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uk uncovered n britain’s canals and waterways

Float your

boat

20 tlm n the travel & leisure magazine

www.tlm-magazine.co.uk

Spring 2012


n Couple relaxing on the Shropshire Union Canal, Cheshire

VisitBritain

uk uncovered n britain’s canals and waterways

Built during the Industrial Revolution to link manufacturing centres, cities and ports, Britain’s canals are now used by huge numbers of recreational boaters and, together with rivers, fens and broads, comprise 2,000 miles of navigable waterways. John Law takes to the waters to explore them nthusiasts describe canal boat holidays as “the fastest way to slow down” – and it’s easy to understand why as you meander through peaceful countryside at a gentle 4mph. If that’s sounds a tad too sedate, speedsters can hire a cabin cruiser on the Thames or Norfolk Broads where they can power along at a relatively rapid 6mph. The point is, nobody books a holiday on Britain’s 2,000 miles of waterways to reach anywhere in a hurry. The aim for most folk is to relax, do a little sightseeing and soak up the scenery – along with regular refreshment at historic waterside pubs on the way. Life afloat wasn’t always such a leisurely affair. In the late 18th century, Britain was in the grip of “canal mania”, with 5,000 miles of waterways being built nationwide for transporting goods. By the mid-1800s, the faster and more efficient railways had won most of the trade and many canals were filled in or fell into disrepair. Some continued in commercial use up until the 1960s but, after 50 years of neglect, UK waterways are today enjoying a renaissance. Around 220 miles of new and restored waterways have opened in the last decade following an investment of more than £1 billion. Over the same period, the number of canal boats has increased by a third and there are now more than at the height of the Industrial Revolution. An estimated 320,000 people currently go canal boating each year and many thousands more take to

n A canal boat passes under a bridge

Spring 2012

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the rivers and Broads in a motor cruiser. So where can you venture by boat in Britain?

the south Take a cruise along the Kennet & Avon Canal and you’ll enjoy some of the South’s finest scenery en route to two of the West Country’s grandest cities. The Kennet & Avon was built in 1794 to link Bristol with London and is today one of the UK’s most popular waterways, with some of the longest lock-free stretches that make for leisurely cruising. Head west from Reading and you’ll pass through Berkshire’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Wiltshire’s sweeping downland. Beyond the market town of Devizes a real challenge awaits: the 29 Caen Hill locks, which rise 235 feet and take around five or six hours to negotiate. Stop off at Bradford on Avon, a pretty Medieval town with a Saxon church and tithe barn, before enjoying the Roman and Georgian heritage – and marvellous shops – of Bath. Bristol is home to Brunel’s SS Great Britain and a zoo, along with bigcity attractions of galleries, museums and great shopping and restaurants. Londoners not wishing to stray too far from home can enjoy the historic sights along the Thames or quieter rural delights on the River Wey. It’s possible to travel 120 miles along the Thames from Teddington to Gloucestershire, but for shorter cruises, Windsor Castle (and nearby Legoland) and Hampton Court are within easy reach.

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uk uncovered n britain’s canals and waterways

London also has its own canals, offering boaters the chance to link to other waterways. Regent’s Canal runs between Limehouse Basin in Docklands and Little Venice and is part of the Grand Union Canal; its route takes in Regent’s Park, London Zoo and Camden. The Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal, an extension of Regent’s Canal, runs through West London suburbs to join the main Grand Union Canal near Slough. The Grand Union joins the Thames opposite Kew Gardens. The River Lee is navigable from Hertford to the Thames at Limehouse, in London’s Docklands, passing by Stratford and its backwaters, the Bow Backs, as well as linking to the Grand Union and the River Stort.

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Caen Hill Flight on the Kennet & Avon Canal

The Grand Union was once one of the country’s busiest canals and is the trunk route of Britain’s canal network, linking Birmingham with London via the Chiltern Hills, rural Northamptonshire and Warwickshire. Covering 137 miles, it is the country’s longest single canal and has many branches to towns along the way. If you want to avoid the crowds and enjoy a good workout at the same time, head for Hatton Flight on the Grand Union in Warwickshire. Its 21 locks can take from two to four hours to tackle. The old boatmen used to call it the Gateway to Heaven because it was the last push on the London to Birmingham route. The Birmingham Canal Navigation is a network of canals linking the city with neighbouring conurbation Wolverhampton and the Black Country. Some 100 miles of it are still navigable today compared with the 160 miles during its industrial heyday. Warwick and its impressive castle merit a visit, while a detour along the Stratford Canal enables cruisers to moor up in Stratford-upon-Avon and hit the Shakespeare trail. n Canal at The Midlands can also be reached along a Braunston particularly peaceful and picturesque waterway, the Oxford Canal, which heads from the city of dreaming spires to Coventry. Some 240 years after first opening – and 72 years after they were officially abandoned – the Droitwich Canals reopened last year. The newlycreated 22-mile mid-Worcestershire Ring now enables boaters to explore the cathedral city of Worcester, a

Drifters

the midlands

river, one broad canal and two narrow canals in just one weekend.

the fens and broads

VisitBritain

canal restoration plans Restoration and improvement work on Britain’s waterways continues apace. London’s Lost Route to the Sea has been derelict for many years, but there are plans to restore the 23-mile Wey and Arun Canal which once formed the inland link between the River Thames and South Coast. A trip-boat is based at one of the few newly-navigable sections at Loxwood. Closed for 50 years, the Cotswold Canals run through spectacular rolling countryside, with the Thames & Severn & Stroudwater Navigation passing the source of the Thames and woollen mills of the

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Head off to East Anglia to discover the famous Broads, an area best known for over a century as England’s boating heartland. In Medieval times, peat was dug out for fuel until sea levels rose and flooded the land to form shallow lakes, or broads. Today this unique wetland is home to an abundance of birds and wildlife and a relaxed holiday afloat is the best way to appreciate its diverse attractions. There are 125 miles of waterways to explore in Norfolk and Suffolk, comprising six rivers and more than 40 broads. Cabin cruisers glide past thatched cottages and sleepy villages, waterside pubs, windmills, nature trails, reed beds, marshes and meadows.

Stroud Valley. Towpath walks are enjoyed by many and the Cotswold Canals Trust aims eventually to open the entire length to boats. The derelict 15-mile Manchester, Bolton & Bury Canal is a surprisingly green pathway through the north Manchester conurbation and current restoration plans are expected to act as a catalyst for urban and rural regeneration. Meanwhile, in East London, volunteers are being recruited for the Big Waterways Clean-Up 2012, a scheme to improve stretches such as the Regent’s Canal and Hertford Union Canal ahead of this summer’s Olympics. For more information on volunteering along Britain’s canals and rivers, go to: www.waterscape.com/things-to-do/volunteering.

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Spring 2012


uk uncovered n britain’s canals and waterways

Anderton Boat Lift

Drifters

l Getting to grips with a modern canal boat or cruiser is easy and you don’t need a special licence. Tuition on handling the vessel and how to negotiate locks should be given at the outset. l Walking, running and cycling along tow paths costs nothing, but anglers will need a fishing licence. l This summer a new charity, the Canal and River Trust, takes over responsibility from British Waterways for the 2,000 miles of waterways in England and Wales. In its first year, volunteers are expected to give an estimated 24,000 days to the Trust. l Book a “taster session” if you’re new to canal boating. Ten of Drifters’ bases across the country offer day hire from £11 per person. l The longest, deepest and highest canal tunnel is Standedge Tunnel on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal. Completed by Thomas Telford in 1811, it is 645ft above sea level, runs for almost 3.5 miles and burrows 638ft beneath the Pennines.

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l The longest lock flight is the Tardebigge Flight on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. It boasts an exhausting 30 locks and raises the canal 220ft. l By the 1960s, most canal boats had been fitted with engines but horses were still a common sight on many towpaths.

“Capital” of Broadland is Wroxham, which has a good selection of shops, pubs and restaurants and an excellent craft centre. A 20-minute drive away is historic Norwich, with its 900-year-old cathedral and castle, museums and excellent shopping centre. Especially popular with families, the Broads have another bonus on the doorstep – the seaside. You can actually moor up in the centre of Great Yarmouth, while other big resorts such as Lowestoft and quieter sandy beaches along the Norfolk coast are easily accessible The nearby Fens provide a flat, fertile landscape whose bulbfields become a blaze of colour each spring. Fenland stretches from Cambridge to Lincoln and from King’s Lynn to Peterborough, its slow-flowing rivers giving boaters the chance to enjoy stunning skyscapes and sunsets. Bustling market towns and other old cities such as Ely, with its imposing cathedral, are worth a detour, along with important nature reserves at Welney and Wicken Fen.

wales and the borders Celebrating its bicentenary this year, the 35-mile Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal is perfect for a peaceful break amid the stunning countryside of the Brecon Beacons National Park. Once an industrial corridor for coal and iron, it has few locks to negotiate on its route linking the charming market town of Brecon, with its stunning Georgian architecture, to Cwmbran. Other historic towns on the way include Crickhowell, with its 13th century architecture and good shopping. For that “on top of the world” feeling, head for the

Spring 2012

l In 1912, a cow named Buttercup fell into the Leeds & Liverpool Canal near the Foulridge Tunnel. Rather than wade out she chose to swim the whole 1,640 yards to the northern end. She was revived with brandy by drinkers in the nearby Hole in the Wall pub!

awesome Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, which carries the Llangollen Canal 126ft high above the River Dee. Granted World Heritage status in 2009, this magnificent feat of engineering offers a breathtaking experience in an area of great scenic beauty. The 46-mile Llangollen Canal is one of Europe’s most popular waterways and gets very busy in high season. But the countryside is attractive throughout and the towns of Whitchurch, Ellesmere, Chirk and Corwen are worth a visit, along with Lake Bala and Llangollen itself, with its Steam Railway Centre.

“Some of the least busy waterways can be found in the North of England”

the north Some of the least busy waterways can be found in the North of England, where boating itineraries can cover vividly-contrasting landscapes. The Huddersfield Narrow Canal once provided the shortest way for people and goods between Lancashire and Yorkshire. The 20-mile stretch includes tranquil wooded countryside, charming towns and dramatic old mills and industrial sites. The Rochdale Canal is another trans-Pennine route reopened in the last 10 years after 50 years without through navigation. It runs from the heart of Manchester through rugged and beautiful scenery to its junction with the Calder & Hebble at Sowerby Bridge. Boaters on the Shropshire Union Canal with an eye for history should check out the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port, where “the Shroppie” meets the Manchester Ship Canal and River Mersey. More industrial heritage is in evidence where the

n Pontcysyllte Aqueduct

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uk uncovered n britain’s canals and waterways

Trent & Mersey Canal links with the River Weaver near Northwich in Cheshire. Built in 1875 and billed as “the Cathedral of the Canals”, the magnificently-engineered 60ft Anderton Boat Lift reopened 10 years ago and connects the two waterways.

canals and waterways facts Waterscape (www.waterscape.com) is British Waterways’ leisure site with information about boating, angling, wildlife, walking, cycling, volunteering, and places to visit. Waterways Ireland (www.waterwaysireland.org) is the guardian of Ireland’s inland navigations.

scotland

Falkirk Wheel

operators/boat rental

Drifters

Thanks to an £84 million investment, it’s been possible since 2002 to cruise the 69 miles from the Irish Sea to the North Sea while stopping off at Scotland’s two grandest cities. The Forth & Clyde and Union canals link Glasgow and Edinburgh and take in some beautiful countryside and impressive sights. Among these, the massive and unique Falkirk Wheel connects the two canals, replacing 16 locks and raising and lowering boats 115ft in about 15 minutes. Sailing boats and cabin cruisers can be booked to explore the West Highlands along the spectacular Caledonian Canal, which runs from Fort William to Inverness. The forested slopes of the Great Glen and magnificent castles such as Invergarry and Urquhart are highlights, while skippers are warned to keep an eye out for the famous Monster while crossing the tranquil waters of Loch Ness.

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Drifters (www.drifters.co.uk) represents leading independent narrowboat hire fleets working in partnership with British Waterways. This year, it features more than 500 boats from 35 bases, with prices starting at £330 for a short break and £470 for a week. The Drifters website accepts bookings for several operators, including UK Boat Hire of Worcester (www.ukboathire.com), Anglo Welsh of Bristol (www.anglowelsh.co.uk), Shire Cruisers of Sowerby Bridge (www.black-prince.com) and Rose Narrowboats of Strettonunder-Fosse, near Rugby (www.rose-narrowboats.co.uk).

northern ireland

Freelance writer John Law has spent many years admiring the scenery and narrowboats on the Kennet & Avon Canal during regular towpath runs, and has taken to the water himself – although he is happier waving as boaters chug past these days.

Hoseasons (www.hoseasons.co.uk/boating) has n Dogs go, too combined with Blakes and now offers 1,000 boats on UK waterways, with 21 bases on the Norfolk Broads and 42 on rivers and canals. High-summer prices start at £644 for a four-berth cruiser on the Broads and £930 for a four-berth canal narrowboat. Kate Boats of Warwick (www.kateboats.co.uk) operates narrowboats on the Midland canals. A typical price in early July is from £965 for a two/four-berth craft. n On the Shrophsire Union Canal Waterways Holidays (www.waterwaysholidays.com) offers an availability search of more than 1,500 narrowboats, cruisers & sailing yachts from 60 boat hire operators on the canals, Norfolk Broads and Thames. Typical one-week prices in May start at £495 for a two-berth canal boat on the Shropshire Union and £342 for a two-berth motor cruiser on the Broads.

Mood lighting, fine bone china, three flatscreen TVs…welcome to the world of modern-day canal cruising. The latest environmentally-friendly, hybrid narrowboat available through Hoseasons reaches surprising levels of comfort. Based on the North Oxford Canal this summer, the boat also features double-glazing, under-

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n A boat interior on the Broads

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Star of Northern Ireland’s waterway wonders is Lough Erne, a 45-mile expanse dotted with islands and rocky caves where families can admire the mountains and watch the swans, grebes, herons and other wildlife. For a real escape from the crowds, it is possible to moor up on the islands. Once a Viking trade route, the Erne has never been a modern commercial navigation. Instead, people have for years enjoyed the game and coarse fishing, the watersports – and that stunning scenery. Just north of Belturbet, a channel links the Erne System with the Shannon-Erne Waterway. Located at a point where the two great lakes of Upper and Lower Loch Erne meet is Fermanagh’s county town of Enniskillen, with its castle and craft workshops.

floor heating and a dishwasher, while an electric motor means progress is almost silent and less diesel is used. Another, based near Rugby, has two en suite shower-rooms, a square stern for better seating and a particularly useful item – a wine cooler. Cabin cruisers are also better equipped. The newest on the Norfolk Broads have walkaround beds, satellite TV and Sony PlayStations.

Spring 2012



uk uncovered - britain’s canals and waterways