Britain’s 2,000 miles of canals and towpaths were once an efficient and busy water machine transporting the materials and products of the industrial revolution between town and country.
Conceived and built in the era of horses-power, the locks, pounds, tunnels and aqueducts were sized for slow-moving narrowboats.
They remain a wonderful slow zone in today’s rushed world, offering a walk-speed escape to hikers, strollers, kayakers, naturalists, considerate cyclists and – of course – boaters.
1 Llangollen Canal
The Llangollen might be famed for its lofty Pontcysyllte aqueduct – a 125 feet high water road through the sky – but I’d recommend walking or cycling the towpath ‘downhill’ to Fenn’s, Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve on the Welsh-English border. Canal environments provide homes for an incredible variety of flora and fauna and this raised bog is particularly rich in dragonflies, and so, in summer, attracts our rarest falcon, the hobby, to the skies.
• SEE ALSO John Craven‘s journey on the Llangollen Canal
2 Leeds and Liverpool Canal
The still waters of canals are fabulous for canoeing and kayaking, though you’ll have to portage past locks. The Leeds and Liverpool Canoe Trail provides 127-miles of paddling over the Pennines between the two cities. It’s a rewarding trip, mixing long stretches across wild countryside with water-level views of heritage industry in Wigan, Blackburn and Burnley. And there’s a challenging mile-long tunnel to navigate at Foulridge; be inspired by Buttercup, a cow, who swam its length in 1912.
3 Kennet and Avon Canal
The Kennet and Avon Canal across Wiltshire and Berkshire is one of my favourite multi-day canal walks, with a tranquil towpath, mature trees, kingfishers and waterside pubs. The 1812 steam-powered Crofton Pumping Station is fired-up several times a year on open days, and if you time your walk for Easter weekend you’ll see hundreds of paddlers taking on the gruelling 125 miles of the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race.
4 Huddersfield Narrow Canal
The Huddersfield Narrow Canal provides a steep towpath walk studded with the poetry-in-stone waterways hardware of intricate bridges and compact locks along its pounds and cuts. It’s a chance to appreciate the work of the navvies who built the ‘navigations.’ At the entrance to the three mile tunnel at Standedge, walkers climb high over the Pennines on the track that boat horses once took whilst boatmen ‘legged’ their craft through, pushing with their feet along the tunnel walls
5 Stratford-upon-Avon Canal
All boaters have their favourite canals. For a hire-boat holiday – top-tip; avoid the busy summer season – my choice is the southern section of the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal. Small villages, pretty countryside, enough locks to keep your crew busy, bridge ‘eyes’ barely wider than your boat for steering challenges and the longest aqueduct in England. And this was one of the first derelict canals to be restored by volunteers in the early 1960s, inspiring the saving of the whole waterways system.
6 Grand Union Canal
The Grand Union Canal joined London to the manufacturing Midlands and remained busy well into the 20th century. Ingenious mechanical solutions were built to speed boats up and down hills, and the 1900 inclined plane at Foxton lifted laden narrowboats through 75 feet in minutes. Nonetheless the inclined plane is now the subject of a museum and it’s the ten locks that remain in use today. The cafe at the bottom is a favourite place for watching – ‘gongoozling,’ in canal-speak – boats tackling this flight.
7 Bridgwater to Taunton Canal
Canal towpaths are for cycle-strolling rather than Lycra-sleeked time-trialling; the slowest pedestrian has right of way, and many paths are rough, overgrown or too narrow for easy pedalling. The Bridgwater to Taunton Canal, though, has a good surface for cycling and moreover encourages pedalling at the speed of light. Along its 14 miles length artist/inventor Pip Youngman set scale models of the planets at their relative distances from a huge sun at Higher Maunsel Lock. Continue onto the eleven miles of Grand Western Canal to Tiverton to leave the space age for horse pace again; the Brind family run one of the last horse-drawn passenger boats on the canal system along its waters.
• Jasper Winn is currently the Writer in Residence for the Canal & River Trust www.canalrivertrust.org.uk
Water Ways: A thousand miles along Britain’s canals by Jasper Winn is published by Profile Books, hardback £16.99.
Main Image (top): Getty