‘Top of the Locks’ for 2024 canal boat holidays

There are over 1,800 locks on the 2,000 miles of navigable waterways in England and Wales, all enabling boats to travel up and down hills.

There’s no mystery to using locks – just a series of step-by-step tasks.

A lock is simply a chamber with gates at either end.  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, 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 our canal boat holiday packages.

During your handover procedure, our boat yard staff will usually be able to take you through your first lock.

To celebrate these marvels of canal engineering, we’ve put together a guide to the Top 7 lock flight destinations for 2024 narrow boat holidays:

1. Hatton on the Grand Union Canal in Warwickshire

The Hatton Flight was nicknamed ‘The Stairway to Heaven’ by the boaters who once carried cargos on the canals.  This impressive flight of 21 locks raises boats up 45 metres over two miles, and takes around four-and-a-half hours to travel through.  Just below the Top lock, you’ll find the popular Hatton Locks Café for welcome refreshment. Drifters’ nearest canal boat hire base is eight cruising hours away at Stockton.  The journey travels 11 miles and passes through 22 locks.

2. Caen Hill on the Kennet & Avon Canal in Wiltshire

Caen Hill at Devizes in Wiltshire is one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Waterways’ and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.  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, and one of the most iconic on the waterway network.  Drifters’ Devizes narrowboat hire base is at the base of the Flight at Foxhangers Marina.

3. Wigan on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal in Lancashire

This epic flight of 21 locks is said to be one of the most fearsome on the waterways.  Descending 70 metres in less than two miles, it takes around five hours to pass through all the locks.  The flight travels through New Springs, a suburb of Wigan which was once an industrial hub with collieries and ironworks lining the canal.  Today it’s a post-industrial landscape of waste ground, modern housing and terraced streets.  From Drifters’ base at Barnoldswick, it takes around 19 cruising hours to reach Wigan Top Lock Junction, travelling 48 miles and passing through 20 locks.

4. Tardebigge on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal in Worcestershire

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.

5. Bingley 5 Rise on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal in West Yorkshire

Another one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Waterways’, this spectacular staircase of five locks is near Bradford.  It raises (or lowers) 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. The journey takes around 14 and a half hours.

6. Foxton on the Leicester Line of the Grand Union Canal in Leicestershire

Surrounded by stunning views of the Leicestershire countryside, this set 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 a Grade II Listed structure.  In staircases, the 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. There are lock keepers on hand to help.  They offer key advice when it comes to opening the paddles: “Red before white, you’ll be alright. White before red, you’ll be dead.”  Drifters’ nearest narrowboat boat hire base is around 13 cruising hours away at Braunston.  The journey to Foxton Top Staircase travels 27 miles and passes through 13 locks.

7. Marple on the Peak Forest Canal in Cheshire

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.  The Peak Forest Canals is said to be one of Britain’s most scenic waterways, running through beautiful countryside on the edge of the Peak District National Park.  Drifters’ Stoke on Trent canal boat hire base is around 19 cruising hours away from Marple Bottom Lock.  The journey there travels 32 miles and passes through 14 locks.