|“Canals” are probably not the first thing that comes to mind when a tourist is considering a quiet getaway in the British countryside. However, there is no better way to take in the scenery of Great Britain than on the network of canals that once served as the arteries of the British economy. It is a little known fact, but the country is literally crisscrossed by peaceful inland waterways that offer an easy means of access to the tranquil charms of the greenery and small towns of the countryside.
The canals of Britain were its early highways in the Industrial Revolution and Britain’s economic take-off to becoming the world’s factory and shopkeeper. A quick look at some historic dates reveal why: the Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the middle decades of the 18th Century. While James Watt patented his steam engine in 1794, the first intercity railway in Britain did not open until 1830. This meant there was almost a century where raw materials and finished goods needed to be cheaply moved across the country following a rule of transportation that had been in force since the Romans first came to Britain: roads were expensive and time consuming, but transport by water was not. Indeed, the first British canal – Foss Dyke – was built by the Romans in 20 AD. Wherever there wasn’t already a navigable river to move goods, digging a canal was more effective than building a road. British canals were the first major infrastructure investment the Western world had seen since the Roman aqueducts and roads. Their success inspired the American Erie and Chesapeake and Ohio Canals.The result is that virtually anywhere in Britain that was suitable for canal construction saw one put in. Typical canal traffic was on a flat-bottomed narrow boat that was pulled by a horse or mule on a towpath. When the railways became established the canals were eventually eclipsed and fell into disuse. Unlike their Continental counterparts, most British canals were never “modernized,” or widened and deepened to handle big barges. The result the canal network was in disrepair, but still there and still in possession of its quaint charms when re-developers began looking at them starting in the 1970s.The main canal network sits astride the English midlands and Wales, spanning Bristol to London, Lancaster to Ripon, and Liverpool to Goole. While Scotland is home to fewer canals, there are a series of waterways connecting some Lochs, as well as the Forth and Clyde Canal that bridges the Irish and North Seas. It is entirely navigable by narrowboats. These might sound small, but remember that the narrowboat was designed to haul cargo, and most are large enough for a set of cozy cabins. There are narrowboats that are essentially houseboats, and can be rented for private, individual traveling through the English heartland. There are also narrowboats that come with a small staff and function as mini-hotels.Seeing the back country of Britain by narrowboat offers a different kind of travel. Traveling on smooth, tranquil waterways completely sidesteps the hassles and jostling of traveling by bus or train. A narrowboat holiday can move around, taking all of the luggage with you, and take in the countryside on the way at a pace as slow as desired. The boat can be stopped most anywhere for a stroll, or even a bike ride as the boats are big enough to carry the bikes with them. It is arguably the most pleasant way to cover the most ground in Britain.The canals themselves still have their own unique charms. The waters may look muddy, but that is merely because they are shallow. The canals are quite clean, and many locals enjoy fishing in them. While crisscrossing the wild country and quaint farms at a slow pace, one is liable to see prancing foxes, badgers, watervoles, bats flittering from an old canalside building, and numerous waterfowl. Finally, the boatmen of old were a thirsty lot, leaving behind them dozens of canalside pubs in both small villages and great cities that are among the most charming watering holes in the country. Most of these pubs have changed very little from their 18th and early 19th Century origins.Seeing Britain by a canal narrowboat is a holiday of wholly different sort. Always peaceful, it combines many of the country’s largest cities with its smallest villages and lovely farming country. All of this comes at a pace and level of privacy set by the traveller, and without the hassle of moving from hotel to hotel with every change of location. It is the best way to get away from it all while seeing it all at the same time.
This type of peaceful, slow pace holiday is not restricted to the UK alone. Many of you will have seen Rick Stein’s tv programme of his trip along the Canal du Midi, sampling the often simple, traditional cuisine of the areas through which the canal passes. This particular canal holiday may not be cheap, but if you have the means to follow in his footsteps, Hoseasons can arrange just such a trip.
Canal du Midi in the morning