Top 10 canal boat holidays for 2015

Exploring the Ashby Canal

by Mark Whitley, editor of The Countryman magazine


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

Magnificent cathedrals to visit

Magnificent cathedrals to visit on a canal boat holiday

There are over 3,000 miles of navigable rivers and canals to explore in Britain, and hundreds of cultural and historic destinations to visit while on a narrowboat holiday, including some of England’s most magnificent cathedrals. Here’s our guide to the top six cathedrals to visit on a canal boat holiday:
  1. Climb the Octagon Tower at Ely Cathedral – dating back to 1083, architecturally Ely Cathedral is outstanding due to its beauty, scale and famous central Octagon Tower with a lantern.  It is the only UK building to be listed as one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Medieval World’, and visible for miles around, the Cathedral is often referred to as ‘The Ship of the Fens’.  When visiting the Cathedral you can climb the world famous Octagon Tower and the West Tower, visit the Lady Chapel and enjoy afternoon tea in the 11th century Undercroft.  On a four-night or week-long break from Drifters’ canal boat hire base at March on the Fenland Waterways in Cambridgeshire, narrowboat holiday-makers can reach Ely in around nine hours, travelling 30 miles and passing through just three locks along the way. 
  2. Visit the Crypt at Worcester Cathedral – this ancient building rising majestically above the River Severn dates back nearly 1,000 years and is a major tourist attraction.  In the Cathedral’s Crypt, visitors can find an exhibition telling the story of the Cathedral and a display of The Worcester Pilgrim artefacts.  The Tower, with its 235 steps and spectacular views over the city, is usually open to climb on weekends and during school holidays.  Worcester and its Cathedral can be visited as part of the Stourport and Droitwich Ring canal boat holiday circuits, easily accessed from Drifters’ canal boat holiday hire bases at Worcester, Stoke Prior, Alvechurch and Tardebigge. 
  3. See the medieval choir stalls at Chester Cathedral – construction of this wonderful example of a medieval monastery began in 1092.  Within its walls lie treasures of national significance, including the finest medieval choir stalls in existence and the best Pre-Raphaelite mosaics in the country.  As well as services, the Cathedral hosts many special events each year, including talks, exhibitions and concerts.  There are Tower Tours offering the chance to climb the 216 steps of the 125ft high tower and enjoy panoramic views of Chester.  Setting off from Drifters’ canal boat hire base at Bunbury on the Shropshire Union Canal near Tarporley, narrowboat holiday-makers can reach Chester in around seven hours, passing through nine locks along the way.
  4. Listen to the bells ringing at Birmingham Cathedral – consecrated as the parish church of St Philip’s in 1715, this Grade I listed building is a rare and very fine example of English Baroque architecture.  The Cathedral houses a peal of 12 bells which are rung every Sunday and most Mondays by the St Martin’s Guild of Church Bell Ringers.  Birmingham Cathedral is home to a remarkable set of stained-glass windows designed by Birmingham born Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones and manufactured by the firm of William Morris & Co.  From Drifters’ narrowboat rental base at Tardebigge on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal near Bromsgrove, it takes just five hours to reach mooring in Birmingham City Centre.  From Drifters’ base nearby at Alvechurch, it takes around four hours.
  5. Admire one of the World’s largest tapestries at Coventry Cathedral – the Cathedral Church of St Michael was designed by Basil Spence and was consecrated in 1962.  Close by, the remains of the ‘old Cathedral’, destroyed by enemy air attack in the Second World War, have been preserved as a reminder of the folly and waste of war. Rather than a purely Church of England sacred space, Coventry’s new cathedral was intended as a space where people of all faiths could gather together.  The new Cathedral is home to some amazing works of art, including Graham Sutherland’s enormous ‘Christ in Glory’ tapestry and stunning stained glass windows by John Piper and John Hutton.  From Drifters’ canal boat hire base on the North Oxford Canal at Rugby, it takes around eight hours to reach Coventry Basin.
  6. Look up at the remarkable vaulted ceiling in the Chancel of Oxford Cathedral – Christ Church Cathedral is one of the oldest buildings in Oxford and one of the smallest cathedrals in the Church of England.  Unusually for a cathedral, its centre stalls face inwards in the ‘collegiate’ style.  Standing on the site of an ancient Saxon Church, the present Cathedral building was constructed 900 years ago as the monastery church for a community of Augustinian Canons.  Since 1546 it has held a dual function as both College Chapel and Cathedral.  It has beautiful stained glass windows, including the Jonah Window painted in the 1630s by the Dutch artist Abraham van Linge and the Becket Window dating back to 1320. Created in 1500, the Cathedral’s Chancel has a remarkable stone vaulted ceiling.  From Drifters narrowboat hire base at close to Oxford on the River Thames at Eynsham, it takes just under four hours to cruise to moorings close to Oxford City Centre.


Top 10 short breaks

Top 10 Late May Bank Holiday Boating Breaks

With Britain’s inland waterways in better shape than ever and the health benefits of spending time by the water proven, narrowboat holidays are becoming increasingly popular.

So why not pack up and ship out for a family adventure afloat over the Whitsun May holiday?

You don’t need a licence to steer a canal boat and all our operators provide boat steering tuition as part of their holiday packages.

Drifters offers over 550 boats for hire from 45 bases across England, Scotland and Wales.  Narrowboats range from 32ft to 70ft and can accommodate up to 12 people.  All are equipped with essential home comforts, including central heating, hot water, TV, showers, microwaves, flushing toilets, and many now have WiFi too.

Prices over the late May bank holiday start at £715 for a short break (three of four nights) on a boat for four people, £1,020 for a week, though it’s always checking our availability online for offers.

Here’s a list of our Top 10 late May Bank Holiday boating breaks, all perfect for beginners:

  1. Cruise along the peaceful Oxford Canal to Rugby – from our canal boat hire base on the Oxford Canal at Napton in Warwickshire, it takes just over six hours, travelling 15 miles and passing through three locks, to reach the historic market town of Rugby.  The route takes boaters through quiet countryside, with farmland and woodlands bordering the canal most of the way.  There are canalside pubs to enjoy along the way at the villages of Hillmorton and Braunston and once at Rugby there’s a choice of pubs, restaurants and cafes to visit, as well as museums dedicated to the town’s history and history of the game of rugby.
  2. Enjoy the bright lights of Birmingham afloat – boasting more canals than Venice, Birmingham simply has to be visited by water.  With no locks between our base at Tardebigge on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal near Bromsgrove and Birmingham City Centre, it’s the perfect opportunity for novice canal boat holiday-makers to ‘dip their toe in the water’.  It takes just five hours to reach Birmingham, with the first half of the journey passing through fields, woodlands and sleepy villages.  Once in the centre of Birmingham, narrowboat holiday-makers can find over-night moorings at Gas Street Basin, with easy access to Brindleyplace, the Mailbox, Sea Life Centre and other city centre attractions. 
  3. Love the Llangollen – passing through stunning North Wales landscapes, the Llangollen Canal is one of the most popular canals on the network.  The journey to Chirk from our new narrowboat hire base on the Prees Branch of the Llangollen Canal at Whixall in Shropshire offers a fantastic short break holiday for beginners.  It takes around eight hours, passing through just two locks to reach the village of Chirk, with a choice of canalside pubs to enjoy and nearby Chirk Castle to visit.
  4. Potter through the Peak District – our Peak District base, at the junction of the Caldon and Trent & Mersey canals near Stoke on Trent, offers a fantastic way to experience this beautiful National Park in the heart of England.  Starting at the Etruria, home of the industrial potteries, the gentle 12-hour cruise along the peaceful Caldon Canal to Froghall Basin is perfect for narrowboat holiday beginners on a short break.
  5. Visit Georgian Bath – from our base at Hilperton on the Kennet & Avon Canal near Trowbridge in Wiltshire, the World Heritage Status City of Bath is a delightful six-hour cruise away.  The route passes through seven locks, over two stunning Bath stone aqueducts and past a series of popular historic canalside pubs, including The Cross Guns at Avoncliff.  Once in Bath, canal boat holiday makers can use their boat as a base to enjoy all that the City has to offer, including the Roman Baths, Jane Austen Museum and Royal Crescent.
  6. Travel through the Scottish Lowlands to Edinburgh – from Drifters’ base at Falkirk,Edinburgh Quay is a sedate 11-hour journey along the lock-free Union Canal.  The journey, perfect for beginners on a mid-week (four-night) or week-long break, starts with a trip through the iconic Falkirk Wheel – the world’s first and only rotating boat lift – and then passes through the lovely lowland villages of Linlithgow, Broxburn and Ratho.  Visitor moorings are available at Edinburgh Quay, just a five-minute walk from Princes Street, with easy access to the City’s many attractions, including Edinburgh Castle and Mark King Close, frozen in time beneath the Royal Mile.
  7. Steer gently through the countryside to Stone – from our boat yard at Great Haywood it takes just five hours of gentle cruising along the Trent & Mersey Canal to reach the historic Shropshire market town of Stone.  Stone is renowned as the food and drink capital of Staffordshire, with regular markets, a good choice of restaurants and the annual Food & Drink Festival in October.  Along the way, there are just four locks to pass through and plenty of pubs to enjoy, including The Woolpack at Weston and The Holly Bush Inn at Salt.
  8. Navigate to the Yorkshire Dales – the journey from our narrowboat rental base at Silsden on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal to the pretty North Yorkshire village of Gargrave and back takes 13 hours, passing through three locks each way.  The route takes boaters through the historic town of Skipton, with its striking medieval stone castle and extensive woodlands managed by the Woodland Trust.  Once at Gargrave, there are pubs to enjoy, including the popular Mason’s Arms, as well as easy access to the Yorkshire Dales National Park and the Pennine Way.
  9. Boat to Brewood and back – the journey to Brewood and back from our canal boat rental base at Gailey on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal offers an excellent short break route for canal boat holiday beginners.  Travelling a total of 25 miles, and passing through just two locks (one on the way, one on the way back), this gentle journey through the Shropshire countryside passes the waterside Anchor Inn at Cross Green and transfers boaters onto the Shropshire Union Canal at Autherley Junction.  On reaching the historic village of Brewood, with its half-timbered houses cottages and attractive Georgian houses, visitors have a choice of pubs, restaurants and tea rooms to dine at, including the canalside Bridge Inn.
  10. Visit Shakespeare’s Stratford – from our canal boat hire base at Wootton Wawen on the Stratford Canal near Henley-in-Arden, it’s a delightful six-hour, 17-lock cruise through the Warwickshire countryside to Bancroft Basin in the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon.  From there, it’s a short walk to the town’s restaurants, shops, markets, museums and theatres, including the 1,040 seat Royal Shakespeare Theatre, home to the Royal Shakespeare Company. 




Swap your car for a boat for a lower carbon holiday

Canals were the transport arteries of the industrial revolution, but today they offer the opportunity to take a lower carbon emission holiday.

When you swap your car for a boat, you’ll be using a third of the fuel and emitting a sixth of the pollution, and enjoying a holiday that has a 20 times smaller carbon footprint than a two-hour flight*. And once afloat, you can further reduce your carbon footprint by shopping locally and buying local produce.

Here’s a list of our Top 9 Summer Holidays afloat, with ideas of places to buy and eat locally sourced produce:

  1. Potter through the Shropshire countryside to Market Drayton – from Drifters’ 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 and regular street markets.  Along the way, you’ll pass through just six locks and a series of villages with canalside pubs, including the Junction Inn at Norbury and the Royal Oak at Gnosnall.  Once at Market Drayton, you can enjoy picking up local supplies at the regular Wednesday and Saturday markets.  
  2. Cruise through the countryside to Coventry to see the World’s largest tapestry – on a week’s holiday from our canal boat hire base at Napton on the Oxford Canal in Warwickshire, boaters can travel north up the Oxford Canal to connect with the Coventry Canal at Hawkesbury Junction.  The journey to Coventry takes around 14 hours, travelling 33 miles and passing through just four locks.  Along the way, the route passes through the pretty canal village of Braunston with a choice of pubs, including the Admiral Nelson family run canalside pub serving traditional home cooked food using locally sourced ingredients.  Once at Coventry Basin, you can moor up to visit the Cathedral, home to the World’s largest tapestry, Graham Sutherland’s ‘Christ in Glory’. 
  3. Toddle to Todmorden for some stunning Pennine scenery – on a short break (three or four nights) from Drifters’ base at Sowerby Bridge, you can cruise along the Rochdale Canal to Todmorden, a journey which takes around eight hours, travelling 10 miles and passing through 17 locks.  This historic town offers visitors fine Victorian architecture, plenty of pubs and restaurants, and a busy market selling a wide range of locally grown and made products.  Along the way, the route takes you through the beautiful Calder Valley village of Mytholmroyd, the birthplace of Ted Hughes, and the old mill town of Hebden Bridge, nestled in a fork in the hills, with a series of scenic waymarked walks and an amazing variety of shops, cafes, restaurants and pubs. 
  4. Travel the Warwickshire Ring – On a week’s holiday from our canal boat hire base on the Grand Union Canal at Braunston, you can travel the popular Warwickshire Ring, travelling 101 miles, through 94 locks in around 54 hours through a mixture of urban and rural landscapes.  Highlights along the way include the awesome Fight of 21 locks at Hatton, Birmingham’s Gas Street Basin in the heart of Britain’s second city, the flight of 11 locks at Atherstone and the pretty canal village of Braunston. 
  5. Visit Georgian Bath afloat – on a mid-week (four night) break from our canal boat hire base on the Kennet & Avon Canal at Devizes, next to the spectacular Caen Hill flight of locks, you can travel west to the beautiful World Heritage Status City of Bath, famous for its stunning Georgian architecture and fascinating Roman Baths.  The 20-mile journey to Bath passes through 10 locks and takes around 10 hours.  Along the way, the route passes through the village of Seend with its popular canalside Barge Inn, the historic town of Bradford on Avon with lots of independent shops and a regular farmers market.
  6. Glide across the awesome Pontcysyllte Aqueduct – passing through stunning North Wales landscapes, the Llangollen Canal is one of the most popular on the network.  On a short break from Drifters’ canal boat hire base at Chirk, you can reach the pretty Eisteddfod town of Llangollen, passing through four locks and over the magnificent Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which this year celebrates 10 years of World Heritage Status.  Built by Thomas Telford and William Jessop between 1796 and 1805 to enable slate and limestone to be moved from quarries in North Wales to the Midlands and beyond, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct measures a record-breaking 307 metres long, and at its highest point it is 38.4 metres above the River Dee. Llangollen prides itself on its fresh local produce available in its shops, markets and delis, including the Country Market held each Friday morning in the town hall.
  7. Cruise along the River Thames into the Cotswolds -from our narrowboat hire base on the River Thames at Oxford base, it’s a tranquil nine-hour, seven-lock cruise west to the pretty market town of Lechlade on the edge of the Cotswolds, perfect for a midweek break.  Along the way, you’ll cruise through miles of peaceful Oxfordshire countryside, past the village of Radcot with its Swan Hotel and Civil War Garrison Earthworks, and Kelmscott with its popular Plough Inn and Grade I listed Kelmscott Manor, once the Cotswold retreat of William Morris.  Lechlade offers a great choice of pubs and restaurants, plus Cutler & Bayliss a traditional family butcher and greengrocer, selling produce from local suppliers.
  8. Cruise to Linlithgow and back – from our canal boat hire base at Falkirk, at the junction of the Union and Forth & Clyde canals, on a short break you can travel along the Union Canal to Linlithgow.  The five-hour journey starts with trip through the iconic Falkirk Wheel, the world’s first and only rotating boat lift, which lifts boats 100ft from the Forth & Clyde Canal to the Union Canal above.  Next the route passes through two tunnels and two aqueducts, then miles of peaceful countryside follow.  Once at Linlithgow, you can moor up and visit the beautifully preserved remains of Linlithgow Palace on the shores of Linlithgow Loch, and visit some of the town’s shops and eateries.  Look out for the Narrowboat Farm market garden alongside the canal two miles east of Linlithgow.
  9. Take the Grand Union Canal to Warwick Castle – on a short break from our boat yard at Stockton on the Grand Union Canal in Warwickshire, you can reach the historic centre of Warwick in just six hours and moor up to explore the town’s magnificent castle on the banks of the River Avon.  Said to be ‘Britain’s greatest medieval experience’, the castle offers visitors a fantastic day out with Flight of the Eagles displays, the Kingmaker Exhibition, Horrible Histories Maze, The Castle Dungeon tour, the Mighty Trebuchet in action and costumed interpreters bringing history to life.  Along the way, you’ll pass the village of Long Itchington, which has no less than six pubs, including the Duck on the Pond, which uses ingredients for its dishes sourced from local suppliers.