See Britain by waterway

For an unforgettable way to see beautiful countryside, historic towns and wonderful wildlife, step on board a canal boat and discover what is arguably the most peaceful way to holiday

Canal boats moored on the Regents Canal at Noel Road in Islington
Canal boats moored on the Regents Canal at Noel Road in Islington © Britainonview

Just three centuries after great innovators began building the canals which would become the world’s first national waterways network, the 3,000 miles of Britain’s inland waterways are a magical landscape dotted with some idyllic places to stay.

Hire a narrowboat for a few days, and you can drift gently between verdant banks as kingfishers swoop and herons poise silently, and moor for the night overlooking a peaceful river valley amid the grandeur of the Highland glens, or in the historic centre of one of Britain’s most magnificent cities. Waking each morning to the gentle bobbing of waves against the boat, as you breakfast on the bow amid visiting swans and moorhens, is the most intimate way to enjoy the very best of Britain’s wildlife and heritage.

Travelling by narrowboat through historic locks and beneath weathered sandstone bridges, crossing reeds and lush farmland before gliding into Stratford, Bath or Oxford is simply unforgettable.

Kennet and Avon Canal
Holidaying on a narrowboat on the Kennet and Avon Canal is the perfect way to see rural England © Loop Images/David Hall

And unlike the original horse-drawn boats, which housed whole families in tiny cabins, today’s narrowboats are beautifully fitted, with comfortable beds and well-equipped kitchens where you can prepare delicious fare to eat on the boat’s bow or roof. Or simply moor at one of the hostelries with gardens running down to the canal.

Idyllic moorings are everywhere in the glorious lush Cheshire countryside and just a few minutes’ cruising time from the historic Anderton Lift. It was built in 1875 as the world’s first boat lift to carry boats down 15m (50ft) to the River Weaver below. Lovingly restored in 2002, today the lift carries boaters and day visitors to the Weaver where only mallards, swans and the occasional rowing team break the stillness.

The lock at Bradford on Avon
The lock at Bradford on Avon © Waterway Images

Mooring on the Edinburgh Union canal at Linlithgow overlooking the historic palace and lake, on the Oxford Canal close to the picturesque village of Cropredy, or on the Kennet and Avon canal close to the impressive stone aqueduct is another magical way to spend an evening.

Celebrities too have been drawn to the waterways, from Keira Knightley with her waterborne hideaway on London’s canals to the broadcaster David Dimbleby and actor Kevin Spacey. Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart cruised gently through Shropshire towards Llangollen for its wonderful Eistedfodd, pausing for a pint or two at the Narrowboat Inn at Whittington and staying at the lovely Bryn Howel hotel, with its log fires and spacious accommodation overlooking the Llangollen Canal.

Surrounded by tranquil lake views in the glorious Cheshire countryside, the award-winning country house hotel Nunsmere Hall Hotel is within striking distance of the Anderton Boat Lift and historic Chester, where the narrowboats cruise deep below the refortified Roman walls. And, if you stop over at the Mill Hotel and Spa in Chester, constructed over the canal with an internal footbridge, you can simply stroll into this unusual and very pretty walled city and down to the scenic River Dee.

Union canal near Linlithgow, Edinburgh
Union canal near Linlithgow, Edinburgh © Loop Images, Ricky Leaver

Cruising south, the Best Western Stoke-on-Trent Moat House has an award-winning canopied conservatory restaurant with gourmet menus, and adjoins the historic home and canal created by the famous potter Josiah Wedgwood, close to the narrowboat marina.

Or the Lion Quays Waterside Resort has a new generation spa in a tranquil waterfront setting.

Cruising into the heart of Stratford-upon-Avon through Shakespeare country is simply magical. Boaters moor opposite the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and feed curious swans as the Stratford Canal meets the River Avon. The four-star and gorgeous half-timbered Falcon Hotel, dating back to the 16th century, is just a short stroll away through quaint streets. And in the heart of Stratford, the luxuriously renovated Arden Hotel offers tranquil views over the Avon.

Anderton Boat Lift
Anderton Boat Lift © Canal Boat Holidays / Waterway Images

Chugging gently into the World Heritage City of Bath takes visitors back in time to Regency days, with tranquil moorings close to the wonderful Pulteney Weir and Bridge. Tucked away in one of Bath’s most evocative Georgian streets, the Georgian Stables at Smallcombe House have beautiful gardens meandering down to the Kennet and Avon canal. Just a short stroll away, a stunning Georgian mansion, once a family home, is now the Macdonald Bath Spa Hotel and another world of timeless elegance and fine dining.

A short cruise along the canal, the idyllic medieval town of Bradford on Avon has some picturesque moorings and wonderful hotel accommodation, such as the characterful Barge Inn with its canal-side gardens, recently refurbished restaurant, and roaring log fires – perfect for cooler evenings.

Travelling by narrowboat is a wonderful way to visit the very heart of Britain’s cities and wake in a magnificent setting, as pretty canal boats tie up to the weathered rings set deep in every towpath. Mooring close to the centre of Oxford, just a short distance from the Drifters narrowboat hire base at Eynsham on the River Thames, you can relax in the heart of the city, lulled by the gentle lapping of water.

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct © Terry Mathews

Set in acres of parkland, the Oxford Thames Four Pillars Hotel stands in a wonderfully tranquil setting with grounds rolling down to the river.

At the Trout Inn in Tadpole Bridge in Oxfordshire, boaters are welcomed to moor and then dine in the award-winning restaurant where the French head chef Pascal Clavaud serves crayfish caught in the River Thames, which you’ll find located at the end of the garden.

While moorings in some parts of London are in demand ahead of the Olympics, gaily-painted narrowboats bedecked with the traditional roses and castles now chug gently onto the Regent’s Canal at Little Venice. Cruising sedately through the capital takes you past London Zoo, where local residents occasionally hear the lions roar at night, and past Regent’s Park to Camden Town.

An overnight mooring, Bath, Somerset
An overnight mooring, Bath, Somerset © Alamy / Canal Boat Holidays

Joining at Limehouse, cruising onto the River Thames gives boaters wonderful views of the Tower of London and Houses of Parliament before mooring beside a peaceful towpath and visiting the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

Further north, boaters journey slowly through dramatic countryside, mooring in idyllic rural locations like those on the Rochdale Canal with fabulous Pennine views, or close to medieval market towns and weathered mill towns, pausing at quintessentially British canal-side pubs as they journey towards historic York.

Mooring at Edinburgh Quay with its restaurants and bars, just a short walk from the delights of the Scottish capital, is a wonderful way to visit. And as Britain’s most beautiful shortcut, the Crinan Canal in Mid-Argyll in the West Highlands of Scotland abounds with golden eagles, ospreys, beavers and red squirrel, with whale and dolphin spotted off the coast. At the heart of the lovely village of Crinan, the Crinan Hotel serves magnificent seafood with splendid sea views, in a wonderful setting that celebrates the best of Britain and its historic waterways.

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