There are now 38,000 narrowboats - one quarter of them are homes - on 3,000 miles of navigable waterways, and the number of people enjoying barge holidays has doubled in recent years. Members of the Friends of the Canal and River Trust (CRT), the waterways' version of the National Trust, hit 28,00 this year. Towpaths are teeming with walkers, anglers and cyclists and there are thousands of volunteers working on 98 canal restoration projects from Devon to West Sussex to Cumbria.
The Inland Waterways Association (IWA), the charity that champions canal restoration, is working towards reopening 2,500 miles of 'dead' canals which lie derelict.
Due to be published early this year, a report by the restoration hub of the IWA will emphasise the benefits of canal restoration in terms of economic regeneration, wildlife and plant diversity, architectural heritage, tourism and education. Putting freight back on the canals is also viable, which is why an inland port is being planned in Leeds.
Mike Palmer, the report's main author, said the canal network was "a huge linear national park - a leisure park, a vital wildlife sanctuary, an important industrial heritage site and an environment-friendly transport system all rolled into one".
While the report is being digested, the IWA volunteers will be hard at work on projects, which include:
- De-silting work on an abandoned stretch of the Wey and Arun navigation near the Surrey-West Sussex border
- The completion of a two-year restoration of a hopelessly derelict lock on the Grantham canal in the east Midlands, bringing the Lincolnshire town a step closer to returning to the national network it left more than 80 years ago
- A re-doubling of fundraising efforts by the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoraiton Trust, which raised the money to build an aqueduct over the M6 toll road 16 years ago despite the fact that there is no canal there (there will be, eventually). Unless work on a tunnel under a railway and a new roundabout starts within a year or so, costs will increase enormously. The trust must raise £1m by the end of this year in a campaign led by the actor and canals supporter David Suchet: it has just passed £530,000
- Taking the next step on one of the most daunting challenges faced by any of the nation's restoration projects, the Missing Mile on the Cotswold canals, a stretch that was more or less obliterated when the M5 was built. Motorists on the A419 will see narrowboats crossing the middle of a roundabout; there is also junction 13 of the M5 to deal with, plus a major gas pipeline and two more roundabouts. It should be finished by 2023, bringing Stroud back on to the national network.
The IWA's report aims to change the attitude of funders, politicians, government departments, local authorities, restoration groups and even health professionals. As well as the economic and environmental benefits of canals, it will stress the health, a point made by Philippa Moreton, a retired doctor who advised many of her patients to take towpath walks in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, where she worked.
The report will recommend focusing on micro-projects rather than the entire length of a canal. Restoration should be seen by government agencies and volunteers as a national issue, rather than as a hotch-potch of local groups working in isolation.