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The best scenic canal routes in the UK

28 January 2021

What better way to discover the UK's stunning landscapes than drifting dreamily down a canal on a charming narrowboat?

canal boat holidays

There are so many canal routes in the UK to choose from, each with its own wonderful waterside delights. Which one will you pick?

There's no doubt that the rolling countryside and picturesque towns of the British Isles are amongst the loveliest sights in the world. After all, even the most adventurous explorer might concede that there's no place quite like home.

But instead of choosing the usual driving or walking day out or holiday, why not consider seeing the sights from aboard a canal boat? Over 2,000 miles of waterways spiderweb the English countryside, begging to be explored. Chugging sedately along these rippling paths offers the freedom of life on the road, with all the comforts of a home-away-from-home. Some companies, such as Oxfordshire Narrowboats and Anglo Welsh, will let you hire a narrowboat for just one day, while others might have a minimum holiday duration.

1. Cheshire Ring

The Cheshire Ring offers something for everyone; it's a magnificent route through bustling towns, sleepy villages and the heart of Manchester (past Old Trafford Stadium) – it's easy to see why this is such a popular choice for canal holidays.

The fact that it's circular means that you could, if you so wished, do the entire 97 mile route without having to turn back on yourself; the canal itself passes through enough diverse scenery to keep you entertained for the whole journey. From the rolling Pennines to the bustling city centre, it doesn't leave a lot of scope for boredom.

Read about it in The Cheshire Ring: In Circular Canal-Side Walks 1: A 100-Mile Walk in and Around the City, available in the Saga Bookshop.

Kennet and Avon Canal 

2. Kennet and Avon Canal

Said to be one of the most stunning of Britain's waterways, the Kennet and Avon canal combines a bit of everything: the Downs, open plains, villages, market towns and the gorgeous city of Bath.

This notoriously lovely selection of waterways spiderwebs the countryside between Bristol and Reading, taking in endlessly charming countryside scenes and running through vibrant cities, picturesque villages and bustling market towns on a tour of the south west of England.

Highlights include the magnificent Georgian architecture of Bath, the undulating hills and farmland of Wiltshire, the floating harbour of Bristol and the Dundas Aqueduct.

It's made up of three historic waterways, the Kennet Navigation, the Avon Navigation and the Kennet & Avon Canal, which were connected over time. By 1810 canal boats could go from Reading in Berkshire to Bath in Somerset, but the 1841 opening of the Great Western Railway that ran from London to Bristol had a negative effect on the profitability of the canals. The canal fell into disrepair in following years, but in the early 1960s Kennet & Avon Canal Trust was formed and over time, has restored the canal to a condition everyone can enjoy.

Read about it in The Kennet and Avon Canal: The full canal walk and 20 day walks, available in the Saga Bookshop.

Cruise some of the world's most beautiful waterways. Find out more here.

Oxford canal 

3. Oxford Canal

Perhaps the most popular canal in the country, the Oxford Canal winds its way past country estates, charming towns and, most importantly, first-class pubs. Starting in (unsurprisingly) historic Oxford, you can wend your way 77 miles north to Coventry - or you can go from Coventry to Oxford, and follow the journey taken by people lugging coal in the 1770s. It's now thought to be one of the prettiest canal routes in the country.

Free from large-scale development, this region offers a unique glimpse into the past with traditional villages and pubs boasting architecture that dates back to the 18th century. We love the postcard perfect village of Thrupp where you can indulge in a leisurely lunch or sample a selection of real ales at the waterside pub.

4. Forth and Clyde and Union Canals

Cross all the way from Glasgow in the west to Edinburgh in the east, passing over three fabulous aqueducts and the spectacular Falkirk Wheel on your way.

Norfolk broads 

5. The Norfolk Broads

This stunning part of Britain is renowned for being the country's largest protected wetland, enticing over seven million visitors to its banks every year. Nature lovers come to marvel at the abundance of wildlife such as otters, voles, butterflies and deer, as well as the rare and beautiful plants of the region.

The idyllic waterways offer glorious scenery with quaint villages and market towns to visit en route, plus a handy collection of convenient moorings means you can dine at a waterside pub should it take your fancy or stretch your legs with a country walk or bike ride.

Enjoy cycling? Try one of these disused railway line cycle routes.

6. River Wey

This tranquil waterway runs through the heart of Surrey, beginning as two branches and joining at Tilford, between Guildford and Farnham. It then heads north to meet the Thames while still in Surrey.

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct on the Llangollen Canal 

7. The Llangollen Canal

The Llangollen Canal on the border between North Wales and England is 41 miles of gorgeous scenery, including plenty to see and do along the way, including charming Welsh villages, steam trains and the Horseshoe Falls. You can even glide over the River Dee on the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, an 126 ft high 'stream in the sky' that's a Grade 1 listed structure and a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Canal holidays and trips: need to know

There are a few essential considerations to be aware of when taking a canal boat holiday. We've compiled this helpful guide to ensure you feel confident when taking charge of your floating abode...

What's the difference between a barge and a narrowboat?

Narrowboats are smaller than barges, with narrowboats usually having a width of up to 7ft compared to a barge (or 'widebeam'), which can be around 14ft. Barges are primarily used for transporting cargo, and their size can depend on the canal they were built for. The phrase 'canal boat' is generally used to refer to both kinds, but canal holidays and day trips will be on narrowboats.

Do you need a license to drive a canal boat?

First time boaters need not fear, anyone over the age of 21 can hire a canal boat – no licence or official training required. Your hire firm will provide basic training and written instructions before letting you loose on the waterways, but the principles of steering and controlling are usually quite easy to pick up.

It's important to be aware that the boat will respond slowly compared to a car – plan your moves ahead, exercise caution and stick to the canal speed limit of 4mph and you should be fine.

Can I hire a narrowboat for just one day?

Yes, some companies, such as Oxfordshire Narrowboats, ABC Day Boat Hire and Anglo Welsh, will let you hire a narrowboat for just one day, while others might have a minimum holiday duration.

Boats hired for a single day might not have the same facilities, such as refrigerators.

Where are the narrowboat moorings?

We predict you will spot plenty of idyllic spots to stop and explore. Fortunately, many narrowboat moorings are situated beside popular pubs, eateries, villages and towns, so you will be spoiled for choice.

Some sites may charge a small fee but any Environment Agency mooring or canal towpath is free – your boat hire company will provide you with the essential details.

How do canal locks work?

Dealing with locks might seem intimidating if you have never had to tackle them before. However, we believe it is all part of the experience!

Although some of the larger locks might have an attending lock-keeper to help you, most of the time you will be responsible for letting yourself through.

When you approach a lock:

1. Carefully steer your canal boat into the lock, shutting the gates behind you with the wooden beams.

2. Next, use the winding handle that comes with your boat to open the paddle doors in the opposite gates in order to adjust the water level as required.

3. Finally, open the gates to allow your boat to pass through and lock everything back up behind you.

How much water, electricity and fuel will my canal boat have?

A typical hire boat comes with a full tank of water and a full tank of fuel. Modern canal boats have hot and cold water on tap in both the kitchen and the shower; however, should you run low for any reason, you can top up at a public mooring.

With some companies you can top up at any boatyard belonging to them as well as take advantage of free mooring.

Not all boats can handle the voltage of your own personal electrical appliances but come with their own devices on board. There are usually sockets for shavers and any item that can be charged with a car adaptor – don't forget to bring any plugs and leads you might need.

Can you take a dog on a narrbowboat holiday?

Yes, there are plenty of narrowboat holiday companies that allow pets, such as Shire Cruisers, so check with individual firms when deciding on where to book. They should also have some safety tips for keeping your dog safe on a narrowboat holiday or trip. There may also be a small additional charge.

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