TWO hundred years ago, canals were the main arteries of Britain for transporting goods.

They were slow but faster than taking heavy objects by cart along muddy tracks. They were quiet and economical to use. Their heyday was early in the 19th century before railways had really got going. But trains soon sounded the death knell for most canal boats.

By 1900, there were few canals left in working order and by the time I first remember them in the Fifties, many were derelict. My stepfather took me on a trip from Brentford on the Thames to the River Lea in Essex on a skiff in the early Fifties. I don’t think we passed another moving boat on that journey.

Although we steered through many miles of London, it was silent enough to seem unreal. We also had to work the locks ourselves, then a novelty but commonplace now.

My real father also liked canals and often made his home by one in an ancient narrow boat called Don. He took it all over the country but the best place was in Paddington Basin, a little-known stretch of water far cheaper to moor in than fashionable Little Venice half a mile away.

My brother Jolyon became interested in canals more recently and helped restore one in Rochdale, Lancashire. The Inland Waterways Association, as the name suggests, campaigns for canals and would like to see a national network as extensive as that in the past. But it also has a stiff task trying to prevent canals of all conditions being removed from the landscape for development.

Sussex is a bit short of canals and there are few if any in the major towns. But there is no shortage of enthusiasts working hard to revive them. By far the most ambitious project is the Wey and Arun Trust‘s attempt to restore London’s lost route to the sea.

It used to be possible to travel by boat from the Channel port of Littlehampton up the River Arun and through a canal to reach the River Wey which flows into the Thames.

This cut off a great chunk of south east England for ships heading towards London from the west.

For almost 50 years, canal lovers have been working on this project. They have restored miles but there is still a dauntingly long way to go.

The enthusiasts want to create a restored canal which will also be a thing of beauty.

They want to get it right even if that means progress is slow. Volunteers, not generally young, spend hours of their spare time undertaking backbreaking work while leaving experts to do the tricky bits.

You can see what the restored canal will look like by sampling a boat trip in the warmer weather. It is an impressive sight.

Over in Chichester there is another canal which links the city with the harbour. Boats can and do use the first part of the canal near Chichester Station but navigation comes to an abrupt halt after that. It is the fervent hope of many city dwellers to see the major blockage removed and much work has already been done but it will be another mighty task.

Over in the far east of the county, there is a short stretch of the Royal Military Canal in Sussex – the rest is in Kent. This is a handsome canal well worth following on foot but a long way for most Sussex folk to go.

Canal travel probably reached its low point after the Second World War. But there has been a steady growth of interest since then. There are about 3,000 miles of navigable canal in this country and another 2,500 which could be restored. Many people take canal boat holidays, enjoying the slow and steady progress around the backs of houses and factories to reach open countryside. This interest has been heightened in recent years by actors Timothy West and Prunella Scales who star in TV programmes about their favourite hobby.

Places such as Camden Lock in London with its jolly alternative shops and the big canal junction at Tring in Hertfordshire attract large numbers of visitors. There are plenty of other attractions including aquaducts and bridges.

Some were built by the great engineers of the day such as Thomas Telford and are well worth visiting.

The Inland Waterways Association is producing a report about how canals could be improved and renovated It is likely to recommend more small schemes rather than major undertakings which may not attract enough cash.

Already it is hard for me to recall just how desolate the Grand Union Canal in London was in the Fifties compared with the vibrant scene today.

It shows what can be done with an urban canal while the improvements in Sussex are good examples of rural canal restoration.