Canal Cruising Rings

Canal cruising rings have always proved popular to those people who are looking for particular narrowboat holiday routes or narrowboat holiday ideas that gives them a wide degree of variety. Most cruising rings can be completed inside a fortnight (without killing yourself or your crew in the process) at a rate of around 6 hours a day. Don’t rush things. It is supposed to be a holiday, after all. What I’ve tried to do below is list some of the more popular rings, the waterways encountered along with mileage, locks and approximate cruising times. I’ve also added some places of interest along the way, and included a map showing where the various rings are located around the country. If I’ve missed out your favourite, don’t despair – I’ll be adding further canal cruising rings later, and don’t forget to check out the canal cruising ring map below to begin planning your next narrowboat holiday!

Canal Rings Map


96 miles with 91 locks. This ring constitutes around 10 days cruising at 6 hours a day.

The Waterways:
Bridgewater Canal, Ashton Canal, Peak Forest Canal, Macclesfield Canal, Trent & Mersey Canal
The Highlights:
Castlefield Basin, Manchester Nightlife, Manchester Town Hall, Bollington Village, Macclesfield Silk Museum, Little Moreton Hall, Adlington Hall, Marple, Bugsworth Basin.

The Cheshire Ring makes a great narrow boat holiday hire route for more experienced boaters because the Ashton Canal which lies to the south of Manchester is fairly urban and the locks and bridges there can be difficult to operate.

If you were to start from Hurleston Locks on the Shropshire Union Canal, you would travel north for a short distance to Barbridge, where you turn right towards Middlewich. From Middlewich the lock work begins with the rise from the plains up the Cheshire locks towards Red Bull and Hardings Wood Junction. Here you join the Macclesfield via an aqueduct. This is a lovely canal passing through Congleton and Macclesfield to the junction at Marple.

Now you should begin to head north down the Marple flight of locks towards Manchester, initially on the Peak Forest Canal, then onto the Ashton Canal. Boaters will be pleased to know that in recent years, the canals south of Manchester have undergone much recent regeneration, e.g. the Castlefields complex and the reopening of the Rochdale and Huddersfield Narrow Canals.

The long lock-free section (some blessed relief) of the Bridgewater Canal follows and brings you through the Preston Brook Tunnel to join the Trent and Mersey Canal at a very shallow stop lock.

You continue lock free, travelling along the contours of the hill overlooking the Weaver Valley with two more short but twisty tunnels, passing the Anderton Boat Lift with its new visitor centre, on through glorious countryside to Middlewich. Now you turn right on the ‘New Cut’ and head back to your start point.


110 miles with 90 locks. This ring constitutes 10 days cruising at 8 hours a day

The Waterways: Shropshire Union Canal, Trent & Mersey Canal, Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal
The Highlights:
Harecastle Tunnel, Wedgwood Visitor Centre, Market Drayton, Tixall Wide, The Potteries, Audlem Mill, Audlem Locks, Tyrley Locks.

The Four Counties Ring,  is so called because it passes through Cheshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and West Midlands, and it is one of the most popular canal boat holiday hire routes. It makes a great canal boat holiday hire route for more experienced or energetic boaters. Obviously, rings can be cruised in either direction

If you were to start from Hurleston Junction again, travel up the Shropshire Union Canal for a short distance to Barbridge, and turn right towards Middlewich, where you meet the Trent and Mersey Canal.  Once on the Trent and Mersey you have plenty of locks to climb from the Cheshire plain to reach the summit level and the iron red waters of Harecastle Tunnel.Harecastle Tunnel Entrance

The first time we passed through this way, it looked for all the world like we were boating through tomato soup! The canal falls southwards through the Potteries and down past the Wedgewood factory (well worth the modest entry fee) with its visitor centre. Continue heading south, passing through the pretty canal town of Stone to the junction at Great Heywood where you meet the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal.

The Staffs and Worcester Canal winds its way across picturesque and peaceful countryside over Cannock Chase and ascends 12 locks up to the junction with the Shropshire Union at Autherley on the outskirts of Wolverhampton.

The “Shroppie”, as it’s more commonly known, has some impressive architecture, banks and cuttings, and very pretty flights of locks which carry you northwards through villages and open country, all the way back to your start point at Hurleston.


75 miles with 79 locks. This ring constitutes 7 days cruising at  8 hours a day

The Waterways:
Birmingham Canal Navigations, Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, Trent & Mersey Canal, Coventry Canal, Birmingham & Fazeley Canal

The Highlights:
Tixall Wide, Black Country Living Museum, Dudley Tunnel trips, Drayton Manor Theme Park & Zoo, Gas Street Basin, Birmingham Science Museum, Birmingham Symphony Hall, Birmingham Sealife Centre, Brindley Place.

I’ve always said that I feel city centre canal routes are largely overlooked. The Black Country Ring makes a great narrow boat holiday route if you like a mix of rural and city landscapes.

The Black Country Ring can be cruised in about a week if you put in seven or eight hours each day, but I think it much nicer to take two weeks and really explore the fascinating network of canals around Birmingham and the Black Country. You can travel in either direction around the ring, I describe the clockwise journey.

Starting from Fradley Junction with its picturesque canalside houses and the famous Swan pub, you should turn left opposite the Swan, past the small swing bridge and onto the Coventry Canal. A very pleasant rural journey can be enjoyed and once you pass the beautiful green woods of Hopwas, which sits on a high embankment looking over the River Tame, you soon reach Fazeley Junction. It is from here that the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal takes you up towards the increasingly urban centre of Birmingham.

Many people (boaters and visitors using other modes of transport alike) are pleasantly surprised at the degree of regeneration that has taken place in England’s second city. Wharves and bridges have been restored, canalside walkways have been developed, and newly revived canalside businesses, cafes and bars thrive, alongside the once industrial canals.

Depending upon how much time you have, there is a choice of routes through Birmingham. The quickest is to take the ‘New Main Line” which heads straight for Wolverhampton, where the famous Wolverhampton 21 locks will drop you down to the rural Staffs & Worcs Canal. You then head north across Cannock Chase to Great Haywood junction where you rejoin the Trent & Mersey for your journey back to your start point through the pleasant Trent Valley.


154 miles with 100 locks. This ring constitutes 14 days cruising at 6 hours a day

The Waterways:
Grand Union Canal (Leicester Section), River Soar, Trent & Mersey Canal, Coventry Canal, Oxford Canal. Grand Union Canal
The Highlights:
Foxton Locks, Foxton Inclined  Plane & Museum, Shardlow village, Burton Brewing Museum, Drayton Manor Theme Park and Zoo, Coventry Cathedral

The East Midlands Ring is an exciting canal holiday route, as it has a wonderful mixture of narrow and wide canals and river navigations with lots of locks, tunnels and places to explore.

Some individuals attempt to cruise this ring in a week, but this means such long days, that the experience is wasted. It is far better to give yourself two weeks, allowing you time to explore the lock free Ashby Canal or the Erewash Canal and spend some time in Coventry (perhaps visiting its famous Motor Museum – it has free entry, after all!) or Braunston – which some claim is the ‘spiritual’ home of the waterways.

Starting again from Fradley Junction, you should head east to the southern end of the Canal where it meets the River Trent. En route you can visit Burton upon Trent with its Brewery Museum and the fascinating old canal town of Shardlow.

The last lock on the canal at this point will take you onto the wide River Trent for a short run downstream (quite an experience for narrowboaters who have never ventured from the canal main line) to the unusual waterways crossroad near Trent Lock. Here the Trent goes straight on to Nottingham, eventually to join the North Sea via the River Humber. The Erewash Canal is on the left, and is well worth exploring if you have time, but at this point you should turn right onto the River Soar.

The River Soar makes its way through pleasant countryside, alongside the restored Great Central Railway, and joins the Leicester section of the Grand Union Canal in Leicester. Eventually you will turn right to begin your ascent of Foxton locks, climbing alongside the remains of an inclined plane, which is currently the subject of a restoration project. The beautiful secluded summit level meanders lazily along 22 miles of Leicestershire countryside at a height of 412 feet above sea level, and past the Welford Arm before descending Watford Locks and eventually turning right to join the mainline of the Grand Union Canal.

After a few miles you pass through Braunston Tunnel and drop down the locks to pass through the busy canal town of Braunston, the ‘centre of the canals’ to many.  Continue past the cast iron bridge at the junction and head north up the North Oxford Canal to Hawkesbury Junction and the Coventry Canal. The Coventry Canal eventually takes you back to the Trent & Mersey Canal and your start point at Fradley Junction.


100 miles with 93 locks. This ring constitute 7 days cruising at  9 hours a day

The Waterways:
Coventry Canal, Oxford Canal, Grand Union Canal, Birmingham Canal Navigations, Birmingham & Fazeley Canal
The Highlights:
Drayton Manor Theme Park and Zoo, Gas Street Basin, Birmingham nightlife, Cadbury World, Coventry Cathedral, Coventry Museum of Transport, Birmingham Science Museum, Birmingham Symphony Hall, Birmingham Sealife Centre, Brindley Place.

One of the nice things about the Warwickshire Ring is that it offers a great mixture of views with lots of optional detours if you want to explore. If you take your time, you could incorporate the Ashby Canal, visit Stratford Upon Avon, or explore some of the network of canals around Birmingham, such as the Stourbridge Canal.

Once again, our start point is Fradley Junction. Turning opposite the Swan you emerge onto the Coventry Canal, passing through rural scenery until you reach Hopwas. From here you soon reach Fazeley Junction from where the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal turns right and heads directly into Birmingham. You should continue straight on and cruise down the Coventry Canal through pleasant rural countryside which was once the scene of much coal mining activity.

At Marston JHawkesbury-Junctionunction you pass the entrance to the Ashby Canal, which is well worth a detour if you have time (particularly if you feel like a break as it is lock free!). Next you approach Hawkesbury Junction (or Sutton Stop as the boat people called it), where you need to take a sharp left turn onto the northern Oxford Canal.

This turn sees you appearing to parallel the canal you have just left for a while, before you move off into open and sometimes lonely countryside. Passing through Newbold Tunnel (with its multi-coloured lights) and down the twinned locks at Hillmorton, you eventually reach Braunston, where you head right and join the Grand Union Canal at Napton Junction

You have a choice here, as the Grand Union can either take you up the famous Hatton Flight of locks all the way to Birmingham, or you can take an alternative route via the Stratford Canal at Kingswood Junction. Once you reach Birmingham, the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal takes you back to the Coventry Canal and you can return to your start point at Fradley Junction by cruising back down the Trent & Mersey Canal.

Keep your eyes peeled for further additions to this list – I’ll add more in time….