Exploring England's Canals

The hidden gems of the waterways

Narrowboat Insurance

When we put out our last article on the UK’s best inland waterways, little did we know it would spark such fierce debate in HKJ HQ. Sides were taken and voices were raised, it may seem that inland boating is the ultimate slowed down escape but under the surface it is a hotbed of passionate discourse.  To appease the dissidents, we thought we’d take a meander down some of the UK’s lesser-known canals (and ones we just frankly missed off our original list), and explore a list of scenic routes that you could also consider when planning your next boating holiday; on and off the beaten path.

The Middle Level in Cambridgeshire

The middle level seems to be the perfect name for a delightful journey throughout the fens, connecting River Nene in Peterborough to the Great Ouse at Salters Lode. A peaceful and often solitary route that combines natural rivers and manmade canal, it is ideal for uncrowded boating, and wildlife spotting. Follow the same paths once taken by medieval boaters, explore secluded channels and soak up all the tranquillity of real middle England.

Kennet & Avon

Georgian, Neolithic & Jane Austen splendour abound on this southern route which links Reading to Bristol, we confess it is not so much a hidden gem as a star attraction, but it was missing from our original list, so we thought we had to rectify it… quick! At nearly 90 miles long, it ‘could’ be undertaken in a week but with so much history enroute from historic Bristol to the finery of Bath, magnificent Stonehenge to the beautiful Salisbury Plains, we suggest it is a boating holiday that you return to again and again.

Monmouthshire & Brecon Beacons

For the ultimate boating disconnect, consider the Monmouthshire & Brecon Beacons canal, unconnected to the rest of the UK’s inland waterways, it is a spectacular route that runs right through the Brecon Beacon’s national park. Wild and canal boating may not often appear in the same sentence but with rugged hikes, famous mountains and wild swimming in the adjoining River Usk, then travelling the 36 miles of Wales’ green, green canals of home make for a truly slowed down adventure.

Leeds & Liverpool

If you prefer your holiday with a little more grit then take on the longest stretch of the canal network, at 127 miles, it is an epic northern tour that was built to link two of the great northern cities; Leeds and Liverpool. Magnificent scenery, idyllic villages and England’s industrial heritage are displayed proudly on a 200 year-old route that also takes you right up to the edges of the rugged splendour of Heathcliff’s Dales. Make sure to stop over at Saltaire for a reimagined boutique vision of the Victorian salt mills.

Birmingham & Fazeley Canal

If Peaky Blinders has inspired a newfound passion for visiting Birmingham, then you can take it to the next level by reliving the era, suitably onboard a traditional canal boat. The Birmingham & Fazeley Canal offers the opportunity to stay right in the heart of the city’s cultural and shopping district, traversing Shelby’s canals and heading out across the bucolic midlands and into Coventry, in just under 15 miles. It is pleasing mix of city and rural living and with world-famous curry houses, historic cities and even the opportunity to stop right outside Drayton Manor Theme Park for any onboard thrill seekers, it has something for everyone (even if we can’t promise an appearance by Cillian Murphy).

Forth & Clyde

A canal that was also designed to carry fishing fleets means that there is a vast amount of space to cross Scotland’s handsome lowlands from the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth. It may not be quite as striking as the Caledonian, but it offers the chance to experience Scotland’s most famous cities and some truly iconic engineering feats. The 36 miles of renovated canals takes in the art deco splendour of Glasgow and the monumental Kelpies but the highlight, for any canal boat fan, has to be the mighty Falkirk wheel that lifts boats 79 feet up in air to join the union canal. From there it’s only 30 lock free miles on to legendary Edinburgh.

That concludes our list of lesser-known canals to explore in the UK, and peace has been restored at last to HKJ HQ. For ultimate bragging rights over the ‘oh haven’t you been’ brigade, consider setting sail on these hidden gems during your next UK canal boat holiday.

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