A curious feature of vanished or vanishing England is the decay of our canals, which here and there with their unused locks, broken towpaths, and stagnant waters covered with weeds form a pathetic and melancholy part of the landscape. If you look at the map of England you will see, besides the blue curvings that mark the rivers, other threads of blue that show the canals. Much was expected of them. They were built just before the railway era. The whole country was covered by a network of canals. Millions were spent upon their construction. For a brief space they were prosperous. Some places, like our Berkshire Newbury, became the centres of considerable traffic and had little harbours filled with barges. Barge-building was a profitable industry. Fly-boats sped along the surface of the canals conveying passengers to towns or watering-places, and the company were very bright and enjoyed themselves. But all are dead highways now, strangled by steam and by the railways. The promoters of canals opposed the railways with might and main, and tried to protect their properties. Hence the railways were obliged to buy them up, and then left them lone and neglected. The change was tragic. You can, even now, travel all over the country by the means of these silent waterways. You start from London along the Regent’s Canal, which joins the Grand Junction Canal, and this spreads forth northwards and joins other canals that ramify to the Wash, to Manchester and Liverpool and Leeds. You can go to every great town in England as far as York if you have patience and endless time. There are four thousand miles of canals in England. They were not well constructed; we built them just as we do many other things, without any regular system, with no uniform depth or width or carrying capacity, or size of locks or height of bridges. Canals bearing barges of forty tons connect with those capable of bearing ninety tons. And now most of them are derelict, with dilapidated banks, foul bottoms, and shallow horse haulage. The bargemen have taken to other callings, but occasionally you may see a barge looking gay and bright drawn by an unconcerned horse on the towpath, with a man lazily smoking his pipe at the helm and his family of water gipsies, who pass an open-air, nomadic existence, tranquil, and entirely innocent of schooling. He is a survival of an almost vanished race which the railways have caused to disappear.
Much destruction of beautiful scenery is, alas! inevitable. Trade and commerce, mills and factories, must work their wicked will on the landscapes of our country. Mr. Ruskin’s experiment on the painting of Turner, quoted in our opening chapter, finds its realisation in many places. There was a time, I suppose, when the Mersey was a pure river that laved the banks carpeted with foliage and primroses on which the old Collegiate Church of Manchester reared its tower. It is now, and has been for years, an inky-black stream or drain running between stone walls, where it does