Eight of England’s Best Inland Cruises

Canal boat

If the stresses and strains of sailing the oceans sometimes seems too much hassle, why not try a more leisurely boating holiday on the wonderful English Inland Waterways. There are more than 2,000 miles of navigable inland waterways and a rich variety of areas to experience, from beautiful rural scenes, to our industrial-era heritage. You don’t have to be confined to your boat; operating locks and swing bridges will keep you fit, as will walking the towpaths. It’s much easier to include dogs and young children on this type of holiday too – so the whole family will be happy. Here are my top eight cruises which should suit all tastes.

1. The Avon Ring

The Avon Ring travels through the heart of England on canals and rivers, including 109 miles  of the prettiest countryside and some famous historical and industrial sites. An experienced crew can cover the whole ring in a week, but for a more leisurely trip spend 10 to 14 days. The ring connects the major towns of Worcester, Stratford-upon-Avon, Evesham and Tewkesbury and consists of 2 stretches of canal, the Stratford and the Worcester and Birmingham and 2 stretches of river, the Avon and the Severn, with a total of 129 locks linking them.

Avon ring - canal boats

The Worcester and Birmingham Canal wanders through unspoilt countryside and dark tunnels, incorporating the longest flight of locks in the country, at Tardebigge, with a total of 30 locks. The imposing double river-lock at Diglis, in Worcester, allows boaters onto the River Severn. In spate this river can pose dangers, especially for flat bottomed boats. Upton-on Severn is a good place to stop, popular with tourists and hosting some international festivals. Turning left onto the River Avon the river becomes narrower as it meanders through idyllic countryside between the Malvern Hills and the Cotswolds, on its way to Stratford. Here tourists will have their cameras at the ready to photograph you navigating past the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and mooring up in the heart of the town.

2. The Cheshire Ring

The Cheshire Ring is a magnificent route of 97 miles in the North West of England. It takes in the whole of the Macclesfield Canal and parts of the Trent and Mersey, Bridgewater, Rochdale, Ashton and Peak Forest Canals. It provides a complete range of canal scenery as it skirts the Pennines, meanders through the gently rolling Cheshire countryside, visits industrial areas and includes the lively city centre of Manchester. You can experience broad and narrow locks, aqueducts, tunnels and it passes the historic Anderton Boat Lift near Northwich. The ring can be done in one week but there are many interesting detours you can make if you have extra time. Diverting onto the Leeds and Liverpool Canal will bring you to the famous Barton Swing Aqueduct, one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways spanning the Manchester Ship Canal. Descending the famous Anderton Boat lift will take you onto the River Weaver. It is well worth the experience even though you’ll have to return the same way.  Another detour, approaching the 16 locks at Marple, is to Whaley Bridge and the complex of old wharves at the historic Bugsworth Basin.

Cheshire Ring

3. The Four Counties Ring

This links the counties of Cheshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire and the West Midlands into one of the most varied cruising routes. The ring is 110 miles long with 94 locks and can be completed in about 56 hours. It is usually covered in a week but, as always, if you want to explore or take detours, leave a bit longer.

Highlights include the industrial canal heritage of the Stoke-on-Trent potteries, the affluent pasturelands of Cheshire and the dramatic, remote sandstone cuttings of rural Shropshire. Perhaps the most exciting and dramatic feature is the 3000 yard long Harecastle Tunnel – a wonder of canal engineering. Here the water turns red as result of local iron workings and boats travel through the tunnel in one-way convoys.

Harecastle tunnel

Other features of the route are the Wedgwood Pottery Museum, the old market town of Nantwich with its half timbered buildings and the infamous 26 locks in 7 miles, aptly named “Heartbreak Hill”.

It’s easy to extend this route. You can venture onto the Shropshire Union or Llangollen Canals for a short detour, or do the whole length of the beautiful Caldon Canal. This is one of the very few I have not yet travelled on and is largely ignored because it is only 18 miles long – too short for a week’s cruise. Nevertheless it does have 17 locks and a 69 metre long tunnel at Froghall, and is steeped in history with fascinating industrial buildings mingling with the rural beauty of the Churnet Valley.

4. Grand Union Canal

The Grand Union was never constructed as an entity, but is a result of amalgamations between several independent waterways, resulting in a canal which today links London and Birmingham. Passing through rolling countryside, industrial towns and peaceful villages, it is our longest canal and the “trunk route” of the canal system. It stretches for 137 miles with 166 locks and takes around 34 cruising hours. Cruises can easily be extended, however, by venturing along the many arms to places like Leicester, Slough, Aylesbury, Wendover and Northampton, as well as going further south on the Paddington Arm and Regents Canal, near London’s city centre, to meet the River Thames at Limehouse Basin.

Highlights along the way include the reservoirs at Marsworth, the Great Ouse Aqueduct and the famous Canal Museum at Stoke Bruerne. Then there are the long tunnels at Blisworth and Braunston, not to mention the famous Hatton Lock Flight; 21 locks that lift the canal up out of the Avon Valley.

Hatton Lock Flight

5. Kennet & Avon Canal

Said to be one of the most stunning of Britain’s waterways, the Kennet and Avon combines a bit of everything; market towns, villages, open plains, not to mention the historic Georgian city of Bath. With an overall length of 87 miles and incorporating 105 locks, it is made up of two lengths of navigable river linked by a canal and links London with the Bristol Channel. The waterway was derelict for decades but reopened in 1990 to become one of England’s most popular canals. Highlights include Bristol with its famous dock area and fine old buildings, the Roman spa town of Bath, the famous Caen Flight taking the canal up to Devizes, the Pewsey White Horse cut into the hillside, and many pretty villages linked by rolling hills and pasturelands.

Kennet & Avon Canal

6. Llangollen Canal

Although most of its 41 miles runs through the beautiful Welsh countryside to Llangollen, I had to include this loveliest of canals, starting as it does in rural Cheshire and climbing through deserted Shropshire farmlands to cross the border near Chirk. It then cuts through increasingly hilly countryside helped by Telford’s famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct; a spectacular piece of engineering and to some, terrifying to cross on a narrow boat, with just a short steel lip between your boat and the valley floor 126 feet below. Towns along the way include medieval Whitchurch, the market town of Ellesmere with its lakes; the fortified border town of Chirk and of course Llangollen itself, sat astride the River Dee beneath the ruins of Castel Dinas Bran. This is one of my favourite canals, but be warned, it gets very busy, especially in the main holiday weeks.

Llangollen Canal

7. Norfolk Broads

Britain’s largest protected wetland is a beautiful collection of water-filled broads and inlets linked by gentle rivers, and contains some of the most breathtaking scenery in the country. It offers access to the coast at Great Yarmouth, to the historic city of Norwich, to the quieter waterways of Suffolk and many idyllic villages and market towns. The 125 miles of lock free open waterways contain 25 sites of special scientific interest as well as a rich abundance of wildlife. The area is popular for both cruising and sailing but you may have to adjust your route to avoid some of the very low bridges.

Norfolk Broads

8. Oxford Canal

One of the most popular waterways in the country, the 78 mile long, narrow canal in central England, links Oxford, Coventry and Rugby and connects with the River Thames. From the “dreaming spires” of Oxford, the magnificent Blenheim Palace and the medieval market town of Banbury, there is much to explore. The southern part meanders slowly through the picturesque countryside and pretty villages and is dotted with black-and-white lift bridges. It is home to a rich variety of wildlife and many first class pubs. The straightened northern section beginning below Napton locks will take you through Braunston, an old canal town, up past Rugby and on to Coventry. You can see the remains of the straightened out loops on this section.

In my view a cruise on England’s canals is a wonderful way to de-stress in this hectic and demanding world we live in today. I hope you have been inspired to try one.

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