Now such traces of history in motion have been captured on camera, not in pastoral shades or picture postcard impressions, but in the vibrant detail of a living, useful space.
Photographer Andrew Fitzgibbon walking the 127 miles of the Leeds Liverpool canal, has created a short film of the waterways in their complex, everyday condition.
What it has generated is the sharing of memories, for those that once lived along its route, with ambitions of an exhibition to celebrate this "warts and all" character of the canal.
"There are lots of stories here, and lots of wear and tear," said Mr Fitzgibbon of Cowling, near Skipton, who has created the film narrated by The Full Monty's Paul Butterworth.
"There is something about taking a different look at what's along the canal. There is all this rich history, and all these signs of life. It paints a tapestry of life, all along the route."
The Leeds Liverpool Canal, the longest in Britain built as a single waterway, was founded as Northern trade flourished in the mid 18th century as a way to transport goods.
In its heyday, the canal was a busy waterway fuelling industrial revolution, with its most important cargo being coal. Built by navvies over 46 years, it was completed in 1816.
"It took decades to construct, with picks and shovels, by men and boys," said Mr Fitzgibbon. "By the time they had finished, steam engines had come along and taken away some of the trade.
"The canals, and steam, spurred a growth of cities all along the canal. There's a poignancy to be found in that post-industrial decline, in such contrast to what we see in cities such as Leeds.
"I wanted to show the stories, and the characters, and the passing of time. It's a complex picture, almost an expression of Northern grit. The motivation was to tell a different story."
The film, called Drifting by the Leeds & Liverpool, quotes poets Ian McMillan and Ted Hughes, and features recorded snippets of history from canal workers in the 1960s.
Mr Fitzgibbon, taking in scenes along the Bingley five rise locks, the World Heritage setting of Saltaire and the waterways of Skipton, had set out initially to capture the canal's essence in personal portraits. He soon discovered he was more interested in its everyday quirks.
These he found in rusty bicycles, in barge boats and a ruined mill, or signs along the Lancashire border proclaiming one man's 'Yorkshire-ness' and an affinity with his neighbours.
One scene he found particularly striking was of a makeshift garden office, made from scraps of wood and an old PVC door.
"To me that shows something about the resilience of people," he reflected. "Making the most of the space and what's around them. It's just wonderful.
"This was all about taking more notice of the everyday," he added. "We often focus on the special, but now are making the most of what's on our doorsteps.
"It's about looking at the traces of activity, the neglected scenes. It almost paints a picture, and there is still a lot of life along the canal."