Choosing a canal

Trying to pick your first canal is like trying to pick a favorite pet or child. Each one has its own delights, challenges and oddities despite overall similarities like quaint pubs, beautiful scenery and astounding engineering. In choosing, you have to balance your abilities versus your desires, your craving for solitude versus the canal’s popularity and your itinerary versus the canal’s accessibility.

How to choose

We plan our infrequent UK vacations around our canal trips, but our choice of canal is also influenced by those cities or attractions we wish to visit.

If you’re interested in the Industrial Revolution and impressed by Georgian engineering, then consider the Birmingham Canal Navigations. After all, Matthew Boulton chose to build his Soho Foundry beside the canal. With his partner James Watt, Boulton sold hundreds of steam engines for use in mines and factories. And the canal boasts the Tardebigge Flight of 30 locks stretching two-and-a-quarter miles, the longest flight of locks in the UK.

Photograph of a half-timbered Tudor-style house with two floors and three gables with colorful flowers planted in front
Photo by Stuart Yeates / CC BY-SA 2.0 license Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon is just a short distance from the canal.

If you’re fond of William Shakespeare, you might visit Stratford-upon-Avon and travel the similarly named canal. The canal connects with the River Avon just a short walk (less than 10 minutes) from the Bard’s birthplace. The 25-mile canal extends all the way to Birmingham (if you include the Worcester & Birmingham Canal).

If you’re a Janeite, the obvious city to visit is Bath in Somerset. Jane Austen lived here from 1801 to 1805, just as the Kennet & Avon Canal was being built. From Bath, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you go east on the canal toward Devizes and the stunning Caen Hill flight of 16 locks, one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways. From Devizes, you can easily visit Stonehenge, another World Heritage Site.

Photograph looking up the flight of 16 locks at Caen Hill. You can see row after row of gate beams like some ’60s album cover.
Caen Hill flight of 16 locks

If you prefer the Brontës, then the brooding Pennines and the Rochdale Canal might be your choice. You can even hire your narrowboat from Bronte Boats. The Brontë parsonage in Haworth is about a 30-minute drive from the canal.

If mystery is your thing, then the dreaming spires of Oxford might appeal, especially if you’re a fan of Inspector Morse. If you’ve watched the ITV television series of Inspector Morse, Lewis or Endeavour, then you frequently saw the Oxford Canal and any number of narrowboats. From Oxford, you can join the Grand Union Canal network that can take you to Leicester and Birmingham or even back to Stratford.

The Grand Union also goes to London, of course. If you’re determined to visit the city that Sherlock Holmes’ friend and biographer Doctor Watson described as “that great cesspool into which all the loungers and idlers of the Empire are irresistibly drained,” then you can travel the very urban Regent’s Canal, but be prepared for drunken revelers, graffiti and très chic boaties wearing Wayfarers and fashionably louche nautical wear.

Regent’s Canal, alas, has become fashionable, but it’s still an amazing mixture of gritty urbanism, like the very touristy Camden Locks, and the picturesque, like Little Venice in Maida Vale. It also has its serene moments when your narrowboat putts through Regent’s Park and the backside of London Zoo.