Part of U.K.’s national heritage, without which the industrial revolution would never have been so successful, is the canal system. Used as the conduit to transport goods around the country, canals fell into disuse when the railway system came along and roads were immeasurably improved. In fact there is evidence that some railway companies actually bought canals and deliberately let them fall into disrepair in order to eliminate competition. By the end of the First World War they had become little more than a depository for unwanted household items and recipients of the overindulged drinker wending his way home.
Restoration History of British Canals
From the late 1940s restoration work by British Waterways, local authorities and volunteer groups has taken place which resulted in today’s network of holiday friendly waterways. From north-east Scotland to south-west England and stretching fingers into Wales, the web of canals criss-crosses some of Britain’s most stunning countryside and snakes through industrial heartlands of yesteryear.
In the last twenty years British Waterways alone has opened a further 230 miles of canals, bringing the total of British Waterway navigable canals to around two thousand miles. Long term powered pleasure boats on British Waterways facilities have increased from around nineteen thousand to thirty thousand in the same twenty years.
Narrowboat Hire on Britain’s Canals
Hiring possibilities start with a 2 to 4 berth 30 plus foot craft for those whose children have flown the coop and can be flexible enough to go out of the school holiday season. Budget around £450 p.w. low season to £750 p.w. in August. At the other end of the scale is a 12 berth 65 footer which can accommodate three generations in comfort for a family reunion holiday. Budget £1000 to £1500 p.w. low and high season respectively. The permutations seem limitless. Whichever option you choose, don’t miss the opportunity to sample the good wholesome British pub food at canal side hostelries.
Although the hire costs may at first seem high, one has to bear in mind that it works out quite economically on a per head basis and remember, this is accommodation as well as transport.
Explore Northern England, Through the Midlands and on to London Using The English Canal System
Take in a little history. For example, the 5029 metre long Standedge tunnel near Marsden on the Huddersfield narrow canal is the longest in the U.K. canal system and, at 196 metres above sea level, also the highest. Designed by Thomas Telford the tunnel took 17 years to complete and opened in 1811. After years of neglect and decline it was restored and finally reopened in 2001. The canal system is full of interesting facts to research if you are that way inclined.
The north of England offers cruising through the Yorkshire Dales, across the Pennines and into the heart of some of England’s oldest towns and cities. Away from the towns, peace and tranquillity reign. One can almost hear the steady plod of the patient horses which pulled the barges all those years ago and there is nothing quite like eating lunch while swans glide silently past. For the ‘high flyers’ try the viaducts that march across the English – Welsh border. If all roads lead to Rome, then surely, in Britain at least, all canals lead to Birmingham as this was the hub around which the canal system was built. From here one can cruise right into the heart of London and the river Thames via the Regents canal which passes London Zoo.
Scottish, English and Welsh Canals Look to the Future
Long neglected, now restored – U.K. canals will continue to give pleasure for years to those seeking leisure on the water. Restorations continue and enthusiasm for the waterways grows each year.
Canal Ring Routes on England’s Canals
The Cheshire Ring, Four Counties Ring, Warwickshire Ring and Worcester Ring are four of the best canal rings (circular routes) for a canal holiday on England’s canals:
Cheshire Canal Ring (99 miles)
- Preston Brook
A leisurely week’s route through some superb countryside. The ridges of the Peak District between Marple and Whaley Bridge are particularly scenic. Less attractive but interesting is the 12-mile stretch though the suburbs and inner-city areas of Manchester.
Locks: 92. The flight of 18 through Manchester is less appealing than the 16 at Marple where the canal climbs 214 feet through woodland from a spectacular aqueduct.
Tunnels: Five, including the 1239-yard Preston Brook and shorter Barnton and Saltersford ones nearby, all single traffic.
Place to visit: The massive iron framework of the Anderton Boat Lift, built in 1875 to link the canal with the River Weaver 50 feet below, is one of the wonders of the waterways. A visitor centre explains its history and workings.
Four Counties Canal Ring (111 miles)
- Great Haywood
- Autherley Junction
- Market Drayton
Most of this rural route is through open countryside, mainly farmland and sleepy villages, though there is a 12-mile industrial stretch through the Potteries at Stoke-on-Trent. It is very popular so delays can occur at locks at peak times and also at the 2926-yard Harecastle Tunnel.
Locks: 93, including a relentless succession of 25, nicknamed Heartbreak Hill, spread over six miles across abandoned salt workings between Sandbach and Kidsgrove. There is also a pretty flight of 15 at Audlem.
Tunnels: Two, including the exciting straight Harecastle just north of Stoke-on-Trent. Built in 1824-7 by Thomas Telford, it is too narrow for boats to pass so a one-way system operates.
Places to visit: The Shroppie Fly at Audlem serves real ale from a bar shaped like a narrowboat. At Nantwich, the half-timbered market town’s centre is well worth the 15-minute walk down from the embankment towpath.
Warwickshire Canal Ring (102 miles)
- Kingswood Junction
- Kings Norton Junction
- Napton Junction
Apart from a fascinating 12-mile stretch across the centre of Birmingham where restoration has revitalised the canal’s banks, this is a predominantly rural route. Often vying with railway lines and motorways, it takes in the best of the gentle Warwickshire countryside.
Locks: 120, including several long challenging flights like Farmer’s Bridge where 13 locks descend steeply through the centre of Birmingham. Near Lapworth, the Hatton flight of 21 locks is reputed to be the toughest (though not the longest) in Britain; it drops the canal nearly 150 feet in two miles and has hefty double gates.
Tunnels: Four, all relatively short. The longest is the 433-yard Shrewley tunnel near Kingswood.
Places to Visit: Moor in Birmingham near the National Indoor Arena at Cambrian Wharf or at the lively Gas Street Basin near Broad Street, the centre of the city’s nightlife. At the peaceful villages of Braunston and Napton-on-the-Hill, walk uphill to their churches for splendid views.
Worcester Canal Ring (83 miles)
Its considerable variety makes this one of the most interesting routes, especially as it includes 12 miles on the River Severn. The scenery includes splendid views towards Wales from the rolling Worcestershire hills. The Wolverhampton-Birmingham section is rather depressing because of the industrial decline around the canal but is certainly of historic interest.
Locks: 118, including 30 within two miles at Tardebigge.
Tunnels: Four, including the 2726-yard Wast Hill at Kings Norton.
Places to visit: Birmingham, including the shops, restaurants and bars around Gas Street Basin, and the cathedral at Worcester.
Whichever English Canal Ring You Choose
Whichever ring a narrowboat and its crew decide to try, everyone on board is sure to have an invigorating but relaxing holiday with plenty of fresh air and varied scenery all the way.