Few people realise how beautiful and peaceful the landscapes of our canals and rivers can be today. The rivers were made navigable long before the canals were built, largely to enable trade when there was no other way of safely transporting goods over distance. The canals were mainly constructed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when land transport was still unreliable, and they were built largely to enable the Industrial Revolution to take place. Raw materials and finished goods could then be moved in larger quantities and greater safety than before. In the nineteenth century, the introduction of railways started to reduce the usefulness of the waterways, and in the twentieth century this was further eroded by improvements in road transport. Gradually, the waterways reverted to nature, which is why today they are form such a beautiful backdrop to our cruises.
Today, the waterways offer some of the finest sites of flora and fauna as they are seldom disturbed. We see a variety of water birds and other wildlife that would be quite difficult to see otherwise, even when walking. Birds are far less disturbed by the boat than they would be by people on the towpath – for example, you will see the brilliant blue of kingfishers at close quarters if you are observant, and herons seem to play games with us by moving just ahead of the boat. Since our boat travels at a leisurely pace, it really enables you to benefit from this peaceful environment and see the English countryside at its best.
Of course, the waterways don’t just meander through the countryside: there are any number of interesting villages and towns along the way, and the journey through London is one to be remembered as it passes through Little Venice, Camden and Kings Cross on its way to the basin at Limehouse.
But all the waterways have one thing in common – they offer you an unparalleled way of seeing the real England in comfort and at a totally relaxing pace.
Where we cruise
We cruise on some of the most famous historic waterways of Britain stretching from Surrey in the south to Warwick in the north, and from Bristol in the west to Hertfordshire in the east. Our Cruising Schedule gives more detail of the specific cruises, which of course vary from year to year, but below is an overview of the waterways we will be visiting during our season.
The River Thames
The River Thames has been used for transporting goods since Roman times, but now is given over to leisure use and remains Britain’s best known and most elegant river. Rightly known as the Royal River, the Thames runs past many places whose names evoke the history of England – Runnymede, Windsor, Hampton Court and Cliveden to name just a few.
This grand river does not have just one character, over the length that our cruises cover, it changes radically in character several times. When it first becomes navigable after rising in the Cotswolds, it has a narrow winding course amongst meadows as it makes its way downstream towards Oxford. This stretch is rarely busy, and life is taken at a very relaxed pace. Here is some of the most unspoilt countryside in England, with a real flavour of life as it must have been for hundreds of years.
As the river makes its way downstream, it gradually becomes wider and more populated, though never crowded. The character keeps changing all the way to London, with larger and larger waterside properties to marvel at, culminating with Hampton Court Palace.
Our cruises on the Thames are always relaxing, and we take the opportunity to make plenty of stops along the way. However, opportunities for walking are generally limited to those times when the boat is moored up.
The Grand Union Canal
Although the canal system of this country came into being largely to support the Industrial Revolution, it is hard to think of it in these terms today. The Grand Union Canal, which we cruise between London and Warwick, was a major trade route for the industry of the Midlands to reach the international port of London for almost two centuries. There are many places where we can see evidence of this past glory, from pumping stations, remains of the lock doubling works of the late 1920’s, to aqueducts and tunnels.
The canal traverses West London after leaving the havens of Camden and Little Venice. Once out of London’s suburbs, it presents a surprising amount of open, attractive countryside as it makes its way up river valleys to climb to the summit of the Chiltern Hills at Tring. Still in open countryside, it then winds its way back down, passing occasional villages and skirting the towns and finally climbs again on its way towards historic Warwick.
Today, the canal is mainly used for leisure purposes and has taken on a much more peaceful air since the days of its industrial use. It is now a haven for wildlife, and for those seeking peaceful leisure pursuits, and there are plenty of opportunities to get on and off the boat to walk the towpath.
The Kennet & Avon Canal
This very pretty canal was rescued from complete dereliction following a massive refurbishment effort started in the mid 1960’s and was marked by a formal reopening on 8th August 1990 by Queen Elizabeth 11. Now, once again, this waterway forms a glorious route from east to west, connecting London with Bristol. It reveals some wonderful unspoilt countryside and passes through such architectural gems as Bath and Bradford on Avon. The section which runs parallel to the valley of the River Avon is particularly pleasant. Highlights of this very rural canal are the huge flight of locks below Devizes and the meandering course through the Valley of the White Horse. Several interesting villages and small towns are interspersed through the countryside, and after Newbury it runs in the course of the River Kennet to Reading. On most sections, there are good walks to be had, and locks to help with if you wish.
The River Way Navigation and Basingstoke Canal
The River Wey Navigation has sections that have been engineered, along with its charming sections of a river. Along with the Basingstoke Canal it is a haven of tranquillity, despite its relative nearness to London.
The Wey has a character of its own and is a gem of a waterway with very few signs of habitation along its length, which may come as a surprise in suburban Surrey. The Navigation connects the towns of Godalming, Guildford and Weybridge, but mainly runs through beautiful countryside where few boats can be seen.
The Basingstoke Canal runs through equally beautiful countryside and is a lockwheelers paradise with the added adventure of three flights of locks to negotiate. We usually cruise both the Wey and Basingstoke on the same cruise, which is one of the most relaxing cruises of our season, unless you would like to join in with the dark art of lockwheeling as we pass through 72 locks in total!
The various waterways around London are quite special, and parts of them feature in many of our cruises. The Grand Union Canal approaches London from the west quite secretively, eventually making its way to Little Venice. Through the heart of London, the Regents canal travels via Regents Park and London Zoo, past bustling Camden toward the East End and Limehouse Basin. If we have the opportunity, we will visit the London Canal Museum at Battlebridge Basin in Kings Cross. The Kings Cross area has been subject to a massive but sympathetic refurbishment in the past years and is well worth a visit. To the east of London, the River Lee makes its way past London’s reservoirs to some gorgeous country areas of Hertfordshire and the lovely River Stort before our final destination at Ware.