Watching the world go by from a narrowboat or barge may not be the fastest way to travel, but it’s a wonderful way to discover some of the UK’s most beautiful and interesting landscapes. Rolling countryside, quaint market towns, historic mill villages and UNESCO-listed industrial heritage – along with some truly cutting-edge modern additions to the canal network; you can see it all when you take these canal boat trips on Britain’s amazing inland waterways.
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Canal boat trips in northern England
Standedge Tunnel, West Yorkshire
Let’s start this list of the best canal trips with something truly extraordinary. Standedge Tunnel, on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal is the longest, highest, deepest canal tunnel in the UK, and you can take a guided canal boat trip inside its astonishing depths.
Boat trips into the Standedge Tunnel start from Tunnel End near the village of Marsden in West Yorkshire. They’re operated, like a few of the boat tours on this list, by the Canal and River Trust, a charity which looks after 2000 miles of inland waterways in England and Wales.
After your 30-minute journey into the tunnel, you can explore a small museum which describes the arduous building of the tunnel in the late 18th century, its decline when the railways came, how it was abandoned for decades and was finally brought back to life in 2001 thanks to a dedicated team of volunteers.
Read more about visiting Standedge Tunnel
Skipton, North Yorkshire
Skipton is a gorgeous market town at the gateway to the Yorkshire Dales. The Leeds and Liverpool canal arrived in Skipton in 1773, carrying coal, cloth and other cargo across the country from the ports at Liverpool and Hull (via the Aire and Calder Navigation).
Skipton is surrounded by beautiful rolling countryside, and gliding through it on a canal boat trip is the perfect way to see it. From Skipton’s pretty marina in the centre of town, you can take a 1 hour trip to discover the canal, or 2 hour trips to enjoy an afternoon tea on the water.
If you’re thinking you might like to skipper your own boat for a canal boat holiday, a day cruise on the wide, lock-free stretch of the Leeds and Liverpool canal south of Skipton is a good place to perfect your skills. There’s even a handily-placed canalside pub for lunch. The team at Skipton Boat Trips will give you all the tuition you need to take the helm of your hire boat with confidence, even if you’re a complete novice. If you love it, you can hire a boat for a short break canal holiday or a full week or more, depending on how many miles of waterways you want to explore.
Saltaire, West Yorkshire
15 miles south east of Skipton on the Leeds and Liverpool canal, you’ll find Saltaire. Saltaire is a picturesque model village built by Sir Titus Salt to house the workers from his enormous mill in hygienic, morally sound and intellectually improving surroundings.
Salts Mill and the village surrounding it are a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of my favourite places to visit; the mill now holds an art gallery, interesting shops (including the most amazing bookshop) and cafes. Across the river, there’s a lovely park, and down on the canal you can buy ice creams from a barge and take 30-minute boat trips on the narrowboat Titus. Trips run from the end of March to the end of October.
Read more: visiting Salts Mill and Saltaire
Manchester owes a lot of its existence to canals. Canals allowed Manchester’s industrialists to bring raw materials into the city, along with coal to power the machines that would turn raw cotton into finished cloths. At first, products were transported out of Manchester by barge on the Bridgewater Canal or later by rail, but this didn’t provide enough capacity for Manchester’s factories and mills.
This all changed when the Manchester Ship Canal opened in 1894, providing a wide channel all the way to the sea at Liverpool. Manchester became Britain’s 3rd busiest port, despite being 40 miles from the sea.
Taking a guided canal boat trip is a great way to understand the history of Manchester. Boat trips run along the Manchester Ship Canal and the navigable parts of the River Irwell, passing Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium, Imperial War Museum North and the Lowry, plus the old Pomona docks. You can book your Manchester river and canal tour here.
After the drama of the route across the Pennines, the Leeds and Liverpool canal spends its last few miles before arriving in Liverpool meandering across the west Lancashire landscape. This part of northern England is full of small towns and huge skies, and spending a couple of hours on the water is the perfect way to see it.
Lancashire Canal Cruises operate two cruises from Burscough, a small town near Ormskirk and Southport. You can choose from either an afternoon tea cruise or a roast dinner cruise on a cosy narrowboat.
Ashton under Lyne, Greater Manchester
Ashton under Lyne is just to the east of Manchester, and the town’s Portland canal basin marks the point where the Huddersfield Narrow Canal and the Peak Forest Canal meet and the Ashton Canal begins its journey to Manchester city centre.
The 1800s canal warehouse at Portland Basin has been turned into a lively family museum with recreations of a 1920s street and the interior of a normal family home. There are also exhibitions on the history of Ashton’s three canals. Outside the museum, the Tameside Canal Boat Trust operate seasonal trips on the Ashton Canal on their narrowboat Still Waters.
Together with the Falkirk Wheel in Scotland, the Anderton Boat Lift is one of the most impressive sights on Britain’s canal network and is the world’s oldest working boat lift. The boat lift was built in 1875 to lift cargo boats 15 metres up in the air from the River Weaver to the Trent and Mersey Canal and is still operational today.
You can experience the “cathedral of the canals” for yourself with a canal boat trip on the Edwin Clark, named after the engineer who built this amazing structure. The Anderton Boat Lift is having some refurbishment work done at the moment but boat trips are expected to resume after Easter 2023.
Ellesmere Port, Cheshire
The transhipment dock at Ellesmere Port, where the River Mersey, Manchester Ship Canal and Shropshire Union Canal all meet, used to be a noisy, bustling spot at the height of the Industrial Revolution, but it’s now a peaceful spot for a family day out. The warehouse is now home to one of the Canal and River Trust’s three museums. The museum is a fascinating place to visit, with regularly-changing exhibitions, special events and themed “Canal Sundays” during the summer months.
Wirral Community Narrowboat Trust run occasional canal boat trips from the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port. If there’s a group of you, you might want to hire one of their barges and skippers for a longer trip – they have a range of full day and short day options from £125, some of which stop off at canalside pubs for lunch.
Canal boat trips in central England
Cromford is a village on the edge of the Peak District and home to one of the great wonders of the industrial revolution, the huge Cromford Mills complex. Built in 1771 by the inventor and industrialist Sir Richard Arkwright, Cromford Mills was the first successful water-powered cotton spinning mill.
Like Sir Titus Salt in Saltaire, Arkwright built a village to house his workers, and today Cromford is a lovely place to visit, with shops, cafes, a large mill pond and quaint streets. The UNESCO-listed mill has a museum about the mills, plus craft workshops and more shops and cafes.
The 14.5 mile long Cromford Canal was critical to the success of Arkwright’s mills, but it also carried people! An enterprising man named Nathaniel Wheatcroft started the first “fly” boat service from here, carrying passengers to Nottingham twice a week.
Boat trips from Cromford Basin run on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays and take a 2 hour route from Cromford Wharf to Leawood Pumphouse and back on board the narrowboat Birdswood. There’s also an occasional option for a premium cruise which includes refreshments and a guided tour of the historic places to visit along the route, including Leawood Pumphouse and High Peak Junction, where you can see the oldest extant railway workshop in the world. You can book both the regular and the premium tour on the Friends of Cromford Canal’s website.
The oldest canal in Britain is the Fosse Dyke Canal, which was built by the Romans to link Lincoln to the River Trent, and from there to the North Sea. Lincoln is a beautiful cathedral city, and spending a relaxing hour on this historic canal is a lovely way to see the wider area.
You can take a guided boat trip along the Fosse Dyke on the Brayford Belle which operates between Easter and October each year. The Brayford Belle has two decks, the lower one with central heating and the upper one with outside seating and a fantastic view.
Birmingham famously has more miles of canals than Venice or Amsterdam – over 35 miles of them. The canals arrived in Birmingham in 1768, and grew to a peak of 160 miles of canal across the city. Canals were essential to fuel Birmingham’s growth during the industrial revolution, bringing in raw materials and coal, and sending out finished goods.
You can explore Birmingham’s history by taking a canal boat trip with Brindley Cruises or Sherborne Wharf. Routes cover part of the original James Brindley Canal, a section of Telford’s New Main Line (revolutionary for its time) and Gas Street Basin. If you’re visiting Birmingham at Christmas, you can even take a “Search for Santa” canal trip.
Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire
The Stratford-upon-Avon canal runs from the outskirts of Birmingham to the heart of historic Stratford, Shakespeare’s home town. The canal was built to transport coal from the Midlands down to Oxford and London, without needing to use the network through Birmingham. The route was near-derelict by the 1930s, but was rescued thanks to the efforts of the Inland Waterways Association, the National Trust and local volunteers.
Today, the 25 miles of the Stratford-upon-Avon canal is navigable again and visitors to Stratford can take 40 minute canal boat tours along the canal and the River Avon. Stratford’s resident swans often follow the boat, and there’s a good chance you’ll also see tufted ducks, herons, coots and perhaps a kingfisher too.
Dudley, West Midlands
Just as at Standedge, the main attraction for canal boat trips in Dudley is going underground. The Dudley Tunnel is the UK’s second-longest tunnel, but unlike Standedge, it isn’t continuous and instead emerges at points into canal basins.
The rock in this area is particularly rich in fossils and other geological features. The area was once heavily mined for its limestone, creating amazing caverns that the boat trip passes through. One of these, named the Singing Cavern, is even available for weddings!
Canal boat trips into Dudley Tunnel are run by the Dudley Canal and Tunnel Trust. You can just turn up for the regular 45 minute trips or book online for longer trips. While you’re in the area, don’t miss a visit to the nearby Black Country Living Museum, which has a canal area featuring a collection of historic boats.
The Oxford Canal meanders 78 miles from just north of Coventry, down through Rugby and Banbury and on until it meets the River Thames at Oxford.
While there are lots of river cruises on offer in Oxford itself, you’ll need to go to Banbury for canal boat trips on the Oxford Canal, unless you want a self-drive boat. Tooleys Boatyard Trust in Banbury offer regular, 40-minute canal boat trips on their day boat the Dancing Duck. Their Facebook page is the best place to check for boat trip times and dates.
The Cotswolds are more famous these days for picturesque villages and trickling streams in a rolling, rural landscape, but there are canals here too. The Stroudwater Navigation opened in 1779 to link Stroud to the River Severn and from there to the sea. Ten years later, the Thames and Severn Canal opened, extending the route to the River Thames at Lechlade and providing a cross-country route.
Both the Stroudwater Navigation and the Thames and Severn Canal fell into decline, with sections being filled in, but the Cotswolds Canal Trust have worked tirelessly to bring parts back into use. It’s expected that the Stroudwater Navigation will join up with the national waterways network again in 2025.
The Cotswolds Canal Trust run canal boat trips on the navigable parts of the Stroudwater Navigation at the Saul visitor centre, Ebley Wharf and the Wallbridge Lock visitor centre. At Lechlade, you can take a boat trip on the River Thames from St John’s Lock to see the start of the old Thames and Severn Canal.
Canal boat trips in southern England
The Regent’s Canal in London is an 8.6-mile link between the Grand Union Canal near Paddington Station to the Limehouse Basin and River Thames near Canary Wharf. The canal weaves its way prettily through some of North London’s most attractive and interesting areas, including Little Venice, Regent’s Park, Camden Town and the Coal Drops Yard area of Kings Cross.
Canal boat trips on the Regent’s Canal tend to run between Little Venice and Camden Town. On a tour with the London Waterbus Company you’ll be entertained by a commentary, which points out key sights along the route, including London Zoo, Maida Hill Tunnel and the homes of the rich and famous. You can book your canal trip online.
Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire
The Kennet and Avon Canal is one of the UK canal network’s most popular waterways. Stretching from the Bristol channel, through the beautiful city of Bath then on through Devizes, Hungerford, Newbury to the Thames at Reading, it’s an outstanding route, passing through quintessentially English countryside.
One of the most beautiful towns on the Kennet and Avon is Bradford-on-Avon. Bradford-on-Avon is 10 miles from Bath and the tow paths are a popular walk between the two. At Bradford-on-Avon you can take a canal boat trip on the impressively large Barbara McLellan, a 65ft wide-beam boat that seats 40 and is operated by the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust.
From Bradford-on-Avon, the Barbara McLellan sails west to Avoncliff Aqueduct and east to Widbrook winding hole. There are also a range of themed cruises throughout the season.
The Kennet and Avon Canal Trust have four other boats along the canal and also offer canal boat trips in Devizes, Hungerford, Newbury and Reading.
Canal boat trips in Wales
The Llangollen Canal in North Wales is one of the most scenic canal trips in the UK, but you’ll need a good head for heights! The amazing Pontcysyllte Aqueduct soars over the valley of the River Dee and is the longest and highest canal aqueduct in the world. It was designed by the famous engineer Thomas Telford, who was also involved in building Standedge Tunnel.
You can walk along the tow path to see the view from the aqueduct, but for the full Pontcysyllte experience, complete with checking out the sheer drop from the side of the boat on the canal side, Llangollen Wharf offer both motor and horse-drawn canal trips over the aqueduct.
The 5 mile route can be done in either direction, starting at Llangollen or Froncysyllte (near the aqueduct). The journey takes two hours; for an extra cost you can enjoy afternoon tea onboard. At the end of the trip, a courtesy bus will take you back to where you started.
The peaceful Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal (also known as the Mon and Brec) is one of the UK’s most scenic routes. 35 miles are currently navigable, and many of those are within the Brecon Beacons National Park.
Things weren’t always so quiet and serene around here though; the canal transported coal, stone and iron ore from the Welsh hillsides down to the iron works at Blaenavon (now a museum and UNESCO World Heritage site) and other industrial sites in the area. Cruising along the canal today you can still see traces of its heritage including wharves and lime kilns.
If you’re visiting this lovely part of Wales, Dragonfly Cruises have public canal boat trips departing from Brecon canal basin and including a journey over the Brynich Aqueduct which takes the Mon and Brec over the River Usk. They can also provide a skipper and guide for a canal trip through the area’s picturesque villages.
Canal boat trips in Scotland
The Caledonian Canal runs for 60 miles across Scotland, from Inverness to Corpach near Fort William, connecting the lochs of the Great Glen; Loch Dochfour, Loch Ness, Loch Oich and Loch Lochy. The man-made connections between the lochs were built by Thomas Telford and opened in the early 19th century.
You can take a combined cruise of the Caledonian Canal and Loch Ness by joining a boat trip at Dochgarroch Lock. The trip will take you through the locks and on to Loch Douchfour, past the old Bona Lighthouse and into Loch Ness as far as Urquhart Castle. You can book online through online ticket seller Get Your Guide.
The Falkirk Wheel is one of the most impressive feats of engineering on the whole UK canal network. Opened in 2002, the Wheel is a rotating boat lift, the only one of its kind in the world. It connects the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal.
The best way to see the Falkirk Wheel is to take a spin on it. Canal boat trips on the Falkirk Wheel take around 50 minutes. First you’ll go into the canal basin, then enter the Wheel’s gondola, ready to be lifted into the air as the Wheel rotates. At the top, you’ll sail along the aqueduct, through the Roughcastle Tunnel and to the start of the Union Canal. The boat will turn round and take you back to the Wheel for another spin, this time back down to the canal basin.
Canal boat holidays
If day trips aren’t enough for you, there are lots of companies offering canal boat hire, either to stay put and use the boat as a base, or to explore the UK’s miles of navigable waterways at your own pace on a narrow boat holiday.
VRBO has narrow boats, house boats and barges for rent with all the comforts of home, while specialist hire firms like Waterways Holidays have canal boat hire across the country. There are lots of local companies as well; if you’re interested in a particular starting point, you might like to talk to a local specialist who can advise you on canal routes and the best places of interest to see along the way.
Have you taken one of these canal boat trips, or have I missed out your favourite? Let me know in the comments.
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