There are more than 2,000 miles of navigable inland waterways in Britain. Life slows to a walking pace when cruising these liquid highways that once thronged with cargo vessels. Relax and enjoy rural views, industrial-era heritage, sunlight reflecting off water and the bird life; or exert yourself with operating locks and swing bridges. This is the sweetest spot to spend British summertime.
In the Avon Ring, a circuit of 109 miles and 131 locks, there are centuries of English history to explore. Moor opposite the Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon, near picturesque mills on the River Avon, visit Tewkesbury, cruise the majestic River Severn to Worcester, then ascend the longest flight of locks in Britain on the Worcester & Birmingham canal.
The only electric narrowboats to hire are on the isolated Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal in Wales. They are quieter and cleaner than diesel, so instead of a put-put accompanying your cruising, you purr along. Due to shallowness, there is a speed limit of 2mph, rather than 4mph on other canals, so you’ll have plenty of time to admire the Brecon Beacons.
From Depot Lock, hike through beech woods, following the Brecon Beacons Way, up to the bracken-covered summit of Tor y Foel to gaze down on the Usk valley and the meandering canal.
This canal is like a living heritage museum. There is a steam railway, a horse-drawn narrowboat and, nearby, the “stream in the sky” that is Telford’s famous aqueduct. Pontcysyllte soars 126ft above the River Dee as it crosses the valley. Spectacular to admire, it’s almost terrifying when you cruise over in a narrowboat.
The canal runs in a steel trough that has no barriers to one side. There is just a short steel lip between boat and a plummet to the valley floor.
If you’re experienced narrowboaters and rise to a challenge, a circular route crossing the Pennines, not once but twice, could be the pinnacle of your achievement. In a journey of 197 locks over 71 miles, the South Pennine Ring follows two of three trans-Pennine canals: the Huddersfield Narrow and the Rochdale.
After an unrelenting ascent, the Huddersfield Narrow stops climbing at an altitude of 645ft, making it the highest canal in Britain. It then burrows into a hillside for three miles, a dark squeeze of a passage that takes two hours – like climbing Everest, then going caving… in a boat. A chaperone from the Canal & River Trust accompanies you on board.
European Waterways’ immaculate 117ft converted Thirties cargo barge, complete with hot tub, underfloor heating and four spacious double cabins, is named Magna Carta. 2015 marked the 800th anniversary since King John’s Grand Charter was sealed at Runnymede, a Thames-side meadow, and cruises on the boat this year focus on this theme. More general itineraries include a golf cruise from London to Runnymede, Henley-on-Thames and Windsor, and a walking cruise that follows a similar itinerary.
The best-preserved 19th-century docks in Britain are in Gloucester. Surrounded by listed warehouses, this inland harbour was once busy with ships carrying timber and corn from around the world. Cargo was transhipped on to the Severn and then the canals.
Cruise from the docks on a four-night River Severn heritage trip aboard the four-star, 22-passenger river cruiser Edward Elgar. Other stops include Worcester Cathedral and the Norman abbey at Tewkesbury.
This is a maze of more than 150 islands and sheltered bays where you may be the only boat moored. At 40 miles long, “Lower” and “Upper” lakes are connected by the winding River Erne, where the medieval walled castle and county town of Enniskillen are set on an island.
It’s almost as if this waterscape has been designed specifically for cruising holidays. Anglers and birders will have a field day. There are ruined monasteries and castles – and pubs with a lively buzz. You can hire a comfortable cruiser – with a wheelhouse in which you’re protected from the Emerald Isle’s erratic weather while you steer. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can cruise on to a canal that links to the Shannon.
This waterway hugs the coast so closely that you can watch waders on the shore of Morecambe Bay. It’s a pretty, quiet canal with the Lake District fells as a backdrop. Begun at the height of canal mania in 1792, this “cut” once climbed into Kendal. Tragically, construction of the M6 in the Sixties chopped the waterway in two and the northernmost section has been abandoned.
The remaining navigation winds along contours of pastureland from Tewitfield, on the border of Cumbria, to Preston in Lancashire for 42 miles of lock-free cruising.
If you want more living space, consider the oxymoron of a widebeam narrowboat on a canal with wide locks. Topsy, 55ft long and 10ft wide, launched in 2014 on the Kennet & Avon waterway in Bath. There’s a record player, wood-burner, side hatches from which to feed the ducks, a full-sized spa bath, and a welcome hamper. The main bedroom opens to views of the canal.
A perfect long weekend would be to pootle to Bradford on Avon, where you must try the boatman’s breakfast at the quirky Lock Inn café.
Credit to the Telegraph for this article.