Often referred to as The Cut due to the way they cut a path through the countryside and connect the country’s river systems, they quickly became a vital mode of transport during the industrial revolution for many trades. And it was the success of these commercial waterways during the 18th and early 19th centuries that helped Britain become a global superpower.
But after World War II, these traditional businesses began to decline and the waterways fell into disrepair. Until the 1960s that is, when community groups began to rescue and restore them.
Today, this winding network of waterways is open to the public, who can enjoy a whole range of quintessentially British activities from narrow-boating and canoeing, to fishing, biking or walking the towpaths.
Birmingham – the Venice of the Midlands
The Grand Union Canal links London to the heart of Peaky Blinders territory in Birmingham. Start in Paddington Basin in west London and travel through villages and industrial towns right up through the lush green countryside of Colne Valley Regional Park
Cuts through the countryside
Visit Britain’s famous university city of Oxford and join in with another local tradition – the pub crawl. College Cruisers will take you via narrowboat along the Oxford Canal, past Cotswold villages and rolling farmland, before pulling up outside your pick of charming canalside pubs for a G&T and a hearty pub lunch.
Stop to admire the engineering marvel that is Denham Deep Lock in Buckinghamshire – with an 11-foot drop, it’s by far the deepest in the Grand Union Canal and the clever design allows boats to breach the different water levels by simply raising or lowering the craft.
Canals connect in London
Browse the stalls and shops of London’s legendary Camden Market before taking a trip down Regent’s Canal with The London Waterbus This scenic cruise passes though leafy north London up to Little Venice, Paddington, and stops at London Zoo.
Where the Grand Union Canal meets Regents Canal, you’ll find the delightful oasis of Little Venice – it’s believed that poet and former resident Robert Browning named it. This tranquil stretch of water is lined with impressive Georgian and Victorian houses and is home to Browning’s Island, an islet that’s home to waterbirds, Egyptian Geese and a handful of ‘floating’ businesses including an art gallery and hotel.
If all that exploring makes you hungry, there are countless places to eat on and along the canals, including the floating Waterside Café and The Waterway restaurant with its large outdoor terrace. Step aboard the Feng Shang Princess, the floating Chinese restaurant near Primrose Hill, known for its celebrity clientele and canal views, or check out the Narrowboat Pub on Regent’s Canal in Islington.
While London’s waterways are full of surprises, one of the most delightful is the Puppet Theatre Barge This floating marionette theatre first came to life 40 years ago, and is still captivating children from its 72-foot-long, flat-bottomed boot moored in Little Venice.
For a one-off experience, enjoy a cruise with HotTugUK. You’ll need a swimsuit and a sense of fun for this one – these electric-powered, self-drive, floating hot tubs chug around the City Road Basin (five minutes from Angel and Old Street tube stations) and you’ll have 75 minutes of sailing time, basking in London views and water that’s heated to a rather pleasant 38 degrees.
For more information on the history of UK’s canals, pop along to one of the Open Day events run by the Canal River Trust