Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article Cruising Choices is the copyright of Jim Shead - First published in Canals & Rivers February 2007.
One of the great things about our waterways is variety of choice available with nearly every river or canal having it own unique characteristics in engineering, topography and ambience. You can choose from the three high routes across the Pennines or navigate below sea level in the quiet waters of the fens; glide down the wide waters of the Thames or the narrow hillside channel to Llangollen.
Which waters you navigate will also affect the choice of boat. On the Thames and some other rivers and wide canals wide beam cruisers are available for hire but even on the Thames narrowboats are becoming increasingly common as they can also cruise the narrow canals. The strong steel hulls of narrowboats have obvious advantages for hire companies and when fitted with all the comforts of home are popular with both hirers and private owners. This has led to the development of what is called the "wide beam narrowboat". Although the name is an oxymoron it does describe the craft which is a normal narrowboat style but much wider. These can be hired on the wide waters of the Thames, Kennet & Avon Canal and some northern canals.
I am sometimes asked which is the best waterway for a boating holiday but I have no clear answer to this question. There are many very popular waterways: the Oxford Canal (Southern Section), the Llangollen Canal, the Stratford upon Avon Canal and the Macclesfield Canal. There are canals just as scenic and enjoyable that are not so well visited, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, Rochdale Canal, the Grand Union Leicester Section, the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal, the Kennet and Avon Canal and the Caldon Canal all come to mind but are not anywhere near a full list of the waterways that offer good holiday cruising.
One of the advantages of the waterways system is the many "circular" routes, or rings, that are available for cruising. A look at a map of the Inland Waterways will show that a large number of such routes are available. Here are some of the rings you could consider:-
The Avon Ring Consists of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal to the historic town of Worcester, the River Severn to Tewkesbury, the River Avon up to Stratford and the Stratford upon Avon Canal back to Kings Norton Junction. A separate visitor licence is required for the Upper and Lower Avon. 109 miles, 132 locks, 52 hours cruising time.
The Birmingham Ring From Fradley Junction the Trent and Mersey Canal to Great Haywood then the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal to Wolverhampton and the BCN Main Line to the centre of Birmingham then the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal and Coventry Canal back to Fradley. This offers an entirely different way to see the city and some surrounding countryside. 76 miles, 79 locks, 36 hours cruising time.
The Cheshire Ring This includes the Trent and Mersey Canal north of Hardings Wood Junction, the Bridgewater and Rochdale canals through the centre of Manchester, the Ashton Canal and the stunning scenery of the Peak Forest and Macclesfield canals. This was the first circular route to be called a "ring" back in the 1960s when part of the route was impassable and the call was to restore the Cheshire Ring. 95 miles, 92 locks, 48 hours cruising time.
The Four Counties Ring A largely rural route using the Shropshire Union Main Line and the Middlewich Branch, Trent and Mersey Canal and Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal. Stoke on Trent is the only large town on the route but there are many smaller towns and villages to visit. 110 miles, 94 locks, 50 hours cruising time.
The Leicestershire Ring Another mainly rural route taking the Grand Union Main Line from Braunston, the GU Leicester Section including the lovely River Soar, the River Trent, Trent and Mersey Canal, Coventry Canal and Oxford Canal back to the start. A route that includes two rivers as well as both broad and narrow canals including the famous Foxton staircase locks. 154 miles, 101 locks, 68 hours cruising time.
The Midland Countryside Ring This is not one of the normally recognised rings but is one that takes in the cream of the rural Midlands. The Grand Union Main Line from Braunston and Stratford upon Avon Canal, River Avon, River Severn, Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, Trent and Mersey Canal, Coventry Canal and Oxford Canal. 226 miles, 166 locks, 96 hours cruising time.
The North Pennine Ring is a cruising ring made possible by the full restoration of the Rochdale Canal. It also includes the Calder and Hebble Navigation, Aire & Calder Navigation, Leeds and Liverpool Canal and Bridgewater Canal. This ring includes Manchester, Leeds and other towns as well as some amazing Pennine scenery. 184 miles, 216 locks, 96 hours cruising time.
The South Pennine Ring Another new cruising ring made possible by the restoration of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal in 2001 and the Rochdale Canal in 2002. It also includes the Ashton Canal, the Huddersfield Broad Canal and part of the Calder and Hebble Navigation. 69.5 miles, 198 locks, 62 hours cruising time.
The Outer Pennine Ring is similar to the North Pennine Ring but uses the Huddersfield Narrow and Huddersfield Broad canals instead of the Rochdale Canal. 175 miles, 220 locks, 94 hours cruising time.
The Stourport Ring The Worcester and Birmingham Canal, River Severn, Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal and BCN Main Line taking in Birmingham city centre, Worcester and the Severn as well as the fascinating 18th century canal town of Stourport. 85 miles, 116 locks, 42 hours cruising time.
The Thames Ring The wide Grand Union Canal, the majestic River Thames, and the narrow Oxford Canal. These three waterways each have their own distinct character, interest and beauty so three weeks are needed really to appreciate what it has to offer. 248 miles, 175 locks, 104 hours cruising time.
The Warwickshire Ring The Grand Union Main Line from Braunston to Salford Junction then return via the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, Coventry Canal and Oxford Canal. 104 miles, 100 locks, 44 hours cruising time.
Other Cruising Areas
The Kennet & Avon Canal is 87 miles long and has 105 locks between Reading and Hanham Lock, near Bristol. Boats can be hired throughout the length of the canal and the scenery, villages and towns provide plenty of interest.
The Broads are one of our long established and very popular cruising areas. Over a hundred miles of lock free cruising.
Fenland Waterways consist of the Middle Level rivers and navigable drains (most of the system being below sea level) and the River Nene to the west and the Great Ouse and it tributaries to the east. Includes the cities of Peterborough, Ely and Cambridge and over 300 miles of waterways.
Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal is situated on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park and is detached from the main waterways system. Although it has only about 35 miles of navigable water and 6 locks it is the favourite canal of many of the people who have visited it, a fact born out by the high number of hire boat firms based there.
Scottish Waterways offer boat hire on the Caledonian Canal which runs from Inverness through Loch Ness, Loch Oich and Loch Lochy to Fort William. The recent restoration of the Forth & Clyde and Edinburgh & Glasgow Union canals, together with the Falkirk Wheel connecting them, has seen the appearance of hire boats on these once derelict waters.
In addition to the canals and rivers mentioned as parts of cruising rings there are a number of attractive waterways that can be considered. Some (like the River Weaver and the Wey Navigation) can be easily reached from adjacent waterways others (such as the Yorkshire Ouse, River Medway, Fossdyke/River Witham and Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation) are more remote or detached from the main system. With the decline of the hire boat industry many of these waterways have either a limited choice of boats for hire or no hire boats at all, which is regrettable as they are all worth a visit.
For many people this is determined by what holiday time they are allocated or by the school term times but if you have a free choice there are other factors to consider. There is no guarantee of good weather in the British climate so picking the sunniest or driest weeks is a pure lottery. On the other hand we do know that the longest day of the year is the 21st June so if you like to cruise early or until late in the day this time of year is best. On the same principle May has longer days than September.
Like most holidays boat hire is more expensive in the most popular weeks of the year and substantial saving can be made by avoiding peak times.
Booking a Holiday
Booking Agencies for boating holidays started on the Norfolk Broads, before canal boating was a recognised leisure activity, with two major companies Hoseasons and Blakes. Today they book boats on a wide range of waterways in the UK and abroad. In addition to the traditional booking methods you can now request a brochure or select and book a boat from their websites at www.hoseasons.co.uk and www.blakes.co.uk.
Multi-base Hire Companies are popular with many hirers as they can chose from a number of start locations while staying with a hire company that they like. The major companies in this field are Anglo-Welsh www.anglowelsh.co.uk with 10 hire bases, Alvechurch Boat Centres www.alvechurch.com with 8, Black Prince Holidays www.black-prince.com with 6 and Viking Afloat www.viking-afloat.com with 4. Details of all the boats and bases are available on the websites and with Black Prince and Viking you can also book on the web.
Hundreds more boats are available from hire boat firms that will take bookings directly from you. These companies may have thirty boats or just one but they nearly all have websites with booking forms and some take on-line bookings. All on-line systems that take payments should take you to a secure site before asking you to enter debit or credit card details. Genuine secure sites have addresses that start with 'https' and display a padlock icon in the bottom section of your internet browser so check this to confirm you are on a secure site while entering these details. Also remember that when paying for goods or services costing more than £100 and up to £30,000 the credit card company is jointly liable with the provider and will repay your money if you don't get the holiday or a refund. This does not apply to most debit cards.
Whether you thumb through piles of brochures of surf through hundreds of web pages the task of choosing a route and a boat to suit your needs can be a winter pleasure. Study the maps and boat layouts, look at the pictures of boats and tranquil waterways and look forward to your summer cruising.
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