Ready, steady… slow! DAN SANDERSON enjoys a duck’s eye view of the English countryside on a narrow boat holiday in the West Midlands (and here we reveal seven other incredible UK canal journeys)
- Dan travels along the Shropshire Union Canal from Autherley Junction to Market Drayton and back
- Scroll down to the bottom for the round-up of other canal journeys, including two scenic routes in Scotland
- READ MORE: Ted Thornhill tries to cycle his ‘dad belly’ up Hardknott Pass in the Lake District
‘Look dad, swan up ahead!’ goes my daughter’s excited cry pointing from the front of the boat as we glide along the canal at dusk with the early evening sun disappearing behind the trees.
Only hours into our five-day adventure along the Shropshire Union Canal and she has already got up close to horses, a field of sheep, cows and a dragonfly on the bank.
Britain has 3,000 miles (4,828km) of canals that twist and turn through sometimes secret landscapes.
And narrowboats allow you to explore the UK’s 200-year-old canal system with a duck’s eye view of the beautiful countryside with open fields, woodland teeming with wildlife and the odd waterside pub or two to break up the journey.
For our adventure we choose to explore a waterway which would have been at the heart of the UK’s transport network two centuries ago during the industrial revolution when canals were relied upon to move goods across the country before they were superseded by the rail network. Today canals are mainly used for leisure and are cared for the Canal & River Trust.
Dan Sanderson and his family hire a narrowboat and tour the Shropshire Union Canal, stopping along the way to take in the pretty Staffordshire village of Wheaton Aston (above). Picture courtesy of Creative Commons
Standing on the roof isn’t allowed, but, ever the rebel, Dan’s daughter Nell (above) breaks the rules to get a better view of the wildlife by the canal-side. ‘When you are crawling along at a snail’s pace… time and distance become an obscure concept and you are left with little option than to sit back and enjoy the view,’ writes Dan
The Shropshire Union Canal, known as the ‘Shroppie’, is 66 miles (106km) long and runs from Wolverhampton, leaving the Staffordshire and Worcester Canal at Autherley Junction, heading north towards Cheshire and the River Mersey and ending at Ellesmere Port.
Our floating houseboat was booked through waterway holiday company Drifters and we boarded it at Napton Marina, Autherley Junction. We would cruise 30 miles or so to Adderley Locks at Market Drayton before returning south, back the way we came.
Thirty miles doesn’t sound very far over a week, but when you are crawling along at a snail’s pace, chugging at an average speed of just 2mph (about a brisk walk), time and distance become an obscure concept and you are left with little option than to sit back and enjoy the view.
Dan moors up at Brewood, a pretty village in the Staffordshire countryside, and stops for a bite to eat at the Oakley Arms. Above is the stretch of canal that runs through the village
The family’s boat crosses the Stretton Aqueduct, pictured left, which was built in 1832. Dan learns that Wayne Rooney and his wife Coleen (pictured right) recently spent a long weekend cruising along the Shropshire Union Canal
The view from the front of Dan’s vessel as it approaches Market Drayton. ‘Narrowboats allow you to explore the UK’s 200-year-old canal system with a duck’s eye view of the beautiful countryside,’ he muses
Dan (left) says that he is ‘enchanted’ by the relaxed lifestyle on the canal network. And the kids (right) are ‘captivated by the wildlife’
During our beginners’ guide on how to operate the 65ft (20m) narrowboat, the instructor from Drifters gives us such a thorough tutorial that by the time he’s finished, we are au fait with terms such as sacrificial chine, rudder nib and remote greaser.
He also informs us that Wayne Rooney and his wife Coleen recently hired a boat from his dockyard and spent a long weekend cruising along these very waterways. It’s just a few years since Harrison Ford and his wife, actress Calista Flockhart did the same thing. So for the next few days at least, we will be holidaying like Hollywood stars and Premier League footballers.
When I say ‘we’, my shipmates are my mum, her English Setter called Zorro, my two children, aged seven and ten, and their two cousins who are slightly older at 12 and 14.
We quickly settle contentedly into our new surroundings with three cabins consisting of two comfy double beds and two singles, a bathroom, a well-equipped kitchen (a supermarket grocery order can be delivered to your boat before setting off), and an open deck at the bow. It has central heating, a fridge with a small freezer unit, colour TV, radio, CD and DVD players and, yes, even Wi-Fi.
From day one, Zorro, mum and the children sit in the open deck bow, captivated by the countryside teeming with wildlife while I remain at the stern holding the tiller with one hand and a beer with the other.
Shortly after setting off at Wolverhampton on the two or so miles to Brewood we are joined by the aforementioned swan who leads the way just ahead of our narrowboat for the next mile or two with a cacophony of crickets, birds and other wildlife providing a soundtrack as we glide past open fields and woodland bathed in golden sunlight.
We moor up at Brewood, a pretty village in the Staffordshire countryside, and stop for a bite to eat at the Oakley Arms.
‘We pass through the village of Gnosall Heath (above), with two canalside pubs – the Boat and the Navigation. Yes, we visited both,’ writes Dan. Picture courtesy of Creative Commons
Dan and his family are hosted by Drifters and the boat is provided by Napton Narrowboats. Drifters Waterway Holidays offers 550 canal boats for hire from 45 bases across England, Scotland and Wales. There are over 3,000 miles of waterways to discover, all at your own pace and you don’t need to be an expert. Tuition is included as part of Drifters’ holiday packages.
Hire prices for 2023 start at £590 for a short break (three or four nights) on a boat for four, £815 for a week. Narrowboats range from 32ft (10m) to 70ft (21m) and can accommodate two to 12 people. For more information visit drifters.co.uk or call 0344 984 0322.
On day two, a mile down the canal, we reach the Stretton Aqueduct, an iron, brick and stone structure that was built in 1832 and crosses the old Roman road of Watling Street.
And so our holiday and time drift, our boat pootling past Wheaton Aston, a pretty village with a canalside pub called The Harley Arms, Ryehill Cutting and three miles beyond that Cowley Tunnel, which is just 74 metres (242ft) long.
Next, we pass through the village of Gnosall Heath, which has two canal-side pubs: the Boat and the Navigation. Yes, we visited both. Then we reach the five locks at Adderley Locks, where we turn around.
I am enchanted by the relaxed canal life and am taken by the number of fellow, far more experienced boaters who show me patience, particularly as I tried to manoeuvre the 65ft- (20m) long boat on a three-point turn at Market Drayton… and the line of fishermen who offer friendly advice when I drift too close to the far side bank.
We are a band of brothers on board, mum cooking, me driving, the kids helping with the locks. We see very few people over the five days and as the trip wears on, the less you want to see anyone – or face the hustle and bustle of modern life.
I have to brace myself to leave the boat and make the short walk to stock up on fresh bread from Asda at Market Drayton before scurrying back to the tranquillity of the boat.
This is the fifth time I have been barging and I have loved it every time.
It is the perfect antidote to the stresses of modern city life, mobile phones and laptops – and I can’t wait for next time. I would recommend it to anyone.
SEVEN MORE PICTURESQUE CANAL JOURNEYS IN THE UK
By Ailbhe MacMahon
THE CALEDONIAN CANAL
As you cruise along the Caledonian Canal, stop and admire Neptune’s Staircase, Britain’s longest ‘staircase lock’ (images one and two). Image three shows the canal weaving through the landscape near Fort William
Describing the 60-mile (97km) Caledonian Canal, the Scottish tourist board says: ‘This stunning Highlands waterway runs from Inverness to Fort William on the west coast. It passes through a range of pretty towns and villages, lochs and countryside, providing a beautiful scenic setting to visitors.’
Make sure to snap a few pictures at the point at which the canal reaches Neptune’s Staircase at the settlement of Banavie, near Fort William. Comprised of eight locks, it’s Britain’s longest ‘staircase lock’ – where locks are arranged in a gradient, so they look like steps.
The website Scottish Canals says of the 19th-century site: ‘This amazing feat of engineering raises the canal by 19m (62ft) over a quarter of a mile of continuous masonry and takes around 90 minutes for a boat to travel up or down the locks.’
THE LLANGOLLEN CANAL
Marvel over the Unesco-listed Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (images one to three) and the 70ft-high Chirk Aqueduct (image four) on a leisurely boat ride along the Llangollen Canal
Crossing the border between England and Wales, the Llangollen Canal spans 41 miles (70km) between the Welsh town of Llangollen and the Shropshire Union Canal, just north of Nantwich in Cheshire.
Canal boat hire site Drifters recommends cruising along a particularly picturesque stretch from the town of Chirk to Llangollen through the Dee Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The defining feature of the route is the Unesco-listed Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, nicknamed the ‘stream in the sky’. The 18-arched structure was completed in 1805, with the Unesco World Heritage Convention labelling it ‘a pioneering masterpiece of engineering and monumental metal architecture’. It’s not the only striking landmark that boaters will encounter, however – there’s also the 70ft- (21m) high Chirk Aqueduct and the 175m- (574ft) long Whitehouses Canal Tunnel.
THE STRATFORD-UPON-AVON CANAL
A charming feature of the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal route is the Edstone Aqueduct (pictured above), constructed in 1816
The ‘picturesque’ Stratford-upon-Avon Canal runs from King’s Norton Junction on the edge of Birmingham to the river Avon at Stratford-upon-Avon, covering 25 miles (40km), the Canal and River Trust explains.
A charming feature of the route is the Edstone Aqueduct, constructed in 1816. England’s longest canal aqueduct at 479ft (146m) in length, it carries the canal over Salters Lane and the North Warwickshire Railway Line.
THE CHESHIRE RING
Take a boat trip on the Cheshire Ring route and you’ll discover the innovative Anderton Boat Lift (image one) and the 18th-century Marple Aqueduct (images two to four)
Challenge yourself to a cruise along the Cheshire Ring, a 97-mile (156km) route that takes the average boater around two weeks to cover. Starting at Preston Brook Tunnel along the Trent and Mersey Canal in Cheshire, it follows several canals in the North West of England – including the Bridgewater Canal, which dates back to the 1700s – before returning to its starting point.
A highlight is passing by the Anderton Boat Lift. Known as the ‘Cathedral of the Canals’, this ‘giant three-storey-high iron edifice’ lifts boats and barges the 50ft (15m) from the River Weaver Navigation to the Trent and Mersey Canal, the Canal and River Trust reveals.
Boat hire specialists UK Canal Boating note that the route also takes you ‘over the ancient monument that is the Marple Aqueduct’, a late 18th-century structure that carries the Peak Forest Canal ‘over the River Goyt about 100ft (30m) above the river’. The aqueduct runs alongside a railway viaduct.
THE LANCASTER CANAL
Enjoy 41 miles (70km) of lock-free cruising along the Lancaster Canal. Image one and two show Lune Aqueduct in Lancaster while image three shows the waterway near the Cumbrian village of Farleton
Linking Preston in Lancashire to Kendal in Cumbria, the Lancaster Canal is ‘one of the country’s few coastal canals’ says the Canal and River Trust, adding: ‘Built along the natural lie of the land it offers 41 miles (70km) of lock-free cruising – the longest stretch in the country.’
An unforgettable part of the journey is travelling over the Lune Aqueduct in Lancaster, which the local tourist board describes as a ‘masterpiece of civil engineering’. It adds that the aqueduct, which sits at a height of 61ft (19m) and crosses the River Lune, is ‘often referred to as one of the “wonders of the waterways”’.
THE KENNET AND AVON CANAL ROUTE
Take in the impressive Caen Hill Locks (images one and two) and the ‘fascinatingly historic’ Dundas Aqueduct (images three and four) as you float along the Kennet and Avon Canal
‘The Kennet and Avon Canal, at 87 miles (140km) long, links London with the Bristol Channel, and passes through some spectacular landscapes including Wiltshire and the rolling Cotswolds,’ says the Canal and River Trust.
En route, take in the Caen Hill Locks, a series of 16 locks each with a ‘massive side pond to prevent the canal running out of water’ near the Wiltshire town of Devizes. It holds the claim to fame as the longest continuous flight of locks in England.
Another highlight is the 19th-century Dundas Aqueduct, just outside Bath. Tripadvisor user Jan G described the aqueduct as ‘fascinatingly historic and beautiful’ and noted that there was a ‘flotilla of canal boats to admire’ there during their visit.
THE FORTH AND CLYDE CANAL
Admire the Kelpies sculpture (image one) on a narrowboat ride on the Forth and Clyde Canal. The Falkirk Wheel (images two to four) connects the waterway to the Union Canal
Scotland’s Forth and Clyde Canal runs from the River Clyde at Bowling, West Dunbartonshire, to the River Carron at Grangemouth.
As you meander along the waterway, make sure to stop and take in the Kelpies, a 100ft-(30m) tall sculpture of a pair of enormous horse-heads.
Another remarkable attraction nearby is the Falkirk Wheel – the world’s only rotating boat lift, it elevates vessels to a height of 35m (115ft) and transfers them into the Union Canal.
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