Four things we learned about the UK’s waterways from Chris Clegg’s Canal Time Map

The Regent’s Canal, London. Image: Getty.

In my ever-present efforts to satisfy the cartography-minded readers among you – i.e. all of you – I stumbled across an interesting map of England’s inland waterways.

What causes Chris Clegg’s Canal Time Map to stand out is that, unusually, it’s scaled by time rather than distance, showing how long it would take to travel around the UK via narrowboat.

Such a map can only work when most other variables such as route and speed are fixed, which is true of the inland waterways, where boats can only travel at 4mph.

With this in mind and a sprinkling of other assumptions, our man Chris has created this handy tool for all types of boaters. Somewhat unfortunately, due to the collapse of waterway industry in the early 1960s, the map now mainly services retired leisure boaters, but I’m sure they appreciate it.

The north. Click to expand. 

Here are four things you can learn about boating from the map:

1) Travelling by water is slow. Really slow.

It takes 45 hours to get from St Pancras to Oxford by boat. If you were going to take public transport, the journey would be less than an hour and a half. So this isn’t ideal unless you’ve got a particularly gruelling working week to spare, but what if you needed to take a lot of luggage to Oxford, like, say 30 tonnes of coal for example? No, okay, it’s still a terrible idea. Driving still takes under two hours and now days we have big trucks and nice roads. You can see why industry on our inland waterways died out.

2) The weather doesn’t just delay trains 

The south. Click to expand.

Within the instructions on how to use the map, you can learn quite a lot about the unpredictability of the inland waterways. The timings are worked out based on “normal” conditions. Abnormal conditions would include “low pounds, ice, strong flow on rivers, excessive weed growth, or water shortage restrictions requiring waiting at the locks.”

Excessive weed growth is becoming a greater problem in the warm months, while ice restricts movement in the depths of winter. As we all saw earlier this year, trains are just as susceptible to freezing weather but if waterway traffic is to compete on the slow and steady mantra, reliability is crucial.

3) Choose your crew wisely

“An experienced and fit crew of 3 adults” is required, along with a whole host of other things, to travel at the speeds specified by the map.

“Fit” is fairly subjective and considering boating on the canal network is now predominantly an activity for the retired, I’m not sure many crews could still accurately be described in this way. An “experienced” crew member is just as hard to come by – judging by my friends, who will show up eagerly for a day of “beers on the boat”, yet rarely return for a second time after the realities of spending a day struggling to open locks. So unless you’re a 19th century boating family, best treat these times with a pinch of salt.

4) It’s (a lot) bigger than you think

From Wales to the Norfolk Broads. Click to expand.

It’s not something you’re really going to get to grips with from the odd walk along the canal around Kings Cross, so it’s easy to forget just how the UK waterway network is. To travel from Guildford to Lancaster by canal, one of longest direct journeys possible, would take upwards of 160 hours. There are 2000 miles of canals across the country, with a tiny proportion in cities like London.

They are living relics of England’s industrial past and have been preserved for our pleasure. Get out there and get exploring.

All images courtesy of Chris Clegg.

 
 
 
 

The tube that’s not a tube: What exactly is the Northern City line?

State of the art: a train on the Northern City Line platforms at Moorgate. Image: Haydon Etherington

You may never have used it. You may not even know that it’s there. But in zones one and two of the London Underground network, you’ll find an oft-forgotten piece of London’s transport history.

The Northern City line is a six-stop underground route from Moorgate to Finsbury Park. (It’s officially, if confusingly, known as the Moorgate line.) But, unlike other underground lines, it not part of Transport for London’s empire, and is not displayed on a normal tube map. Two of the stations, Essex Road and Drayton Park, aren’t even on the underground network at all.

The line has changed hands countless times since its creation a century ago. It now finds itself hiding in plain sight – an underground line, not part of the Underground. So why exactly is the Northern City line not part of the tube?

The Northern City line, pictured in dotted beige. Source: TfL.

As with many so many such idiosyncrasies, the explanation lies in over a century’s worth of cancellations and schemes gone awry. The story starts in 1904, when the private Great Northern Railways, which built much of what is now the East Coast Main Line, built the line to provide trains coming from the north of London with a terminus in the City. This is why the Northern City line, unlike a normal tube line, has tunnels wide enough to be used by allow mainline trains.

Eventually, though, Great Northern decided that this wasn’t such a bright idea after all. It mothballed plans to connect the Northern City up to the mainline, leaving it to terminate below Finsbury Park, scrapped electrification and sold the line off to Metropolitan Railways – owners of, you guessed it, the Metropolitan line.

Metropolitan Railways had big plans for the Northern City line too: the company wanted to connect it to both Waterloo & City and Circle lines. None of the variants on this plan ever happened. See a theme?

The next proposed extensions, planned in the 1930s once London Underground had become part of the domain of the (public sector) London Passenger Transport Board, was the Northern Heights programme. This would have seen the line would connected up with branch lines across north London, with service extended to High Barnet, Edgware and Alexandra Palace: essentially, as part of the Northern line. The plans, for the main part, were cancelled in the advent of the Second World War.

The Northern Heights plan. The solid green lines happened, the dotted ones did not. Image: Rob Brewer/Wikimedia Commons.

What the war started, the Victoria line soon finished. The London Plan Working Party Report of 1949 proposed a number of new lines and extensions: these included extension of the Northern City Line to Woolwich (Route J) and Crystal Palace (Route K). The only one of the various schemes to happen was Route C, better known today as the Victoria line, agreed in the 1950s and opening in the 1960s. The new construction project cannibalised the Northern City Line’s platforms at Finsbury Park, and from 1964 services from Moorgate terminated one stop south at Drayton Park.

In 1970, the line was briefly renamed the Northern Line (Highbury Branch), but barely a year later plans were made to transfer it to British Rail, allowing it to finally fulfil its original purpose.


Before that could happen, though, the line became the site of a rather more harrowing event. In 1975, the deadliest accident in London Underground history took place at Moorgate: a southbound train failed to stop, instead ploughing into the end of the tunnel. The crash killed 43 people. The authorities responded with a major rehaul of safety procedure; Moorgate station itself now has unique timed stopping mechanisms.

The last tube services served the Northern City Line in October 1975. The following year, it reopened as part of British Rail, receiving trains from a variety of points north of London. Following privatisation, it’s today run by Govia Thameslink as the Great Northern route, served mainly by suburban trains from Hertford and Welwyn Garden City.

Nowadays, despite a central location and a tube-like stopping pattern, the line is only really used for longer-scale commutes: very few people use it like a tube.

Only 811,000 and 792,000 people each year enter and exit Essex Road and Drayton Park stations respectively. These stations would be considered the fifth and sixth least used in the tube network – only just beating Chorleywood in Hertfordshire. In other words, these usage stats look like those for a station in zone seven, not one in Islington.

One reason for this might be a lack of awareness that the line exists at all. The absence from the tube map means very few people in London will have heard of it, let alone ever used it.

Another explanation is rather simple: the quality of service. Despite being part and parcel of the Oyster system, it couldn’t be more different from a regular tube. The last (and only) time I used the line, it ran incredibly slowly, whilst the interior looked much more like a far-flung cross-country train than it does a modern underground carriage.

Waiting for Govia. Image: Haydon Etherington.

But by far the biggest difference from TfL is frequency. The operators agreed that trains would run between four and six times an hour, which in itself is fine. However, this is Govia Thameslink, and in my experience, the line was plagued by cancellations and delays, running only once in the hour I was there.

To resolve this, TfL has mooted taking the line over itself. In 2016, draft proposals were put forward by Patrick McLoughlin, then the transport secretary, and then mayor Boris Johnson, to bring "northern services... currently operating as part of the Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern franchise" into TfL's control by 2021.

But, in a story that should by now be familiar, Chris Grayling scrapped them. At least it’s in keeping with history.