Before the rise of railways and highways in the 19th and 20th centuries, Britain dug an extensive network of canals to support the industrial revolution in the latter half of the 18th century. The Grand Cross of canals links the four great river basins of Britain: Severn, Mersey, Humber, and the Thames. The network of inland, man-made waterways covers over 2,000 miles.
While I was once in London, I stumbled upon Little Venice (the junction between Regent’s Canal and the Grand Union Canal) about five minutes from Paddington Station and decided to hop aboard a narrow boat to explore London’s Regent Canal. The day I explored the canal was a sunny and warm summer day. A nice relief from the city’s congestion, the trip took me up to Camden and back. It was a slow and mellow boat trip and what stands out the most in my mind are the swans that were swimming peacefully in the city and the geraniums which grew from window boxes on some of the house boats. I also enjoyed a bite to eat at a cafe overlooking the canal after visiting a tiny art studio housed on one of the canal’s boats. Most of the artwork featured watercolor paintings of the canals and their narrowboats. It was interesting to catch a glimpse of the unique community that has been growing aboard the narrow residential boats moored along the banks of the canals.
Travellers can opt for a longer boat trip through the countrysides by hiring private boats. The average speed of these narrowboats (built to fit on the narrow waterways of course) is a leisurely 3-4 miles per hour. There are many locks on most of the canals that are easy to operate or operated by lock keepers. The stopping points on canal towpaths are plentiful and are usually free or available for a minimal cost. Many who take to this nautical adventure choose to travel on one of the famous “rings” which are the circular routes that are comprised of several canals and/or rivers. These rings tend to take at least a week to cover. Two popular rings are the Avon Ring that runs throughout Shakespeare country and the Four Counties Ring that features lots of open countryside. Shorter options include out and back trips.
The rejuvenation that Britain’s extensive waterway system has undergone in recent decades has given way to trendy cafes, beautiful walking and bike paths running alongside many of the canals, plentiful wildlife, great waterside pubs, and restaurants afloat traditional canal narrowboats. You can hop aboard a cruise like I did, rent your own boat for a day, a long weekend or weeks, or simply enjoy the canalside life found throughout the cities, villages and countryside.