Top 10 canal boat holidays for 2016

With boats travelling at a maximum speed of 4mph and over 3,000 miles of navigable peaceful inland waterways to explore across Britain, canal boat holidays really are the fastest way to slow down.

From rural retreats to vibrant city centres, narrowboat holiday-makers can use their boat as a floating holiday home and base to explore.

Here are our top 10 holidays for 2016:

1. Celebrate the Leeds & Liverpool Canal’s Bicentenary…in 2016 it will be 200 years since the magnificent Leeds & Liverpool Canal was completed. Linking the cities of Liverpool and Leeds, at 127 miles long the Leeds & Liverpool Canal is the longest canal in Britain built as a single waterway. Leaving Liverpool, the canal passes through East Lancashire then crosses the Pennine countryside and picturesque villages on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, before reaching Leeds. Along the way, boaters pass Sir Titus Salt’s World Heritage Status model town at Saltaire and the spectacular Bingley 5-Rise locks, one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways. Canal boat holiday-makers can take a one-way trip across the Pennines starting at our base at Sowerby Bridge and ending at Barnoldswick. The week-long journey travels 79 miles, through 79 locks and takes about 45 hours.

2. Navigate the Cheshire Ring…starting from the Drifters’ base at Anderton, this superb cruising ring, which in 2016 celebrates 40 years since its restoration, travels 97 miles, through 92 locks and takes around 55 hours to cruise. The journey takes boaters through the heart of Manchester and the Peak District via the Ashton, Macclesfield, Peak Forest, Rochdale, Trent & Mersey and Bridgewater canals. Highlights include: the spectacular vertical Anderton Boat Lift, also known as ‘The Cathedral of the Canals’; Preston Brook Tunnel; Dunham Massey Hall and its working Elizabethan Mill alongside the Bridgewater Canal; Castlefield Basin; Manchester’s China Town; the Rochdale 9 locks; Buxworth Basin, Whaley Bridge and the glorious Top Lock at Marple; and the Cheshire Plain and its heavily locked ‘Heartbreak Hill’.

3. Cruise through Shakespeare country…in 2016 it will be 400 years since the death of the Bard. Mark this anniversary with a cruise through Shakespeare country, starting with a picturesque six-hour journey to Stratford upon Avon from Drifters’ base at Wootton Wawen, near Henley in Arden in Warwickshire – perfect for a short break. Boaters can stop off along the way to visit Mary Arden’s Tudor Farm in the canalside village of Wilmcote where Shakespeare’s mother grew up, and once in Stratford, moor up in Bancroft Basin, just a stone’s throw from the Swan Theatre and the town’s shops, restaurants and museums.

4. Explore the River Thames & visit Oxford afloat…Drifters’ Oxford base is a tranquil three-hour cruise along the River Thames from the City centre, where canal boat holiday-makers can moor-up close to Hythe Bridge and use their boat as a base to the explore ‘the city of dreaming spires’. New for 2016, the luxurious 12-berth ‘Andromede’ has extra room to relax outside and more space to chill out inside, plus Wifi and a large TV – perfect for extended family holidays or a city break afloat for groups of girls or boys.

5. Travel Brindley’s Trent & Mersey…2016 will mark the 300th anniversary since birth of James Brindley, one of the most notable engineers of the 18th century. Brindley worked on the construction of a number of canals, including the Trent & Mersey Canal, the country’s first long distance canal stretching 94 miles from the River Trent at Derwent Mouth in Derbyshire to the River Mersey via the Bridgewater Canal at Preston Brook in Cheshire. Canal boat holiday-makers can celebrate Brindley’s birth with a journey on the Trent & Mersey, starting at our base at Acton Bridge in Cheshire. On a short break, boaters can head south to Middlewich, travelling through glorious Cheshire countryside or on a week’s break continue on to the medieval City of Chester, one of the best preserved walled cities in Britain.

6. See the largest pair of equine statues on the planet…at 30-metres high, the magnificent Kelpies stand at the gateway to the Forth & Clyde Canal in Glasgow. Based on the heavy horses that one plied the canal towpaths, these mythical water horses are an extraordinary site and form part of a new 350-hectare park at the end of the Forth & Clyde Canal near Grangemouth. From Drifters’ base at Falkirk, narrowboat holiday-makers can reach the Kelpies on a short break, and also enjoy a turn through the iconic Falkirk Wheel, the world’s first and only rotating boat lift.

7. Float across ‘The Stream in the Sky’ and visit the Eisteddfod…the Llangollen Canal’s incredible World Heritage Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in North Wales stands at over 38 metres high above the Dee Valley. It consists of a cast iron trough supported on iron arched ribs, carried on 19 hollow pillars. Each span is 16-metres wide. With not even a hand rail on the south side of the aqueduct to obscure the stunning views of the valley below, canal boaters literally feel like they are floating above the earth. From Drifters’ base at Chirk, canal boat holiday-makers can travel across the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and on to the pretty town of Llangollen to visit the famous Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod 5-10 July 2016, where each year around 4,000 performers and 50,000 visitors converge to sing and dance.

8. Float along to the Roman Baths in Bath…on a short break from Drifters’ base at Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire, boaters can travel along the beautiful Kennet & Avon Canal and reach the centre of the World Heritage City of Bath in seven hours, with just seven locks to negotiate along the way. As well as stunning Georgian architecture, great shopping, museums and restaurants, Bath is home to the award winning Roman Baths, site of one of the best preserved Roman remains in the world and the perfect place to find out exactly what the Romans did for us.

9. Head to the historic heart of the canal network…from our canal boat hire base at Stretton under Fosse, on a short break boaters can cruise along the North Oxford Canal through delightful Northamptonshire countryside to historic Braunston. This pretty village on a hill, which lies at junction of the Grand Union and Oxford canals, thrived for over 150 years as an important stop-off point for canal traders carrying goods from the Midlands to London. Today Braunston is a popular place to visit with a good choice of canalside pubs and the UK’s largest annual historic narrowboat rally, 24-25 June 2016.

10. Glide through the Breacon Beacons…isolated from the main canal network, the beautiful Monmouth & Brecon Canal runs through the Brecon Beacons National Park. Stretching 35 miles from Brecon to Cwmbran, this peaceful waterway, with very few locks, offers canal boat holiday-makers incredible mountain views. From Drifters’ base Goytre Wharf, near Abergavenny, on a week’s break, boaters can cruise to Brecon and back, passing through Georgian Crickhowell, with its fascinating 13th century castle, and Talybont-on-Usk with walks to the waterfalls at Blaen y Glyn. Brecon itself is home to a cathedral, theatre, cinema, castle ruins and stunning Georgian architecture, as well as some of the best views of the Brecon Beacons from Pen y Fan, the highest point in Southern Britain at 886m.

Discovering a more tranquil way of life

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Cheryl Roberts recently wrote about her Drifters holiday on the Llangollen Canal in Club Life Magazine – finding life on the water relaxing, surprisingly luxurious and a little magical…

Setting off

In the middle of nowhere, surrounded by beautiful Welsh countryside, there is a piece of architecture ranked by UNESCO as a wonder on a par with the Pyramids. And I am navigating a 15-tonne canal barge along it.

Opened in 1805, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct took 500 men ten years to build and was considered one of the major engineering successes of the 19th century. A sheer drop from the Aqueduct down to the Dee Valley 100 feet below means small children, dogs and those afraid of heights are advised to take refuge inside the boat as it crosses.

It’s this mix of iconic architecture and beautiful scenery that make the Llangollen Canal the most popular stretch of canal in the UK, with over 400 boats a day using it in summer.


Our trip had begun in Chirk, a small town less than a mile from the English/Welsh border.

Chirk Marina, with its whitewashed office and collection of canal barges has a charming, quaint feel and without even stepping on a boat there is a welcome sense of time slowing down.

For the next four days I am to be in charge of Chloe, a 58-foot red and blue narrowboat. Inside, Chloe is like a compact, well-maintained modern home with two single beds, two bathrooms, double-bed, a lounge area with TV and radio and a kitchen complete with full size gas oven and fridge-freezer. And, most importantly for my gentle autumn adventure, central heating.

I am shown the ropes by Vick, a former engineer, who took early retirement 14 years ago to live in his barge in the Marina, and after a ‘driving lesson’ lasting a couple of hours I have two key points to remember: 1) Check every morning to see if water has got into the bilge (The lowest inner part of a ship’s hull) and activate the bilge pump if necessary. 2) Turn on the stern gland greaser – like a tap – at night, to ensure the shaft between the engine and propeller is kept watertight. The responsibility is exciting.

Soon we are out on the water where, initially, steering feels counter-intuitive: you push the tiller left to go right and visa versa. To brake, you put the boat in reverse – and there is no steering in reverse. The anxiety I felt before my driving test comes flooding back. But the pace on the canal is calm. The speed limit is 4mph: hard to judge without a speedometer, though the fact that people strolling along the towpath are gaining ground on us, suggests there is little danger of exceeding it.

Black Prince, the boat company, have given us an itinerary including suggested stops for lunch and dinner, and our first stop is to be The Poachers Pocket pub, 90 minutes away. Just 20 minutes in and the first challenge awaits: the narrow single lane, 1,200 feet, ‘Darkie Tunnel’. As instructed we turn on the headlight and sound the horn twice to alert on-comers, and happily get through in one piece, with the odd unavoidable bump on the side.

Next we encounter Chirk Aqueduct, built in 1805 by Thomas Telford and William Jessop. At 70ft high this offers us stunning views over the woodlands of the Ceiriog Valley once described by Lloyd George as “a little bit of heaven on earth”.

After a long day, our meal at the Poachers Pocket of roasted chicken, corn on the cob and homemade coleslaw followed by gingerbread cheesecake is very welcome and good value for £15 per head including a drink.

In our absence the central heating has been working perfectly and Chloe is warm and cosy when we return for our first night onboard.


After a leisurely on-board breakfast and a shower – hot, pressurized, a relief – it’s time to start the five-hour cruise to Llangollen. For a couple of hours we meander through overarching trees and open farmland before arriving at the big draw: “the stream in the sky” – the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.

The Aqueduct’s 19 graceful arches span 1007 feet across the Dee Valley and with the canal’s narrow iron banks negating any real need to steer, there is plenty of time – for those who do have a stomach for heights – to enjoy the green open views of the Dee valley and the white waters of the river below.

Every section of the canal has a unique set of requirements that keep things interesting for the inexperienced boater. The final couple of miles leading to Llangollen has several one-way sections, one being 500 metres long so a messenger has to go ahead on foot to give the all clear using a mobile phone.

The small market town of Llangollen itself is strikingly built around the rushing waters of the River Dee against the backdrop of the Berwyn mountains, making it a popular tourist destination in peak months. From the town’s beautiful stone bridge, we watch nervous kayakers take on the rapids below.

Llangollen has plenty of cafes, restaurants and local craft shops and it’s easy to while away a few hours here. Follow up with dinner at the Corn Mill restaurant with its views over the river. Set over three floors, the restaurant has been converted in keeping with its former life, with the working mill wheel being a focal point. Our meal of scallops (£10.95) and steak and ale pie (£14) was excellent.

It is often booked up so worth phoning ahead.


Llangollen marks the end of the canal for motorised boats but there is an extra mile-and-a-half stretch leading to the Horseshoe Falls, the weir that feeds the canal. Horse-drawn boats take visitors on this final stretch as the canal is not wide enough for motorised boats to turn around.

Half way to the Falls, just off the tow-path, is the Llangollen Motor Museum, a privately owned collection of around 60 cars, bikes and memorabilia. Among the motorbikes are names that bring back memories of ‘British Bikes’. The Norton, the Triumph, the Ariel, the Sunbeam and the B.S.A as well as the Ner-A-Car, a 1920s motorcycle that was marketed as being a low-cost alternative to a car to appeal to both men and women. The cars range from a retro-futuristic 1980’s Sinclair C5 with a maximum speed of 15mph to a magnificent E-type Jaguar, and a Standard 16. Also included is a 1961 Gilbern GT – one of only 1005 of the sports cars produced in Wales between 1959 and 1974, when the company ceased trading.

After a nostalgic couple of hours at the Museum it’s time to head back to Chirk. All boats hired for the weekend are due back by 9.30am on a Monday and we end up travelling in the twilight hours (not advised) getting back safe and sound so we can moor up for our final night just outside the Marina.


“I would never live in a house again,” says Andy from Black Prince Holidays as we disembark from Chloe for the last time. His enthusiasm for life on the water is shared by all the Chirk Marina staff. After a fantastic long weekend chugging along the Llangollen canal it’s easy to see why. We have had a taste of a more tranquil way of life and are looking forward to getting behind the tiller for longer next time.

After the pace of life on the water for the last four days, going back to driving a car is a strange experience. Before Llangollen, I thought of myself as a little impatient on the roads; now, travelling at 20mph seems more than adequate. We’ll see how long that lasts.

Getting the hang of it on the Llangollen

Copy of PontycysyllteAqueduct2Amber Graafland wrote about her first narrowboat holiday in the Daily Mirror, published 17 October 2015:

After an Acme course in canal cruising and narrowboat maintenance Mark, the man from Drifters boat hire base, asked: “Any questions?” Trying to sound nonchalant, I replied: “Er, how do we know if we’re going too fast?” With a furrowed brow, he replied: “You’ll see waves. You don’t want waves.” Well that told me then.

Setting off along the Llangollen Canal from Cheshire towards North Wales, all I could think about was how I hadn’t really taken in much of what I had just been told. And I couldn’t shake off the uncomfortable feeling that I probably should have taken a lot more information on board (see what I did there?). How hard can it be, I naively wondered.

Anyway, with a month’s supply of food and enough tea to sink a ship (you drink a LOT of tea on a canal trip), we were off. We were late so the sun was setting and the light really was beautiful. We had a blissful one-and-a-half hours of no locks, and as we headed towards the Wrexham border with the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct ahead of us, the world was our oyster. The crew of the 66ft six-berth Yellow Legged Gull barge, me and Justin and the kids Rudy and Georgia, were happy and everything was tranquil. What we had forgotten, of course, was the million or so locks and lifting bridges ahead of us.

Things got more interesting when we checked the map and realised it was going to be pretty impossible to reach our target of the three-chamber staircase lock at Grindley Brook by nightfall. Thanks to tonsillitis and a Holy Communion party we were a day late. Mark, if you’re reading this, we only made waves for this first stretch and it was kind of an emergency. I had been told by friends who had barge form that the holiday would be very relaxing. They explained the slowness of the journey (speed limit 4mph) would impart a sense of calm. ‘’Who’s heard of canal rage?” they joked.

Well, all I can say is that there was mutiny on our boat from day one. After that peaceful initial period we began to ‘lock back in anger’. To start, we passed the first boat we met on the wrong side (I am positive we were told to stay left). Then we crashed, then nearly hit another boat. At Grindley Brook I was relieved to learn the slightly daunting three chamber staircase has a lock keeper. This lock can get busy – expect traffic jams – and is tricky to navigate.

Thanks to the Great Canal Journeys TV series we were pretty clued up on all things canal-related. But sadly, Timothy West and Prunella Scales we weren’t. These two acting legends made it look so easy. I’d like to know their secret – I suspect it was wine. Thanks to eight-year-old Rudy, who had just completed canals as part of his school project, we were regaled with canal facts. Did you know the canals were brought from back from the brink, and the rebirth of the canals as highways for leisure is one of the quiet success stories of modern Britain?

And did you know that this was done by volunteers who, over half a century, surrendered evenings and weekends to rebuild collapsed banks and clear junk from choked locks? The result is a network of waterways more than 2,000 miles long and home to 35,000 licensed craft and visited by 200,000 people a year.

Passing through the Chirk Tunnel was a highlight for the kids. It’s 1,380ft long so pretty spooky, damp and smelly. It’s only designed for a single narrow boat so it takes a bit of planning. Not our strong suit. Obviously the most important thing is to moor up and check no one is coming from the other side.

When the coast’s clear it’s a scramble for the entrance, with your light on (very exciting) so your boat can be seen by another at the other end. It all sounds simple enough but this, not surprisingly, is the point where things are most likely to go wrong. Thankfully, and even more surprisingly, it was a doddle for us.

Our main aim was to reach the spectacular Pontcysyllte Aqueduct on day three and we made up for lost time and did it. At 1,008ft long and with 18 pillars it carries the canal 126ft above the River Dee near Chirk. If you’re scared of heights it’s not ideal as one side has no barriers and there’s a sheer drop. The view is spectacular but you feel very exposed, as if you could quite simply fall off the side. Breathtaking views but a very strange experience. This is a very pretty part of the canal and we moored at Froncysyllte for lunch. If you have time, visit Chirk Castle.

At this point we turned around. I’d like to apologise now to the couple who were having a quiet lunch and witnessed this. The trouble started when we got the barge stuck trying to turn. MY FAULT apparently, although I’m sure I was making lunch when it happened (the galley is excellent, as are the bathrooms and bedrooms). Turning is not to be taken lightly and you’d be well advised to only attempt this at an official turning point: 66ft boat + canal less than 66ft wide = domestic discord.

However, the silver lining in the canal cloud is that by the time you DO turn round and head for home, you’ll have got the hang of it. It was pretty much plain sailing all the way back to the Cheshire boatyard and, thanks to Georgia, 12, we made light work of the locks and lifting bridges. The way back was relaxing and the kids said (thanks to less shouting) they loved it.

My advice to Drifters: it wouldn’t be a bad idea to put the number of a good relationship councillor in the manual…more useful than the number for a pump-out station. And my advice to anyone thinking of booking: pack a very warm coat and lots of tea.

Shire Cruisers Highly Commended in Yorkshire Tourism Awards

Drifters’ member Shire Cruisers was given special recognition at Yorkshire Tourism’s White Rose Awards on 9 November, being ‘Highly Commended’ under the ‘Self-catering’ category.

The awards are the biggest tourism awards in the UK and have been recognising tourism stars for more than 25 years

Shire Cruisers was one of nearly 100 businesses – and the first ever canal boat holiday provider – to be shortlisted this year.

Sir Gary Verity, Chief Executive of Welcome to Yorkshire, said: “This year’s entries were of a particularly high standard and your success is a significant achievement. Each year we see standards across all tourism sectors rising considerably and this is what makes Yorkshire such a much visit destination.

“The judges wanted to recognise the experience, skills and dedication of one finalist in the ‘Self-catering’ category and have made a High Commended award.  Congratulations to Shire Cruisers.”

The judges commented: “Shire Cruisers is a 20-person company that offers the chance to spend time exploring the region’s secret waterways.  With 35 years’ experience under their belt, and 19 boats available to hire, skilled instructors ensure that guests are well prepared for their time afloat.”

Nigel Stevens, owner and operator of Shire Cruisers, added: “We are absolutely delighted to receive this award.  Shire Cruisers is a small family-run business with canal boat hire bases at Sowerby Bridge and Barnoldswick.  We are very proud to be able to offer visitors to Yorkshire the opportunity to explore this beautiful county by canal boat.

“This award recognises our fantastic staff, who take a huge amount of care to ensure our canal boat holiday-makers have a wonderful experience.  And I’d also like to thank the Canal & River Trust and Calderdale Council who work so hard to look after the canals our customers love.”


Celebrate Christmas Afloat

With frosty towpaths, cosy fires and traditional pubs, a holiday on Britain’s peaceful canal network can offer a great antidote to the hustle and bustle of Christmas.

Eight of our canal boat hire bases offer winter cruising, giving canal boat holiday-makers the chance to enjoy cosy evenings afloat, visit waterside pubs with roaring log fires, and wake-up to frosty towpaths and crisp clean air.

Whether it’s a snug boat for two or a family affair for six, celebrating Christmas or New Year afloat offers a great getaway. It’s free to moor almost anywhere on the network, so a narrowboat could provide the perfect base for a rural retreat or to enjoy new year celebrations in waterside towns and cities like Bath, Birmingham, Warwick and Stratford upon Avon.

All our boats have central heating, hot water, televisions and DVD players. Some also have multi-fuel stoves and Wifi. So, whatever the weather, it’s always nice and cosy on board.

Our prices over Christmas and New Year start at start at £550 for a short break (three or four nights) on a boat for four, weekly hire from £785.

Here’s a list of our bases offering winter cruising:

1. Chug through rural Warwickshire…on a short break from Stretton-under-Fosse near Rugby, boaters can head south along the beautiful Oxford Canal to Braunston, winding through classic scenery, much of which hasn’t changed for centuries. On a week’s holiday, narrowboat holiday-makers can travel on to Leamington Spa and Warwick.

2. Visit the ‘chocolate box pretty’ canalside village of Stoke Bruerne…from Rugby on the North Oxford Canal, canal boat holiday-makers can choose from a number of routes, including a trip through rural Northamptonshire to the idyllic village of Stoke Bruerne. With two popular historic village pubs, a curry house, tranquil countryside walks and the Canal Museum – packed with canal artefacts, stories and films – there’s plenty of hospitality and tranquillity to enjoy.

3. Navigate ‘The Stream in the Sky’…from our Trevor hire base in the beautiful Llangollen Canal in North Wales, the awesome 300-metre long World Heritage Status Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which carries the canal 40 metres above the rushing waters of the River Dee, is just a few minutes away. On a short break, boaters can cruise west to the Eistedfodd town of Llangollen and east to Ellesmere, also known as the Shropshire Lake District.

4. Moor-up in Stratford upon Avon…it’s a picturesque six-hour cruise to Stratford upon Avon from our base at Wootton Wawen, near Henley in Arden in Warwickshire. Boaters can moor up in Stratford canal basin, a stone’s throw from the Swan Theatre and the town’s shops, restaurants and museums.

5. Take a lock free journey to Birmingham…Birmingham is just a five-hour cruise away from our Tardebigge base on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal – with no locks to negotiate. City centre moorings are available at Gas Street Basin, close to the bars, restaurants, shops and museums at Brindley Place and the Mailbox and Bullring shopping centres.

6. Travel to Georgian Bath along the Kennet & Avon Canal…our base in the historic town of Bradford on Avon on the Kennet & Avon Canal in Wiltshire offers the chance to cruise to the World Heritage Status City of Bath and back. Cosy country pubs to enjoy along the way include the George Inn at Bathampton, once a 12th-century monastery, and the Cross Guns at Avoncliffe, with panoramic views of the foothills of the Cotswolds.

7. Explore the Potteries in Staffordshire…from Great Haywood, at the junction of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire and Trent & Mersey canals in Staffordshire, a variety of routes are available. On a week’s cruise, canal boat holiday-makers can head up the Trent & Mersey Canal to the Caldon Canal, and travel through the beautiful Churnet Valley. Those on a short break can head to the town of Fazeley, via the pretty canal village of Fradley on the Trent & Mersey Canal.

8. Cruise through the beautiful Leicestershire countryside…on a short break from the historic market town of Market Harborough on the Leicester Line of the Grand Union Canal, narrowboat holiday-makers can potter through rural Leicestershire and Northamptonshire to the pretty villages of Crick or Welford. On a week’s break, they can continue on to Stoke Bruerne.

Oxford on a narrowboat

Evlin Kazancel, 33, from north London, had a UK weekend away with a difference. Her article about her trip was published in Chat Magazine, 6 August 2015:

A few friends and I floated away for a long, idyllic weekend on the water…

Where to stay?
On board, of course!
We picked up our four-berth narrowboat from a company called Anglo Welsh – a member of Drifters Waterways Holidays.
None of us had ever driven a narrowboat before, so Joe at Anglo Welsh gave us a great crash-course in how to steer, navigate locks and the all important waterway rules.
And then…Ah, the freedom of the open waterway!
Lock-keepers manned our route on the Thames, and even helped us position the boat in the locks.
We only had a weekend, so decided to spend one night in Oxford and one in Abingdon.
Mooring up, we felt like seasoned pros!

What to do?
After cooking up an on-board feast the first night, we sat on the roof drinking G&Ts into the wee small hours before settling into our comfy beds.
Next morning, we set sail for Abingdon at a lovely, lazy pace, arriving at the charming market town a few hours later.
That evening, we went off exploring. I loved the picturesque St Nicholas Parish Church in the market square. We also stopped at the Crown & Thistle pub on our way back.
Our last day was spent making our way back to the Oxford base, planning our next boating trip!

Our boat, the Romney, had all mod cons, so we shopped at supermarkets along the route.
Our first day, though, we treated ourselves to a tasty pub lunch, mooring near the Trout Inn in Wolvercote. The gastropub famously appeared in episodes of TV’s Inspector Morse, and has a mouth-watering menu.
As a waiter wandered past with fish-and-chips, we all succumbed at once!

The perfect introduction

Earlier this year, Countryman editor Mark Whitley celebrated the renaissance of Britain’s canal network by taking a canal boat holiday with Drifters on the Llangollen Canal.  Here’s his account:

The Industrial Revolution dramatically changed the landscape of Britain, and central to this was the development of canal network. Between 1760 and 1830 over a thousand miles of canals were built across Britain, providing a new means of inland transport and helping to shape the landscape of today.

The coming of the railways and then the development of road transport led to the gradual demise of the canal network, and by the mid-20th century it might have been regarded as being in terminal decline. It was the voluntary sector that helped bring the canal network back to life, through organisations like the Inland Waterways Association (founded in 1946) and seminal figures like Tom Rolt, who in 1946 wrote Narrowboat, “a long, delicious hymn to the waterways [and] the book that, more than any other, made the modern canal possible” according to poet Jo Bell.

In more recent years the canal network has been undergoing a renaissance as it finds a new role as a place for leisure activities, whether that be strolling along a towpath or enjoying a canal boat holiday.

One of the most beautiful and most popular canals in Britain, an exploration of the Llangollen Canal is the perfect introduction to the pleasures of Britain’s waterways.

Starting at Trevor Basin near Llangollen, a there-and-back trip to Ellesmere takes three or four days by boat, and takes in some of the best sights of this World Heritage site; a day’s excursion could take in a trip to Llangollen and back, or crossing the ‘Stream in the sky’.

The Llangollen Canal was constructed between 1793 and 1805 as part of a wider plan for linking the River Severn to the River Mersey, and to service the coalfields, iron fields and limestone workings in the borderlands of England and Wales.

This was where Thomas Telford, then aged 36, cut his teeth as an engineer. The eleven-mile stretch of the Llangollen Canal is now a World Heritage site because of the feats of construction that Telford created here, including Pontyscyllte Aqueduct, Chirk Tunnel, Chirk Aqueduct and Whitehouse Tunnel.

“In this beautiful landscape, Telford created dramatic structures that were really challenging in engineering terms,” says Kate Lynch, heritage adviser for the Canal & River Trust (CRT).

“If you think that the canal took 10 years to build, all by hand (there was no heavy earth-moving equipment or anything like that), and during that time only one worker died — that’s incredible.”

Our exploration starts at Drifters’ canal boat hire yard at Trevor Basin where staff member Rob Southan gives us an informative and helpful overview of narrowboat Henley’s fixtures and fittings, and instruction in boat handling and steering, then we are ready to set off towards Ellesmere.

And what a start to our journey: crossing the ‘Stream in the sky’. The stunning structure of the Pontcysllte (pronounced ‘Pont-cuss-ulth-teh’) Aqueduct was built in 1805 by Thomas Telford to carry the canal at a dizzying 126 feet high across the River Dee. Telford channelled the canal through an iron trough just 5′ 3” deep, made in sections jointed together with flannel dipped in boiling sugar, and supported on 18 elegant stone pillars spanning a total of 1,000 feet.

On one side is a towpath and cast-iron handrail (note the grooves on the first upright made by the ropes of the horse-drawn barges years ago); on the other side, nothing but spectacular views over the treetops and then the river below.

A stroll along the towpath is exciting enough, but crossing the aqueduct by boat for the first time is an exhilarating experience, if a little nerve-wracking — as you approach, the cast-iron trough looks too narrow for the boat and, once crossing, there seems to be nothing between the side of the boat and the valley far below. Those of a nervous disposition might like to remain below deck during the crossing, but do try to take in the views through the windows.

Once across the aqueduct, it’s time to practise one’s boat-handling skills. The narrowboat is 60 feet long and, steering from the stern end, the bow looks to be a long way away. The narrowboat’s pivot point is in the middle, which takes a little getting used to, but we bear in mind Rob of Anglo Welsh’s advice that “slow and steady are the key” as we progress through Whitehouse Tunnel and Chirk Tunnel (459 yards long and taking ten minutes to go through) to Chirk Aqueduct. This aqueduct is spectacular in its own right, particularly with the railway viaduct running alongside.

One option is to moor up at Chirk Basin, between the tunnel and aqueduct, and explore Chirk and its castle. We decide instead to moor up for the evening alongside the Poacher’s Inn, a little further on.

The next day dawns bright and early as we cast off and head towards Ellesmere, about five hours’ steady cruising. On the next stretch we encounter our first locks, but there’s no need to be nervous as there are usually other canal boaters on hand to offer advice and lend a hand (literally); they are a friendly lot on the waterways. Soon we are mooring up at Ellesmere, opposite Beech House (built by Telford in 1806), with plenty of time left in the day to explore the handsome town of Ellesmere and its Mere, the largest of the nine glacial meres in north Shropshire.

We return to Trevor Basin, again crossing the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (it’s just as impressive an experience the second time), to continue on to Llangollen. This section of the canal is very narrow, and one section is one-way traffic only, so it’s advisable for one of the party to disembark and walk ahead to check for oncoming traffic.

Some of the bridges run at an angle to the canal, creating a tight dogleg that really tests one’s boat-handling skills.

Mooring up at Llangollen Basin or on the canalside (with lovely views over the town), we can take a horse drawn boat or stroll along the towpath to explore the final stretch of the canal, passing the Eisteddfod site and the Motor Museum (well worth a visit,) to finally arrive at something rather unusual: the birthplace of a canal. For it was here that Telford built the Horseshoe Falls at Llantysilio to divert part of the River Dee to form the start of the Llangollen Canal.

The canal was actually saved from closure due to an interesting quirk of history: it also supplied drinking water for Crewe and Nantwich along this arm of the canal. There’s actually quite a strong current because of this pull of water, which you can feel as you navigate the canal, particularly on the stretch between Trevor Basin and Llangollen.

Returning to Trevor Basin, I meet and chatted with Brian Gore and Ruth Pease, experienced boaters but here on their first canal boat holiday, who tell me about their time on the canal.

“Seeing the Pontyscyllte Aquaduct for the first time is a little like seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa,” Brian says. “You have seen it in photos and on film so it is familiar, but when you actually see it in the flesh there is that same ‘Wow!’ moment. When you are crossing way above the treetops, the sensation is more akin to being in a light aircraft than a canal boat — scarily exhilarating.

“The scenery on the stretch from Trevor Basin to Llangollen is stunning with long-distance views of the hills, and wildlife is much in evidence — we even saw a family of weasels playing on the canal bank.

“Being courteous and slowing right down when passing moored boats was usually rewarded by a cheery wave of thanks. Some of these boats are people’s homes and needed to be respected as such.”

“Your hire boat quickly starts to feel like home and, on a personal level, we’ll be reluctant to hand it back.”

Britain’s waterways have so much to offer, and thankfully their future looks promising as they continue to navigate the transition from industrial to leisure usage, aided by the Canal & River Trust and companies like Drifters.

“Though there aren’t cargo boats using on the canal network and it is are used for leisure nowadays, this is still a working, living heritage — one you can experience,” CRT heritage adviser Kate Lynch concludes.

More about The Countryman magazine at or follow Mark on Twitter @countrymaned

Top 7 ghostly going-ons on the waterways

With regular ghost sightings, bats and frogs aplenty, creepy tunnels, spooky locks and misty towpaths, Britain’s 200-year old canal network provides the perfect backdrop for a haunting Halloween.

From shaggy coated beings to shrieking boggarts, we’ve put together a guide to the spookiest spots:

1. Towpath terrors in West London…between 6pm and 8pm on 31 October, expect to get properly spooked on a free ghost walk along the canal near Paddington. Ducking cobwebs and bats, you’ll creep along the towpaths of Little Venice listening to history and hearsay about local navvies, murders and hauntings. Come dressed appropriately!

2. Experience the chilling history of Standedge Tunnel…from 26 to 31 October, Halloween Week at Standedge Tunnel & Visitor Centre on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal at Marsden is offering a series of special events, including spooky boat trips into the dark and gloomy tunnel. At 3.25 miles long, Standedge is the longest on the canal network, and over its 200-year history it has witnessed some gruesome events. As well as tales of leggers who were crushed between boats and navvies dying in explosions, the story of the restless ghost of the poor 15-year old Matilda Crowther, murdered there in 1935, offers visitors a particularly chilling watery tale.

3. Get the chills in Chester…visit the City’s old Northgate where the canal was dug into part of the town’s moat and a Roman centurion can sometimes be seen guarding the entrance to the City. What’s more, the King’s Inn, an old coaching house, is believed to be haunted by three separate spirits. Hire a boat from Drifters’ base at Bunbury on the Shropshire Union Canal in Cheshire, reaching Chester in seven hours, passing through nine locks.

4. Look out for the Monkey Man on the Shroppie…the Shropshire Union Canal is said to be Britain’s most haunted canal with five ghosts along its length, including ‘The Monkey Man’ at Bridge 39 near Norbury. This hideous black, shaggy coated being is believed to be the ghost of a boatman drowned there in the 19th century. Head north from our base at Brewood on the Shropshire Union Canal in Staffordshire near Stafford.

5. Prepare to be spooked at Blisworth Tunnel…on the Grand Union Canal at Stoke Bruerne in Northamptonshire, the Blisworth Tunnel has spooked a number of boaters over the years. At 3,076 yards (2.81km) it’s one of the longest on the canal system. When construction began in 1793, the tunnel was a major feat of engineering. Teams of navvies worked with picks and shovels for three years until they hit quicksand and the tunnel collapsed, killing 14 men. A new route for the tunnel was found and it finally opened on 25 March 1805. Over the years, a number of boaters travelling through the tunnel have reported seeing lights and a second route emerging. But the tunnel runs straight through the hill so people have must seen the flicker of candlelight at the spot where the first tunnel would have intersected with the main canal tunnel. Perhaps the ghostly navvies are still working there…? Our nearest base is at Gayton Martina, less than a mile from Blisworth Tunnel’s north portal.

6. A Killing at Kidsgrove…the Trent & Mersey Canal’s Harecastle Tunnel at Kidsgrove is said to be home to a shrieking boggart – the ghost of Kit Crewbucket who was murdered and his headless corpse was dumped in the canal. Our nearest bases are at Stoke on Trent and Great Haywood.

7. An Aqueduct Apparition…the Llangollen Canal in Wrexham is haunted by an eerie figure that can sometimes be seen on moonlit nights gliding along the towpath by the World Heritage Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. Our nearest bases are at Trevor and Chirk.

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Picture Perfect – Stan Cullimore’s Mon & Brec Diary

Someone once told me that the Monmouth & Brecon is the prettiest stretch of canal in the UK. Hmm. Can’t leave an extravagant claim like that untested. So, Mrs Cullimore and I decided to go and see for ourselves. Test the waters, if you will.

We arrived at Goytre Wharf one afternoon and I have to say, it was a picture perfect place to start. Before setting off, we strolled in the sunshine, took in the views and visited the cafe for a cup of tea and cake. No sense in rushing, is there? Slowing down, that’s what canal boat holidays are all about.

Onboard, Nathan showed us round our home for the week, ‘Red Poll Finch’ – a lovely boat with a fixed double bed, airy living area and galley at the back. We then set off for seven days of hard research, or, as my wife put it, “a delightfully relaxing week afloat”.

To help us decide if it really was the loveliest part of the canal system, I kept a diary. Question is, after reading it, do you think this week long holiday is the very best canal journey around? Or can you think of a better bit of British canal? If so, do please let me know. I’m always up for a bit of research. Especially if it involves time afloat.

Day 1 – Goytre Wharf to Govilon
Bridges – 24
Locks – 0
Miles – 7
Hours Cruising – 3.5
Scenery – you’re in the heart of the countryside. On one side, there are wooded banks sloping down towards the canal. On the other side some delicious views of the valley below. At times the landscape clears and you get gorgeous views of the Brecon Beacons up ahead. That’s where we’re going and I can’t wait.
Provisions – stopped at Govilon. Village stores are well stocked and very friendly. Picked up bacon, fruit and lots more besides.
Pubs – two to choose from. We went to the Lion Inn. Great beer, friendly landlord, food looked lovely, all in all, delightful.
Highlight – sleeping in a warm, cosy bed with sweet dreams all night long. Bliss. If only Mabel the dog hadn’t got there first.

Day 2 – Govilon to Llangattock
Bridges – 29
Locks – 0
Miles – 6
Hours Cruising – 3.5
Scenery – more glimpses of the beacons brooding over the hedgerows, cloaked in cloud, looking muscular, mean and moody. Bit like Clint Eastwood used to be, really. The weather pulled off the difficult trick of raining, even as the sun shone. Was strange but lovely.
Provisions – stopped at Llangattock and strolled into Crickhowell. It’s a sweet market town with a bit of something for everyone. My favorite was the Adventure shop, though my wife preferred Nicholls, the gift shop. Great place to pick up supplies.
Pubs – lots of them, spoilt for choice. Went to the Bridge End Inn and had our dinner in the beer garden overlooking the River Usk. Great beer, great food, fantastic views. Love it.
Highlight – strolling over the ancient stone bridge into town and seeing people swimming in the waters below. They waved and suggested I took a photo. So I did.

Day 3 – Llangattock to Talybont-on-Usk
Bridges – 25
Locks – 5
Miles – 7.5
Hours Cruising – 5
Scenery – closer to the mountains now. Looking bigger and better. Feels like a landscape out of a fairytale. Keep on expecting to see a knight in shining armor cantering along the towpath. But all we see are lots of kids getting into kayaks. They seem very happy, mind.
Provisions – Talybont has a good village stores right next to the canal with a cafe attached. Genius.
Pubs – we moored the boat between two pubs and went to the White Hart Inn. A good choice – excellent range of beers and the food was just what the doctor ordered.
Highlight – an early evening stroll past fields filled with swallows, flitting about at knee height in search of their supper. Explains the sign we’d seen, asking us to avoid disturbing their nests.

Day 4 – Talybont-on-Usk to Pencelli & back to Talybont
Bridges – 26
Locks – 0
Miles – 4.5
Hours Cruising – 3
Scenery – the canal glides through a corridor of lovely trees for most of the way. Meant we could take in the towpath traffic. Lots of walkers, bikers, joggers and hikers. Everyone on water or land was very friendly. As they have been all week.
Provisions – Back for another visit to the Talybont village stores for supplies. Mission accomplished.
Pubs – we moored the boat in the same place as before, between two pubs. Went to the Star Inn. Very lovely indeed with a few interesting local ales on tap.
Highlight – Did a short day on the boat so we could take the dog for a walk along the towpath. Went past one of the wooden benches that are dotted along the canal and I realised there is map of the waterway carved into them. Who’d have thought it? Furniture that is both comfy and informative.

Day 5 – Talybont-on-Usk back to Llangattock
Bridges – 27
Locks – 5
Miles – 8
Hours Cruising – 4.5
Scenery – obviously, we’re on our way back the same way we came earlier in the week. But somehow the scenery looks even more impressive this time around. It’s just lovely, basically.
Provisions – Really excited to go back to Crickhowell for our shopping needs and more besides. It’s a really friendly little town, complete with ruined castle.
Pubs – getting a bit sentimental we went back to the Bridge End Inn to sit in the beer garden and watch the river again. Good place to chill out and count the arches in the bridge. Different number on each side, apparently.
Highlight – Mabel the dog. She is in doggy heaven all day, every day on this holiday. On the towpath she meets lots of other dogs to play with. On the boat she spends every minute of cruising time quivering with excitement. Sitting at the back sniffing the air as if it is the sweetest treat imaginable.

Day 6 – Llangattock to Golivon
Bridges – 17
Locks – 0
Miles – 3
Hours Cruising – 2
Scenery – still on our way back and enjoying the scenery in reverse. Today, the mountains were mainly misty and magnificent. And the slow motion, salmon pink, sunset was just about perfect.
Provisions – Didn’t need anything today, though the village shop in Govilon was still there just in case.
Pubs – making a habit of returning to old haunts we went back to the Lion Inn at Govilon. Great beer, very friendly people so we ate there. Had the best fish and chips I’ve had for weeks. I defy anyone to eat an entire portion without needing a lie down afterwards.
Highlight – there have been lots of things to look at as we drift slowly along all week. Birds, squirrels, all sorts of wildlife. And trees, obviously. But today’s tip of the topmost, literally, was a Giant Redwood tree right next to the bank. It was both enormous and totally unexpected. Wanted to give it a hug but my arms just weren’t big enough.

Day 7 – Golivon to Llanover
Bridges – 18
Locks – 0
Miles – 5
Hours Cruising – 3
Scenery – scenery is idyllic as ever. Seriously, the whole week has been one long journey through paradise. No wonder this area is a national park.
Provisions – Didn’t find any shops or places to buy stuff today. But no worries, we had plenty onboard.
Pubs – No pubs either. Still, it gave us an excuse to cook some food on the boat and drink some of the local beers we found in Crickhowell. Cheers.
Highlight – driving the boat along under cute stone bridges, checking out the view and drinking a freshly brewed coffee that my lovely wife made. Just being here, basically. Another perfect week on a canal boat, the best way to de-stress, chill out and relax that I know. All at slower than walking speed. Perfect.

One way journey across the Pennines

Starting from Drifters’ base at Sowerby Bridge at the junction of the Rochdale Canal and Calder & Hebble Navigation, this week-long holiday covers 79 miles and 79 locks, and takes around 45 hours.

Truly one of the great canal journeys, it takes boaters across the backbone of England via Leeds and Skipton, plus two fantastic waterside galleries, and includes sections of the Calder & Hebble Navigation, Aire & Calder Navigation and Leeds & Liverpool Canal.

All the locks are wide. Between the summit at Leeds and Barnoldswick, boaters will ascend 400ft.

Day 1 (Monday) Sowerby Bridge to Elland (3 miles, 5 locks, 3 hours): Collect the boat at 1pm and sail down the leafy Calder & Hebble Navigation, to the historic market town of Elland, with visitor moorings at the Wharf and a number of pubs too choose from, including the Barge & Barrel on Elland Wharf.

Day 2 (Tuesday) Elland to Broad Cut (14 miles, 19 locks, 9 hours): Journey on to Brighouse, an interesting town with food and craft markets, festivals, useful shops and places to eat – including The Richard Oastler in an imposing building which was once a Victorian chapel, complete with organ – as well as the eponymous brass band. After Brighouse, boaters leave the canal and drop into the River Calder. The river soon passes under a towering motorway viaduct, a reminder of the world left behind, on to Shepley Bridge then Broad Cut and moorings at the Navigation Inn.

Day 3 (Wednesday) Broad Cut to Leeds (21 miles, 11 locks, 9 hours): Continue on to Wakefield, with its new Barbara Hepworth museum, the Hepworth Wakefield with canal boat moorings right outside. Travel on along the River Calder to Stanley Ferry to see the aqueduct, a miniature Sydney Harbour Bridge, built between 1836 and 1839 to take the Aire & Calder Navigation over the River Calder. Now on the Aire & Calder, a commercial waterway with electric locks and a wide channel, the journey continues on to Leeds and its regenerated waterfront. Moor at Leeds visitor moorings and visit the waterside Royal Armouries at Clarence Dock, Britain’s national museum of arms and armour, and one of the most important museums of its type in the world.

Day 4 (Thursday) Leeds to Apperley Bridge (8 miles, 13 locks, 6 hours): continue along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, quickly escaping the urban waterfront, passing through fields and woods, with spectacular views. The journey takes boaters past the historic Kirkstall Brewery, with a heritage stretching back to the 12th century when Cistercian monks founded an Abbey there. Once at Apperley Bridge, moor above or below Dobson Locks and choose from a number of pubs, including the historic Stansfield Arms which dates back to 1543.

Day 5 (Friday) Apperley Bridge to Riddlesden (10 miles, 16 locks, 8 hours): Continue west along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, stopping at Sir Titus Salt’s World Heritage Status model town at Saltaire with Salts Diner and impressive David Hockney gallery at Salts Mill. Continue on to the famous Bingley Five Rise locks, one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways and moor for the night at Riddlesden and choose between the Willow Tree Inn and Marquis of Granby pubs.

Day 6 (Saturday) Riddlesden to Gargrave (15 miles, 3 locks, 5 hours): continue along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal main line, passing Silsden, then through Skipton with its 900-year old castle – one of the most complete and best preserved castles in England. Then on to Gargrave visitor moorings for the night with a variety of pubs to choose from, including the Masons Arms.

Day 7 (Sunday) Gargrave to Barnoldswick (7 miles, 12 locks, 5 hours): climb through open countryside via the lock flights of Bank Newton and Greenberfield and overshoot the boatyard to moor for the night at the Anchor, Salterforth or Café Cargo at Foulridge, just by the tunnel.

Day 8 (Monday): turn around and head back to Lower Park Marina, Barnoldswick in time to vacate the boat by 9.30am.