Overview of Waterways Restoration

Photo: Droitwich Barge Canal, some of the hundreds of volunteers at IWA's first work party in 1973 'discovered' the canal to the amazement of locals (Max Sinclair)

Hundreds of miles of the UK’s canals and river navigations have been saved from dereliction and restored for the enjoyment of all. Many more miles are gradually being brought back to life thanks to hundreds of trust and societies spread all over the country. From the Lancaster Canal in the North to the Chichester Canal in the South, the Bude Canal in Cornwall to the Ipswich and Stowmarket Navigation in Suffolk, voluntary groups continue to campaign, raise funds and work for the restoration of their local waterway.

History of Canal & River Restoration

The concept of voluntary work on the inland waterway was born in the 1960s and has steadily grown. In the early days just a few volunteers worked on projects such as the Peak Forest or the Ashton Canal near Manchester, or the River Avon in Worcestershire and the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal in Warwickshire. In the first decade of the 21st Century several more major restoration projects came to fruition including the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, once deemed to be the “impossible restoration”, and the Rochdale Canal.

Current Restoration Campaigns

The fight continues for many other waterways; protecting routes, raising awareness and public support, and organising volunteer workers to clear canal beds, dredge silted up channels and rebuild or restore waterways structures. Every mile restored creates new cruising routes and brings opportunities for recreation on or beside a waterway. Major projects include the Cotswolds Canals, reviving the old route from River Thames to the River Severn, the Wilts and Berks Canal, creating a new cruising ring including the Kennet & Avon Canal and the River Thames, and the Wey & Arun Canal, extending the network to the south coast.

Local and national government now recognises that bringing back lost waterways has a wide range of public benefits particularly when incorporated into urban redevelopment plans. Restored water space is not only seen as bringing amenity value, but also enhanced property values which promotes investment. There are also several proposals for totally new navigable routes, such as the Bedford and Milton Keynes Link and the Rother Link near Sheffield, which will create new cruising rings and non-tidal connections to existing canals.


Restoring canals has, however, become increasingly expensive. Roads or other developments built in earlier decades have frequently blocked former canal routes meaning there is no such thing these days as an easy restoration. Restorers also have to fund studies on the environmental impact of reinstatement covering issues such as ecology, drainage, flood risk, public access and many others. Innovative solutions are often developed to reduce costs or meet minority objections. Sometimes waterway groups wait patiently for another larger project, such as a road widening or an urban regeneration, to enable a difficult section to be restored in a combined project. Despite the expense it has been estimated that on average for every £1 spent on canal restoration there is a public benefit of £6.

Given the positive benefits there are many bodies that are willing to fund waterways restoration. The Heritage Lottery Fund has been the largest donor to a number of projects and Canal & River Trust (formerly British Waterways) has also supported others. Smaller funding is often available for specific aspects of a restoration such as reclamation of derelict land, preservation of heritage, creation of new habitats or enhancement of the local community. Local government also supports many projects and local businesses can frequently be recruited to provide materials or equipment as well as provide sponsorship. Find out more about funding waterway restoration projects.

Local Waterway Societies

The primary drivers of nearly all restorations are the local waterway societies. Most have regular voluntary working parties and participate in local and national events to promote their aims and objectives. IWA liases with and supports these societies through its branch structure and many periodically use the volunteers of the Waterway Recovery Group enabling them to tackle bigger tasks or make faster progress.

Information and Resources

This section of the website provides a summary of current restoration projects but, in most cases, the latest information will be provided the campaigning Trust or Society on their dedicated websites. Further details of how IWA assists with restoration projects can be found on the waterway restoration support section.

Why Restore Inland Waterways?

In 2003, Tony Harrison and Roy Sutton, IWA Honorary Consultant Engineers, prepared a paper Why Restore Inland Waterways. which was published in the Institution of Civil Engineers' journal Proceedings.  It discusses the restoration processes and changing sources of funding for waterways restoration.

IWA & Restoration

IWA's long history of waterway restoration campaigns, has seen hundreds of miles of waterways saved and restored to use, since the Association was founded in 1946.