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Top 10 canal stories - as told by our bases

Top 10 canal stories

To celebrate the New Year, and a new cruising season just around the corner, we’ve picked the brains of our boat yard managers across the country, to find some of the most interesting, quirky and unusual stories on our waterways.  We hope you find them fun and inspiring for when you plan your new holiday afloat!











  1. Keep an eye out for the Water Buffalo at Napton - From our canal boat hire base at Stockton on the Grand Union Canal in Warwickshire, it takes just over two hours to cruise to the village of Napton, where alongside the Oxford Canal, a herd of Water Buffalo can often be seen grazing. In 1999, the Buffalo Farm at Chapel Green started milking 20 ‘Bubalus Bubalis’, a species native across Asia, and it’s now home to 140 cows and 100 young buffalo. If you fancy sampling some of their produce, Napton Village Stores sells the farm’s Buffalo burgers, sausages, meatballs, steaks and ice cream.  On a midweek break, from Napton you can continue on to Fenny Compton, travelling a total of 20 hours there and back from Stockton and passing through 12 locks each way.  On a week’s break you can travel on to Cropredy.
  2. Enjoy the most heart-stopping boat trip in Britain - The World Heritage Status Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is a stone’s throw away from our canal boat hire base at Trevor in North Wales. This magnificent feat of engineering was built over 200 years by canal engineers Thomas Telford and William Jessop.  Incredibly, ox blood was added to the lime mortar which binds the structure’s masonry together (forming 18 titanic brick pillars), following an ancient superstition that the blood of a strong animal would strengthen a structure.  And sugar was boiled with Welsh flannel then mixed with tar to seal the cast joints of the structure’s cast iron trough, which carries the Llangollen Canal 127 feet above the Dee Valley.  With not even a handrail on the north side, when travelling across by canal boat, it’s probably the most heart-stopping and exhilarating experience on the canal network!  On a short break from Trevor, you can glide across the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and travel on to Ellesmere and back.  On a week’s break, you can continue on to the historic market town of Whitchurch, cruising for a total of 24 hours and passing through two locks each way.
  3. Spot the mysterious barrel roofed lock cottages on the Stratford Canal - The southern section of the pretty Stratford Canal, running from Bancroft Basin in the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon up to the village of Lapworth, is characterised by split bridges with gaps for the tow ropes of boat horses and a series of curious barrel roofed lock cottages. The reason for these quirky structures is actually purely practical – engineers building the canal knew more about building bridges than houses so when they turned their hand to building dwellings for the lock keepers, they adapted their skills, producing barrel-shaped roofs. On a short break from our canal boat hire base at Wootton Wawen on the Stratford Canal near Henley-in-Arden, you can travel to Stratford and back, cruising for a total of 12 hours and passing through 17 locks each way.  On a week’s break you can travel the Birmingham Mini Ring, cruising for 35 hours and negotiating 83 locks.
  4. Look out for World War II pill boxes on the K&A - Following the British Expeditionary Forces’ evacuation from Dunkirk, and the prospect of imminent German invasion, General Sir Edmund Ironside, Commander-in-chief of the Home Forces created a series of static defence lines, one of which was the Kennet & Avon Canal from Reading to Bristol, named GHQ Stop Line Blue. Pill boxes and tank traps designed by the War Office were built along the canal and manned by the home guard.  Today there are still a large number of pillboxes lining the canal, including one at next to Avoncliff Aqueduct, one at Rotherstone in Devizes, one at Freewarren Bridge at Crofton and two between the canal and the railway line at Hungerford Common.  From our canal boat rental base at Sydney Wharf in Bath, it takes just over three hours to reach Avoncliff Aqueduct, great for a short break.  From Bath, it takes around 29 hours to reach Hungerford, passing through 61 locks along the way – perfect for a 10-day or two-week break.
  5. Visit the birthplace of the canal restoration movement - At the top of the mighty 30-lock Tardebigge Flight on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal near Bromsgrove, a plaque commemorates the famous meeting between Tom Rolt and Robert Aickman, which took place aboard Rolt’s Narrowboat ‘Cressy’, moored just above Tardebigge Top Lock. Rolt and Aickman were the passion and brains behind the formation of the Inland Waterways (IWA) in 1946. Their aim was to keep Britain’s canal network navigable and it is thanks to this incredible movement that the canals are in the fantastic shape that they are today, with over 3,000 miles of navigable waterways available to explore.  Our narrowboat hire base at Tardebigge is next to the Top Lock.  On a short break from here, it’s best to head north to Lapworth or Birmingham.  On a week’s break, you could travel the Droitwich or Stourport Ring, which includes the Tardebigge Flight.
  6. Navigate the Harecastle Tunnel - The Harecastle Tunnel on the Trent & Mersey Canal in Staffordshire links Kidsgrove and Tunstall. But there are actually two tunnels here built 40 years apart by two famous canal engineers – James Brindley and Thomas Telford.  The earlier Brindley tunnel fell into disrepair is long closed, but the Telford tunnel is still used to this day.  At 1.5 miles long, it is one of the longest canal tunnels in Britain and takes around 40 minutes to navigate.  There is only space for one boat to pass through at one time, so you may have to wait to enter.  The tunnel keeper instructs boaters when to go through and what to do.  Back when the tunnel was first built it didn’t have a towpath and so boats had to be ‘legged’ through.  This involves laying a plank of wood across the bows and having people lying across it to literally walk the walls.  From our canal boat hire base on the Trent & Mersey Canal at Great Haywood it takes around 12 hours, travelling 22 miles and passing through 18 locks to reach the south end of the Harecastle Tunnel.  From there, on a week or more away, you can continue on to complete the Four Counties Ring, travelling a total of 110 miles and travelling through 94 locks.
  7. Watch out for the dazzling canalside murals at Oxford – in north Oxford, the Oxford Canal is crossed by two bridges with large canalside walls. Three years ago, spurred on by the horrified comments of Timothy West and Prunella Scales when seeing the graffiti here on one of their ‘Great Canal Journeys’ for Channel 4, the local community set about creating four striking murals to improve the environment, reflecting the area’s history and wildlife of the canal.  From our canal boat hire base on the Thames at Oxford, it takes just over an hour to reach Duke’s Cut Lock, the gateway to the Oxford Canal right next to the two bridges.  On a midweek break, you can continue north along the Oxford Canal to Lower Heyford, cruising a total of 18 hours and passing through 14 locks each way.  On a week’s break, you can travel on to Banbury, cruising for a total of 30 hours and passing through 21 locks each way.
  8. Have a pint at the Shroppie Fly – originally a canalside cheese warehouse, the popular Shroppie Fly pub on the Shropshire Union Canal in the picturesque village of Audlem, has a narrowboat as a bar. The name of the pub pays tribute to a type of narrowboat designed for speed in the early days of the canal – particularly important when transporting cheese and fresh farm produce to town and city markets.  Fly-boats were the Amazon Prime of their day, with fine lines to help them to glide easily through water and specially selected elite boatmen and horses to maximise speed, they ran non-stop, day and night.  From our canal boat hire base on the Shropshire Union Canal at Bunbury it takes around five hours to reach Audlem, passing through seven locks to the wharf and passing Nantwich along the way - perfect for a short break.  On a week’s holiday from Bunbury, you can continue on to the Caldon Canal, cruising a total of 48 hours and travelling through 104 locks.
  9. Read the lock wall poem in Bath – a poem created by Jessica Kashdan-Brown has been stencilled into the wall of Lock 13 near Pulteney Road in Bath. The equivalent of 820 full bath tubs of water drains from the lock on each descent, gradually revealing the poem to boaters and gongoozlers.  Lock 13 (also known as Bath Top Lock) is just five minutes by boat from our canal boat hire base at Sydney Wharf.  From there, you can travel through the six locks that make up the Bath flight and reach moorings in Bath City Centre in just two hours.  Experienced boaters can travel on along the Bristol Avon to Bristol’s Floating Harbour, travelling through another seven locks and cruising for a further six hours.
Cruise through a lake on the Staffs & Worcs Canal – Tixall Wide is a beautiful wide stretch of waterway close to the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal’s junction with the Trent & Mersey.  Permission to build the canal was granted by the local landowner Thomas Clifford, on condition that the canal was made wide enough to look like a lake so that it didn’t spoil the view from his house.  Today, over 250 years later, Tixall Wide is home to an abundance of wildlife and is a great place to moor up for the night.  It’s just over a mile away from our narrowboat rental base at Great Haywood, on the junction of the Staffs & Worcs and Trent & Mersey Canal.  On a short break, you can cruise on from Tixall Wide to the village of Gailey and back, travelling a total of 26 miles and passing through 12 locks each way.  On a week’s break, you can travel on to Market Drayton, home of the gingerbread man or complete the Black Country Ring, which takes narrowboat holiday-makers on a 45-hour waterway odyssey, cruising a total of 75 miles and passing through 79.