Emma Cooke and Paul Miles explore ‘Canal boat holidays: the best UK routes, from the Avon Ring to Welsh waterways’
The ‘Seven Wonders of the Waterways’ was compiled over 60 years ago by Robert Aickman, co-founder of the Inland Waterways Association, and published in his book ‘Know Your Waterways’. Here at Drifters, we’ve added the Falkirk Wheel in Scotland (which opened in 2002) to make the perfect Canal Boat Holidays Bucket List:
1. The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct – carrying the Llangollen Canal 38 metres (126ft) high above the River Dee, the awesome World Heritage Status Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is the highest and longest aqueduct in Britain. Built between 1795 and 1805, it has 18 magnificent stone piers, supporting a 307-metre (1007ft) long trough for the canal to run through. With not even a hand rail on the south side of the aqueduct to obscure the views of the breath-taking Dee Valley below, boaters literally feel like they are floating above the earth! Drifters has a canal boat hire base on the Llangollen Canal at Trevor in North Wales, just a five-minute cruise from the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.
2. The Anderton Boat Lift – also known as ‘The Cathedral of the Canals’ this extraordinary structure raises boats 15 metres (50ft) from the River Weaver to the Trent & Mersey Canal. Designed by Edwin Clark and opened in 1875, it consists of two caissons, each large enough to take a barge or pair of narrowboats. In 1983 problems with the mechanism caused the lift to close but after a Heritage Lottery Funded restoration, it reopened in 2002. Drifters has a narrowboat hire base on the Trent & Mersey Canal at Anderton, right next to the Lift.
3. The Caen Hill Flight – with 16 of its 29 locks falling in a straight line, the Caen Hill flight of locks on the Kennet & Avon Canal at Devizes in Wiltshire is visually the most impressive in the country. The locks were the final link in the Kennet & Avon Canal’s construction, opening in 1810. By 1950 they had become derelict but after a major restoration effort, they were reopened HM The Queen in 1990. Drifters’ Devizes canal boat hire base is at the base of the flight.
4. The Bingley Five-Rise Locks – completed in 1774, this spectacular staircase of locks on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal 17 miles from Leeds, raises (or lowers) boats 18 metres (60ft) in five cavernous chambers. The locks open directly from one to another, with the top gate of one forming the bottom gate of the next. Our nearest canal boat hire base is on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal at Silsden, a distance of six miles away. With five locks to pass through along the way, the journey to Bingley takes around four-and-a-half hours.
5. The Standedge Tunnel – tunnelling for over three miles beneath the Pennines, this incredible feat of 18 and 19th century engineering is the longest, highest and deepest tunnel on the canal system. Cutting through solid rock, it took the navvies 16 years to build, opening in 1811. In the 20th century, the Huddersfield Canal fell into disrepair, becoming un-navigable by 1948, but after a long restoration programme, both the canal and tunnel were reopened in 2001. Today narrowboat holiday-makers need to book their passage though with a Canal & River Trust, and there is also a trip boat operating from the Marsden end. Our nearest base is at Sowerby Bridge, on the junction of the Calder & Hebble Navigation and Rochdale Canal, 20 miles and 65 locks away. The journey to Standedge takes around 21 hours (three days).
6. Barton Swing Aqueduct – originally built in 1761 by James Brindley to take the Bridgewater Canal across the River Irwell, the Barton Aqueduct was considered a marvel at the time of its opening. But when the Manchester Ship Canal company decided to use the course of the Irwell at Barton as part of its navigation channel, Brindley’s Aqueduct was replaced by the Barton Swing Aqueduct in 1893. The 1,450 tonne, 100-metre long aqueduct swings open, full of water, to allow the passage of ships along the Manchester Ship Canal. Our nearest base is at Acton Bridge, on the Trent & Mersey Canal near Northwich in Cheshire. From there, it takes around nine hours, travelling 26 miles and through just one lock, to reach the Barton Swing Aqueduct.
7. The Burnley Embankment – also known as ‘The Straight Mile’, the mile-long Burnley Embankment carries the Leeds & Liverpool Canal over 18 metres (60ft) high across part of the town, offering boaters breath-taking panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. Though costly and difficult to build, the Burnley Embankment, which spans the Calder Valley, avoided the need for a series of locks which would have slowed cargo-carrying boats down. Designed by Robert Whitworth, the embankment was built between 1796 and 1801 and involved the mammoth task of transporting (by horse and cart) around half a million tons of earth from the nearby canal cutting at Whittlefield and tunnel at Gannow. Drifters’ narrowboat hire base at Barnoldswick is just 11 miles away from Burnley, which with seven locks to pass through, takes around five hours.
8. The Falkirk Wheel – built as part of the Millennium Link project to restore the canals linking the east and west coasts of Scotland, The Falkirk Wheel is the world’s first and only rotating boat lift. Standing at a height of 35 metres, it moves boats between the Union Canal and Forth & Clyde Canal, replacing a flight of 11 locks which had been dismantled in 1933. It can carry up to 600 tonnes (eight or more boats) and uses just 1.5KWh of energy to turn – the same amount it takes to boil eight kettles. Drifters offers canal boat rental at Falkirk, right next to the Wheel.
Reputedly playing host to hundreds of ghosts, with 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 our Top 7 spookiest spots:
1. Be stunned at Standedge Tunnel…at 3.25 miles long, Standedge Tunnel on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal at Marsden 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 (it took 17 years to build the tunnel), 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. Standedge Tunnel can be reached as part of a one-way one-week trip from our base at Sowerby Bridge.
2. 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.
3. 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 Drifters’ base at Brewood on the Shropshire Union Canal in Staffordshire near Stafford.
4. 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…? Blisworth Tunnel can easily be reached from our bases at Braunston, Stockton, Rugby, Clifton-on-Dunsmore, Stretton or Gayton.
5. Hear about 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. Harecastle Tunnel can be reached on a short break from our bases at Great Haywood and Peak District.
6. Watch out for 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. The Aqueduct can be reached on a short break from our bases at Trevor, Chirk and Blackwater Meadow.
7. Beware the bloody steps at Brindley Bank…the Trent & Mersey Canal at Brindley Bank Aqueduct in Staffordshire, is said to be haunted by Christina Collins, who was murdered there on 17 June 1839 and her body flung into the canal. Three boatmen were convicted of her killing; two were hanged, the third transported. As Christina’s body was dragged from the water, her blood ran down a flight of sandstone steps leading from the canal and it is said that the stain occasionally reappears on those stones. Brindley Bank is just over an hour away from our base at Great Haywood on the Trent & Mersey Canal.
Cruising rings are popular with canal boat holiday-makers, offering journeys along several different waterways, taking in a huge variety of landscapes.
Some are seriously challenging with steep flights of locks and long dark tunnels to negotiate. While others, like the Droitwich Ring, are easier and more suitable for narrowboat holiday beginners.
Here are our Top 9 cruising rings:
1. The Droitwich Ring (21 miles, 33 locks, 16 hours): Starting from the Drifters’ narrowboat hire bases at Worcester or Stoke Prior, this cruising ring is the only one in Europe which can be completed on a short break. It re-opened five years ago following the £13million restoration of the Droitwich Canals, which reconnected the River Severn and the Worcester & Birmingham Canal at Worcester. Highlights include: the historic Spa town of Droitwich; the Hanbury flight of locks; and the beautiful City of Worcester with its stunning cathedral.
2. The Outer Pennine Ring (192 miles, 248 locks, 130 hours): not for the faint-hearted nor inexperienced, this epic three-week journey can be undertaken from Drifters’ bases at Sowerby Bridge or Barnoldswick. It crosses the Pennines twice and includes the passage of Britain’s longest canal tunnel. It takes in the Calder & Hebble Navigation, the Huddersfield Narrow, Ashton, Rochdale, Bridgewater, Leeds & Liverpool canals; and the Aire & Calder Navigation with electric locks. Highlights include: dramatic Pennine views; Tuel Lane Deep Lock; Manchester City Centre; and the awesome three and a quarter-mile long Standedge Tunnel which cuts through the Pennies to link Marsden and Diggle; Bingley Five Rise locks; Skipton with its medieval castle; Leeds City Centre and waterside Royal Armouries Museum.
3. The Stourport Ring (74 miles, 118 locks, 44 hours): Starting from our canal boat hire bases at Autherley, Stoke Prior, Tardebigge, Gailey or Alvechurch, this offers an exhilarating and hugely popular week. The route takes in the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, the Worcester & Birmingham Canal Navigation, the upper section of the River Severn, Birmingham & Fazeley Canal, Birmingham Canal Main Line and the Birmingham Canal Old Main Line. The Stourport Ring visits three cities: Wolverhampton; Birmingham (with central moorings in Gas Street Station, close to shops, restaurants and museums); and the ancient City of Worcester. Highlights include: Wolverhampton 21 locks; Brindleyplace and Gas Street Basin in Birmingham; open countryside on the River Severn; Stourport Basins; Bratch Locks at Wombourne; the pretty village of Kinver with National Trust rock houses; the Black Country Living Museum; and Cadbury World.
4. The Cheshire Ring (97 miles, 92 locks, 55 hours): starting from the Drifters’ base at Anderton, Acton Bridge, Autherley or Peak District, this superb route takes narrowboat holiday-makers 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 on the Peak Forest Canal; the Cheshire Plain; and heavily locked ‘Heartbreak Hill’.
5. The Warwickshire Ring (101 miles, 94 locks, 48 hours): starting from Drifters’ bases at Stoke Golding, Stoke Prior, Napton, Coventry, Warwick, Stockton, Stretton, Braunston or Rugby, with a mixture of urban and rural landscapes, the Warwickshire Ring is easily navigated in two weeks. It takes in the Grand Union, Oxford, Coventry and Birmingham & Fazeley canals. Highlights include: the flight of 11 locks into Atherstone, Hawkesbury Junction, one of the tightest turns on the system where the Oxford joins the Coventry; Hillmorton locks (three pairs); the Knowle Flight of five locks; the pretty canal village of Braunston; Napton Junction; Newbold and Shrewley tunnels; the awesome Hatton Flight of 21 locks; Warwick Castle; Leamington Spa; and Birmingham’s Gas Street Basin.
6. Avon Ring (108 miles, 130 locks, 58 hours): Starting from Drifters’ bases at Napton, Autherley, Stoke Prior, Tardebigge or Wootton Wawen, this World-famous journey includes 130 locks. Most people do this trip in a more leisurely 10 days or two weeks, but it is possible to do it in a week. The Avon Ring navigates sections of the Stratford Canal, River Avon, River Severn and Worcester & Birmingham Canal. Highlights include: Stratford-Upon-Avon and its famous Swan Theatre; the Lapworth flight of 25 locks; the Wilmcote flight of 11 locks; the River Avon and its panoramic views across Wawickshire and the Cotswolds; historic Evesham and Tewskesbury; Worcester and its magnificent cathedral; Telford’s lofty Mythe Bridge; the tidal River Severn double river-lock at Diglis, the 30 lock Tardebigge Flight, the longest in the country; and the 2495 metre long Wast Hills Tunnel.
7. The Four Counties Ring (110 miles, 94 locks, 55 hours): Starting from our bases at Autherley, Acton Bridge, Coventry, Brewood, Great Haywood, Peak District or Gailey, this ring is achievable on a week-long holiday. The four counties are Staffordshire, the West Midlands, Cheshire and Shropshire and the route includes the Trent & Mersey, Staffs & Worcs and Shropshire Union canals. Predominantly rural, this ring’s highlights include: the World famous 2670-metre long Harecastle Tunnel; extravagant cuttings and embankments on the Shropshire Union; Market Drayton home of gingerbread; Wedgewood Pottery Visitor Centre; views of the rolling Cheshire Plains; the Roman town of Middlewich; the Ski Centre, China Gardens and Waterworld at Etruria; Shugborough Hall; Churches Mansion; the waters at Tixall Wide on the Staffs & Worcs; the narrow canal at Autherley Junction; and the flight of 15 locks at Audlem.
8. The Black Country Ring (125 miles, 79 locks, 60 hours): from Drifters’ bases at Autherley, Great Haywood, Coventry or Gailey this exhilarating ring is achievable in a week. The Ring takes in the Birmingham & Fazeley, Birmingham Main Line, Coventry, Staffordshire & Worcestershire and Trent & Mersey canals. Highlights include: Birmingham’s Gas Street Basin with access to city centre shops, restaurants and museums; 21 locks at Wolverhampton; the Black Country Living Museum; Dudley Zoo & Castle; Drayton Manor Park at Fazeley; the Staffs & Worcs Roundhouses; the waters at Tixhall Wide; Fradley Pool Nature Reserve at Fradley Junction; 11 locks at Ashton; and 13 at Farmer’s Bridge.
9. The Leicester Ring (157 miles, 102 locks, 75 hours): from Drifters’ bases at Stoke Golding, Rugby, Napton, Coventry, Braunston, Stretton, Market Harborough or Gayton, this epic route is achievable in two weeks. The route cruises a mixture of non-tidal, broad and narrow canals, including the Birmingham & Fazeley, Coventry, Oxford, Trent & Mersey canals, the Grand Union Leicester Line and the rivers Soar and Trent. Highlights include: the Saddlington Tunnel, a roost for bats on the Leicester Line; the Foxton Staircase of Locks and Museum dedicated to the incredible Foxton Inclined Plane Boat Lift which once carried boats up and down the hill in two giant bath tubs; the pretty canal village of Stoke Bruerne with its Canal Museum; Blisworth Tunnel; Braunston canal village; Hillmorton Locks; 11 locks at Atherstone; Coventry and views of its magnificent cathedral; and the 18th century canal village of Shardlow.
With the Leeds & Liverpool Canal celebrating its 200th birthday this year, and a new pop-up base established at Ashton-under-Lyne, we’ve put together our Top 6 Yorkshire holidays for 2016.
2016 prices from our Yorkshire bases start at £415 for a short break (three or four nights), £610 for a week on a boat for two.
1. One-way across the Pennines…Starting from our canal boat hire base at Barnoldswick on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal near Skipton, this week-long holiday is truly one of the great canal journeys, taking canal boat holiday-makers across the backbone of England. The scenery varies from the timeless calm of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal summit to the hubbub of the Leeds City Centre waterfront, and includes the Bingley Five Rise locks, one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways, and the opportunity to visit Sir Titus Salt’s World Heritage Status model town at Saltaire.
2. Visit Skipton and its medieval castle…on a short break (three or four nights) from Drifters’ base at Barnoldswick, boaters can head east along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal to Skipton and back (total journey there and back of 26 miles, 30 locks, 20 hours). This breath-taking route winds along the contours of the side of Airedale, with extensive views of sheep country – farmhouses, barns, stone walls and the occasional village or town. Once in Skipton, boaters can moor in the centre of the town, visit shops and restaurants and explore the 900-year old Skipton Castle, one of the most complete and best preserved medieval castles in England.
3. Travel along the beautiful Peak Forest Canal to Busgworth Basin…from our new pop-up base at Ashton-under-Lyne, on a week’s holiday canal boat holiday-makers can travel along the Peak Forest Canal, one of Britain’s most scenic waterways, to Bugsworth Basin and back (32 miles, 32 locks, 20 hours). The Peak Forest Canal, which runs through magnificent landscape to the edge of the Peak District, was originally built to transport limestone from the quarries of Derbyshire. The route passes through Marple, with its stunning newly-restored three-arch aqueduct, a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Then on to New Mills and Whaley Bridge before reaching the astonishing Bugsworth Basin, also a Scheduled Ancient Monument, all restored by volunteers. Once at Bugsworth, enjoy country walks and visit the popular Navigation Inn.
4. Bumble along to Brighouse and back for some brass band history…from 1 July onwards, on a short break (three or four nights) canal boat holiday-makers can travel to Brighouse and back along the leafy Calder & Hebble Navigation from Drifters’ base at Sowerby Bridge. This historic town, famous for its Brighouse and Rastick Brass Band, offers glorious Pennines walks, food and craft markets, 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. To Rishton and back for a trip through industrial history…on a week’s holiday from our Barnoldswick base, narrowboat holiday-makers can travel west along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal to Rishton and back (insert miles, locks and hours). The journey begins on the summit before plunging into Foulridge Tunnel then down to Barrowford Locks. After 20 miles on one level, boaters sail above Burnley’s rooftops on its embankment, one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways. Boaters can stop-off the Weavers Triangle visitor centre at Burnley before carrying on through largely open scenery and the historic town of Rishton, the first place calico cloth was woven on an industrial scale. The trip includes spectacular views of the Lancashire Calder Valley and Pendle Hill, famous for its witches (53 miles 14 locks 20 hours).
6. Take a cultural cruise to Wakefield…from 1 July, on a mid-week break from our Sowerby Bridge base, canal boat holiday-makers can travel to Wakefield and back to visit the fabulous Hepworth Wakefield (40 miles, 52 locks, 22 hours). The Gallery, which has moorings right outside and is the largest purpose-built exhibition space outside London, offers over 1,600 square metres of light-filled gallery spaces, bringing together work from Wakefield’s art collection, exhibitions by contemporary artists and rarely seen works by Barbara Hepworth. Self-confessed ‘artoholic’, and retired BBC Radio 4 writer Tim Sayer has bestowed a significant gift of modern and contemporary British art to Wakefield. Amassed over the last 50 years, the extensive collection includes works by modern and contemporary artists including Alexander Calder, Kenneth Martin, Henry Moore, Sean Scully, Naum Gabo, Antony Gormley, Louise Bourgeois, David Hockney, Paul Nash, John Nash, David Nash, Sol LeWitt, Robert Motherwell, Bridget Riley, Anthony Caro, Richard Smith, Prunella Clough and Alan Reynolds. Major works from the Tim Sayer Bequest will go on display at the gallery from 30 April 2016. Boaters can also take the 96 bus from Wakefield direct to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, with open-air displays of work by some of the world’s finest artists, including Henry Moore.
Despite the serious damage to Yorkshire’s waterways as a result of the Boxing Day floods, Drifters’ member Shire Cruisers has started the season on time, with holidays beginning this week from both its Sowerby Bridge and Barnoldswick bases, plus a new pop-up fleet at Ashton-under-Lyne.
Short break boaters travelling from Sowerby Bridge can enjoy the Calder Valley between Elland and Hebden Bridge.
Holiday options from here will expand as post-flooding repairs progress through the spring and, by July, canal boat holiday-makers should be able to reach Wakefield and beyond.
Shire Cruisers has created a pop-up fleet at Ashton-under-Lyne to give more customers the chance to explore the Pennine scenery of the Peak Forest and Macclesfield Canals. And the fleet on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal at Barnoldswick has been expanded to provide unlimited cruising for customers on longer holidays.
This spring, Shire Cruisers’s famous one-way trips will travel between Barnoldswick and Huddersfield rather than Sowerby Bridge, covering the Leeds & Liverpool, Aire & Calder and Calder & Hebble. And to cover the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, one way trips will run between Ashton and Huddersfield.
Birmingham has more canals than Venice and many of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games venues are close to a canal, so here are Drifters Top 5 #Birmingham2022 holidays afloat #LifesBetterByWater drifters.co.uk/visit-the-birm… pic.twitter.com/9ZpbNO3w66
RT @AbcBoatHire Looming at a spectacular 126ft over the River Dee, is the #PontcysyllteAqueduct. Boaters flock to the Llangollen canal every year, to experience this feat in civil engineering. Have you cruised along the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct this year? #Llangollen #WorldHeritage #NarrowboatHire pic.twitter.com/pwlr9Fi2fT
Elaine Wilson of @EccentricEng reviews her recent @Drifters6 narrowboat holiday, setting off from our Stockton base on the Grand Union Canal in Warwickshire #staycation #narrowboat #LifesBetterByWater eccentricengland.co.uk/home/c… pic.twitter.com/YhdMk8f1Qu