Cast-iron classics: six great walks along Britain’s industrial waterways | Travel

With a back catalogue stretching deep into the past, Britain has a wealth of riveting walks (sometimes literally) through its industrial and engineering past. We’ve put together a selection, but look around for others: transporter bridges (Newport and Middlesbrough) and disused railway viaducts (lots). And don’t miss spectacular new constructions, such as the Rolling Bridge in London’s Paddington Basin.

Barmouth Bridge Mawddach estuary, Gwynedd

Wales’s longest timber viaduct culminates in a rivet-strewn swing bridge. Photograph: Alamy

Halfway across the estuary I stop and admire the panorama: the glittering waters of the Mawddach are spangled with seabirds, and behind them rise the ridges that lead to the peak of Cadair Idris. It is magnificent, but the bridge I am standing on is also impressive: Wales’s longest timber viaduct, 699 metres of wooden structure culminating in a great, rusty rivet-strewn swing bridge. It was opened in 1867 and is, I reckon, something of an engineering marvel, if only because it has survived attacks by some of the most pernicious creatures imaginable: marine worms and cost-cutting politicians.

The walk to Barmouth Bridge is a gem. Hop off the train at Fairbourne, a village with the dubious honour of being Britain’s first settlement to be officially abandoned to rising sea levels. Not that the locals have gone yet. Walk north along the seafront until you see a footpath heading inland along the south bank of the estuary. If you’re a birder, get ready with binoculars. After a mile you rejoin the railway by Morfa Mawddach station (an alternative hopping off point if you want to shorten the walk) – the path now runs alongside the line, across the viaduct and swing bridge, into Barmouth.

The town has seen better days– it was once a prosperous resort – but there are several interesting buildings. A ferry back across the estuary (summer only, if it runs this year) drops you on a narrow sand spit that leads back to Fairbourne. Real engineering enthusiasts, however, would want to wait for the steam train (currently suspended): the narrow-gauge track cuts a mile off the walk.

Start Fairbourne station
Map OS Explorer OL23
Distance Full route is about six miles (post-lockdown, it can be cut to 2½ miles by using Morfa Mawddach station and the steam train).

Birmingham’s canals

Colourful graffiti painted on brick walls beside the Digbeth Branch Canal towpath in Digbeth, Birmingham, UK

The Digbeth branch of the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal. Photograph: Nick Maslen/Alamy

Many British cities boast extensive canal networks, but none makes for a finer day’s walking than those in Birmingham. In the past, any charm the city had was well hidden behind post-industrial decay and ill-conceived concrete brutalism, but those days are gone. Even New Street station, once a dimly lit concrete cavern, has been renovated and reborn, with a light and airy concourse under a vast, sinuous chromed facade. Head east, past the similarly rejuvenated Bullring shopping centre, then down through lanes and alleyways to Digbeth, admiring several huge pieces of street art. The walk proper starts where Fazeley Street crosses the canal by what was once the Typhoo tea wharf, on the Digbeth branch of the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, opened in 1789.

Take the towpath east, crossing a beautifully curvaceous brick bridge where the Grand Union Canal branches off. If you dropped a skiff in the water here and paddled south-east, you could end up at Paddington Basin in London. Further along is the listed Curzon Street Tunnel, and six locks and some elegant cast-iron bridges from the days of Thomas Telford– proof, if any were needed, that Brummie canal architecture is a superb blend of artistry and practicality.

The Digbeth branch meets the main Birmingham and Fazeley Canal at Aston Locks, where you should turn west. Watch out for all the self-seeded plants: silk tassel bushes and mahonia trees among the reeds and buddleias. Not that the towpath is overgrown: it’s well maintained and used.

Further west the canal almost seems to burrow through the city: modern buildings striding overhead while the waterway ploughs gamely onward into Farmers Bridge locks and Gas Street basin. Cross the water and head south on the Gas Street spur, one of the oldest parts of the 18th-century network, until you reach the Salvage Turn Bridge, from where you head back to New Street.

Start Birmingham New Street station
Map The Canal and Rivers Trust produces one. There’s an info point at Farmers Bridge locks
Distance About Three miles

Newcastle’s seven bridges

Tyne Bridge at night, with the Millennium Bridge and Sage in background.

Tyne Bridge at night, with the Millennium Bridge and Sage in background. Photograph: Alamy

As you come into Newcastle Central station from the south, there is a wonderful moment when all the buildings and city seem to fall back and you soar far above the Tyne, with superb views on both sides of all its seven bridges. This will be the scene for our walk.

Turn right out of the station and head down Westgate Road to St Nicholas Street, passing under the imposing medieval gate opposite (the Black Gate was originally 13th century but has been remodelled several times). Then find Dog Leap Stairs, a fine flight of steps that takes you down to The Side and onto the Quayside .

Once by the river, turn left towards the Millennium Bridge, an innovative rotating span that allows ships to pass, and the most modern of the four bridges we’ll cross. Once on the Gateshead side, turn back right until you reach the Swing Bridge, which opened in 1876. It was built on the site of the first ever Tyne bridge, constructed by the Emperor Hadrian’s forces in around AD120. The swing is still powered by a hydraulic accumulator 18 metres below the bridge. Walk across and climb up the Castle Stairs. These hidden flights of steps are one of the joys of this walk: this one emerges conveniently near the entrance to the High Level Bridge. Opened in 1849 by Queen Victoria, it combines road, rail and footpath crossings to a design by Robert Stephenson – son of George, designer of the Rocket steam engine. Head over, admiring the sturdy 5,000 tons of iron used in its construction.

On the south bank once again, follow Wellington Street then Half Moon Lane to arrive at the start of the Tyne Bridge – our final crossing, and the most iconic of the city’s bridges. This huge, powerful structure, built from iron and granite, rises high above the quayside in a 55-metre tall parabolic arch, a wonderful climax to a memorable city walk. From the north ramp it is a short return to Central station.

Start Newcastle Central station
Distance 7½ miles

Tunnel under the Thames, London

The domed entrance to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, next to the Cutty Sark , with Canary Wharf in the background.

The domed entrance to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel next to the Cutty Sark, with Canary Wharf in the background. Photograph: Ben Stansall/Getty Images

The engineering of sub-fluvial tunnels actually began on the River Thames, with a failed attempt to connect Tilbury to Gravesend in 1799, then success with Brunel’s Thames Tunnel (now part of the East London railway line). This walk must be one of the few urban hikes that boasts two underwater crossings.

Start at Gallions Reach station on the DLR line, making your way on to the Thames Path and walking under the flight path for London City airport as you cross the old lock gates for the Royal Albert and King George V docks. This will bring you out into Royal Victoria Gardens and then up to the entrance to the first tunnel.

Designed by Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice, the Woolwich tunnel is longer and deeper than its counterpart at Greenwich (which we will come to later), at 504 metres long and 21 metres deep. It opened in 1912, complete with electric lifts, a technological advance at the time – matched, perhaps, by the recent addition of phone signal boosters that mean you can make a call from under the river. You emerge, rather anti-climactically, behind the Waterfront leisure centre. Otherwise take the riverside path upstream, passing the Thames Barrier. This was certainly seen as an engineering marvel when it was completed in 1982, although there were questions over whether it would ever be needed. It has since been used almost 200 times to prevent tidal surges flooding the City of London, which makes it a success, apparently.

The footpath heads onward, passing the Greenwich Peninsula Ecology Park, with its bird hides and wildlife. It’s easy to forget that the Thames is a major bird migration pathway, with rarities like ospreys spotted occasionally. Continue into Greenwich, where the second tunnel entrance is near the Cutty Sark. It emerges on the north bank near Island Gardens station. Still full of energy? Forget the lift and taken the 100 steps down into the tunnel and 87 up, with 370 metres of cast-iron tube in between.

Start Gallions Reach station on the DLR
Distance Six miles (in normal times there are lots of opportunities to shorten this with public transport)

A spin around the Falkirk Wheel (with added Kelpies)

The Falkirk Wheel connecting the Union and Forth and Clyde canals.

The Falkirk Wheel connecting the Union and Forth and Clyde canals. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Scotland is full of great canal engineering from ages past. An old favourite is the Crinan Canal; the Caledonian also makes a great multi-day walk or bike ride. And yet the pièce de résistance must be this modern structure. Opened in 2002, the Falkirk Wheel is an astounding achievement: two 500-tonne-capacity gondolas that gently lift and lower boats between the Union and the Forth and Clyde canals, saving them 11 locks’ worth of effort and using no more power than that required to boil a kettle – a comparison made all the better when you learn that the lead architect was Tony Kettle. He reputedly began the design process by building a model with his eight-year-old daughter’s Lego.

The Wheel certainly ticks all the boxes: ingenious, elegant and impressive. Arriving at Falkirk High station, drop down to the Union canal towpath and head west, eventually reaching a long tunnel (open in daylight hours) that emerges at a park with a great view of the wheel set against the distant Ochil hills.

Return to Falkirk along the Forth and Clyde towpath. If you’re in the mood for more, keep going: you will eventually reach the 30metre-tall Kelpies, a pair of horse heads sculpted by Andy Scott in 2013. From here, head back to Falkirk’s Grahamston station.

Start Falkirk High station
Map OS Explorer 349
Distance Falkirk High station to the Wheel, then the Kelpies, and back to Grahamston station is 11 miles

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Vale of Llangollen

Crossing the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct carrying the Llangollen canal 126 feet above the River Dee,

The longest aqueduct in Britain and the highest navigable aqueduct in the world. Photograph: Don McPhee/The Guardian

Canal aqueducts must be a favourite engineering marvel, and the presence, necessarily, of a towpath means walking over them is almost always possible. There are around 40 to choose from in Britain. What about Smethwick’s Engine Arm, Lancaster’s Lune Aqueduct, and the Stanley Ferry near Wakefield? But my choice is Pontcysyllte, for the simple reason that you get two great aqueducts, a bonus tunnel, and – for non-Welsh speakers – lots of opportunities to ask locals how to pronounce the name.

Starting from Chirk, head down Station Avenue and make your way on to the canal for a quick foray south to see the Chirk aqueduct, a 220 metre-long Thomas Telford masterpiece that uses a cast-iron trough, a technical achievement Telford had helped to pioneer. It was completed in 1801, carrying the Llangollen Canal 21 metres above the River Ceiriog and, incidentally, across the Welsh-English border.

Retrace your steps and almost immediately you plunge into the Chirk Tunnel, which requires a torch, being over 400 metres long. The canal then passes through a lovely rural landscape before crossing the River Dee via the Pontcysyllte aqueduct, the longest aqueduct in Britain (307 metres) and the highest navigable aqueduct in the world, at 38 metres.

From here, the shortest route to Ruabon station is to follow the road, but a longer loop via the River Dee is possible. Alternatively, continue along the canal to Llangollen and Horseshoe Falls, which supplies the water for the canal.

Start Chirk, Ruabon or Llangollen
Map OS Explorer 256
Distance Chirk-Ruabon 6 miles, Chirk-Llangollen is 7½ miles

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