HIGHLIGHTS Handsome architecture (Regency Bath) and pretty villages complemented by rolling downs and open vistas. Outstanding nautical moments include John Rennie’s early 19th-century Avoncliff Aqueduct and the steeply stacked, 16-lock Caen Hill flight. This 127-mile canal has it all: Pennine views, dramatic flights of locks, and wonderful old mills, warehouses and canal cottages. The best stretch is from Silsden through the medieval market town of Skipton. Engineering feats include the 1,640-yard Foulridge Tunnel and Straight Mile embankment at Burnley. Villages with delightful names such as Cropredy, Fenny Compton and Napton-on-the-Hill; the market town of Banbury; Rousham House and gardens; the eclectic Bygones Museum at Claydon; the eccentric Folly Inn pub by Napton Bottom Lock; the marina, Stop House and St Mary’s church in Braunston The beautiful Chumet Valley with its steam railway; Cheddleton Flint Mill with its two working waterwheels; slinking along the narrowest of waterways through sublime countryside, watching out for kingfishers. A statue of James Brindley, father of the canal network, stands on a small island at the canal entrance. | The country’s finest urban waterway – the Regent’s Canal – as well as the Snowdon Aviary at London Zoo. From the futuristic Limehouse Basin, it’s an adrenaline rush along the Thaijies past Tower Bridge, the London Eye and Houses of Parliament; the Grand Union is more peaceful.
Start at Stoke-on-Trent and follow the Trent & Mersey north to Middlewich before heading west and then south on the Shropshire Union. On the other side of Autherley Stop Lock, turn left (north) on the Staffs and Worcs, rejoining the Trent & Mersey ‘at Great Haywood Junction for the run back. Around 54 hours of cruising in total Head south on the Selby Canal, turning right at West Haddlesey lock onto the River Aire. On joining the Aire & Calder, detour right into Leeds and then travel in the opposite direction all the way to Goole, the largest inland port in England. Return to Selby via the River Aire and Selby Canal. In all about 40 hours of cruising So remote is this trip west from Oxford that people once spoke of going up the Amazon’. Exit right onto the Thames through the Isis Lock from the Oxford Canal, turn round in Lechlade, and rejoin the Oxford via Duke’s Cut. A hassle-free route into the city, with moorings right by the colleges. About 25 hours of cruising Cruising the Thames Valley is what summers were invented for. Leaving Oxford through Isis Lock, follow the eastern reach of the Thames past Christ Church Meadow; continue through Abingdon, Wallingford and Goring then turn round at Whitchurch and Mapledurham before heading back. Around 24 cruising hours in total Head south from Leighton Buzzard and moor at the Marsworth Reservoirs then walk along the bank to the British Waterways Bulbourne Workshops. Head back through Leighton Buzzard north to Stoke Brueme (or beyond the Blisworth Tunnel) before turning south and back to base. Around 32-34 cruising hours in all Paul Gogarty’s Water Road – a Narrowboat Odyssey through England can be ordered from Robson Books (0870 787 1613), quoting CH158, for the reduced price of £7.99 (including p&p in the UK). Offer valid until 15 September
The Four Counties Ring takes in pretty stretches of canal plus the Tixall Wide lagoon with its abundant wildlife; original canalside architecture at Gailey and the Autherley Junction; the 2,926-yard Harecastle Tunnel; the National Trust’s Shugborough Hall; and the potteries along Stoke’s historic wharves. Freight-carrying has vanished from the rest of the network, but the Aire & Calder still features 600-tonne tanker barges and push-tow coal pans, although the mines have been capped and turned into nature reserves. Don’t miss the Waterways Museum in Goole and the reborn waterfront of Leeds, The Trout Inn opposite the ruins of Godstow Abbey (a favourite haunt of Inspector Morse), serving jugs of Pimm’s on its river terrace; the William Morris museum at Kelmscott Manor; and Lechlade, where the river composes itself into Constable’s brush strokes and Shelley’s stanzas. After Abingdon, boathouses are the size of aircraft carriers and sit-up-and-beg motor cruisers hammer past zillion-pound homes. Turn round point is celebville Goring whose residents include George Michael and Geri Halliwell (The Catherine Wheel is the best pub for catching up on gossip). The reservoirs, the 200-year-old Bulbourne Workshops, the medieval village of Great Linford, the Great Ouse Aqueduct, and the village of Stoke Bruerne where the British Waterways Museum is based in a converted flour mill (the ancient thatched Boat Inn pub opposite is also worth a visit)
Heartbreak Hill, as you might imagine, is a testing flight of locks (28 in all) and Harecastle Tunnel can be disorientating: the trick is to concentrate on the boat’s light beam rather than the pinprick of light coming from the other end of the tunnel. The locks here are massive compared to those on the rest of the network but they are manned during working hours and easy to operate yourself using your British Waterways Yale key and the lock’s electronic console. None. All the locks are delightfully pretty, manned and extremely well run. All you have to do is sail in when you’re given the signal, moor up as instructed, then walk, picnic and swim to your heart’s content. Although rivers need more care than canals after heavy rains, the non-tidal stretches of the Thames are usually a breeze as long as you avoid the weirs, and the lock gates are manned. As with all the waterways, the Nicholson’s Guides’ provide all the tips. The 3,057-yard Blisworth Tunnel can be disorientating and the Great Ouse Aqueduct – that carries you 60ft above the river in an iron trunk’ -is narrow, although the edge of the trunk does stand six inches above the water level, so you can’t fall off.
One week in a four-berth narrowboat with Black Prince Narrowboat Holidays (0152T 575115; www.black-prince.com) costs from £675 One week in a six-berth narrowboat with Banks Hire Boats (01757 212211; www.boathire.gb.com) costs from £500 One week in a two/four-berth narrowboat with College Cruisers (01865 554343; www.collegecruisers.com) costs from £595 One week in a two/four-berth narrowboat with College Cruisers (01865 554343; www.collegecruisers.com) costs from £595 One week in a four-berth narrowboat with The Wyvern Shipping Company (01525 372355; www.canalholidays, co.uk) costs from £465
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