Although some European canals such as Venice and Amsterdam enjoy more fame, there’s something terribly British about a canal touring holiday. Perhaps it’s because the narrowboat was created to fit the UK’s newly narrower locks that were developed during the second half of the 18th century. While narrowboats were initially used to transport cargo, the advent of the rail network gradually phased out this purpose and the boats eventually became used for leisure. Narrowboats and barges aren’t the same. Barges are much wider and still used for transporting cargo. Almost all holiday boats will be narrowboats. Floating through the countryside certainly provides a unique way of experiencing Britain. You’ll encounter pockets of rural beauty you’d never otherwise lay eyes on and the refreshingly slow pace of life, and the freedom to stop and start as you please, is undeniably appealing. But where to start? There are numerous canals to choose from, each offering its own set of sights, scenery and stop-offs, which might include enticing villages and homely riverside pubs.



Though you can find canals without locks (Lancaster and Ashby are lock-free favourites), most boating holidays will encounter them. You’ll be given guidance on locks from your boat hire company. They’re simple to operate, albeit with a little physical exertion – you’re just raising or lowering the water level in a small chamber, allowing your boat to rise or drop in order to continue sailing. You don’t need a licence to sail a canal boat. It’s easy to get the hang of but do take care when in control of one and keep safety in mind. Now it’s time to decide where to set sail…





Although better known for its dramatic mountains than tranquil waterways, the Brecon Beacons National Park manages to house both. In fact, the 35-mile stretch of water that makes its way through the park – running from Brecon to the Pontymoile Basin, tracing the Usk Valley – is such a greenery-filled stunner that it’s regularly cited as one of Britain’s most beautiful canals. With only six locks to tackle, this is a perfect trip for beginners or just those who want minimum fuss and maximum time to soak up the ample scenery. Sights include Tretower

Court and Castle (featuring looming stone remains and a grand medieval court) and the museum of the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), which offers an insightful look into the area’s coal mining heritage. There’s also an abundance of nature and wildlife to be enjoyed: look out for buzzards, herons, kingfishers (who breed in the area), water voles and even otters if you moor up and journey over to the River Usk. Literature lovers should make time to investigate the poetry trail around the Brecon Basin, the route’s start or end point.





At 87 miles, this much-loved stretch connecting Bristol and Reading is one of the longer waterways on our list, but that doesn’t mean you can’t still linger over its peaceful waters. In fact, with so many cracking pubs lining its banks, the leisurely approach suits this canal perfectly. Plus, with 104 locks to contend with, be prepared to take your time – you’ll feel like a professional lock wrangler by the end, especially after Caen Hill’s 29 locks over two miles, including the much-photographed run of 16 successive, steeply rising locks. Potential stop-offs are plentiful. Pretty Hungerford Wharf gives access to countryside walks, historic pubs like the family-owned, 16th-century John O’Gaunt Inn and – 20 minutes away by taxi – Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed. Other waterside pubs worth seeking out include the handsome Barge Inn between Caen Hill and Hungerford and The Rowbarge in Woolhampton. The charms of the city of Bath are well documented, but equally handsome Roman architecture, independent shops and culinary excursions can also be found in lovely Bradford-on-Avon.






The idea of visiting an aqueduct may not sound appealing. But the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is a sight you simply won’t forget. Awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2009, this soaring spectacle rises 38m above the River Dee and makes up 11 of the 46 miles of Llangollen Canal, which is also home to 21 locks. Although this engineering feat is an unarguable highlight of the canal, it’s certainly not the only reason to sail it. Running between Llangollen in Wales and Hurleston in England (where the Shropshire Union Canal begins), the scenery on route is almost unparalleled. When starting or ending at Llangollen, make the short walk to Horseshoe Falls, a roaring weir (one of Thomas Telford’s many achievements) snugly enclosed by calming greenery. Also nearby is 13th-century Chirk Castle and its beautiful gardens, or you could plan an extended wander over the border in Shropshire at Ellesmere, an attractive market town loved by visiting narrowboaters and locals alike for its cute cafes, antiques fairs and impressive sculpture trail.






What other canal can boast access to mythical monsters’ habitats and views of the UK’s highest mountain? Built by Thomas Telford and opened in 1822, the 60-mile Caledonian Canal links together two coastal stretches – at Inverness and Corpach – and has a wonderfully wild feel. This is largely thanks to its position tracing part of the Great Glen Way, a longdistance trail of just under 80 miles. As such, stopping pretty much anywhere on route and hopping on to the towpath offers first-rate hiking and cycling (both gentle rides on the towpath or mountain biking for the more adventurous). If steering your day-to-day vessel through the 29 locks isn’t enough of a workout, hire a canoe and paddle a section of the canal for a different perspective. A Caledonian high note will always be Neptune’s Staircase, a series of eight locks that gradually elevate you, or descend you, 19 metres over a quarter of a mile. The whole scene is overlooked by Ben Nevis, Britain’s highest mountain. Another highlight will be passing Loch Ness. Look out for Nessie as you glide by, as well as Urquhart Castle overlooking the loch.

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