Top 10 canal or waterway trails
In a series of blogs the Sport and Recreation Alliance is asking for its members' 'Top 10' activities. Over the next few months we hope to share our member organisations' expert opinions with you and help you make the most of your free time. Here we have the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) Top 10 Canal Walks.
The IWA, a registered charity founded in 1946, advocates the conservation, use, maintenance, restoration and development of the inland waterways for public benefit.
Since its inception, more than 500 miles of canals and navigable rivers have been re-opened to public use and another 500 miles of derelict inland waterways are currently the subject of restoration plans.
Here, the IWA give us in no particular order, their Top 10 canal walks or waterway trails:
This is probably the best known waterway trail in Britain. In terms of waymarking, quality of surface and accommodation available en route, it is also one of the easiest to complete, given sufficient time of course. This is a truly unforgettable journey, through peaceful watermeadows in the upper reaches, past famous towns such as Oxford, Henley, Marlow and Windsor, and on through the heart of London to finish at the Thames Barrier in Greenwich. There are numerous distractions along the way – the River & Rowing Museum at Henley, Windsor Castle, and Hampton Court Palace to name a few – so the more time you have at your disposal the better.
Start: Thames Head, Gloucestershire
Distance: 184 miles
Duration: 3-4 weeks
More information: www.nationaltrail.co.uk/Thamespath/
Shakespeare’s Avon Way
One of England’s newer long distance trails, this path takes you from the source of the Avon in Naseby, Northamptonshire to the river’s confluence with the Severn at Tewkesbury. Fully waymarked, it follows as closely as possible the course of the river using existing public footpaths, bridleways and a handful of minor roads. The highlight of the route is of course Stratford, and few walkers can resist a day or two’s relaxation in the world famous town before proceeding downstream. Then there is the navigable section to enjoy and the pleasures of Bidford, Evesham and Pershore, as well as miles of unspoilt countryside, before journey’s end at the lovely old market town of Tewkesbury.
Distance: 88 miles
Duration: 7–10 days
More information: www.shakespearesavonway.org
The Nene Way is a well signposted trail running from Badby in rural Northamptonshire to Sutton Bridge, Lincolnshire, on the tidal section of the river. There being no towpath alongside the river, from time to time the route deviates away from the water. Far from detracting from the route’s appeal, however, this gives extensive views across the valley and allows exploration of a number of pretty villages. There are numerous highlights: the river’s ancient mills, bustling Northampton and Peterborough, and beautiful, historic Fotheringhay with its much photographed riverside church and poignant association with the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. Most people choose to stay a night or two here, but there are fine country inns and hotels to be found all along the river’s course.
Start: Badby, Northants
Finish: Sutton Bridge, Lincs
Distance: 110 miles
Duration: 10–14 days
More information: www.ramblers.org.uk/info/paths/name/n/nene
Lee Valley Walk
This route offers a rich variety of scenery, both urban and rural, on its way from the outskirts of Luton, along country and town paths to Hertford, and then southwards along the Lee Navigation into the heart of London’s Docklands. South of Ware the waterway is contained within the Lee Valley Regional Park. There are various attractions within the park, including historic sites, nature reserves, fishing pools and sailing lakes. You pass close to the Olympic White Water Slalom Course at Waltham Cross and the navigation is overlooked by the vast Olympic Park at Bow. Everywhere the towpath is busy with anglers, walkers, cyclists and walkers, emphasising the waterway’s importance to the people of north and east London.
Start: Leagrave, near Luton
Finish: East India Dock, London
Distance: 50 miles
Duration: 5–10 days
More information: www.leevalleypark.org.uk
Great Glen Way
Opened in 2002, this is one of Scotland’s most spectacular long distance paths, on a par with the world-renowned West Highland Way. Starting at the Old Fort in Fort William, the Great Glen Way skirts the shore of Loch Linhe to Corpach, before following the Caledonian Canal, Loch Lochy, Loch Oich and Loch Ness, concluding with another canal section into Inverness. Breath-taking mountain scenery aside, there are numerous highlights along Telford’s magnificent waterway, including the impressive lock flights at Banavie (Neptune’s Staircase) and Fort Augustus. Although the route is not too arduous, there are a number of fairly stiff ascents. Remember too that it sometimes rains in the Highlands and good rainwear is a must!
Start: Fort William
Distance: 73 miles
Duration: 10–14 days
More information: www.greatglenway.com
Starting in the heart of Guildford at Millmead Lock on the River Wey, this splendid little walk offers a wide range of scenery through the Surrey hills and woodlands, before traversing remoter areas of the Weald. It then follows the lush water meadows of the upper Arun before concluding near Amberley on the edge of the South Downs. As well as following the Wey, the path also runs alongside the Wey & Arun Canal, utilising the towpath wherever possible. Diversions to avoid sections on private land make use of footpaths, bridleways and country lanes. Thanks to the work of the Wey & Arun Canal Trust, several sections of the canal have been restored already, adding additional interest to your journey through this lovely corner of south east England. This is the perfect walk for a long weekend.
Distance: 36 miles
Duration: 3–5 days
More information: www.westsussex.gov.uk/leisure/
Wye Valley Walk (Llwybr Dyffryn Gwy)
You won’t encounter narrowboats or cruisers on this invigorating walk from the source of the Wye to Chepstow where it joins the mighty Severn (although the river is popular with canoeists throughout its length). But the splendour of the scenery provides more than adequate compensation as the river tumbles its way down from the uplands of mid Wales, running along dramatic limestone gorges and through the gorgeous rolling countryside of Herefordshire – one of England’s least explored but most beautiful counties. On its way it criss-crosses the border between England and Wales and passes through the welcoming market towns of Rhayader, Builth Wells, Hereford and Monmouth. This is a demanding walk, both in terms of length and gradients, so a reasonable level of fitness is required. You should allow plenty of time for rest and to savour the surroundings – much of the route lies within an Area of Natural Beauty (AONB).
Start: Plynlimon, Hafren Forest, Powys
Distance: 136 miles
Duration: 3 weeks
More information: www.wyevalleywalk.org
The Cuckoo Way follows the course of the Chesterfield Canal, one of the unsung heroes of the waterway network. Thanks to the sterling work of the Chesterfield Canal Trust and others, including IWA, the canal is being restored section by section so it won’t be too long before it becomes better known to boaters. But you can explore it first on foot! On its way from Chesterfield to the Trent, the path passes through, or close to, Staveley, Worksop and Retford. But it also traverses some surprisingly lovely scenery, especially the wooded sections in the vicinity of Worksop. A series of three and four-rise staircase locks and the ongoing restoration works add additional interest. If you are seeking a relatively easy, long weekend excursion somewhere in the north of England, this could well be the walk for you.
Finish: West Stockwith Lock, junction with the River Trent
Distance: 46 miles
Duration: 4–5 days
More information: www.chesterfield-canal-trust.org.uk
Ouse Valley Walk
Although there is no towpath alongside much of the Great Ouse, the Ouse Valley Way is a network of footpaths following the route of the river from source to sea, including the navigable length. The first section of the path was opened in 1990 between Godmanchester and St Ives, with the entire route being formally completed in May 2004. It has been divided into 20 sections of between four and thirteen miles long. This is a fabulously varied route, offering lush watermeadows along the river’s upper reaches, a host of welcoming towns and villages – try Godmanchester, Houghton, St Ives and Ely for a start – and some archetypal Fenland views as you head downstream towards Denver Sluice.
Start: Syresham, Northamptonshire
Finish: Kings Lynn
Distance: 150 miles
Duration: 3 weeks
More information: http://www.ldwa.org.uk/ldp/members/show_path.php?path_name=Ouse+Valley+Way
This is the big one. At 210 miles it is one of the longest waymarked trails in Britain, appropriately enough as it closely follows the course of Britain’s longest river. It begins at the river’s source on the wild Plynlimon plateau in mid Wales (close to the source of the Wye, also featured on the list) before making its way through Welshpool, Shrewsbury and Ironbridge. The river is navigable downstream from Stourport, with boat traffic and impressively large locks enhancing the interest for ramblers. The path continues through Upton-on- Severn, Worcester, Gloucester and Slimbridge, the latter well-known for its wildfowl and wetlands reserve. Although the official end of the Severn Way is at Severn Beach, close to the M4, you can continue along the Bristol Link and then by way of the River Avon Trail into central Bristol. That’s another 15 miles, but who’s counting at this point! Weather conditions can sometimes be hostile on the Welsh section of the walk and good equipment and plentiful stamina are required to complete the longest riverside walk in the country.
Start: Plynlimon, Hafren Forest, Powys
Finish: Severn Beach
Distance: 210 miles
Duration: 3 weeks
More information: www.ramblers.org.uk/info/paths/name/s/severn
This article was adapted from materials published by the Inland Waterways Association. For even more great canal walks, or more information about how you can become involved in the IWA, visit the IWA website.
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