Quirky Canals

Britain’s 2,000-mile long and 200-year old canal network is a treasure trove of historic structures, many of them quirky and unorthodox.  It’s also a haven for wildlife, but not always what you might expect.

To celebrate the rich tapestry of canal history and habitat, we’ve put together our Top 10 Quirky Canal Facts:

  1. Terrapins – red-eared terrapins are now a common sight on England’s waterways, largely as a result of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Hero Turtles cartoon craze which began in the 1980’s.  Imported from the USA to be sold as pets, these terrapins can grow to the size of a dinner plate, making them less appealing and difficult to manage.  Consequently, they are often irresponsibly released into the wild and can be seen basking on dry land during sunny days.  At the moment it looks unlikely that they are breeding as terrapin eggs need to be incubated at 25 degrees Celsius for 60 days in order to hatch, but climate change may enable them to increase their numbers and potentially harm native animals.
  2. Lock cottages with barrel shaped roofs – the quirky lock cottages of the Stratford Canal have unusual barrel shaped roofs. It’s believed the canal builders chose this unusual style the mimic the shape of the canal bridges.
  3. Pill boxes along the K&A – visitors to the Kennet & Avon Canal, which connects the River Thames at Reading with the Bristol Avon at Bath, will notice a large number of pill boxes lining the waterway. Designed by the War Office, these fortifications were commissioned by General Sir Edmund Ironside, following the British Expeditionary Forces’ evacuation from Dunkirk, and the prospect of imminent German invasion.  Named GHQ Stop Line Blue, the canal was equipped to be a static defence line, with the pill boxes and trank traps manned by the Home Guard.  Some, including one at Garston Lock near Reading, have now been adapted to create homes for bats!
  4. Zebra mussels in the locks – these stripy little freshwater mussels originally arrived in Britain on the hulls of ships from Eastern Europe. They grow up to 5cm long and rapidly form large colonies, attaching themselves to almost any submerged hard surface, including lock gates and sluices.
  5. The Anderton Boat Lift – also known as the ‘Cathedral of the Canals’, this fascinating example of Victorian engineering, which looks like a giant iron spider perched on a hilltop, provides a 15-metre vertical link between the Trent & Mersey Canal and River Weaver Navigation. Designed by Edwin Clark and opened in 1875, it consists of two caissons, each large enough to take a barge or pair of narrowboats.
  6. The Roundhouse in Birmingham – this unique horseshoe shaped canal building in Birmingham City Centre is being transformed into a place to work, socialise and rest. The Grade II* listed building on the Birmingham Mainline Canal in the centre of Birmingham, dates back to 1874 and originally provided stables and stores for the Birmingham corporation.
  7. Snowdon’s Aviary at London Zoo – from Little Venice, where the Grand Union Canal meets the Regent’s Canal in London, the London Waterbus operates trip boats which take people along the Regent’s Canal and into London Zoo via a special waterside entrance. Along the way, boaters pass beneath Snowdon’s iconic Aviary constructed alongside the canal in 1964.  The Aviary is currently being transformed into a stunning walkthrough exhibit.
  8. Green canals – when summer temperatures soar, thick carpets of bright green duck weed can appear along sections of Britain’s canals, especially in London. While an individual piece of duck weed is no bigger than a ladybird, when they multiply into large numbers, they clog up canals, starving the water of oxygen and sunlight, and causing problems for some wildlife.  In the right conditions, a mass of duck weed can double in size every two or three days.
  9. The ghostly Blisworth Tunnel – on the Grand Union Canal at Stoke Bruerne in Northamptonshire, the 2,795-metre long Blisworth Tunnel has spooked a number of boaters over the years. When construction began in 1793, the tunnel was a major engineering challenge.  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.  But over the years, a number of boaters travelling through the tunnel have reported seeing lights and a second ghostly route emerging…
  10. The Foxton Inclined Plane Boat Lift – this extraordinary feet of Victorian engineering once operated next to Foxton Locks. Two counterbalanced caissons (giant bathtubs) that could each hold two narrowboats or one wide-beam barge, were built to slide up or down the hill on tracks.  They enabled boats to make the journey in just 12 minutes – nearly six times quicker than going through the locks.  Opened in 1900, sadly it was never a commercial success due to decreasing canal traffic and the fact that the Watford flight was never widened to take larger boats.  The plane was mothballed in 1911 and dismantled for scrap in 1928.


Top 7 cruises into the countryside for narrowboat holiday beginners

Following government guidance, Drifters operators are planning to restart their holidays on 4 July.

Our self-drive narrowboat holidays provide a floating holiday home for cruising through the countryside, watching out for wildlife and enjoying walks along towpaths and connecting footpaths along the way.

You can take all the supplies you need, and you have the freedom to moor up for the night alongside rural towpaths and canalside pubs offering take-outs.

A licence isn’t required to steer a canal boat and all our operators provide boat steering tuition as part of their holiday packages.  Our narrowboats range from 32ft to 70ft and can accommodate between two and 12 people.  They are all equipped with essential home comforts, including central heating, hot water, TV, showers, ovens, flushing toilets, and many now have WiFi too.

2020 hire prices start at £560 for a short break (three or four nights) on a boat for four people, £725 for a week.

Here are our Top 7 countryside cruises into the countryside for narrowboat beginners:

  1. Bob gently along to Fradley Pool Nature Reserve – on a short break from our canal boat hire base on the Trent & Mersey Canal at Great Haywood in Staffordshire, you can head south to Fradley Junction, where the Coventry Canal meets the Trent & Mersey. The journey takes around five hours, travelling through 12 peaceful miles of Staffordshire countryside and passing through just five locks.  Along the way, the route takes you past the National Trust’s Shugborough Estate and Cannock Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  At Fradley, boaters can moor up to explore Fradley Pool Nature Reserve, a haven for many types of water and woodland birds.
  2. Cruise through the Worcestershire countryside to complete the Droitwich Mini-Ring – the Droitwich Ring is the only canal boat holiday cruising circuit in Britain which can be completed on a short break (three or four nights). Cruising through the Worcestershire countryside along sections of the River Severn and the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, and the Droitwich canals, this 21-mile, 33-lock canal boat holiday circuit can be cruised in 16 hours from our narrowboat hire base on the River Severn at Worcester.
  3. Glide along the Oxford Canal to Rugby & back – from our canal boat rental base at Napton on the Oxford Canal in Warwickshire, it takes just over six hours to travel 15½ miles, and pass through three locks to reach the rural outskirts of Rugby. Along the way, boaters pass through just three locks and series of canalside villages, including Braunston and Hillmorton.
  4. Cruise the leafy Calder & Hebble Navigation to Brighouse and back – on a short break (three or four nights) from our canal boat hire base at Sowerby Bridge, you can travel to Brighouse and back along the leafy Calder & Hebble Navigation. This historic town, famous for its Brighouse and Rastick Brass Band, offers glorious Pennines walks, places to eat and shops. Along the way, boaters pass through the historic market town of Elland and the village of Mirfield, with medieval stocks and ducking stool, plus Dumb Steeple, thought to have been a landmark to guide travellers on their way across the moor and later a Luddite rallying point (12 miles, 20 locks, 8 hours return).
  5. Cruise into the Shropshire Lake District – from our narrowboat hire base at Whixall on the Prees Branch of the Llangollen Canal in Shropshire, on a three-night weekend break, narrowboat holiday makers can cruise through the Shropshire Lake District to Ellesmere and back. On a four-night mid-week break, boaters can continue on to Chirk on the Welsh border, with its magnificent aqueduct, 459-yard long tunnel and magnificent Medieval Castle on the hill.
  6. Travel through the Wiltshire countryside to Bradford on Avon from Drifters’ canal boat hire base on the Kennet & Avon Canal at Devizes, it takes around six hours, travelling 10 miles and passing through seven locks to reach the historic town of Bradford on Avon, famous for its magnificent 14th century Tithe Barn and Bath stone architecture. Along the way, you’ll pass through the villages of Seend, Semington and Hilperton, and beautiful stretches of Wiltshire countryside.
  7. Potter through the Shropshire countryside to Market Drayton – from our canal boat hire base at Brewood on the Shropshire Union Canal, it takes around 10 hours to reach the historic market town of Market Drayton, home of the gingerbread man. Along the way, boaters pass through miles of unspoilt Shropshire countryside, and a series of woodland cuttings.  There are just six locks to pass through each way.

Escape into the countryside afloat

Our self-drive narrowboat holidays provide a floating holiday home to escape aboard into the countryside, watching out for wildlife and enjoying walks along towpaths and connecting footpaths.  You can take all the supplies you need and have the freedom to moor up for the night alongside rural towpaths.

From forest bathing in Shropshire to wildlife watching in the Brecon Beacons, we’ve put together our Top 7 countryside escapes afloat for 2020:

  1. Glide through the Peak District to Cheddleton and back – on a short break from our canal boat hire base at Stoke on Trent, canal boat holiday-makers can travel into the Peak District along the beautiful Caldon Canal, reaching Cheddleton Flint Mill in around eight hours, passing through 12 locks and travelling just over 11 miles. As the Caldon Canal leaves Stoke, it begins to pass through gently rolling hills and wooded areas, past old mills and then alongside the stunning River Churnet, home to a variety of wildlife including kingfishers, herons, woodpeckers and otters.
  2. Cruise along the summit of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal to enjoy remote beauty – from our narrowboat hire base at Barnoldswick on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal in Lancashire, it takes around four hours to gently cruise 10 miles to Bank Newton, passing through just three locks at Greenberfield. Along the way, the route takes boaters through some of the remotest and most beautiful stretch of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, with just sheep and birds in all directions.
  3. Float across ‘The Stream in the Sky’ into the Shropshire Lake District – passing through stunning North Wales landscapes, the Llangollen Canal is one of the most popular navigations on the network. The seven-hour journey from our narrowboat rental base at Trevor near Llangollen in North Wales, to Ellesmere takes canal boat holidays into the heart of the Shropshire Lake District.  There are just four locks each way and the route includes the experience of travelling across the awesome UNESCO World Heritage status Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, also known as ‘The Stream in the Sky’, with incredible views of the Dee Valley 30 metres below.
  4. Forest bath on the Shropshire Union Canal – from our canal boat hire base at Brewood on the Shropshire Union Canal, it takes around 10 hours to reach the historic market town of Market Drayton. Along the way, boaters pass through six locks, miles of quiet countryside and long wooded sections of canal, perfect for forest bathing.
  5. Glide through the Brecon Beacons – isolated from the main canal network, the Monmouth & Brecon Canal follows the line of the beautiful Usk Valley 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 and plenty of wooded sections full of the sound of woodland birds.  There’s a huge variety of wildlife to watch out for along the way, including red kites, buzzards, herons, butterflies, bats and dragonflies.  On a short break from Drifters’ base at Goytre Wharf, near Abergavenny, boaters can cruise lock-free to Llangynidr and back and on a week’s break, boaters can travel on to Brecon, passing through Talybont-on-Usk, with walks to the waterfalls at Blaen y Glyn.
  6. Drift through the prehistoric Vale of Pewsey to Hungerford – from our canal boat hire base on the Kennet & Avon Canal at Devizes, it takes around 20 hours, travelling 27 miles through 53 locks to reach the historic town of Hungerford, perfect for a week afloat. Along the way, boaters travel up the spectacular flight of 16 locks in a row at Caen Hill (one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways) and cruise through the beautiful Vale of Pewsey, passing close to prehistoric Avebury and along the edge of the ancient Savernake Forest.
  7. Cruise lock-free through the countryside to Lapworth – from our narrowboat hire base on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal at Tardebigge, near Bromsgrove, it takes around seven hours cruising through the Worcestershire and Warwickshire countryside to reach the village of Lapworth. There are no locks to pass through along the way, but there are a couple of tunnels, including Wast Hills, which at 2,493 metres long is one of the longest in the country.

For more information about canals in Wales, go to https://www.drifters.co.uk/canals-of-wales/

Drifters boats star in ‘Celebrity Britain by Barge’

Canals are back on our screens with a new Channel 5 series ‘Celebrity Britain by Barge: Then & Now’. The series began on Friday 14 February, starring Bill Oddie, Anne Diamond, Jennie Bond and Pete Waterman aboard a number of Drifters’ narrowboats.

In the first episode, the celebrities travel along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal aboard ‘Worcester’ (shared by Jennie and Anne) and ‘Somerset’ (shared by Bill and Pete).

‘Worcester’, who normally operates out of Sowerby Bridge, is a 56ft narrowboat for up to five people. ‘Worcester’ has a variety of cabin configurations – two fixed doubles, or one fixed double and two fixed singles, or four fixed singles, plus a saloon convertible to one single. She has two toilets, a shower and a bath – which particularly impressed Anne and Jennie.

In the main boating season, the 56ft ‘Somerset’ operates out of Barnoldswick. She has fixed berths for up to four people, plus a saloon which can be converted to a double or two singles. The fixed berths can both be doubles, or they can all be singles, or a mixture. ‘Somerset’ has two toilets and a corner show cubicle.

Both boats have fully equipped kitchens, central heating, TV’s and DVD players.

The celebrities travel from Appleby Bridge to Skipton, stopping off along the way at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Saltaire to visit Salts Mill, once one of the largest textile factories in the world and now an art gallery and high-tech production line.

Along the way, with the help of Canal & River Trust lock keepers, they travel up the famous Bingley Five Rise locks, one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways. Jennie and Anne also visit Skipton Castle, while Pete and Bill speak to Diane Rollin, an ecologist with the Canal & River Trust, to find out more about the wildlife that lives on the waterway.

In Episode 2, the celebrities continue their journey along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal. They travel through the beautiful Yorkshire Dales and meet a sheep farmer, connect with the Pennine Way (Britain’s oldest national trail), talk to a Canal & River Trust lock keeper dealing with an emergency repair to a lock and they boat through Foulridge Tunnel.

For more information about Drifters’ holidays in the north east, go to https://www.drifters.co.uk/canals-of-north-east-england/

In Episode 3, to be broadcast this Friday (28 February) at 9pm, the action moves north to the Scottish Lowland Canals, and this time the celebrities are cruising aboard Drifters boats which are available to hire at our Falkirk canal boat hire base. The 62ft long ‘Princess 6’ narrowboat ‘Sarah’, sleeps up to six people, with flexible accommodation in two cabins, plus an optional extra double bed in the saloon. There are two shower rooms, a well-equipped galley, full central heating and a flat screen TV with Freeview and a DVD player.

In episode 3, the celebs travel along the Forth & Clyde Canal to visit the incredible Kelpies, the largest equine sculptures in the world, and learn about the role Clydesdale horses played on the waterway.

In episode 4 (to be broadcast Friday 6 March at 8.30pm), they travel through the incredible Falkirk Wheel Boat Lift and head east along the Union Canal towards Edinburgh. Along the way they pass through the Falkirk Tunnel and learn about the ghost of Irish navvy William Burke, and they travel across the longest aqueduct in Scotland.

For more information about Drifters’ holidays in Scotland go to https://www.drifters.co.uk/canals-of-scotland/