Canals, slaves and railways!

The remains of the lock gates reflected in the water.

Question: How do you boost your town’s wealth and trade when there’s no decent road network linking you to the rest of Britain, but you’re only a mile and a half from the sea? Answer: You build a canal… And that’s just what the good citizens of Ulverston did at the end of the 18th century.

As you can see, for this week’s  Saturday Snapshot, I’ve been trawling through the photos from our visit to Cumbria this summer. In all the years we’ve holidayed up there we’ve never, ever explored the canal, which is still full of water, although it’s no longer navigable. The Man of the House, born and bred in the area, had never seen it and knew nothing of its history, so it was something of adventure.
Sea-side: This was the entrance to the canal but, as you can see
from the grass, the sea no longer reaches the gates.

We left the campervan behind, and walked along hedge-lined lanes and narrow roads down to Canal Foot at Hammerside, where the canal meets the sea (the town end is known as Canal Head). It seemed quite a trek – as I’ve said before, we’re not really used to walking – so we were glad to stop and enjoy a reviving pot of tea whilst sitting in a pub garden admiring the spectacular views of Morecambe Bay, the Cumbrian Hills, and the canal itself.

The entrance to the bay, where the great ships once sailed in and out, is now plugged with concrete, and the swingbridge that spanned the canal is long gone, but there’s a modern footbridge leading to the towpath which runs on one side. The ruined gates to the sea lock  are reflected in the water, a strange, ghostly reminder of the time when this was part of a thriving port.
Land-side: The lock at the end of the canal. Once the level of
the water had been adjusted, huge  gates would have
 opened to let ships in or out.

In the 18th century Ulverston, like most of the Furness Peninsula, was cut off on the landward side by the hills and mountains of the Lake District, and on the seaward side by the treacherous, shifting sands of Morecambe Bay. In those days Cumbria hadn’t been created (the county is a modern invention, as the Man of the House is fond of reminding me), and the area, remote and isolated, was known as known as Lancashire-over-the-Sands, which I think sounds much nicer. Romantic, don’t you agree? Anyway, horse-drawn wagons took local iron and slate to coastal towns to be shipped elsewhere, but loading and unloading was difficult, because the bay is tidal, and the water goes out for miles.

Canals were the favoured haulage routes of the day – quick (!), efficient and direct. So there was huge support when solicitor William Burnthwaite came up with the idea of a waterway linking Ulverston with the sea at the Leven estuary, to provide ocean-going ships with a safe berth in the basin at the town end while cargoes were packed and unpacked. When it opened in October 1796, the Ulverston Canal was the country’s shortest, deepest, widest and straightest waterway and, unusually, was all one one level, with only one lock. It was an engineering masterpiece.
I like this view of industrial chimneys reflected in the water,
and the juxtaposition of nature and industry existing side by side.

A host of industries grew up around it. There were warehouses, foundries, mills, timber merchants, rope making, and ships’ supplies, as well as charcoal burning and hoop-making for barrels. Hemp was grown in  local fields, and twisted into rope for ships on ‘rope walks’. Ship building and repairs flourished – vessels from Ulverston travelled the world when nearby Barrow, now much better known, was still a hamlet. And, of course, there were offices for port and customs officials. 

Merchants and ship owners became extremely wealthy – but many a fortune was based on the iniquitous ‘three-way trade’, where goods were traded for African slaves, who were sold in America and the Caribbean, and ships returned to England with their holds full of goods unavailable in their native land. In Ulverston riches were often founded on locally produced gunpowder, which was traded for slaves in Africa.

This strange structure is part of a rare sliding railway bridge,
which originally opened up to let ships through  (unlike the
brick built viaduct arches further up the canal). There are
bits of it below the water on both sides of the bridge.

But the glory years didn’t last long: from the outset there were problems keeping the constantly moving deep water channel free from silt and in the right position. Barrow proved to be a far better deep water port, growing in importance as Ulverston declined. And the railway had a terrible effect. In the mid-1840s viaduct arches built across the canal near its head prevented bigger ships from reaching the ‘pool’. Although a new basin was dug out on the other side of the bridge for new wharves, things never picked up. 

Another viaduct built by the Furness Railway Company in 1857 provided quick, easy transport across the estuary, and some businessmen believed it was the cause of the channel silting up. The railway company bought the canal in 1862 (which sounds like a conflict of interests to me) and shipbuilding gradually came to an end. However, the canal was still used commercially until the First World War, and remained open until just after the Second World War, when the sea entrance was dammed – and very odd it looks, with water on one side, and sand on the other.

This was the unspoiled landscape next to the towpath.

A large chunk of land on one bank is taken up by pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Smith Kline, who owned the canal at one point, but it now belongs to the Ulverston Canal Company, and a trust has been established to provide cash for management, maintenance and preservation. In addition, I gather South Lakeland District Council, Ulverston Town Council and other interested bodies are working with UCC to develop derelict industrial areas on that side of the canal, to preserve wildlife, and promote leisure activities. 

The towpath runs along the opposite bank, and is absolutely glorious, with open fields and views of the hills on one side, and the canal on the other. It’s a haven for wildlife. We saw waterlilies on the canal, and stood on the edge watching fish, dragonflies, coot, mallards, moorhens, swans and geese. Sometimes, apparently, you can see cormorants, herons and grebe, but there were none around on our day out. However, there were masses of birds and insects (most of which we were unable to identify) in the hedges, trees and fields.

Don’t you think this looks beautiful? The buildings in the
background are at Canal Head, where the canal ends – it looks
almost like the edge of pond, which wasn’t what I was expecting.
I imagine it would look more like a dock.

I spotted rowan trees, and brambles, meadowsweet with its beautiful creamy white flowers, rose bay willowherb, a plant I think was kind of balsam, and a profusion of other flowers and grasses. The canal was much, much bigger than the canals in and round Tamworth, and looked much cleaner as it shone and sparkled in the sunlight.

It was the most beautiful, peaceful walk, and was obviously well used by  fisherman, walkers, cyclists, dog owners, children, tourists and local residents, which was good to see. We were also impressed that people seem to respect the area – there was no dog mess or litter, no-one was playing loud music, and the children and young people we met were all really well behaved. I should add here that the water and banks of the canals where we live often leave a lot to be desired.

The canal basin.

At the end of our canalside stroll we made our way into the town centre, where we had another reviving cup of tea and treated ourselves to a late lunch of home-made soup and a sandwich (the bread was  was homemade as well). Deciding we’d done enough walking for one day, we headed for the bus stop, and stopped to ask directions from a lovely lady who started chatting, said she was going our way, and insisted on giving us a lift! That’s another thing that doesn’t happen at home! It made the perfect end to a perfect day, leaving us with some really happy memories.

For more Saturday Snapshots see Alice’s blog at For more Saturday Snapshots see  Alice’s blog at

The lock of the bay: Looking out across the sea and sand.

*Information in this post was taken from the booklet ‘Discovering Ulverston & Surroundings’ by Jeff Chambers, from leaflets issued by the town council, and from

34 thoughts on “Canals, slaves and railways!

  1. Lovely photos, Christine.

    I know Cumbria as Cumberland and Westmorland and hadn't realised parts were also in Lancashire – Lancashire-over-the-Sands does sound lovely. It makes me think of Grange-over-Sands, (now also in Cumbria) where I've had a couple of holidays, not too far away from Ulverston! I've never been to Ulverston though. Why do they have to keep changing the names of places? You lose the sense of history that way, I think.


  2. Margaret, we went to Grange some years ago, and I agree with you about changing the names of places, and the loss of history. If you ever go back that way do visit Ulverston – I'm sure you would enjoy it. It is quite small and unspoiled, with lots of little alleys, and interesting buildings, especially if you look above the shops.


  3. My man about the house and I have a dream to tour the canals of England – perhaps when the kids leave home. Your post has inspired me to include the non-working canals too – thanks.


  4. That kind of trip sounds idyllic Brona. There is so much history tied up in our canals, and an amazing array of wildlife in and around them – earlier in the year I watched baby goslings on the side of a canal in the heart of Birmingham, which was so unexpected.


  5. Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I'm so glad they've kept the water in this canal, even if boats can't get up and down it any longer, and they've turned it into such a nice spot for walking and wildlife.


  6. This is such an informative post, as always. I'll never learn anything about canals if not purposely read about them. But here in your post, it's also a pleasure so see all the pictures too. Thanks for posting and for visiting Ripple Effects.


  7. That's nice of you to say so Arti. I rather like canals, and there are lots of them in the midlands, which are all longer than the one at Ulverston. I like the way they are part of our industrial heritage, but have been given new life where people walk and look at the birds and plants, so they are still part of the landscape, but in a slightly different way to their original use.


  8. Leslie, We've acquired a small pair of binoculars, and we have a flask for tea, and we thought we get a couple of small backpacks, and a lightweight book on birds (nothing too heavy if we have to carry it around!) so we can be a bit more organised in future and try to get a better look at the wildlife. And I'd love to be able to identify some of the insects.


  9. I find them really interesting. They are the most incredible engineering feats, which changed the landscape – like motorways I suppose – and yet they became part of the landscape and actually added something to it.


  10. Very interesting post, and great pictures. We did our first canal holiday this summer on the Kennet and Avon, which had been unnavigable, but was restored. We are thinking about venturing further north next summer.


  11. I've always fancied a canal holiday, rather than just admiring them from the bank! It looks so calm and peaceful – life in the slow lane. The ones in the Midlands – in and around Birmingham, Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire – are beautiful.


  12. Thank you for visiting! Those lock gates are spectacular, ans the reflection in the water makes them look like a complete structure – then you realise there's nothing there except the outer framework.It looks like a gateway to another world.


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