Yet British Waterways fears that their historical importance is being taken for granted. Two centuries ago canal building was a contro-versial and uncertain venture: fortunes were made and lost on them and for more than a century the canals were the commercial arteries of the kingdom.
Now a living history show has been produced which will particularly help schools as an educational resource. From buying shares in the fledgling canal company to an insight into the experience of a boating family giving up their vessel in the 1950s, school children can enjoy two centuries of canal history in less than two hours as they sail by narrowboat.
British Waterways unveiled its first series of living history shows this summer. The shows are presented on canals by a cast of four professional actors and a team of willing volunteers.
In the pilot project three sites were used - the Grand Union canal at Cosgrove, near Milton Keynes, the Kennet and Avon canal at Bradford on Avon, and the Stratford on Avon canal at Wilmcote. Next year the intention is to extend the programme and increase the number of days dedicated for schools.
British Waterways spokeswoman Vanessa Wiggins says it is hoped new audiences would be attracted to canals. "The days are not so much aimed at the enthusiast, but to get across that canals are an important part of our heritage and a valuable legacy of our past."
She says the demand from schools far outstripped the days available. British Waterways has produced an education pack giving details of the history of the canal system and the families who lived on them.
On one of the school days at Wilmcote the local village primary school, celebrating its 150th anniversary, had done a series of canal and local history projects that culminated in the narrow boat trip.
Teacher Rosemary Parker says the party of Year 5 and 6 children had discovered the importance of the canal locally to transport stone from nearby quarries as well as bringing coal from the Black Country. A visit to the Canal Museum at Stoke Bruerne, Northamptonshire, meant the children knew about the lifestyle of canal families and could put the performance they saw into context.
She says: "The day fitted in perfectly with our local study. I think it is much better for the children to experience the history and lifestyles this way, rather than just reading about it in textbooks. Because of the work they have done they could follow what was happening."
From the new canal replacing pack horses, to the competition from railways, through two world wars and the depression the story unfolds in Gongoozling - A Cut Through Time.
"Gongoozling" is taken from the term gongoozler, used to describe an idle or inquisitive person staring for prolonged periods at anything out of the ordinary and in waterway parlance used to describe folk who stand at locks or canal sides fascinated by the passage of boats.
The idea for the play was first mooted in May last year. The performance was written and produced by Lissa Chapman and Jay Venn who had to cope with writing a story that encompasses 200 years of history and can be performed in the cramped environs of a narrowboat with 40 children on board.
Lissa Chapman said: "I came away from British Waterways with maps and booklets about canals and the brief to produce something that would interest children in canals and their history. I came up with the notion of using stretches of the canal as a timeline."
And after buying their certificate in the new canal children head for the narrowboat and begin a journey that incorporates a visit by a Victorian school inspector, the death of a child because the doctor refuses to visit canal families and the canal side wedding ceremony.
"Hopefully, this is a way for people to see how canals evolved. The production difficulty is that each canal is different, with various features to be incorporated into the story. Finding the right stretches of canal wasn't as easy as it might seem," she said.
The production had taken a lot of organising but had been fun, she said, particularly for the actors involved. And there was a bonus for some of the children. "A few of us are going back to be actors in the wedding scene, " said Maria.
Details of Gongoozling: A Cut Through Time can be obtained from British Waterways customer services, Willow Grange, Church Road, Watford WD1 3QA. Tel: 01923 226422