A short history of Canal Bridges
<< Back to Blog list
Sat Apr 6, 2019 at 1:47pm

Man made canals have only been in existence for around 200 years, but the challenges of crossing rivers has been there for very much longer.

The humble brick canal bridge is a part of the UK canal landscape. They were built to carry paths and roads over the canals and to enable farmers to access their livestock and crops on land that had been divided up when the canals were built.

Many of our canals were built at the height of the industrial revolution, and the only way of transporting heavy goods and construction materials was by horse and cart, which could be very expensive and labour intensive, so local stone or bricks made with materials and clay sourced locally were usually used to cut down on costs. Many of these old bridges still stand, creating a wonderful atmospheric feeling on many of our British canals.

Original canal bridges come in many forms, often they were humped-backed in local brick or stone. More elaborate bridges were sometimes erected when canals cut through an affluent country estate where the landowners permission had to be courted, as with the Grade II listed 19th Century gothic style Drayton Turret footbridge which is located near the entrance to Drayton Manor Theme Park, which is one of the most ornate bridges anywhere on Britains canals and dates to when Sir Robert Peel (British Prime Minister 1834–35 and 1841–46 and founder of the Police Force) built his new manson at Drayton Bassett. The canal ran through his estate, so it is thought that Sir Robert wanted the bridge to be a feature along the canal.

Where the canal ran through areas that had neither clay tomake bricks or local stone, the bridges were built with a lower quality bricks and many of these had to be rebuilt at a later date with better quality bricks that could be then be brought in by boat.

Timber bridges were cheaper to build than brick or stone ones. They were often used as footbridges at locks.

Cast Iron bridges were used, particularly in industrial areas and especially around Birmingham, they were built to a common elegant design and many can still be seen in and around Birmingham.

Where the towpath had to move from one side of the canal to the other, turnover/ Split bridges or roving bridges allowed the towing horse to cross the canal without their towing line getting caught up in the bridge.

Moveable or opening bridges such as canal swing and canal lift bridges were often cheaper to build than fixed bridges as they didn't require foundation. These were often built in areas where the canals were short of construction materials such as the North Oxford Canal and the Llangollen canal. These bridges could also allow large craft to pass through them. Opening bridges could be accommodation bridges (linking land), road bridges and in some cases even railway bridges. Opening bridges could be swivel or bascule. Bascule bridges or drawbridges lift up from one side of the canal. Turnbridges or swivel bridges are simpler, turning round a single point. Early examples were built in timber, with some later ones in steel.

Our canals are home to over 2,700 listed structures, 50 scheduled ancient monuments and five UNESCO world heritage sites. Just by walking along a 20 minute stretch of towpath you’re likely to pass numerous heritage structures ranging from smaller iconic items such as milestones, to working structures such as lock gates and swing bridges.

Get out onto the canal and see what you can see, if you have canal stories or photographs of old bridges to share with us comment below, or contact us on our social media site; facebook or instagram


Lynn Pauline Evans | Fri Nov 29, 2019 at 8:19am
Love the artical! Would anyone do a talk on bridges for Lichfield IWA?
Whilton Marina | Mon Dec 2, 2019 at 11:57am
Hello Lynn, Thank you for your positive feedback on our blog about canal bridges, we are glad you enjoyed reading it. Unfortunately we are unable to give talks.
Clive Shelley | Fri Jan 15, 2021 at 1:24pm
Just a query..When canals were built, what came first - the bridges or the canal. It would be easier tobuild a bridge first, but more accurate if canal first.
Whilton Marina | Tue Jan 19, 2021 at 2:29pm
Hello Clive, an interesting question, which we would guess at the answer.. they probably dug out the canals first, before building bridges over. Remember it would have been excavated using manpower in those days, with horses help!
Eamonn Hunter | Sun Apr 25, 2021 at 11:00am
Hi, this is a very interesting article on elegant, stone structures that continue to perform their role well 250 years after construction. I'm researching canal bridges on the Grand Canal in Ireland (a section in Co. Kildare specifically) where the towpath is being upgraded for recreational walking and cycling. The local council wish to install handrails along the canal edge beneath the bridges and also to raise the path surfaces slightly to prevent flooding. Have you seen any good examples of where this has been done successfully without compromising the bridge's architectural character? Many thanks.
Whilton Marina | Wed May 5, 2021 at 12:06pm
Hi Eamonn, Unfortunately I haven't seen any examples of towpaths been raised, we would love to see some images when you have some. Many Thanks
Rob | Thu Feb 10, 2022 at 12:14pm
Hi How has Man made canals have only been in existence for around 200 years. When the trent and Mersey canal was built in 1766. Do you know how old is the small walk over bridge atTrentham canal Thanks
Whilton Marina | Tue Feb 15, 2022 at 1:12pm
Hi Rob, Unfortunately we do not know how old the bridge is on the Trentham Canal.

Leave a Comment

Your Name
Email Address (kept hidden)