Although Britain’s canals were designed to link industrial cities across the country, they had to cross a lot of countryside to do it!
There are thousands of miles of canals throughout the countryside – for example – you could start your journey in Gloucester and navigate all the way to Yorkshire. Although there are some isolated canals such as the Monmouth and Brecon Canal in South Wales, most are linked and an army of volunteer groups are heading up restoration projects which are gradually extending this.
Scotland’s Caledonian and Crinan canals are both popular cruising waters and Ireland has its own Grand Canal. From London, the Grand Union Canal takes you to Birmingham, either starting from its junction with the Thames at Brentford or from Limehouse Basin in Docklands.
From Birmingham the canal network radiates in all directions – Liverpool, Manchester, Llangollen, Oxford, Northampton and Nottingham are all linked to Birmingham by water. From Liverpool you can cruise in your narrow boat high across the Yorkshire Dales, a glorious journey that eventually brings you down to earth (and Leeds) via the great staircase of locks at Bingley.
Going south from Yorkshire the River Trent is tidal to Torksey, where you can make a detour from the Trent onto the ancient Fossdyke and eventually the Witham Navigation. This is well worth a visit as Brayford Pool in Lincoln provides good moorings, and an opportunity to try out the automated guillotine lock just south of the city! Beyond Lincoln, the Witham takes you right down to Boston and the Wash.
The Middle Level and Fenland Navigations connect with the main systems by way of the River Nene, and these not so well-known waters have a charm of their own, with the ancient cities of Cambridge and Ely offering plenty of interest for the visitor.
The River Thames is the south of England’s most popular waterway, giving access to the River Wey Navigation – a delightfully rural route from Weybridge to Godalming, which in its turn connects with the Basingstoke Canal. After many years of hard work by volunteers, this waterway is once again navigable. Also connecting with the Thames, the once-derelict Kennet and Avon Canal (entered under an uninspiring railway bridge just below Reading) has also been restored and the re-opened canal once again provides an east-west link from London through to Bristol.