The canal that time forgot
Waterway enthusiast and writer Richard Fairhurst tells us why he thinks the Ashby Canal is a 'time capsule' of a waterway.
Step away from the modern world for a while, and enjoy rural England as it used to be.”
What’s the appeal of the waterways? For me, and for many others, it’s ‘this is how things used to be’, before the internet, before motorways. They take us back to an era of unspoilt countryside and slow travel. Step onto the towpath, and the modern world disappears.
It’s a seductive image. In reality, the notion of a ‘quieter, gentler age’ is so much romantic twaddle - I wouldn’t want to have shovelled coal in and out of a narrowboat all day, let alone been the miner who wrenched it from the ground. No, the canals were built for industry, by capitalists. Their descendants enlarged the factories, and then knocked them down for redevelopment. Industry has changed, and so have the canals.
A winding, rural canal
But not everywhere, and not the Ashby Canal. In the middle of England, in the busiest boating area of all, this is a little time capsule of a waterway. No industry, no gleaming flats, no chain pubs and certainly no crowds. Just a winding, rural canal.
It’s a dead-end waterway, taking 22 miles to go from the busy Coventry Canal to nowhere in particular (and certainly not Ashby-de-la-Zouch, five miles distant). The only settlement of any size is Hinckley, through whose outskirts the canal passes. Elsewhere, it’s a litany of ruralness. Rather like the Shipping Forecast, the place names are evocative in themselves: Snarestone and Shackerstone, Shenton and Dadlington, Market Bosworth, Stoke Golding.
Canalside farm shops
Rural England has changed, too, but the Ashby Canal does its fervent best to stay rooted in the 1950s. The only factory of any size makes Triumph Motorcycles, with retro model names like ‘Bonneville’ and ‘Thruxton’. Farmgate milk and egg sales may no longer be common elsewhere, but the Ashby has canalside farm shops to keep the tradition alive.
Diesel reigns supreme on the mainline railway, yet running parallel to the Ashby is the preserved Battlefield Line, where the steam still ascends skywards. You can even phone the village stores in Newton Burgoland, and the proprietor Stan will deliver groceries to your boat. I don’t think he arrives in a Morris Traveller, but I like to imagine he might.
There’s one other thing the Ashby lacks - and that’s locks. Stand down your crew, for this is easy, level cruising all the way, where the shallow channel almost enforces a relaxed speed. You can even take a lackadaisical attitude to steering through the bridges, which are built twice as wide as they need to be. Back in 1908, a rare early cruising guide singled it out as: “Peculiarly adapted for pleasure boating... there is no rival in this country,” and that’s still true today.
And tourist attractions? You don’t cruise the Ashby for theme parks and outlet stores. But it does have one draw for tourists on its banks, and fittingly for such an understated canal, it’s... a field. A rather special field, admittedly. Bosworth Field is where ‘Richard of York gave battle in vain’ back in 1485, ending the War of the Roses. It was long thought to be on the banks of the canal, although recent historical research has placed it a few miles down the road, rather embarrassingly for the purpose-built visitor centre.
Unspoilt by progress
The tiny town of Market Bosworth has picked itself up from this bloody past, though I’d still be a bit nervous about visiting the Barber of Bosworth. Just as the Ashby is ‘the canal that time forgot’, the modern age has passed Market Bosworth by, with its family-owned shops, cobbled market square and tea-rooms.
Unsurprisingly, many boaters are drawn by the allure of this rural, lock-free canal. Though the Ashby is never what you’d call busy, it’s well loved by boat-owners, and certainly sees more traffic now than it did a century ago. Local walkers, too, are drawn to their canal, especially in those glorious last few miles as the gently rolling hills rise and fall around it.
The one activity I’d not recommend here is cycling. The towpath is a little too narrow for comfortable riding, its surface a little too natural. But then, that ‘unspoilt by progress’ air is precisely what makes the Ashby Canal so special. Step away from the modern world for a while, and enjoy rural England as it used to be.
Richard Fairhurst is a waterway writer, cartographer, boater and cyclist. He's editor-at-large of Waterways World and blogs regularly at canal.travel