Canal boat holidays UK - the quiet getaway

PUBLISHED: 12:41 05 March 2021 | UPDATED: 15:00 05 March 2021

Scenic, interesting and quiet, these routes will ensure a tranquil, dreamy canal boat trip 
Credit: Khrizmo/Getty

Scenic, interesting and quiet, these routes will ensure a tranquil, dreamy canal boat trip Credit: Khrizmo/Getty


Our round-up of the most interesting and attractive canal routes around Britain; ideal for those wanting a quieter “getaway” canal boat trip

Our waterway getaway guide is perfect for those looking for a quiet canal boat holiday
Credit: paddythegolfer/GettyOur waterway getaway guide is perfect for those looking for a quiet canal boat holiday Credit: paddythegolfer/Getty

Are you a regular hire-boater looking forward to this year’s summer holiday? Or are you new to the waterways, thinking of taking a ‘staycation’ on the canals and rivers and wondering which ones to try? Although it might seem premature in the current circumstances to be thinking about boating holidays as we sit here in lockdown and the winter weather doing its worst, the holiday hire operators are keen to make up for last year’s shortened season – and are seeking to reassure customers that they have taken appropriate steps (see panel). And with many holidaymakers looking for a peaceful ‘away from it all’ trip, in our round-up of interesting and attractive routes around Britain we’ve singled out a ‘getaway tip’ for a quiet choice of waterway in each of the regions.

Whether you hire a canal boat or take your own, you are guaranteed a beautiful trip with our insider knowledge and tips
Credit: cmtyers/GettyWhether you hire a canal boat or take your own, you are guaranteed a beautiful trip with our insider knowledge and tips Credit: cmtyers/Getty

Canal Boat holidays Scotland and Wales

Although you might think of the English canals as the heart of narrowboat country, both Scotland and Wales have some wonderfully scenic holiday waterways too. In Scotland the Lowland Canals – the Forth & Clyde Canal and the Union Canal – provide an attractive coast-to-coast route and a link between the two great cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. And where the two canals meet at Falkirk, they’re linked together by the world’s only rotating boat lift, the Falkirk Wheel – a truly unique experience for boaters.

And in Wales, there’s the ever-popular Llangollen Canal, reaching from the Cheshire Plain into North Wales, and culminating in the stupendous 120ft high Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, while further south the much less well-known Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal twists and turns for many miles as it winds its way along the picturesque the Usk Valley.

Getaway tip: To really get away from it all, try the Caledonian Canal. It links together scenic lochs (including the famous Loch Ness) running all the way through the Highlands from Fort William on the west side to Inverness on the east - running through remote countryside with spectacular views of highland scenery, including Ben Nevis.

Scotland and Wales union canal
Credit: Martin LudgateScotland and Wales union canal Credit: Martin Ludgate

South of England Canal Boat holidays

The Thames flows through southern England, passing well-known waterside cities and towns including Oxford, Henley and Marlow on its way down to London, and linking up with other popular waterway routes on its way. In Brentford it meets up with the southern Grand Union Canal reaching up into the Chiltern Hills, while at Reading it meets the Kennet & Avon Canal at the start of its journey via the attractive Vale of Pewsey and the impressive Caen Hill Locks at Devizes to reach Bath and Bristol. And Weybridge marks the start of the river Wey, a historic Surrey backwater leading south to Guildford and Godalming.

Getaway tip: Upper Thames. For a really quiet break, leave the popular lower lengths of the Thames behind and venture onto the quiet upper reaches upstream of Oxford, for mile after mile of winding river meandering its way upstream towards Lechlade, passing through a quiet landscape with few signs of civilisation, only punctuated by the occasional hand-operated lock.

South of England - Thames
Credit: Martin LudgateSouth of England - Thames Credit: Martin Ludgate

Canal Boat holidays in The West Midlands

It’s strange to think that the quiet narrow canals of the West Midlands were once the arteries of trade built to support the Industrial Revolution. Today, these entirely rural routes such as the Staffordshire & Worcestershire, Trent & Mersey and Stratford-upon-Avon canals are popular with holidaymakers. Together with the river Severn and the Warwickshire Avon they make up attractive cruising circuits such as the Avon Ring and the Stourport Ring – with the long flights of locks on the canals contrasting with the more relaxing rivers. And don’t miss the latest addition to the area’s waterways, the Droitwich Canal rescued from disuse within the last decade.

Getaway tip: Birmingham Canal Navigations. Most of the West Midlands canals might be rural byways today, but one exception is the hundred-mile network known as the BCN and covering the whole Birmingham and Black Country area. Its once-busy urban and industrial routes carry no regular cargo today, but the signs of the past make for a fascinating historic network where you’ll rarely see another boat - especially if you venture off the main routes.

West Midlands - Severn
Credit: Martin LudgateWest Midlands - Severn Credit: Martin Ludgate

East Midlands Canal Boat holidays

These are some of the most archetypal English waterways, passing picturesque villages, flights of locks, and some long tunnels as they thread their way through the hills. The Grand Union Canal’s middle section calls at classic canal villages like Braunston and Stoke Bruerne (with its waterway museum) on its way south from Birmingham to London. At Braunston it meets the Oxford Canal, whose remote and winding summit level heading south towards Banbury is a favourite route. And the Grand Union’s Leicester line takes a quieter course north over the hills to Foxton and on towards Leicester, the River Soar and the Trent.

Getaway tip: Ashby-de-la-Zouch Canal. For the ultimate lazy holiday, try the Ashby Canal, a 22 mile cul-de-sac heading out from the Coventry Canal near Nuneaton into glorious open Leicestershire countryside. It has no locks at all, just one short tunnel and a couple of tiny aqueducts, and it’s almost completely rural - but attractive villages and attractions such as the Battlefield Line steam railway, are just a short stroll from its banks.

East Midlands  leicester Credit: Martin LudgateEast Midlands leicester Credit: Martin Ludgate

Canal Boat holidays in the North East of England

The waterways of Yorkshire are rather different from the rest of the country. Rather than canals, they’re mainly based on a system of connected rivers (such as the Aire, Don and Ouse) linking the county’s major cities including York, Leeds and Sheffield. Often they’re built to a bigger scale than the narrowboat canals of the Midlands – indeed, there are still a few that carry regular large-scale freight barges today. But in between the cities there is much pleasant countryside, and some routes such as the Calder & Hebble Navigation reach right up into the Pennine hills, linking to canals that carry on through to Lancashire.

Getaway tip: Chesterfield Canal. Rather out on a limb from the main canal network, the Chesterfield Canal is the base for holiday boats providing a relaxed trip on a quiet waterway. It meanders westwards from the Trent at West Stockwith through gentle Nottinghamshire countryside, passing Retford and Worksop before heading for the Derbyshire hills, a series of locks providing some more strenuous exercise as it brings boaters to the scenic summit length at Kiveton Park.

North East Chesterfield
Credit: Martin LudgateNorth East Chesterfield Credit: Martin Ludgate

Canal Boat holidays in the North West

The canals of north west England are a contrast: on the one hand there are the Pennine routes – such as the Huddersfield and Rochdale canals providing vigorous exercise for boaters, with steep flights of locks climbing eastwards amid mill towns and moorland views. Meanwhile further west towards the coastal plain, there are relaxed cruising routes such as the Lancaster Canal, the western end of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal and the northern Shropshire Union, with fewer locks to interrupt their gentle meanderings. And the Cheshire Ring cruising circuit provides a combination of the two, as it takes in sections of six contrasting canals.

Getaway tip: River Weaver. It’s surprising that so few boaters visit the River Weaver, a quiet river flowing through rural Cheshire scenery (interspersed with the occasional reminder of the county’s salt industry) between Winsford and Northwich. And the route between the canal system and the Weaver is via an unforgettable trip on the unique Anderton Lift, the country’s only surviving historic boat lift.

North West Bridgewater
Credit: Martin LudgateNorth West Bridgewater Credit: Martin Ludgate

Canal Boat holidays in East of England

For something different, try the river navigations of Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire: the River Nene, flowing from Northampton down through Wellingborough to Peterborough, or the Great Ouse, which descends from Bedford to St Ives, Ely and on to Denver. Together with the smaller Anglian rivers which feed the Great Ouse, such as the Cam and the Lark, all of these waterways show a great contrast, with the upper reaches following attractrive valleys and featuring plenty of locks, while the lower lengths extend into the flat Fenlands with a character all of its own.

Getaway tip: Middle Level Navigations. Between the Nene and Great Ouse rivers, and forming an important boating connection between them, is a curious system of Fenland waterways known as the Middle Level. But it’s more than just a handy link - its loops and branches totalling almost 100 miles link fascinating waterside towns and villages such as March and Ramsey, while in between them are miles of remote Fenland ‘big sky country’ that’s like nowhere else on the waterways.

The East near Whittlesea Credit: Martin LudgateThe East near Whittlesea Credit: Martin Ludgate

Is my holiday safe?

Although we would advise readers to check terms and conditions before booking, many hire operators including the nine represented by the Drifters organisation have given assurances that they are operating with new Covid-related measures. These include improved cleaning procedures, staggered handovers to reduce numbers of people at the hirebase at any time, socially distanced handovers, and options for deferral, refunds or vouchers if hirers cannot take their holidays owing to Coronavirus.

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