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‘Top of the locks’ narrowboat holiday destinations for 2021

There are over 1,800 locks on the 2,000 miles of navigable waterways in England and Wales.  Locks allow boats to travel up and down hills, and have been around for hundreds of years.

With around 35,000 boats licenced to cruise the canals, there are approximately 3.85 million lockages (uses of a lock) each year.

A lock is simply a chamber with gates at either end, and canal boat holiday-makers follow a series of step-by-step tasks to use them.  By emptying or filling the chamber with water, boats can move up or down onto a new section of waterway.

There are many different kinds of locks

From narrow and broad, to staircase and double, there are many different kinds of locks.  But they all on work on a similar principle.  With the lock gates closed, boaters should open the sluices (paddles) to let the water in or out.  When the water level under the boat is the same as the level it’s moving to, the boat can move in or out of the lock.

Some locks are operated by boaters, others by lock-keepers.  Tuition is included in all Drifters’ canal boat holiday packages, and during the handover boat yard staff will usually guide hirers through their first lock.

Top 8 flights of locks

Here at Drifters’ we’ve put together our Top 8 flights of locks to celebrate these marvels of canal engineering:

  1. The Caen Hill Flight on the Kennet & Avon Canal

One of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Waterways’ and a Scheduled Ancient Monument, the locks at Caen Hill are one of the most iconic sites on the waterway network.  With 29 locks spread out over two miles, raising the canal by 72 metres, it takes around six hours to passage through.  The 16-lock section clustered together up the hill is truly a magnificent site.  Drifters’ narrowboat hire base at Devizes is at the base of the Flight at Foxhangers Marina.

  1. Marple Locks on the Peak Forest Canal

One of the steepest flights on the system, the 16 locks at Marple raise boats by 64 metres over just one mile.  The locks are built of local stone and are mostly tree-lined, giving the canal a lovely secluded feeling.  In fact the Peak Forest Canals is said to be one of Britain’s most scenic waterways.  It runs through beautiful countryside on the edge of the Peak District National Park.  Drifters’ canal boat hire base at Stoke on Trent is 32 miles and 14 locks away.

  1. The Tardebigge Flight on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal

With 30 locks spread out over two-and-a-quarter miles, this awesome flight of locks is the longest on the inland waterways system.  In total, the locks raise and lower boats 67 metres, and it takes around five-and-a-half hours to travel through them.  In recognition of the effort it takes, the Canal & River Trust issues certificates to boaters rising (or lowering) to the challenge.  Drifters’ nearest canal boat hire base is at the top of the flight at Tardebigge Wharf, near Bromsgrove.

  1. The Bingley 5 Rise on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal

This spectacular staircase of five locks near Bradford is another of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Waterways’.  The locks raise (or lower) boats 18 metres in five cavernous chambers.  The locks open directly from one to another, with the top gate of one forming the bottom of the next.  It takes around one-and-a-half hours to work through.  The size of the chambers can be intimidating even for experienced boaters, but friendly lock-keepers are on hand to help.  Drifters’ nearest canal boat rental base is 25 miles and 20 locks away at Barnoldswick.

  1. The Hatton Flight on the Grand Union Canal

This impressive flight of 21 locks was nicknamed ‘The Stairway to Heaven’ by the boaters who once carried cargos on the canals.  The locks rise up 45 metres over two miles, and it takes boaters around four-and-a-half hours to travel through them.  Just below the Top lock, Hatton Locks Café provides welcome refreshment for narrowboat holiday-makers and the “gongoozlers” watching them!  Drifters’ nearest canal boat hire base is at Warwick, just two miles and two locks from Hatton Bottom Lock.

  1. Foxton Locks on the Grand Union Canal Leicester Line

With countryside views all around, this flight of 10 locks raises boats up 23 metres in just a quarter-of-a-mile.  Foxton Locks is the longest set of staircase locks in the UK and is designated a Grade II Listed structure.  Staircase locks open directly one from another, so that the top gate of one forms the bottom of the next.  It takes around 45 minutes to pass through the locks.  Lock keepers are on hand to help, providing key advice when it comes to opening the paddles.  Their mantra “Red before white, you’ll be alright. White before red, you’ll be dead” is helpful to keep in mind!  Drifters’ nearest narrowboat boat hire base is a 14 hour cruise away, on the Grand Union Canal at Braunston.


  1. Wolverhampton Locks on the Birmingham Main Line Canal

This flight of 21 locks rises boats up by 40 metres over one-and-three-quarter miles.  Travelling through these historic locks is one of the highlights for narrowboat holiday-makers travelling round the popular Stourport Ring.  Drifters’ nearest canal boat hire base is just 12 minutes away at Autherley.


  1. ‘Heartbreak Hill’ on the Trent & Mersey Canal

The Cheshire flight of 31 locks between Middlewich and Kidsgrove, raise the canal up 85 metres from the Cheshire Plains.  The locks have been renamed ‘Heartbreak Hill’ by generations of leisure boaters.  Because the locks are close enough for the crew to stay on the towpath, but far enough to require a lot of walking!  Drifters’ nearest canal boat rental base is three cruising hours away at Stoke on Trent.

Celebrate 80 years of The Hobbit with a trip through Tolkien country

Celebrate 80 years of The Hobbit with a trip through Tolkien country

Published 21 September 1937 to wide critical acclaim, the popularity of JRR Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ endures, not least amongst the canal boat community where dozens of boats bear the names of Tolkien’s characters.

Tolkien spent much of his childhood exploring the village of Sarehole (now Hall Green), Moseley Bog, the Malvern Hills, and nearby Bromsgrove, Alcester and Alvechurch.

From our canal boat hire base on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal at Alvechurch, narrowboat holiday-makers can travel through some of the landscapes that inspired Tolkien’s masterpiece.

On a short break, travel along beautiful tree-lined waters to the village of Lapworth and back, with only one lock to pass through – perfect for canal boat holiday beginners.

On a week’s holiday from Alvechurch, more experienced boaters can tackle the Stourport Ring, travelling 74 miles through 118 locks in around 45 hours.

****To Lapworth & Back – suggested short break (three night) itinerary for beginners

Day 1: On a weekend break from Alvechurch, pick-up your boat on Friday afternoon and after an hour’s handover and tuition, head north along the Worcester & Birmingham Canal towards Birmingham. After three miles, pass through the 2493-metre long Wast Hills Tunnel, one of the longest in the country. Two miles later at King’s Norton Junction the Worcester & Birmingham meets the Stratford Canal. Turn here onto the Stratford Canal and pass through Brandwood Tunnel and the Stop Lock, the only lock on this journey. Soon after, moor-up for the first night at the visitor moorings at Yardley Wood Bridge number 5.

Day 2: Continue on a further six lock-free miles through the countryside before reaching the top of the Lapworth Flight. Moor-up here and take a short walk to the National Trust’s Packwood House, a stunning Grade I listed timber-framed Tudor manor house, with its famous Yew Garden containing over 100 trees planted in the mid-17th century. Alternatively, it’s also a short walk into the village of Lapworth to dine at the Boot Inn, a traditional country pub with a wide-ranging menu, and the Canal Shop is also close by for provisions.

Day 3: Turn and travel leisurely back towards Alvechurch, stopping to moor up for the last night at Hopwood, where The Hopwood House historic canalside pub serves traditional pub food and Rotisserie chicken, freshly roasted every day.

Day 4: Complete the last hour cruise back to the canal boat hire base at Alvechurch, in time to return the boat at 9.30am.

****The Stourport Ring – a summary of the route and ideas of where to stop to explore along the way

From Alvechurch, head north along the Worcester & Birmingham Canal past King’s Norton Junction and Cadbury’s Chocolate Factory at Bourneville, travelling lock-free all the way into the centre of Birmingham – a journey that takes around four hours.

Here boaters can moor up in Gas Street Basin, close to Brindleyplace and enjoy waterside restaurants, the National Sea Life Centre and access to Birmingham’s many city centre attractions, including the spectacular Symphony Hall.

Next the route travels onto the Birmingham Canal Main Line heading to Wolverhampton, which takes around six hours. Continuing to travel lock-free, the route passes through Cosely Tunnel, then Wolverhampton Tunnel, after which boaters can stop at visitor moorings to explore Wolverhampton, including its Grand Theatre and the fantastic Pop Art collection at its Art Gallery.

The Wolverhampton flight of 21 locks is next to negotiate, which takes about four hours, before reaching Aldersley Junction and the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal.

Six miles and another six locks later, boaters reach Bratch Top Lock and pumping station in the pretty village of Wombourne, with its popular Railway Café and choice of village pubs.

A mile later, the canalside Waggon & Horses pub with an extensive menu and large beer garden, is a welcome stopping place.

After another eight locks, boaters reach Stourton Junction, where the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal meets the Stourbridge Canal. From here, it’s an eight-hour journey on to Stourport, travelling through 13 locks, past Kinver with access to the National Trust’s intriguing Kinver Rock Houses, and the market town of Kidderminster, with canalside dining at The Watermill and The Lock Inn.

On arriving at Stourport, once a busy inland port, boaters can explore the basins by following circular walks, and enjoy dining at the Bird in Hand, Windlass Café or Rising Sun Inn.
Next there’s a 12-mile section of the River Severn to travel along to reach the beautiful Cathedral City of Worcester, and transfer back onto the Worcester & Birmingham Canal at Diglis Basin in the heart of the city. From here, boaters can take time out to see the City’s many splendid buildings, including its spectacular cathedral – with medieval cloisters, ancient crypt and magnificent stained glass.

Now on the last leg of the journey, the Worcester & Birmingham Canal takes boaters out of Worcester and steadily upwards through rolling fields and wooded cuttings, passing through the village of Tibberton, with its Bridge Inn.

Dunhampstead Tunnel is next and then Hanbury Wharf, where the Droitwich Canal meets the Worcester & Birmingham Canal.
After travelling through the Stoke flight of six locks boaters can rest at The Queen’s Head at Stoke Pound, which offers wood fired pizzas, barbeques and live music, before tackling the mighty

Tardebigge flight of 30 locks. One of the largest flights in Europe, these locks take the canal up 67 metres over a two-and-a-quarter mile stretch, and take around five hours to complete.
There are moorings at the top of the flight at Tardebigge and spectacular views. From here, it takes just over an hour to get back to Alvechurch, passing through fields and woods and two short tunnels – Tardebigge and Shortwood.