Boaters’ thoughts will be turning to which waterways they’d like to visit this summer. We’ve come up with some suggestions to help you plan your holiday cruise…

The days are getting longer, the winter canal maintenance closures will soon be coming to an end, and thoughts will be turning to summer boating holidays. So where is it to be this year?

Whether you’re a first-timer new to the waterways and looking forward to your first hireboat holiday; a boat owner looking to venture further away from your usual patch this year; or a regular holiday hirer looking for somewhere a bit different to visit, we’ve put together a selection of suggested routes all over Britain for you to try.

Our waterways range from gritty northern moorlands to flat eastern Fen country, Welsh borderlands and rolling Midland hills; from get-away-from-it-all outposts to popular holiday favourites; from delightful countryside scenery to historic townscapes and industrial heritage; and from mighty flights of locks to exercise the crew to the ultimate lazy holiday of a completely lock-free cruise.

We’ve taken a tour around the regions, describing the waterways in each area, and for each one we’ve brought you our own top tip for a favourite route, and a couple of quieter waterways that you might not have thought about. Wherever you go, enjoy your holiday!

The North

Crossing the Pennines on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal

To many, the idea of the north of England conjures up visions of wild Pennine moorlands, stone-built mill towns – and plenty of canal locks to keep the crew busy. And indeed there are three trans-Pennine waterways which fit that description very well at times, especially the Rochdale and Huddersfield canals. But to either side of the Pennines there are other gentler waterways – the wide river navigations of Yorkshire, and on the west side of the country the Macclesfield, the northern part of the Shropshire Union Canal and the underused River Weaver Navigation – reached by the unique Anderton Boat Lift.

Top tip: the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, at 127 miles the longest single canal ever built, follows an epic route from the famous Mersey port via mile after mile of unspoilt Pennine scenery to Skipton and the mill towns of the Aire Valley and Leeds.

Quiet ways: for something a bit different, try the Lancaster Canal, running lock-free as it follows the Lancashire coastal plain northwards, crossing the River Lune on a mighty aqueduct, to reach almost to the Lake District. Or how about the Calder & Hebble, a part-river part-canal waterway climbing from historic Wakefield up Yorkshire’s Calder Valley and into the Pennines.

The South

Crossing Avoncliff Aqueduct on the Kennet & Avon Canal

By far the most well-known of our southern waterways is the River Thames, flowing from west to east across the country, passing Oxford, Reading and Windsor on its way to London. It links together other popular routes including the southern Grand Union and Oxford canals, as well as the less well-known Lee and Stort rivers.

Top tip: the Kennet & Avon branches off the Thames at Reading and provides 100 miles of glorious rural cruising as it crosses the country. It climbs through Berkshire to a quiet summit near Savernake Forest before descending the spectacular Devizes locks and reaching through to historic Bath and bustling Bristol Docks.

Quiet ways: the lower and middle reaches of the Thames are well-known and justly popular, but to really get away from it all try the much quieter upper reaches, where the river meanders for many miles through rural Oxfordshire to Lechlade. Or take a cruise on the River Wey, which branches south from the Thames near Weybridge and leads through surprisingly quiet Surrey countryside to Guildford and Godalming.

The West Midlands

Holiday favourite: the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal

This is the heart of narrowboat country, with the characteristic narrow locks, hump-backed bridges and winding canals. Main routes like the Worcester & Birmingham, Shropshire Union and Trent & Mersey were once the highways of the Industrial Revolution, but today they’re among our most popular holiday destinations.

Top tip: the Staffordshire & Worcestershire is a favourite with many holiday boaters, its 250-year-old route passing through almost entirely rural Midland landscapes as it climbs from Great Haywood along the northern fringes of Cannock Chase. It then descends through red sandstone cuttings, tiny tunnels, and the wooded Stour valley on its way to meet the River Severn at the Georgian canal town of Stourport.

Quiet ways: The West Midlands waterways aren’t just about popular through routes. The Caldon Canal is a quiet 17-mile cul-de-sac with as many attractive features as some canals twice its length. Pass through tunnels, locks, aqueducts and the superb scenery of the Churnet valley as you pass from the heart of Stoke-on-Trent to the Staffordshire moorlands. Or for something completely different explore the Birmingham Canal Navigations, once the densest, busiest network of industrial waterways at the centre of the canal system, now quiet and with a fascination all of its own for the industrial archaeologist.

The East Midlands

Foxton Locks on the Grand Union Leicester line are a popular attraction

Compared to the popular West Midlands routes, the East Midlands’ waterways are mostly less busy, often running though quieter, open countryside and tending to avoid the centres of population a lot of the time. They do include some well-used routes such as parts of the Trent & Mersey, Grand Union and Oxford Canal main lines, but elsewhere there are plenty of opportunities to get away from it all.

Top tip: The Leicester line of the Grand Union Canal leaves the canal’s main line at Norton Junction near Rugby, and climbs to the remote and rural Leicester Summit, winding for miles through the rolling hills of Northamptonshire and Leicestershire, before descending the spectacular Foxton Locks flight and following the Soar valley down to Leicester.

Quiet ways: For the ultimate lazy holiday cruise try the Ashby Canal, a 20-mile cul-de-sac wandering through Leicestershire with no locks at all, just the odd tunnel and aqueduct to enliven the completely rural route. Or head for the Chesterfield Canal, winding its way westwards from the Trent through Retford and Worksop before climbing steeply through the scenic Turnerwood Locks to Norwood and the fringes of the Peak District.

Further afield

The Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal is a scenic delight

So far we’ve concentrated on the different areas of the main canal network of England. But when you’re hiring a boat for a holiday you aren’t tied down to the national system, or to where you can easily get to from your home mooring – there are waterways in Wales, Scotland and East Anglia to try too, and they have a character all of their own.

Top tip: One of Wales’ waterways is undoubtedly one of the top holiday waterway destinations, and you can read all about it in this month’s Cruise Guide to the Llangollen Canal on page 47, but another rather less well-known Welsh canal that deserves to be more popular is the Monmouthshire & Brecon. It runs for 35 miles from Brecon through the Brecon Beacons National Park and high along the sides of the spectacularly scenic Usk Valley for mile after mile of glorious countryside.

Quiet ways: Explore the Fenland waterways for something completely different, with wide open views, sometimes rather Dutch-looking waterside towns and villages, and a character all of their own. Or try Scotland’s Lowland canals, the Forth & Clyde Canal and the Union Canal which between them link the country’s two most famous cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, and are connected together by the unique Falkirk Wheel rotating boat lift.

As featured in the March 2024 issue of Canal Boat. Buy the issue here