Canal boat bliss: A very British break
Gliding through unspoilt scenery on a brightly painted canal boat is one of the finest ways to experience the British countryside. Built mostly by the Victorians, Britain’s canals were the main trade routes of the industrial revolution, but today they offer a peaceful alternative to exploring by road or rail.
Britain’s canals are masterpieces of engineering and reflect the ingenuity that defines that incredible age. Many have been restored, offering a unique perspective as they cut through rural landscapes, historic cities and fascinating industrial areas. The pace is leisurely, but the journey is never dull – you’ll navigate locks, tunnels and aqueducts along the way, and become totally immersed in what is essentially a living museum.
A different view
There’s something special about a holiday on a canal boat. Time slows down as you meander along tree-lined waterways, stopping at handsome market towns, picturesque villages and canal side pubs along the way. Yet despite the gentle rhythm, there’s no such thing as a typical day. Besides all the new places and new people, there’s also the fun of learning to drive the boat, manoeuvring through all the locks and – best of all – deciding where to spend the night.
There comes great satisfaction in choosing your mooring spot well. You’ll feel it most when you wake up, put the kettle on and step outside into the new day. Nothing beats the feeling of being totally alone in nature, with only birdsong for company and a day of adventure and discovery ahead.
A great recommendation for a beginner would be the Llangollen canal which weaves its way through the Welsh Borders; a stretch of the Mid Wales–English border famed for its scenery and rich industrial heritage. With few locks and bridges to navigate it’s a pleasantly relaxing journey, and you’ll get to cruise over the Chirk Aqueduct which takes you from England into Wales.
But the showstopper comes towards the end of the canal near the town of Llangollen when you cross the incredible Pontcyclite Aqueduct. Completed in 1805, this UNESCO World Heritage site straddles the River Dee and at 38 metres is the highest navigable aqueduct in the world. You can cross by boat or by foot but you’ll need to have a head for heights – there’s very little between you and the valley floor below.
Save some time to explore the beautiful town of Llangollen. A thriving community surrounded by hills, it’s crammed with cafes, bars, restaurants and a host of independent boutiques, making it the perfect afternoon pitstop. Wander through Riverside Park or along the Victoria Promenade, or explore one of the nearby castles and ancient abbeys. If you have time, you could also take a ride on the local steam railway or visit the horse-drawn boat experience to get a feel for the early days of the canals when horses used to tow the boats.
This fascinating animation shows the Aqueduct being built-
If you’re anything like us, you’ll probably agree that planning is half the fun of any holiday. And with a canal boat break, there’s plenty of planning to do. To start with, choosing your canal takes some research. There are more than 2,000 miles of waterways to explore, so check out the Canal and River Trust website for advice and interactive maps to help you plan your trip.
There’s a lot to think about before you book. For starters, would you prefer to cruise through quiet countryside or big cities? How long do you want to spend onboard? The amount of time you have will dictate your route. You can hire boats by the day or the week, and choose a circular cruise, a one-way trip, or an up-and-back return journey along the same route. Also, consider how many people will be onboard. Some routes have loads of bridges and locks to navigate, and if there are four or more of you, it will make going through these much easier.
When it comes to choosing the size and type of boat you want, think about whether you’d prefer an older more traditional boat or a contemporary vessel with all mod cons. Some have wood stoves for heating while others come with modern central heating, but all provide toilets, showers, a fully functioning kitchen and most of the comforts of home.
Finally, give some thought to when you want to travel. Although the canals are open year round, some boat operators close in the winter and March to October is considered the normal boating ‘season’. Peak summer times are obviously the most popular, but this is when the canals are at their busiest so best avoided if you don’t like crowds. Late April through to June is a particularly lovely time, with springtime blossom, emerging wildlife and lengthening summer evenings to enjoy.
Top tips for a canal journey
Remember there’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes. If you hit a rainy week, you will get wet (there’s no cover for the boat driver), so just take suitable wet weather gear.
It can get a bit physical, jumping on and off the boats, tying them up and working locks. Don’t expect your granny to be happy doing all this.
Obey the rules of the canal. They’re very simple. If you don’t, you’ll risk annoying the regular canal users, and you don’t want to do that!
The Llangollen Canal can be easily reached from Manchester. Start your adventure here