Exploring the Ashby Canal

by Mark Whitley, editor of The Countryman magazine

Friday

It’s a sunny afternoon at Drifters’ Rugby Wharf narrowboat hire base, as I meet up with friends Jude, and John & Lynne. We’re here for a week-long exploration of the local canal network – our ultimate destination, the Ashby Canal.

But first, an introduction to our new home-from-home for the week: Silver Gull, a 66ft narrowboat which can sleep up to six people in some style. Our guide is Ian, who shows us through the boat; explains the practicalities of live-aboard; and teaches us the basics of narrowboat navigation. Jude and I have been on canal boat adventures before, but John and Lynne are first timers so it’s great to have this overview from an experienced boat hand.

We’re soon en route, joining the Oxford Canal towards Coventry. We decide to moor up overnight at Ansty, where we enjoy a relaxing drink or two in the canalside Rose & Castle pub before returning to the boat for a delicious home-cooked meal (courtesy of John’s culinary skills) and a restful night’s sleep.

Saturday

After a hearty cooked breakfast, we cruise at a leisurely pace on to Hawkesbury Junction to join the Coventry Canal via the only lock we’ll encounter; it’s a good opportunity to show boating newbies John and Lynne how a lock works in practice. “Imagine a bath with a plug and taps at both ends, which you have to empty and fill,” is the best description I can give them.

We continue into Coventry and moor up at Coventry Basin, where John, Lynne and I head off to explore Coventry. As a first-time visitor, I’m impressed by Coventry. We explore the cathedral (old and new) and art gallery, and check out the outdoor market before returning to the boat.

We return back to Hawkesbury Junction, our overnight stop, and The Greyhound, a homely and welcoming canalside pub. After a relaxing drink or three (though who’s counting?), and another scrumptious home-cooked meal back on board, we talk over the day’s events before turning in for the night.

Sunday

Another beautifully sunny day beckons as we head northwards along the Coventry Canal before shortly joining the Ashby Canal. I’d already got some inside info on the canal from the experts: “Watch out for wildlife on the Ashby Canal,” Haley Hadley of Drifters Waterways Holidays says. “This peaceful, lock-free canal winds gently through stunning countryside for 22 miles from Marston Junction – where it joins the Coventry Canal – to Snarestone.

“A narrowboat is a lovely way to experience the best of what the Ashby Canal has to offer. Travelling at such a leisurely pace, you soon become at one with the natural world. The six-mile stretch of the canal from Carlton Bridge to Snarestone is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), recognising the diversity of its plant, insect and animal life.”

The Ashby Canal is peaceful indeed, and boating along it is a pleasure. We spot water voles on more than one occasion as we cruise to our overnight stop at Stoke Golding.

Later, as we’re sitting in the beer garden of The George & Dragon, I come up with a plan: instead of John cooking the evening meal yet again, I send him to The Mango Tree, an Indian restaurant next door, to get a takeaway menu. We choose our pakoras and curries and naans, John nips back with the order and asks for it to be ready an hour later, which is just time for another leisurely drink, before we’re all heading back to the boat, down village streets and across fields, our takeaway order carried shoulder-high.

Monday

We’re all getting used to boating life now, so it’s an early start as we continue northwards along the Ashby Canal to Snarestone Wharf, and journey’s end, for this section of our boating adventures, at least. During the 20th century, mining subsidence near Measham gradually resulted in the closure of the northern stretch of the canal, and since 1967 the terminus of the navigable canal has been here.

The Ashby Canal Association (ACA) has a shop and information point at Snarestone, which is where I meet the association’s chairman, Peter Oakden. The ACA was formed in 1966, Peter tells me, “born out of a concern caused by the progressive closure of the northern section of the canal”. Since then the ACA has been actively involved in the conservation and restoration of this northern most section of the canal, with the ultimate aim of making it navigable once again.

There’s a winding hole (a widened area of a canal) where we can turn the boat round and start our return journey along the Ashby Canal, back to our overnight stop at Shackerstone.

Tuesday

From Shackerstone it’s just a few miles to Market Bosworth, where we moor up for lunch before heading off to explore this appealing market town. John and Lynne decide to walk the short distance to Bosworth Field, the site in 1485 of the last battle in the Wars of the Roses, then continue on to Sutton Cheney Wharf, where we’ll meet them at the boat later.

At Bosworth Marina I meet with Samantha Bucknell, the Canal & River Trust’s ecologist and environmental scientist for this region, to learn more about why the Ashby Canal is perfect for wildlife enthusiasts. “The Ashby Canal is a stronghold for the water vole,” Sam explains, “and there is also a good population on the Coventry and Oxford canals, especially at Hawkesbury Junction.”

Back on board, we cruise to Sutton Cheney Wharf to pick up John and Lynn — not forgetting to make use of the water point. The overnight stop at Stoke Golding was so popular on the outward journey, we decide to the same on the return: a few drinks, and a takeaway curry – sorted! The George & Dragon at Stoke Golding even sells free-range eggs (proper free range, too – the hens are kept in a corner of the beer garden), so I buy some for our breakfast the next morning.

Wednesday

Another glorious day (we’ve really been blessed by great weather), as we retrace our route along the Ashby Canal to rejoin the Coventry Canal and continue to our overnight stop at Hawkesbury Junction.

Thursday

After a hearty cooked breakfast, it’s an early start as we rejoin the Oxford and head south-eastwards, and homewards, towards Rugby. For our last night, we decide to moor up just past Newbold Tunnel (just 250 metres long, and one of only two similarly short tunnels navigated en route) where there’s a lovely canalside pub, the Barley Mow, an ideal place to spend a leisurely evening talking about our canal boat adventures.

Friday

It’s just a short distance from Newbold back to Rugby Wharf, and we (albeit reluctanctly) hand back Silver Gull and return to dry land. As we each go our separate ways, John and Lynne tell me that as canal boat holiday first-timers they’ve have a wonderful time and can’t wait to experience it again. So, I’d better get planning our next narrowboat holiday adventure – with Drifters of course!