They’re known for colourful boats and (originally) crop irrigation, but Britain’s extensive canal network might also be good for your mental health. It’s little wonder that people are seeking out narrow boat holidays for 2020 – or simply exploring some of the best waterways on foot or bicycle.
Why go on narrow boat holidays?
According to recent comments by the Canal and River Trust, canal-side walks are being prescribed by GPs to help people deal with depression and stress.
Chair of the trust Alan Leighton told the Daily Telegraph that the charity is keen to promote a “natural health service”, adding that one GP service in Buckinghamshire has already begun prescribing a canal-side walking route to help patients with high blood pressure and mental health issues.
The revelation follows the rise of “social prescribing”, pointing a patient towards a certain situation or activity, in order to improve their condition.
Whether it be the sound of gently running water or the lush greenery that usually goes with it, canals seem to have a calming influence.
In the era of self-care days, wellness breaks and spa retreats, Britain’s canal system should be booming.
Read the Wise Living guide to canal boat holidays and advice for hiring a canal boat.
UK waterways – where to go on a boating holiday
There are few things more serene than drifting lazily down a waterway, battling to outpace a bank-side walker out for a lunchtime stroll, able to count every ripple as it laps gently against your barge’s hull.
So, from a week on a well-furnished narrowboat, to a lunchtime stroll down a river bank – here are some highlights from the UK and Ireland’s most charming, and life-affirming waterways.
Narrow boat holidays England
The Lancaster Canal, Lancashire
Connecting Preston with the villages of southern Cumbria, the Lancaster Canal features Britain’s longest stretch of canal without a lock. With 42 miles of pristine, even, uninterrupted drifting, this northern waterway ranks as one of the calmest and purest canal experiences, easily enjoyed by foot, boat or bike. Throw in a handful of wildflowers and acres of green pastureland, and you have a scene of Eden-like tranquillity. Bliss.
With no locks along its 42-mile mainline, only-occasional settlement and acres of green and pleasant land, Lancaster Canal is a narrow-boat experience of almost unparalleled smoothness.
Your only reason for stopping would be to sleep, or pull a pint in one of the creatively-named canal-side inns. Look out for The Water Witch, The Hand & Dagger, and Th’Owd Tithe Barn.
Just be sure to nominate a designated driver: Drunk in charge of a narrow-boat is a criminal offence, and you certainly don’t want to be caught speeding.
Regent’s Canal, London
London may not seem a haven of verdant tranquillity, but Regent’s Canal provides an intriguing way of seeing the city and getting your nature fix at the same time. One of the capital’s best-kept secrets, the waterway ambles serenely from Little Venice through Primrose Hill and Victoria Park, all the way to the hustle and bustle of the Docklands. An accessible canal at the heart of the metropolis, narrowboats and footpaths are in ample supply, or, for a more interactive experience, you can hire a kayak.
The Oxford Canal, Oxfordshire
One of the busiest canal routes in the UK, the Oxford canal meanders slowly through a succession of photogenic villages, arguably setting the standard for picturesque British waterways. The 78-mile route also boasts some of the best (and most creatively named) pubs in the home counties; look out for The Jolly Boatman, The Rock of Gibraltar and The Old Bookbinder’s Ale House. Just try not to load up on too much Oxfordshire ale if you’re piloting a barge – it’s illegal to be drunk in charge of a canal boat, and you don’t want to be caught speeding.
South Pennine Ring, Northern England
Right at the other end of the scale, the South Pennine Ring is about as high-octane as it’s possible to be within a speed limit of 4mph.
This big beast of British waterways crams sections of five canals and 197 locks into its 70 miles – twice traversing the Pennines – and spends three of those miles tunnelling beneath the mountains in the dark. Peaking at 656ft it also features the highest canal tunnel in Britain, and rewards your efforts with rugged rock faces, wild woodland, and crumbling viaducts.
As it name implies, you can do the whole circuit without retracing your steps – if, that is, you can last the distance.
Worcester & Birmingham Canal, The Midlands
Urban canals may be more associated with discarded shopping trolleys and leptospirosis (Weil’s disease) than serene, verdant tranquility, but this charming little waterway yields an unusually peaceful method of city sightseeing.
Beginning as an offshoot of the River Severn, the channel winds through the Worcestershire countryside and floats into Central Birmingham, terminating a short walk from Birmingham New Street and the Bull Ring.
The canal forms the longest arm of the Stourport Ring – one of the most popular narrow boat holidays circuits in the Midlands.
Narrow boat holidays Scotland
The Forth & Clyde Canal, Central Scotland
Formerly a route for industrial vessels to cross Scotland coast to coast, this popular canal traverses the lush countryside between Glasgow and Edinburgh. It’s ideal for a bit of wildlife watching; eagle-eyed visitors will spot kingfishers flaunting their vibrant plumage, dragonflies skimming along the surface of the water, and herons lurking in the reeds searching for prey.
For all you botanists and trivia buffs, it’s also the only place in the world you can find Bennett’s pond weed, rediscovered in the 1960s after 30 years of apparent extinction.
Narrow boat holidays Wales
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal, North Wales
One for the thrill seekers, this Unesco World Heritage site carries its cargo across a monolithic aqueduct wrought of stone and cast iron, rising 126 feet from the valley floor. You can traverse the structure by foot or by barge, and enjoy knockout views of the rolling landscape below. The rest of the canal – all 80 miles of it – isn’t bad either.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct looms above the landscape like a colossus of cast iron and stone, a monument to the achievements of 18th and early 19th century civil engineering. The rest of the canal is worth a look too.
Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal, South Wales
Only six locks in its 35 miles, noiseless electric narrowboats, and an even-lower-than-normal 2mph speed limit – everything about the Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal is geared towards unbridled tranquillity.
Mostly rural, the canal meanders through the foothills of the Brecon Beacons as if plucked from a Wordsworth poem, or the happy place of a stressed office worker.
Perfect for novice boatswains and amateur birdwatchers, often your only company will be croaking herons, splashing kingfishers and swooping buzzards.
Narrow boat holidays Ireland
The Shannon-Erne Waterway, Northern Ireland
A canal spanning two mighty rivers and the UK border, the Shannon-Erne Waterway connects the Shannon and the Erne via 40 scenic miles of Irish countryside. A short-ish waterway with a wilder feel than some of its peers, it’s punctuated with villages that come alive in the evenings. At the northern end, you’ll find Lough Erne, a large lake dotted with islets, each demanding to be your next picnic spot. Kick back, do a bit of fishing, and enjoy the views.
Grand Canal, Ireland
A venerable channel begun in the 1750s, the Grand Canal lives up to its name. Spanning Dublin in the East to the River Shannon in the West, this relic of Ireland’s waterways was carrying cargo right up until the 1960s.
Today, the freight barges have been replaced with pleasure cruisers, wending their way through shallow marshland and picturesque villages, into the heart of modern Dublin.
Need more ideas? Read more canal and waterway routes across the UK and Ireland so you can find your perfect narrow boat holidays and canals to explore.