The UK Canal System

The canals in the U.K are a major part of the network of Birtish Inland Waterways.  Originally many routes which were built over 200 years ago were used for industrial transport or irrigation.  Today they are mainly used for recreational boating.  There are around 2,200 miles of  canals and rivers in the UK which are extraordinarily diverse, ranging from man-made canals like the Grand Union and Liverpool & Leeds to navigable rivers like the Severn and Trent.  Each has its own unique history and special characteristics.

Canals and rivers are beautiful in themselves, but the unique appeal comes from just as much what you'll find on the waterside.  The inland waterways are rich in pubs and restaurants, quiet country villages, wildlife sites, museums and countless other attractions.  Discovering life on the other side of the towpath is one of the attractions that draws so many visitors to the waterways every year, and on a hot summers day there's nothing better than getting on or close to the water.  


Over the years a number of derelict canals have been reopened, including the South of Stratford canal, Kennet and Avon canal, the Rochdale canal and Huddersfield narrow canal that had been closed for over 50 years.

In Norfolk a volunteer group is aiming at restoring the North Walsham to Dilham canal to its former glory which at present is terribly overgrown and hard to see if you don't know it's there.  The canal has a long history dating back to 1810, but was sold in 1886 to a local miller  for commercial purposes.  A scheme was introduced around about this time to try to encourage tourist traffic.  By 1931 only one wherry 'the Ella' was left and in 1934 the motor vessell sailing from the Bacton Wood staithe for the last time.  From then on the canal has laid mainly dormant.  To find out more, log onto to

Canals in England & Wales include :-

  •  Ashton & Peak Forest Canal
  •  Basingstoke Canal
  •  Birmingham Canal Navigations
  •  Bridgewater Canal
  •  Coventry Canal  
  •  Dudley Canal  *                                                    
  •  Grand Union Canal *
  •  Grantham Canal *
  •  Huddersfield Narrow Canal
  •  Kennet & Avon Canal
  •  Lancaster Canal
  •  Llangollen Canal  *
  •  Leeds & Liverpool Canal
  •  Montgomery Canal
  •  Oxford Canal
  •  Rochdale Canal
  •  Royal Military Canal *
  •  Shropshire Union Canal
  •  Staffs & Worcs  Canal
  •  Stratford Canal
  •  Worcester & Birmingham Canal

                                                                                                                                    *  See below for further information

  •  Llangollen Canal, Clwyd

Home to the 200 year old Pontcysyllte Aquaduct, which at 36 meters or 120 feet tall, makes this the worlds highest canal crossing. The stretches of canal around the aquaduct is one of the few places you can still enjoy horse drawn canal travel. 

  • Birmingham & The Cheshire Ring

Birmingham is the hub of Englands' canal system, the city has more canals than Venice!  Beneath the hustle and bustle of Englands second city is a tranquil existance where the remnants of it's industrial heritage still survive.   The round island in the centre of the canal is really the hub of the Birmingham canal network. It marks the junction between Brindley's canal, Telford’s Main Line canal routes and the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal.

A popular holiday narrowboat canal cruise taking about a week to complete, the so-called "Cheshire Ring" takes in several regional canal systems and runs right through the heart of Manchester. It is a cruise of many contrasts, from the rural countryside of the Cheshire plain, the historic Bridgewater Canal, the beautiful remoteness of the Macclesfiield Canal, Heartbreak Hill on the Trent & Mersey Canal with its long flight of locks and the Rochdal Canal as it clinbs through the under belly of city centre Manchester with ample opportunities to witness its industrial archaeology and heritage. This circular route along 5 navigable canals owned by British Waterways, (and 1 other, the Bridgewater Canal, which is not a BW canal although it does allow free access to BW registered boats). The Ring is 97 miles long, has 92 locks and takes about 50 hours cruising time. As a circular route, it is a favourite with hire boaters, as it brings them back to the base starting point, easily within a week.   Birmingham Canal Network information pages.

  • Grantham Canal, Lincolnshire

One of the network's "lost" canals.  A quintessentially rural canal, the 33 mile long Grantham traverses three shire counties, Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire.  Currently being slowly restored and three sections are now navigable with plans to restore further routes.

  • Dudley Canal, West Midlands

Close to a kilometer long the tunnel that links the Dudley Canal to the Birmingham Main Line at Tipton was dug in 1972.  Dudley Canal Trust, is managed by a group of enthusiasts who have worked for over 40 years, determined to turn the decision around to abandon the Dudley canal tunnel.  The tunnel and surrounding caverns are now the venue for Dudley Canal Trust ghost story tours.  

  • Grand Union Canal

The trunk route of Britain's canal network, the picturesque Grand Union links London through the Chilterns with Birmingham via the longest single canal in Britain.  The Grand Union's Slough arm was one of the last canals to be built in Britain. 

  • Royal Military Canal, Kent

This canal is 28 miles long and was constructed along the edge of Romney Marsh to contain Napoleons invading forces.  The French never came, but the canal is still there, it is vital for irrigation and drainage on the Romney Marsh and is a fantastic home to lots of wildlife, including laughing frogs, emperor dragonflies, kingfishers and the majestic mute swan.


Narrow Boat Holidays

There are several ways to enjoy the canals and inland waterways of the UK.  Why not hire a Narrow Boat from one of the many holiday hire centres, and weave your way through the countryside at your own pace enjoying the peace and traquility.  When planning your cruise, you will need to estimate journey times and take into consideration the time taken to pass through locks.  On average, it will take approximately 20 minutes to cruise one mile and it takes about the same time to pass through a lock.

Narrow boats are available in all sizes up to 70 feet in length and the largest can accommodate up to 12 people.  There can be a lot of variation on price, with boats ranging from the simply furnished to luxurious.  You don't need a big crew, boating can be just as enjoyable for couples.  A large energetic party may enjoy a canal with many locks to work, such as the Pennine waterways, while couples may prefer a more relaxed holiday with fewer locks, or a river like the Thames where the locks are operated for you.  Most hire centres will offer short breaks as well as weekly bookings, and if you shop around you will find a boat that suits your requirements and budget. 

Whether you are hiring a narrowboat or a cruiser, steering is easy and no previous experience is necessary as the hire boat operators will explain everything to you when you arrive.   Do remember to check if the fee is all inclusive or if  different components are charged  separately such as insurance, fuel, car parking etc  Children will love the adventure, but you should obviously take the sensible precaution to collect & wear bouyancy aids which will be available free from the hire operators.

Self drive boats are self catering, so you will need to stock up with food and drink.  The hire fleet operators will tell you where the nearest supermarkets are and some operators will even arrange for your groceries to be delivered to your boat before you arrive.  Don't  buy too much though as part of the fun of a boating holiday is discovering the delights of locals shops - and pubs.  Though most holiday boats are self drive, you could you also choose to see the waterways from a Hotel Boat where expert crew will do everything from steering the boat to cooking the meals.

Before your holiday, get a good guide book to the area you are visiting, 'Nicholsons Canal Guides' are highly thought of.  Just remember, don't plan too much !  You will find approximately six hours of cruising per day is plenty but above all remember to give yourself time to relax and enjoy the experience - that's what it's all about! 

Hotel Boats

If you prefer to let someone else do all the work and put your feet up, Hotel Boats are a really lovely alternative. They cruise the length and bredth of the waterway system every year, so you can choose your destination for a truley relaxing holiday.  Whether you are travelling alone or with friends, you can relax on board safe in the knowledge that all your needs will be catered for by the crew.  If you appreciate the finer things in life, good food, good company, beautiful scenery and interesting company, this may be the holiday for you. 

Ladyline Hotel Boats operate two boats 'Lady Margaret' and 'Lady Selena'.  Both are fitted out to a very high standard, and have all 'mod cons' you would expect from land based accommodation with the exception that every day the view from your window changes!

For the contact details of Ladyline and to view other Hotel Boat companies, please click here .

If you prefer to stay on dry land, there are many pretty cottages & houses on the banks of the canals available for self catering holidays.  Ideal as a base for walking, birdwatching, canoeing, fishing, or just relaxing & watching the passing narrow boats.