The charms of a trip on a canal

You have no choice but to slow down and enjoy yourself on Britain’s waterways. Chris Carter reports

Floating down a British waterway in a colourful narrowboat named the Dame Mousey of Middleswick sounds impossibly twee, says Tracey Davies in the Metro. But it makes for one of the most relaxing holidays you can take. After all, “life has no choice but to slow down when you have a top speed of four miles an hour”. The waterways have their own rules. Waving to everyone is obligatory and there’s no speeding or teasing the wildlife – “it’s hard to outrun an angry swan”. Also, don’t be too ambitious. Canal boating is about enjoying the journey, not trying to reach your destination in a hurry or go the furthest. And do be sure to invest in Collins/Nicholson Waterways Guides. They are “an essential piece of kit” that, importantly, list the pubs along the way. You will not be short of waterways to wander – Britain’s canal network stretches to more than 2,000 miles. Here are some suggestions.

Narrow escapes

“‘Heron ahead!’ Up went the cry and we were transfixed as we glided towards this latter-day pterodactyl standing motionless on the canal bank,” says Dixe Wills in The Guardian. “Over five days on the Shropshire Union Canal we had so many close encounters with herons… we lost count.” It was evident they were “as integral to the scenery as the fields, woods, hedges, wharfs and canal-side pubs our hired narrowboat floated past”. 

The canal, the last to be built by Thomas Telford, and which opened in 1835, runs from Mersey’s Ellesmere Port to Autherley Junction, north of Wolverhampton. “We began our journey in Brewood (pronounced “Brood”), an attractive Staffordshire village in undulating countryside close to the Roman road of Watling Street, and would cruise 25 miles or so to Adderley Locks before returning south.” 

Peace reigns supreme here. You are more likely to be treated to expansive rural views than the industrial scenery that once characterised this section of the waterway. At the end of each day, “we tied up on remote and lonely stretches where silence lulled us to sleep”. (Four-berth narrowboat from £1,018 for a week, including fuel, countrywide-cruisers.co.uk.)

The Four Counties Ring

Shropshire, along with Staffordshire, Cheshire and Worcestershire, really does provide the backdrop to some of Britain’s “best self-skippered boating adventures”, says Lucy Kehoe in Spectator Life. Meandering along the Four Counties Ring, with Black Prince Narrowboats, you will “explore the heart of pottery country”. (From £999 for seven nights on a four-berth boat, black-prince.com.) You can, for example, stop to take a tour of the Wedgwood factory. The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal has been in use since 1772 and served as an important route between “the Potteries”, the towns that now make up Stoke-on-Trent. All the tours come with pre-departure training – “so you won’t be banging hulls with any fellow canal-dwellers”.

Other canals to explore

Cruise Cambridgeshire’s Great Ouse and Cam rivers “for a properly peaceful immersion in nature”, says Sarah Baxter in The Daily Telegraph. Spend a long weekend navigating between the historic cities of Ely and Cambridge, passing through Wicken Fen nature reserve, one of East Anglia’s last remaining ancient fenlands, a place where 9,000 species of birds, dragonflies and butterflies can be spotted. It’s “truly tranquil”. (Three nights from £1,075, black-prince.com.) The beautiful Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales has a stunning waterway with incredible mountain views, says Millie Bull in the Daily Express. The route to Bath along the Avon canal is spectacular. Oxford, too, “is home to one of the prettiest waterways in England”. The South Oxford canal links the Midlands to the Thames, leading you “past beautiful countryside villages” and plenty of “charming” pubs.

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