Emma Cooke and Paul Miles explore ‘Canal boat holidays: the best UK routes, from the Avon Ring to Welsh waterways’
From rural retreats to vibrant city centres, narrowboat holiday-makers can use their boat as a floating holiday home.
You can explore Britain’s beautiful 3,000-mile network of inland waterways, with the choice of hundreds of waterside destinations to visit along the way.
It’s free to moor almost anywhere on the network, so you can plan your journey around your chosen mooring sites. These can include canalside pubs, beauty spots and places to relax and enjoy a sundowner on deck.
To help you plan your next narrowboat holiday adventure, we’ve listed the top five places to watch the sunset afloat:
1. Tixall Wide in Staffordshire
From our canal boat holiday hire base at Great Haywood on the Trent & Mersey Canal in Staffordshire, it takes just half an hour to cruise to Tixall Wide. This beautiful lake on the Staffordshire & Worcester Canal was created at the time of the construction of the canal. It was designed to mitigate objections of the residents of Tixall Hall, who didn’t want the new canal to spoil their view. Today it’s a peaceful haven for wildlife and the perfect place to watch the sun go down.
2. Lock 37 on the Rochdale Canal in Lancashire
From our narrowboat yard at Sowerby Bridge is at the junction of the Calder & Hebble Navigation and the Rochdale Canal. From there, it takes around 13 hours (travelling 13 miles and passing through 35 locks) to reach West Summit Lock 37 on the Rochdale Canal. This takes you high up in the Pennines. Here you can moor up before the lock to watch the sun go down. And then take a short walk to the village of Summit and The Summit Inn.
3. Calcutt Locks in Warwickshire
From our narrowboat hire base at Stockton Top Marina on the Grand Union Canal in Warwickshire, it takes just half an hour to reach the bottom of Calcutt Locks. This is a great place to view the sunset over Stockton. From there, on a short break you can continue on to the pretty canal village of Braunston with a choice of pubs. On a week away, you can continue on up the North Oxford Canal and on to the Ashby Canal. From there, you can enjoy 23 miles of lock free cruising through the countryside.
4. Chirk Aqueduct in North Wales
From our narrowboat hire base at Chirk on the Llangollen Canal, it takes half an hour to reach Chirk Aqueduct. This carries boaters 21 metres high across the River Ceiriog and the English/Welsh border. There are moorings on the north side, perfect for looking out across the valley beyond. On a short break from Chirk, you can continue on to cross the World Heritage Status Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. It stands 38 metres high across the Dee Valley. Then you can cruise on to the Eisteddfod town of Llangollen, on the edge of the Berwyn Mountains.
5. Castleford Flood Lock in West Yorkshire –
From Sowerby Bridge, it takes around 15 hours to reach Castleford Flood Lock No.9 on the Aire & Calder Navigation. The journey travels 29 miles and passes through 31 locks. Along the way, you’ll travel along the Calder & Hebble Navigation through Elland, Brighouse, Mirfield and Wakefield. Then you cane transferg onto the Wakefield section of the Aire & Calder Navigation. Then cruise on to Castleford, the birthplace of the sculptor Henry Moore.
With boats travelling at a maximum speed of 4mph, and over 3,000 miles of navigable peaceful inland waterways to explore across Britain, canal boat holidays really are the fastest way to slow down. From rural retreats to vibrant city centres, narrowboat holiday-makers can use their boat as a floating holiday home to explore.
Drifters’ offers over 580 boats for hire from 45 locations across England, Scotland and Wales. 2018 hire prices start at £395 for a short break (three or four nights) on a boat for four, £575 for a week. Tuition is included in all our holiday packages.
There are hundreds of routes and destinations to choose from, but to help plan your next boating adventure, here are our Top 10 narrowboat holidays for 2018:
1. Visit the newly reopened iconic Piece Hall in Halifax…on a short break (three or four nights) from Drifters’ base at Sowerby Bridge, Salterhebble Basin on the Halifax Branch of the Calder & Hebble Navigation is a two mile cruise away. From there, it’s a two mile walk to Piece Hall, one of the most iconic heritage buildings in Britain. Once the centre of the global woollen trade, following a multi-million-pound transformation, this monumental Georgian structure with its immense, open air piazza is now home to a mix of independent bars, shops and cafes, and a seasonal programme of events.
2. See the pop-up art installations on the Droitwich Ring…as part of the Canal & River Trust’s Arts of the Waterways programme, the charity which cares for our canals and rivers is commissioning artists to produce dynamic temporary artworks and live events along the 21-mile long Droitwich Ring, for visitors to enjoy from March to September 2018. The restoration of the Droitwich Canals was completed in 2011, reconnecting them to the Worcester & Birmingham Canal and the River Severn, and creating a canal boat holiday cruising ring that can be completed on a short break (three or four nights), travelling through 33 locks in around 15 hours from Drifters’ Worcester base.
3. Marvel at the Caen Hill Flight at Devizes…arguably the most impressive flight of locks on the UK waterway network, the spectacular 16 locks in a row climbing Caen Hill on the Kennet & Avon Canal at Devizes, forms the middle section of 29-lock flight stretching for two miles and raising the canal up by 237ft. The Caen Hill Locks were the final section of the canal to be completed in 1810 and one of the final sections to be restored before the re-opening of the Kennet & Avon Canal in 1990. From Drifters’ boatyard at Hilperton near Trowbridge, it’s a four-hour cruise, travelling seven miles, through seven locks, to reach Fox Hanger Wharf at the base of the Caen Hill Flight. It takes a further five hours to reach the top of the flight.
4. Follow the Lime Kiln Trail on the Mon & Brec…isolated from the main canal network, the beautiful Monmouth & Brecon Canal runs through the Brecon Beacons National Park and is home to a series of historic lime kilns. Stretching 35 miles from Brecon to Cwmbran, this peaceful waterway, with very few locks, offers canal boat holiday-makers incredible mountain views and a fascinating insight into the history of lime production, in an area where both limestone and coal were in plentiful supply. On a short break from Drifters’ base at Goytre Wharf, near Abergavenny, boaters can cruise lock-free to Llangynidr and back, with lime kilns to visit along the way at Goytre, Gilwern and Llangattock.
5. See the ancient topiary at Packwood House…From our canal boat hire base at Wootton Wawen on the Stratford Canal near Henley-in-Arden, it’s a seven-mile, 31-lock and 10-hour journey through the Forest of Arden to Lapworth Lock No 6. From there it’s a half-mile walk to the National Trust’s beautiful timber-framed Tudor manor house, Packwood House, where, according to legend, the famous 350-year old trees in Packwood’s iconic Yew Garden represent the ‘Sermon on the Mount’.
6. Float across ‘The Stream in the Sky’…from Drifters’ base at Chirk on the beautiful Llangollen Canal in North Wales, the awesome World Heritage Status Pontcysyllte Aqueduct can be reached on a short break. Standing at over 125ft high above the Dee Valley, this incredible 1,000ft long structure consists of a cast iron trough supported on iron arched ribs, carried on 19 enormous hollow pillars. With not even a hand rail on the south side of the aqueduct to obscure the stunning views of the valley below, canal boaters literally feel like they are floating above the earth.
7. Discover the story of the Staffordshire Hoard…from our Tardebigge base on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal near Bromsgrove, it’s a five-hour (three-lock) journey to Gas Street Basin in the centre of Birmingham, a short walk from dozens of top attractions, including the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Here visitors can see the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found and learn about its warrior history. Hundreds of pieces from the Hoard are on show, along with hands-on displays exploring how these intriguing items were used, before they were buried some 1,400 years ago.
8. Cruise the Cheshire Ring for some stunning Pennine views…on a week’s break from our Anderton base on the Trent & Mersey Canal, narrowboat holiday-makers can cruise the 97-mile, 92-lock Cheshire Ring in around 48 hours. This popular circuit takes six different waterways, the incredible Victorian Anderton Boat Lift and a complete range of canal scenery, including spectacular views of the Pennines from the Macclesfield Canal, gentle rolling Cheshire countryside on the Trent & Mersey Canal, and the lively city centre of Manchester on the Rochdale Canal.
9. Climb Edinburgh’s extinct volcano for stunning views of the city…From Drifters’ base at Falkirk, at the junction of the Union and Forth & Clyde canals, on a week’s break narrowboat holiday-makers can travel through the Scottish Lowlands to Edinburgh and back. The 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. The 32-mile journey along the Union Canal to Edinburgh passes through three locks and takes around 11 hours. Once at there, boaters can moor up at Edinburgh Quay, and walk through Holyrood Park to the top of Arthur’s Seat for stunning views of the city below.
10. Pass through Blisworth Tunnel to reach the Canal Museum at Stoke Bruerne…on a week’s break from Drifters’ base at Stockton on the Grand Union Canal in Warwickshire, canal boat holiday-makers can cruise gently through the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire countryside to the canalside village of Stoke Bruerne, passing through the 2,813-metre long Blisworth Tunnel, the third longest on the network. Once in Stoke Bruerne, visitors can enjoy a choice of canalside pubs, woodland walks and browsing the intriguing waterway history collections at the Canal Museum. The journey to Stoke Bruerne travels 30 miles, passing through 22 locks and takes around 19 hours.
A recent survey suggested that the pace and pressures of 21st-century living are taking their toll, with families, on average, now spending fewer than seven hours of quality time together each week.
Heron Publications editor Mike Firth decided to do something to redress the balance by taking his family – and their dog – on a canal boat holiday in Yorkshire. Setting off from Drifters’ Sowerby Bridge narrowboat hire base:
Please excuse me if I nod off while writing this holiday feature. You see, I’m just back from a tranquil autumn midweek family break, cruising along the Rochdale Canal, travelling so steadily that we were often overtaken by ducks and geese.
It was peacefulness personified and a wonderful time of year to barge through the backwaters of the Pennines, with red, yellow and golden leaves reflected in the mirror of the waterway.
Wife Helen had often commented on how much she would enjoy holidaying on a cruise, but I could tell from the expression on her face that our starting point just up the M1 in West Yorkshire hadn’t quite been what she’d had in mind.
But, along with teenage daughter Olivia, we had watched the pre-holiday instruction DVD and also checked out the latest canal adventures of Timothy West and Prunella Scales, so we were ready, willing and able to take to the waterway.
After being given a thorough bow-to-stern introduction to our 48ft red and blue boat called ‘Norfolk’, we cruised gingerly out of the large Sowerby Bridge boatyard, heading westwards on the Rochdale Canal. But there was most certainly no gentle introduction to what would be our way of life for the next five days.
Waiting to greet us just around the corner was a dimly-lit, 114-yard, ‘L’-shaped tunnel, leading us through to the deepest lock ever dug in the UK.
However, we were delighted that at this stage we were still receiving assistance from our instructor (Thanks, Stan!) and even more pleased when we learned that this cavern of a lock came equipped with its own professional lock-keeper.
Once tens of thousands of gallons of water had lifted us all of 19ft 8in (6m), the huge gates ahead of us yawned wide apart and – now on our own – we tentatively moved ahead.
And this was the moment our holiday really began.
I mentioned that our family break was a peaceful affair – and so it was for me at the tiller. However, miles of total tranquility were punctuated by frantic activity and an adrenalin rush whenever we approached a lock. And this canal offered plenty of them.
Fortunately, Helen rose to the challenge of working them all and, with Olivia ensuring our ropes kept us steady, my role was to ensure the boat was kept away from the sides and also the dangerous lock cills.
With most of the locks wide enough for two boats, the workload – and conversation – was shared with other floating families.
The scenery was a mixture of glorious countryside, old stone mills and the backsides of industrial units, with walkers, cyclists and workers all offering cheery greetings from the towpath.
The canal was broad in most places, a tight squeeze in others, and I soon learned to keep to the centre of the water wherever possible, as in the edges it was often only a couple of feet deep. When something approached in the opposite direction – which thankfully only happened three or four times – the way of the water was to pass on the right-hand side.
Controlling the throttle and tiller soon became second nature and standing there with a bacon butty and mug of coffee was the perfect way to start each day.
Although this was late autumn, the boat was warm and comfortable. With two made-up double beds, a well-equipped kitchen, toilet, shower, central-heating, TV, hair-dryer and more storage room than we had imagined possible, there was also plenty of space for the three of us, plus Harry the Basset Hound. He was bemused as to why we had finally slowed down to his pace of life.
After a first-night mooring at Luddenden Foot – and a great take-away Indian meal – day two saw us progress up a series of locks to Hebden Bridge, entering the town by what appeared to be the back door.
With many fascinating shops, cosy cafes, great pubs, a lovely park and helpful Tourist Information Centre, we were all well taken with the place and celebrated with a hearty meal at the Shoulder of Mutton – recommended.
With no real timetable to stick to and no urgency whatsoever, day three saw us take on water supplies and pootle up a few more of the canal’s locks towards Todmorden where the moment I had secretly dreaded – performing a three-point turn with people watching from the towpath – passed off so smoothly that I wished I could have done it again!
So now we were on our return journey in an easterly and downwards direction and for some reason the lock manoeuvres were far smoother and speedier.
With plenty of Hebden Bridge still to explore, we decided to moor there again for the evening and spent our time on board playing board games and watching DVDs.
The weather was glorious on day four and as we reluctantly made our way back towards Sowerby Bridge, I spotted rabbits and squirrels beside the water and fed the crusts from my morning bacon sandwiches to grateful Mallards and Muscovy ducks.
There was a queue of half-a-dozen boats awaiting assistance from the lock-keeper at the mighty Tuel Lock, but no-one was in any rush and the delay provided all crews with a perfect opportunity to exchange stories and experiences.
We could have gone on to explore a little of the Calder and Hebble Navigation Canal, but instead decided to moor up for the night just below our final lock and head to the nearby Moorings pub to celebrate a wonderful family holiday.
Next morning we returned to base, commenting on what a revolutionary innovation canals and locks must have been more than two centuries ago, enabling all manner of goods to be transported from town to town, up and down hills. But where Pennine waterways such as the Rochdale Canal were once the domain of industry, nowadays they offer delightful pleasures for ramblers, walkers, day-trippers – and boating folk like us!
To celebrate Yorkshire Day (1 August), we’ve put together our Top 5 Yorkshire Canal Boat Holidays for 2017.
Prices from our Yorkshire bases start at £405 for a short break (three or four nights), £620 for a week on a boat for two people.
- 1. Travel one-way across the Pennines…Starting from Drifters’ 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.
- Visit Skipton and its medieval castle…on a short break (three or four nights) from our Barnoldswick boatyard, boaters can head east along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal to Skipton and back (travelling a total 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.
- Toddle to Todmorden and back for some stunning Pennine scenery…on a short break (three or four nights) from our canal boat hire base at Sowerby Bridge, narrowboat holiday-makers can travel to Todmorden and back along the Rochdale Canal (20 miles, 34 locks, 16 hours). This historic town offers visitors fine Victorian architecture, plenty of pubs and restaurants, and a busy market. Along the way, boaters pass 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 an amazing variety of shops, cafes, restaurants and pubs and a series of scenic waymarked walks.
- Cruise to Rishton and back for a trip through industrial history…on a week’s holiday from Drifters’ Barnoldswick base, narrowboat holiday-makers can travel west along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal to Rishton and back (53 miles, 14 locks, 20 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 famous embankment, one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways. The Weavers Triangle visitor centre at Burnley is a good place to visit 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.
- Journey to the Hepworth Wakefield…on a mid-week break from our Sowerby Bridge yard, canal boat holiday-makers can travel to Wakefield and back to visit the fabulous Hepworth Wakefield Art Gallery (40 miles, 52 locks, 22 hours). With moorings right outside, the Hepworth Wakefield is the largest purpose-built exhibition space outside London, offering visitors over 1,600 square metres of light-filled gallery spaces to explore. As well as works by Barbara Hepworth, visitors can enjoy seeing works from Tim Sayer’s extensive collection of modern and contemporary British art, amassed over the last 50 years, including works by Henry Moore, Naum Gabo, Antony Gormley, David Hockney, Paul Nash, Bridget Riley and Anthony Caro.
VisitEngland has declared 2017 as the “Year of Literary Heroes” – recognising the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, 20 years since the first Harry Potter book, and other publishing phenomena that have helped put England on the map.
To celebrate, we’ve put together our Top 5 Literary escapes afloat:
- Explore Ted Hughes’ Calderdale by canal – on a short break (three or four nights) from Drifters’ base at Sowerby Bridge, narrowboat holiday-makers can travel along the Rochdale Canal to Todmorden and back, exploring the beautiful Calder Valley and passing through Mytholmroyd, where Ted Hughes played as a child, and Hebden Bridge, where Sylvia Path is buried. The journey there and back travels 20 miles of waterway, passing through 34 locks, and takes around 16 hours.
- Find out about Jane Austen in Georgian Bath – on a short break from our canal boat hire base at Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire, it’s a delightful six-hour journey along the picturesque Kennet & Avon Canal to Bath Top Lock and back. Here canal boat holiday-makers can moor-up and walk 15 minutes to Bath City centre, where they can visit the Jane Austen Centre to find out about the writer and the City that inspired ‘Northanger Abbey’ and ‘Persuasion’, and enjoy a truly elegant afternoon tea at the Regency Tea Rooms.
- Mark the 150th anniversary of Arnold Bennett’s birth with cruise through the Potteries – from our base at Great Haywood on the Trent & Mersey Canal in Staffordshire, it takes around 10 hours, travelling through 18 locks to reach Stoke-on-Trent, where events and exhibitions are being staged throughout the year to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Enoch Arnold Bennett. A prolific writer with close ties to the Potteries, Bennett’s novels include ‘Anna of the Five Towns’, which told the social and industrial history of the local people. On a week’s holiday, boaters can continue on from Stoke to complete the Four Counties Ring, which passes through Cheshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and the West Midlands, travelling a further 90 miles, through 76 more locks, and cruising for another 45 hours.
- Celebrate 80 years of The Hobbit with a journey through Tolkien country – Published in 1937 to wide critical acclaim, the popularity of JRR Tolkien’s ‘The Hobbit’ endures. 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 Drifters’ 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, perfect for canal boat holiday beginners. On a week’s holiday, more experienced boaters can tackle the Stourport Ring, travelling 74 miles through 118 locks in around 45 hours. To celebrate 80 years since the book’s publication, Drifters will gift a copy of The Hobbit to customers quoting “Tolkien” when booking a boat departing from Alvechurch in 2017. Please note this offer won’t be applied retrospectively.
- Unearth infamous pirate lairs in Bristol – from Drifters’ narrowboat hire base on the Kennet & Avon Canal at Hilperton near Trowbridge, Bristol’s Floating Harbour is a two-day cruise away, travelling 30 miles along the Kennet & Avon Canal and the Bristol Avon, passing through Bradford on Avon and the City of Bath. Once there, canal boat holiday-makers can moor-up and take time to discover Bristol’s exciting maritime history with a guided Pirate Walk, encountering Long John Silver’s treasure chest in the smuggler’s cave, Treasure Ireland’s Spy Glass Inn and Pirate Captain Blackbeard’s lair.
A canal boat holiday is a great way to enjoy the splendid colours of autumn in the hedgerows and trees that line our waterways, where the colours are dramatically mirrored in the water.
There’s plenty of wildlife to spot along the way during the autumn months, including the arrival of flocks of fieldfare and redwing arriving in October to search out the hawthorn berries in our hedgerows and small mammals like wood mice and bank voles, busily stocking up on berries before the winter.
And there are plenty of foraging opportunities along the way – narrowboat holiday-makers can look out for apples, blackberries, elderberries, damsons and sloes and make freshly-picked fruit crumbles and drinks on board.
Here are our top seven autumn destinations:
1. Star gaze at Talybont-on-Usk…the beautiful Monmouth & Brecon Canal offers 35 miles of quiet countryside to explore with incredible views of the Brecon Beacons. From our base at Goytre Wharf near Abergavenny, boaters can journey through the the wooded Usk Valley, visiting historic market towns like the Georgian town of Crickhowell with its 13th century castle and picturesque Talybont-on-Usk, with walking access to Blaen y Glyn waterfalls and some of the darkest night skies in Britain, perfect for star gazing.
2. Amble along the Ashby…on a short break from our narrowboat hire base at Stoke Golding on the pretty Ashby Canal, boaters can travel lock-free to Snarestone and back, passing close to Market Bosworth and the site of the Battle of Bosworth Field, which ended the reign of Richard III and led to Henry Tudor becoming Henry VII, the first of the Tudor monarchs. The hawthorn bushes at Stoke Golding are said to be where Richard’s crown was discovered following the battle. Rich in wildlife, the tranquil Ashby Canal winds peacefully through the countryside for almost the whole of its 22-mile length and from Snarestone to Carlton Bridge, the canal is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
3. Go blackberry picking on the Stratford Canal…from our canal boat hire base at Wootton Wawen on the Stratford Canal, it’s a picturesque seven-hour cruise through the Warwickshire countryside to Stratford upon Avon, with plenty of hedgerow foraging opportunities along the way. Once at the birthplace of the Bard, boaters can moor up in Bancroft Basin, just a stone’s throw from the Swan Theatre and town’s shops, restaurants and museums.
4. Visit the old mill town of Hebden Bridge…from our base at Sowerby Bridge in West Yorkshire, canal boat holiday-makers can travel along the leafy Calder & Hebble Navigation through the Calder Valley to the old mill town of Hebden Bridge, nestled in a fork in the hills. Climbing through woods, fields and small stone towns, the journey there and back covers 14 miles, 20 locks and takes around 11 hours.
5. Enjoy stunning views of the Leicestershire countryside…Foxton Locks, on the Grand Union Canal Leicester Line, can be reached on a short break from our base at Market Harborough. From the top of the Foxton staircase of locks, boaters can enjoy panoramic views of the Leicestershire countryside and check out the tiny Museum dedicated to the Foxton Inclined Plane boat lift, an extraordinary feet of Victorian engineering which once operated there.
6. Step back in time in Bradford on Avon…the historic town of Bradford on Avon can be reached on a short break from our Hilperton base on the Kennet & Avon Canal near Trowbridge, with beautiful views of the Wiltshire countryside and southern Cotswold hills to enjoy along the way. Bradford on Avon is an architectural treasure chest, with gems including the magnificent 14th century Tithe Barn and striking Town Bridge over the River Avon. The town has many independent shops and places to eat, including the canalside Barge Inn and Mr Salvat’s 17th century Coffee Room, where customers are served by staff in period clothes.
7. Cruise through the Scottish lowlands to Linlithgow…from our base at the Falkirk Wheel boat lift, it’s a peaceful five-hour cruise through the Scottish lowlands along the Union Canal to the historic town of Linlithgow. Here, narrowboat holiday-makers can visit the beautifully preserved remains of Linlithgow Palace on the shores of Linlithgow Loch, and sample some of the town’s excellent eateries, including the award-winning Four Marys pub.
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 boats travelling at a maximum speed of 4mph and over 3,000 miles of navigable peaceful inland waterways to explore across Britain, canal boat holidays really are the fastest way to slow down.
From rural retreats to vibrant city centres, narrowboat holiday-makers can use their boat as a floating holiday home and base to explore.
Here are our top 10 holidays for 2016:
1. Celebrate the Leeds & Liverpool Canal’s Bicentenary…in 2016 it will be 200 years since the magnificent Leeds & Liverpool Canal was completed. Linking the cities of Liverpool and Leeds, at 127 miles long the Leeds & Liverpool Canal is the longest canal in Britain built as a single waterway. Leaving Liverpool, the canal passes through East Lancashire then crosses the Pennine countryside and picturesque villages on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, before reaching Leeds. Along the way, boaters pass Sir Titus Salt’s World Heritage Status model town at Saltaire and the spectacular Bingley 5-Rise locks, one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways. Canal boat holiday-makers can take a one-way trip across the Pennines starting at our base at Sowerby Bridge and ending at Barnoldswick. The week-long journey travels 79 miles, through 79 locks and takes about 45 hours.
2. Navigate the Cheshire Ring…starting from the Drifters’ base at Anderton, this superb cruising ring, which in 2016 celebrates 40 years since its restoration, travels 97 miles, through 92 locks and takes around 55 hours to cruise. The journey takes boaters 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; and the Cheshire Plain and its heavily locked ‘Heartbreak Hill’.
3. Cruise through Shakespeare country…in 2016 it will be 400 years since the death of the Bard. Mark this anniversary with a cruise through Shakespeare country, starting with a picturesque six-hour journey to Stratford upon Avon from Drifters’ base at Wootton Wawen, near Henley in Arden in Warwickshire – perfect for a short break. Boaters can stop off along the way to visit Mary Arden’s Tudor Farm in the canalside village of Wilmcote where Shakespeare’s mother grew up, and once in Stratford, moor up in Bancroft Basin, just a stone’s throw from the Swan Theatre and the town’s shops, restaurants and museums.
4. Explore the River Thames & visit Oxford afloat…Drifters’ Oxford base is a tranquil three-hour cruise along the River Thames from the City centre, where canal boat holiday-makers can moor-up close to Hythe Bridge and use their boat as a base to the explore ‘the city of dreaming spires’. New for 2016, the luxurious 12-berth ‘Andromede’ has extra room to relax outside and more space to chill out inside, plus Wifi and a large TV – perfect for extended family holidays or a city break afloat for groups of girls or boys.
5. Travel Brindley’s Trent & Mersey…2016 will mark the 300th anniversary since birth of James Brindley, one of the most notable engineers of the 18th century. Brindley worked on the construction of a number of canals, including the Trent & Mersey Canal, the country’s first long distance canal stretching 94 miles from the River Trent at Derwent Mouth in Derbyshire to the River Mersey via the Bridgewater Canal at Preston Brook in Cheshire. Canal boat holiday-makers can celebrate Brindley’s birth with a journey on the Trent & Mersey, starting at our base at Acton Bridge in Cheshire. On a short break, boaters can head south to Middlewich, travelling through glorious Cheshire countryside or on a week’s break continue on to the medieval City of Chester, one of the best preserved walled cities in Britain.
6. See the largest pair of equine statues on the planet…at 30-metres high, the magnificent Kelpies stand at the gateway to the Forth & Clyde Canal in Glasgow. Based on the heavy horses that one plied the canal towpaths, these mythical water horses are an extraordinary site and form part of a new 350-hectare park at the end of the Forth & Clyde Canal near Grangemouth. From Drifters’ base at Falkirk, narrowboat holiday-makers can reach the Kelpies on a short break, and also enjoy a turn through the iconic Falkirk Wheel, the world’s first and only rotating boat lift.
7. Float across ‘The Stream in the Sky’ and visit the Eisteddfod…the Llangollen Canal’s incredible World Heritage Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in North Wales stands at over 38 metres high above the Dee Valley. It consists of a cast iron trough supported on iron arched ribs, carried on 19 hollow pillars. Each span is 16-metres wide. With not even a hand rail on the south side of the aqueduct to obscure the stunning views of the valley below, canal boaters literally feel like they are floating above the earth. From Drifters’ base at Chirk, canal boat holiday-makers can travel across the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and on to the pretty town of Llangollen to visit the famous Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod 5-10 July 2016, where each year around 4,000 performers and 50,000 visitors converge to sing and dance.
8. Float along to the Roman Baths in Bath…on a short break from Drifters’ base at Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire, boaters can travel along the beautiful Kennet & Avon Canal and reach the centre of the World Heritage City of Bath in seven hours, with just seven locks to negotiate along the way. As well as stunning Georgian architecture, great shopping, museums and restaurants, Bath is home to the award winning Roman Baths, site of one of the best preserved Roman remains in the world and the perfect place to find out exactly what the Romans did for us.
9. Head to the historic heart of the canal network…from our canal boat hire base at Stretton under Fosse, on a short break boaters can cruise along the North Oxford Canal through delightful Northamptonshire countryside to historic Braunston. This pretty village on a hill, which lies at junction of the Grand Union and Oxford canals, thrived for over 150 years as an important stop-off point for canal traders carrying goods from the Midlands to London. Today Braunston is a popular place to visit with a good choice of canalside pubs and the UK’s largest annual historic narrowboat rally, 24-25 June 2016.
10. Glide through the Breacon Beacons…isolated from the main canal network, the beautiful Monmouth & Brecon Canal runs 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. From Drifters’ base Goytre Wharf, near Abergavenny, on a week’s break, boaters can cruise to Brecon and back, passing through Georgian Crickhowell, with its fascinating 13th century castle, and Talybont-on-Usk with walks to the waterfalls at Blaen y Glyn. Brecon itself is home to a cathedral, theatre, cinema, castle ruins and stunning Georgian architecture, as well as some of the best views of the Brecon Beacons from Pen y Fan, the highest point in Southern Britain at 886m.
Starting from Drifters’ base at Sowerby Bridge at the junction of the Rochdale Canal and Calder & Hebble Navigation, this week-long holiday covers 79 miles and 79 locks, and takes around 45 hours.
Truly one of the great canal journeys, it takes boaters across the backbone of England via Leeds and Skipton, plus two fantastic waterside galleries, and includes sections of the Calder & Hebble Navigation, Aire & Calder Navigation and Leeds & Liverpool Canal.
All the locks are wide. Between the summit at Leeds and Barnoldswick, boaters will ascend 400ft.
Day 1 (Monday) Sowerby Bridge to Elland (3 miles, 5 locks, 3 hours): Collect the boat at 1pm and sail down the leafy Calder & Hebble Navigation, to the historic market town of Elland, with visitor moorings at the Wharf and a number of pubs too choose from, including the Barge & Barrel on Elland Wharf.
Day 2 (Tuesday) Elland to Broad Cut (14 miles, 19 locks, 9 hours): Journey on to Brighouse, an interesting town with food and craft markets, festivals, useful shops and places to eat – including The Richard Oastler in an imposing building which was once a Victorian chapel, complete with organ – as well as the eponymous brass band. After Brighouse, boaters leave the canal and drop into the River Calder. The river soon passes under a towering motorway viaduct, a reminder of the world left behind, on to Shepley Bridge then Broad Cut and moorings at the Navigation Inn.
Day 3 (Wednesday) Broad Cut to Leeds (21 miles, 11 locks, 9 hours): Continue on to Wakefield, with its new Barbara Hepworth museum, the Hepworth Wakefield with canal boat moorings right outside. Travel on along the River Calder to Stanley Ferry to see the aqueduct, a miniature Sydney Harbour Bridge, built between 1836 and 1839 to take the Aire & Calder Navigation over the River Calder. Now on the Aire & Calder, a commercial waterway with electric locks and a wide channel, the journey continues on to Leeds and its regenerated waterfront. Moor at Leeds visitor moorings and visit the waterside Royal Armouries at Clarence Dock, Britain’s national museum of arms and armour, and one of the most important museums of its type in the world.
Day 4 (Thursday) Leeds to Apperley Bridge (8 miles, 13 locks, 6 hours): continue along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, quickly escaping the urban waterfront, passing through fields and woods, with spectacular views. The journey takes boaters past the historic Kirkstall Brewery, with a heritage stretching back to the 12th century when Cistercian monks founded an Abbey there. Once at Apperley Bridge, moor above or below Dobson Locks and choose from a number of pubs, including the historic Stansfield Arms which dates back to 1543.
Day 5 (Friday) Apperley Bridge to Riddlesden (10 miles, 16 locks, 8 hours): Continue west along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, stopping at Sir Titus Salt’s World Heritage Status model town at Saltaire with Salts Diner and impressive David Hockney gallery at Salts Mill. Continue on to the famous Bingley Five Rise locks, one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways and moor for the night at Riddlesden and choose between the Willow Tree Inn and Marquis of Granby pubs.
Day 6 (Saturday) Riddlesden to Gargrave (15 miles, 3 locks, 5 hours): continue along the Leeds & Liverpool Canal main line, passing Silsden, then through Skipton with its 900-year old castle – one of the most complete and best preserved castles in England. Then on to Gargrave visitor moorings for the night with a variety of pubs to choose from, including the Masons Arms.
Day 7 (Sunday) Gargrave to Barnoldswick (7 miles, 12 locks, 5 hours): climb through open countryside via the lock flights of Bank Newton and Greenberfield and overshoot the boatyard to moor for the night at the Anchor, Salterforth or Café Cargo at Foulridge, just by the tunnel.
Day 8 (Monday): turn around and head back to Lower Park Marina, Barnoldswick in time to vacate the boat by 9.30am.