooring. 

b) Sufficient rings should be placed on the ground, at a jetty or path side mooring, so that boats of varying length can be moored using ropes.  These should be spaced so as to enable varying lengths of craft to adopt best mooring practice in such a way as to prevent linear movement (a spacing of 3 metres is recommended).

c) On rivers and wide navigations the moorings of Pleasure Craft and large Commercial Craft should be segregated.

d) Mooring rings should be provided at all designated or popular mooring sites and bollards at official landing points. In order to avoid ropes crossing a walking area, rings should be installed between the water's edge and the walking surface.

e) At designated and other regularly used moorings (for shops, pubs etc.) and at locks or moving bridge landing points, the grass should be regularly mown to the water's edge.

f) IWA recommends that mooring pins should only be used where rings or bollards are not provided, where suitable piling cannot be utilised and where the towpath does not have a hard surface, - as they can damage the canal bank whilst exposed pin tops can be a hazard to people and animals.

g) Cables laid under the towpath should always be at a depth which does not preclude the use of mooring spikes or pins. If there is any risk of injury from mooring pins penetrating cables mooring rings or bollards must be provided. After cable laying, IWA encourages upgrading of towpaths rather than just reinstatement.

h) Due regard should be taken of the risk to other users from mooring pins and ropes. Ropes should not be positioned in a way, which endangers other users.

i) At official mooring or landing places and at lock sides, priority must be given to boaters.

17. Angling

a) At official mooring sites and landing places, anglers should give way to boat crews wishing to land or moor. The byelaws of some navigation authorities forbid fishing at such locations.

b) All anglers' tackle should be kept clear of the walking surface.

c) A towpath is a walkway. Anglers should always be aware that people might be passing behind them. This is especially important when casting.

d) Poles should never be pulled back across the walking surface, so causing a hazard to other users.

18 and 19. Restoration

a)  The towpath is often the first opportunity that restoration organisations have to promote their scheme to the public, local authorities and funding agencies.  When formally established, towpaths should be regularly maintained in accordance with this policy.

b)  Information or interpretation boards are often used to promote the project.  These should be suitably placed so as not to create obstructions to other users by those who may wish to stop and read them; and they should be kept clean.

c) Due to on-going restoration work sections of towpath may have to be intermittently closed.  The sections subject to closure should be prominently advertised at each end and, where possible, an alternative route sign posted around that closure.

d)  If the paths are permissive and go through third party land, the consent of the landowner is advised to promote good relations between the user, owner and promoter.

First published 16 May 1998. Last updated November 2016.


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