Canal Boat Itineraries on England’s Prettiest Waterways
Explore England’s prettiest waterways on a narrowboat adventure this summer, taking inspiration from our guide to the country’s best canal routes.
31 March, 2022
All aboard the Rosie Lee! Perhaps we've been swayed by a childhood spent watching Rosie and Jim, but life upon a narrowboat has always appealed. Slipping along sun-dappled stretches, a few moorhens for company, travelling on a canal boat lets you take life at a leisurely pace as market towns, half-timbered hamlets and the industrial edges of the country's big cities roll by.
Over 4,400km of waterways make up Britain's canal network. The slow-flowing web once acted as the life-support system for the country's industry. Having stoically shouldered years of abandonment, it has, in the last decade, been brought back to life by the houseboat communities - and slow-travel cruisers - reimagining life on the water.
Connecting the country along willow-brushed sections and urban stretches, the system offers a way to traverse England from Bristol to Burnley, only stepping foot on land to operate locks, or enjoy a late-afternoon pint in the balmy summer hazes so particular to English canals. And with sun-dappled tearoom patios, low-key restaurants (looking at you, Towpath Café) and plenty of historic lock pubs throwing open their doors, there's never been a better time to take to the water. We've navigated the locks and moored up across the country to create four narrowboat itineraries on England's prettiest canals.
Cruise control: four narrowboat trips on England's most beautiful canals
A weekend in Wiltshire
Kick-start your waterways weekender by jumping aboard near Devizes. You'll be navigating the tranquil Kennet and Avon canal as it follows the meandering Avon through urban Georgian splendour and Jane Austen-esque pastoral plains en route to Bath. First anchorage? The Seend locks, for a well-deserved pint at the Barge Inn Pub. Come morning, slip the moorings and nose your way through overhanging greenery, verdant woods and Wiltshire's rolling chalk downs, towards the quaint Bradford-on-Avon.
Start with a boatman's breakfast at the The Weaving Shed (sautéed wild mushrooms on toast with an egg for us, please), then head into the medieval heart of the city for a wander through the higgledy-piggledy maze of streets known as the Shambles. After an al fresco lunch at the herb-fringed Timbrell's Yard, return to the water to glide across the impressive 100m Avoncliff Aqueduct. We'd pick up a bottle from Bradford-on-Avon's Cru Wines and some cheese from The Cheese Shop before setting off, both of which will perfectly complement your Cotswolds sunset cruise across this jaw-dropping architectural achievement, which carries the canal over the Avon.
Once on the other side, moor up for the night in preparation for an early departure to Bath. Drop down onto the Avon for breathtaking views of the city's honey-hued abbey; you'll find mooring points throughout the city. Bridgerton fans should stroll down the Royal Crescent, then duck into the Fashion Museum to peruse structured empire lines and impeccably tailored tailcoats. Come sundown, book a table at townhouse restaurant OAK, to savour delicate vegetarian dishes and a glass of lightly bubbled Pet Nat. It's then up to you whether you choose to call it a weekend, staying put for a soak in Thermae Bath Spa's mineral-rich rooftop pool, or journey on to Bristol for a final day's adventure.
Who to hire from: Foxhangers Canal Holidays
A two-week pootle around the Cheshire Ring
Welcome to the Staffordshire Potteries, the industrial heart of England's historic ceramics production. Chugging around the six canals that connect into the Cheshire Ring, you'll encounter cloud-tickling Peak District scenery contrasted with the North's much-quoted "grit". The ring's 156km and 92 locks will take at least a week to navigate if you're speedy - two if you're dawdling (and we'd recommend the latter).
Gliding under a bridge in Staffordshire
Jump on board at Acton Bridge to cruise Britain's first man-made waterway, the Bridgewater Canal, towards Manchester. Gliding between green Lancashire hills, sights set on the city's industrial waterways, you'll be ducking under rusting Victorian bridges and easing through narrow red-brick passageways lined by the blind walls of old cotton mills to find a city-centre mooring. You're a quick walk from the canalside Ancoats neighbourhood, home to wood-fired pizza at the original Rudy's, modern British fare at Elnecot and stylish small plates at Erst, a chic wine bar that's been adopted by the city's creative crowd. Take time to explore the eclectic neighbourhood - you'll want to swing by Ancoats General Store for onboard food supplies, too.
After taking in Manchester's urbane interior, get back to the rudder and switch factories for far-reaching crags as you edge into the Peak District, on the Macclesfield Canal. Stop over in Middlewich to stroll around one of the many regular farmers' markets, then stretch out your arm muscles in preparation for a day of lock operations on Heartbreak Hill, so named for the 31 locks between you and your final berth, in Stoke-On-Trent. The tow paths are dotted with weeping willows and old inns, once used to rest the waterway horses, but now popular watering holes for thirsty boaters.
Who to hire from: Black Prince Holidays
A long weekend along the Liverpool-Leeds stretch
Prepare for lofty Northern landscapes and edgy factory towns along all 204km of England's longest canal, the Leeds and Liverpool. This waterway - built to connect the North's manufacturing satellites - offers unparalleled views of the cragged contours of the Pennines as it slinks towards Merseyside. It's do-able in 45 hours - but we'd tack on extra time to explore the two majestic industrial cities. You'll likely have to start at a midpoint, rather than in the cities themselves.
A narrowboat cruising on the Leeds-Liverpool canal
If embarking at the Yorkshire end, scope out Leeds' industrial bones. Once soot-stained, the Victorian beauty of this Yorkshire city is shining again. Peruse the stalls of Kirkgate Market for an on-the-go lunch (the vast covered market was the original home of Marks & Spencer), then head to the ornate Victoria Quarter. With its stained-glass panels and ceramic detailing, it's prime post-prandial stroll territory.
Boat hire done and dusted and voyage underway, you'll be heading straight into the rural Yorkshire Dales. From here, the route alternates between epic natural vistas and canalside factory towns. Make time to moor up in Wigan if you're interested in tracing George Orwell's inspiration for his 1937-published The Road to Wigan Pier, or jump off at Saltaire to explore the Victorian model village's terraces, independent stores and art galleries (the ex-industrial Salts Mill now houses Hockneys).
The Royal Albert Dock in Liverpool, and Mexican-inspired fare from Madre
Other points of interest along the way include charming Skipton and the grittier edges of Burnley and Blackburn. For those keen to scope out Liverpool, a cruise through the haunting Tobacco Docks and under the iconic Three Graces will take you to the end of the canal in the Royal Albert Dock. Gone are the ships and stevedores that once carried the goods of industry out onto the Irish high tides: Scouseland's red-toned dock buildings now house an outpost of the Tate Gallery and relaxed dining spots, including the taco-tastic Madre - our choice for a final dinner.
Where to hire from: bearBoating
An art-focused odyssey along the Warwickshire Loop
Joining the dots between Birmingham's urban edges and the rural reaches of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, this mid-England loop can take a week to navigate, or two if you're wanting to explore. Begin in Warwick's historic centre, browsing the mom-and-pop shops concealed behind wonky facades. Need some reading material for the lazy afternoons ahead? The staff at Warwick Books are always flush with suggestions. Giggling Squid, on the High Street, is the Thai group of restaurants' original branch, and the place to linger over a lunch of sizzling platters. When you slip the moorings, you'll be heading west. For those cruisers who wish to meander, we'd add in an excursion to the Shakespearean-soaked Stratford-upon-Avon here. Catch the RSC onstage, then head to The Dirty Duck, the 18th-century inn frequented by thespians through the ages.
The Ikon Gallery and canalside scenes | Image credit: Handover Agency
Returning to the Grand Union Canal, you'll be passing through wheat-filled agricultural idylls on your way to Birmingham. The city's "wet streets" take you into the Gas Street Basin; moor up and hop ashore. Stop for coffee and contemporary photography at Ikon Gallery (the brunch menu includes decadent Arabian buttered eggs), then take an afternoon stroll towards Birmingham University. There, under the "Old Joe" clock tower, you'll find the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, an art deco temple to lesser-known works by artists including Monet and Turner. Beyond the city, the canal network joins the Coventry vein, taking you in a slow curve towards Rugby and a return to Warwick.
Where to hire: Drifters