Canal Boating on the Warwickshire Ring
The Warwickshire Ring
The British canal system was built in the 18th and 19th centuries to transport bulk goods from the factories and mines to the cities and ports. Many canals became disused when first the railways and then road transport provided faster communications, but those that remained, and many miles that have been restored in more recent times, have had a new lease of life as a highly popular leisure resource.
The Midland counties of England have an excellent network of canals, plus navigable rivers, that offer great opportunities for "messing about in boats" and having a great time, even if it rains!
The Warwickshire Ring is simply a route that makes use of parts of five linked canals in a circuit of about 100 miles (there are alternative routes in a few places that can lengthen or shorten the distance to some degree).
Much of the route is through open countryside, but it also takes you through the centre of Birmingham, England's second city, and past the sites of mines, quarries and factories that were the reason for the canals being built in the first place. The Ring consists of both wide and narrow canals, there are long stretches of "level water" with hardly any locks, and others where a dozen or more locks follow in sequence. There are some reasonably long tunnels as well. The Ring has just about everything!
Where to start?
The choice is yours! There are companies hiring out narrowboats and other canal craft all round the Ring, so you can start almost where you like, and you can head off in either direction. The important thing is to plan your holiday so that you get back to where you started at the right time. It should take about 60 hours to complete the Ring, which means a lot of travelling each day if you only have a week, less so if you can take longer. If you have two weeks at your disposal, you can probably add a detour to your journey, such as visit to Coventry or Stratford, or a trip up and down the "dead end" Ashby Canal.
Remember that you probably won't want to be cruising much if the weather is bad. Pushing on in the rain to meet a deadline is much less fun than stopping off to visit a canalside pub and taking your time over a leisurely pint or three!
If you approach from the North, you will join the Birmingham Navigation underneath a gloomy motorway bridge that is part of the infamous Spaghetti Junction. You glide past the backs of a series of factories, many of which are now abandoned and forlorn, then you start climbing towards central Birmingham, through firstly the Aston flight (11 locks) and then the Birmingham flight (13 locks). At one point the canal is completely covered by modern buildings as you go through three locks, and then you emerge in Birmingham City Centre, right next to the Indoor Arena.
Should you happen to arrive here on a fine Saturday afternoon in Summer, you will suddenly find that you have ceased to be an onlooker and become the main event, as the canalside pubs and restaurants provide hundreds of spectators who will wave and cheer and take photos as you pass. This is not the time to wish you'd made the bed that is now visible to all and sundry as you pass!
Gas Street Basin, Birmingham
Americans please note - it's pronounced Warrick, not War-wick! From the West, you get a splendid view of this ancient town as you descend the Hatton Locks on the Grand Union Canal. This is a broad canal, so the locks are double width. It pays to go through the locks with another boat, so that you don't waste water, and you'll also find it easier to have more people on hand to open and close the gates.
It's worth spending a little time looking round Warwick, with its medieval buildings and castle (although this was largely rebuilt in Victorian times).
Not long after leaving Warwick's neighbouring town of Leamington you go through the only staircase pair of locks on the Ring. This is where the top gates of one lock are also the bottom gates of another. You need to liaise carefully with any boats coming the other way.
A flight of locks near Warwick
This is where the Grand Union meets the Oxford Canal, and the village has done well from the traffic that this meeting brings. It's worth mooring here and climbing the hill to the village itself, which is dominated by a magnificent church spire, near which is a restored but sail-less windmill. The view from the top is splendid, as you can see the canals snaking away in three directions.
Evening at Braunston
A great way to take a break!
Canal holidays are becoming big business in this part of England, although the price of hiring a narrowboat for a week would buy you at least a fortnight on a beach resort in Spain or Greece! It's not a holiday for lazy people - you have more than 90 locks to negotiate on the Ring, and they can be hard work!
You may also find the accommodation on your boat to be a bit cramped, so don't pack too much when you set out from home. It's also not a holiday for people in a hurry, as you can probably walk faster than the boat. If you're happy with these minor drawbacks, you are virtually guaranteed a great time on the Warwickshire Ring!
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