But the fast-paced modern world is beginning to find the slow ways of older times useful again.
Thousands of people discovered the canals as a tranquil holiday, which naturally led an increasing number to an alternate lifestyle.
Gordon Clements and his wife Theresa live on a barge and have called canals home for twelve years.
Clements says: "It just gets you out of the rat race. I was 20 years with Roll Royce, had my own business, hustle, bustle. Now I can hustle bustle as much as want, but not more than I want."
A major retail chain is experimenting with using barges to carry its waste paper for recycling.
Bales, loaded the old way, take three days to reach their destination.
Studies indicate that barges could replace up to 45,000 truck trips, relatively small but welcome relief for Britain's chronically overcrowded highways.
And there are ambitious plans to rejuvenate derelict canals and dig new ones.
David Blagrove -- a bargeman for fifty years -- wonders what took the experts so long.
He says: "It's good for the environment. You can hear that little engine of mine tapping away behind me, that is a small diesel engine that is perfectly capable of shifting over fifty tonnes."
There are forty miles of canals in London alone. The gentry objected to the construction of some of them, fearing the coarse language and rough clothes of the boatmen would offend their sensibilities.
But even snobbish gentry would approve of today's trade.
Barges even slow down as they pass fishermen.
Forget road rage, on the waterways of England there is "canal calm."