Canal boat holidays: The best UK routes, from the Avon Ring to Welsh waterways

Canal holidays are on the rise
Interest in canal boat holidays is on the rise Credit: getty
Canal holiday bookings have gone up by 150 per cent, reports one boat operator

As we head into the cooler months, and ever more countries are knocked off the UK’s travel corridors lists, a canal boat holiday is looking more appealing than ever to Brits looking for a holiday this autumn. 

While much of the travel industry is struggling, when lockdown first lifted, interest in British canal holidays surged by 150 per cent. This shows no signs of letting up – national canal holiday company, Black Prince Holidays, recently recorded its best ever booking numbers since the lifting of lockdown restrictions on July 4. Their bookings over summer sold out, and their September and October half term dates have now gone the same way. 

What makes a canal boat holiday in pandemic times so appealing? For one, social distancing is incredibly easy within the UK, with more than 2,000 miles of navigable inland waterways on the island of Britain alone. 

"Many of our customers have been trying a narrowboat break for the first time,” said Leighton Jones, operations director at Black Prince. “They’ve been drawn to the waterways by the sense of adventure, the remoteness and the ease of social distancing. Even the rule of six change has failed to dampen interest." 

This lack of ‘rule of six’ impact may be thanks to groups being able to form separate ‘bubbles’ while still travelling together, by hiring separate boats. A flotilla of boats drifting down a liquid highway does sound an idyllic socially distant alternative to the country houses that usually get commandeered for big family gatherings. As such, here are nine of the prettiest canal boat holidays to choose from this year. 

Boats on the Avon Ring Credit: AP

1. The Avon Ring

There are centuries of English history to explore in the Avon Ring, a circuit of 109 miles and 131 locks. Start off with a little Shakespearean flait by mooring opposite the Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon. Take in the picturesque mills on the River Avon, visit Tewkesbury, cruise the majestic River Severn to Worcester, then ascend the longest flight of locks in Britain on the Worcester & Birmingham canal.

The UK’s longest flight of locks can be found at Tardebigge, while the mile-long tunnel on the Stratford upon Avon canal. Time your trip down the latter for when a Shakespeare’s Express steam train is chugging through - trains start up again from July 19 – to see passengers wave from cream and brown-liveried carriages.

2. The Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal

Those looking for a truly peaceful trip should know that you can find electric narrowboats for hire on the isolated Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal in Wales. Quieter and cleaner than diesel, your trip will be accompanied by a softer purring, rather than the steady put-put associated with canal boats. There is a speed limit of 2mph, rather than 4mph on many canals due to shallow waters, so slow travel is mandatory – which is no bad thing when going through the magical Brecon Beacons.

3. The Llangollen Canal

A steam railway, horse-drawn narrowboat and, nearby, the “stream in the sky” that is Telford’s famous aqueduct, makes this canal seem like a living heritage museum. Spectacular sights abound: the Pontcysyllte viaduct looms 126ft above the River Dee as it crosses the valley. It’s as terrifying as it is beautiful when you cruise over the top of it. 

The Pontcysyllte viaduct Credit: AP

The canal runs in a steel trough that has no barriers to one side. There is just a short steel lip between boat and a plummet to the valley floor.

4. The South Pennine Ring

Experienced narrowboaters looking for a challenge should take on the circular route crossing the Pennines. Taking in over 197 locks over 71 miles, the South Pennine Ring follows two of three trans-Pennine canals: the Huddersfield Narrow and the Rochdale.

An unyielding climb up the Huddersfield Narrow brings you to an altitude of 645ft, making it the highest canal in Britain – the closest you can get to mountain climbing on water. The waterway then carves into a hillside for three miles, forming a dark squeeze of a passage that takes two tense but exhilarating hours to get through. A chaperone from the Canal & River Trust accompanies you on board.

5. Oxford to Abingdon

No repertoire of canal boat holidays would be complete without a trip down the Thames. Start in Oxford and see the city’s famed architecture from the water before you drift onwards to Abingdon, a historic, riverside market town in rural Oxfordshire. Though a shorter journey at just 15 miles and five hours of boating time, it’s ideal for those interested in planning a break at either side of the route. 

Abingdon Credit: getty

Extend the trip by lingering in the surrounding stretches of Oxfordshire countryside, or continuing on past Abingdon into the North Wessex Downs towards Beale Park. Once a private park owned by Gilbert Beale, an enthusiastic collector of peacocks, today the attraction will delight younger visitors with its collection of rare birds. 

6. Gloucester docks

The best-preserved 19th-century docks in Britain are to be found in Gloucester. Surrounded by listed warehouses, this inland harbour was once busy with ships carrying timber and corn from around the world; cargo was transhipped on to the Severn before carrying on down the canals. Outside the canals’ industrial history, there’s easy stops at both Worcester Cathedral and the Norman abbey at Tewkesbury to be made.

7. Lough Erne, Northern Ireland

There’s a folk song in Northern Ireland centered around meeting a ‘wonderful dame’ on the banks of Lough Erne: a plus for any hopeful singletons looking for love. A maze of over 150 islands and sheltered bays, it may be hard to spot any potential lovers however – visitors frequently find themselves the only ones around, and a secluding mooring place is always easy to secure. The  “Lower” and “Upper” lakes are connected by the winding River Erne, where the medieval walled castle and county town of Enniskillen are set on an island.

Lough Erne Credit: CATHERINE FALLS

This waterscape could have been designed specifically for cruising holidays. The waters are full of fish and the skies sing with swooping birds every morning. Once a trading route for the Vikings, there’s ruined monasteries and castles to explore, as well as a wealth of national trust grounds. Ireland’s weather can be erratic, so be sure to hire a solid boat that can take on any rough waters (or heavy rain). 

8. The Lancaster Canal

One of the country’s few coastal canals, this waterway hugs the seafront so closely you can watch waders on the shore of Morecambe Bay. With the Lake District as a backdrop, visitors will be spoilt for choice between countryside pursuits and seaside fun. The longest stretch of lock-free cruising in the country (41 miles), there’s plenty to do, including bobbing along the Lune Aqueduct. 

Created at the height of canal mania in 1792, the waterway links Lancashire’s Preston and Cumbia’s Kendal. Tragically, construction of the M6 in the Sixties chopped the waterway in two and the northernmost section has been abandoned. Only recently connected to the national waterway network, boaters can now reach the broader network of English canals via the 2002 Millennium Ribble Link. 

9. Kennet & Avon Waterway

If you want something more luxurious than the standard canal experience, consider the oxymoron of Topsy, a widebeam narrowboat. A generous 55ft long and 10ft wide, this five-star cruiser launched in 2014 on the Kennet & Avon waterway in Bath; a setting perfect for a long weekend spent drifting down the water towards Bradford on Avon.

Kennet & Avon Waterway

There’s a record player, wood-burner, side hatches from which to feed the ducks, a full-sized spa bath, and a welcome hamper. The main bedroom opens to views of the canal.