The ambitious and daring engineering project to link Sweden’s waterways coast-to-coast was finally realised in 1832.
Baron Baltzar von Platen, an industrialist and visionary, worked with our own master engineer Thomas Telford to design and construct the nearly 200kms long canal.
Requiring 58 locks and 50 bridges the canal passes through five lakes on its way from the Baltic Sea in the East to Lake Vänern in Western Sweden. From Lake Vanern the waterways are navigable to the North Sea.
The canal was an epic and gruelling undertaking. It was dug out by the hands of 58,000 conscripted Swedish soldiers and one single company of deserters from the Russian Army. Specialist tools and experienced foreman were brought from England on the advice of Telford. A small repair shop was opened by von Platen in the lakeside village of Motala in 1822.
With just 22 workers the Motala Verkstad grew to become one of the country’s most important industrial centres and is now called the cradle of Swedish industry.
Such was the scale of the project that it inevitably overran on time and budget. Construction was expected to take 10 years at a cost of 1.5million riksdaler.
Ultimately it took 22 years to build at a final cost of 9million riksdaler. (This equals roughly 15.3billion SEK or £1.2billion.) A strong argument for building the canal had been the need for free passage through the country for merchant and warships, rather than the historical agreement to pay Denmark a duty for passing through the Oresund.
It must have been worth it.
Unlike industrial canals at home, the Göta Canal had a long life as a busy waterway working with (rather than being made redundant by) the railways.
Sweden’s road network was not capable of supporting the movement of heavy freight by vehicles until the 1940s and the canal was in operation until then. Today it is one of Sweden’s most popular attractions and its route is lined with affluent and content towns and villages, supported largely by tourism.
We enjoyed three days exploring the length of the canal. Despite now being the ‘winter season’ there were plenty of places to camp and we moseyed our way along the banks in Bertha, and on our bikes.
At its lowest point in the east the canal is at sea level at Mem and travels west to reach 92meters at point at Forsvik, west of Lake Vättern before dropping back down to 43 meters at Lake Vänern.
We cycled a 55kms round route from Norsholm to Söderköping but didn’t see a single boat. No matter, there was plenty to enjoy along the route.
The bright yellow and pretty cottages of the lock-keepers, painted summer houses with orchards in full fruit, large harvested fields peppered with red-painted barns, and cooling cows and horses dipping into the waters where the shallowest banks allowed.
We waited around a lock at Hulta, hoping to see a boat pass through and into the Lake Asplången from where they would navigate across to re-enter the canal at Klammon. None was forthcoming, so we headed up and into the forest above the lake. It was surprisingly punishing as the cycle path became a steep bank of loose grit and gravel.
We passed small communities of wooden houses hidden in the trees but identified by their path side mailboxes. Eventually we dropped, with some relief, back onto the canal at a series of six lochs before the pretty town of Söderköping.
Eschewing the forest way back we found a novel route across a large golf course waving at baffled players and being apologised to for getting in their way of play. The main road west was quiet, but a punishing headwind made pedalling at pace along it hard work.
When we finally arrived back at our pitch at Captain Billies we had a tale to tell over a bottle of local beer. How they laughed at us cycling past the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth holes, and for receiving apologies! ‘It is not at all usual!’ we were told.
At Berg the impressive sequence of seven locks was again empty of boats but now we knew why. Along the canal the lock-keepers ask that boats pass through in groups of three, to minimise their workload.
This can mean that one or two boats must stay moored up until the required third arrives. Now it was the ‘winter season’, the likelihood of any hired boats diminished with every passing day and consequently the locks were quiet.
We got to drive Bertha across the lock at Borenschult which takes the canal into the blue waters of Lake Boren. From there we followed the course of the canal into Lake Vättern at Motala.
Here, finally we got to see a lock in action. Late on a Sunday afternoon the claxon sounded, and people rushed to the banks of the sluice gate to watch it open to admit… three boats (the ones you see below).
As soon as the gate on the lakeside closed the gate on the canal side opened which caused the lone sailor in the third boat to panic and nearly ram into the second boat ahead of him.
Order restored they sailed onward, grumbling, and we realised that this was not a lock after all. Ah well.
Motala didn’t hold much more of our attention, being largely industrial but with a pretty aspect on the water.
From Lake Vättern the canal continues west for its final section (or first depending on your direction of travel) to Lake Vänern. We wished it farewell, having an appointment to keep with a stone…