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Britain’s longest canal cruise

The charm of canal boat holidays is in the slower pace of life they offer. But what if you want to slow it down even further?

Couple driving a narrowboat along the canal on a sunny day, surrounded by trees

If you have a generous amount of time on your hands, or you’re just curious, you might consider journeying on the longest cruise possible along our network.

What’s the longest canal boat cruise possible?

Involving a mix of canals and rivers, the longest route would take you from the Essex/Hertfordshire border into London cross country to Bristol, through the midlands, and northwards up to the very end of the Lancaster Canal. This route, while perfectly possible, is a challenging cruise – especially on the river sections and isn’t suitable for all boats.

Bishops Stortford on the River Stort: Start on the border of Hertfordshire and Essex to head into London, joining the River Lee Navigation to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Either take the Hertford Union to the Regent’s or the Limehouse Cut to Limehouse Basin.

Limehouse through the Pool of London and onto the non-tidal Thames at Teddington needs careful planning and a VHF radio. See our guide to getting onto the Thames.

Lots of narrowboats, widebeams, and cruisers moored in a busy basin, surrounded by blocks of flats and Canary Wharf visible in the distance. The Limehouse Cut is the oldest canal in London, dating back to 1766.

Limehouse Basin to the Grand Union: If you do not have a suitable boat and a VHF licence, take the Regent’s Canal through central London to join the Grand Union Canal (Paddington Arm) at Paddington. At Bull’s Bridge, turn left onto the Grand Union (Mainline) and down the Hanwell locks to Brentford.

Thames to River Severn: From Thames Lock at Brentford join the Thames heading inland to pick up the Kennet & Avon (K&A) in Reading. Follow the K&A all the way to Hanham, where you continue on the River Avon into Bristol and then out to the Severn Estuary.* The journey between Bristol Docks and Sharpness Port requires a pilot for the River Severn section and careful planning.

Severn to Fradley: Join the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal at Sharpness Docks and cruise sixteen miles up to the historic City of Gloucester. Return to the River Severn having bypassed the most dangerous stretch of the river and continue to the Worcester & Birmingham at Worcester, which you’ll follow to the very heart of Birmingham. At the famous canal roundabout, you’ll take the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal to Fazeley Junction and then head north to Fradley on the Coventry Canal.

The whole Birmingham Canal Navigations system adds up to 100 miles of canals.

Nottingham to Keadby: At Fradley opposite the Black Swan turn eastwards onto Brindley’s Trent & Mersey Canal past the inland port of Shardlow and onto the River Trent at Derwent Mouth. From Nottingham, the mighty River Trent flows north eastwards becoming tidal from Cromwell.

Continue on the River Trent to Keadby, where you can join the Stainforth & Keadby/Sheffield & South Yorkshire Navigation across to the New Junction Canal and to the Aire & Calder Navigation towards Leeds.

Over the Pennines: At Leeds, follow the Leeds & Liverpool Canal over the Pennines, through Saltaire, Burnley, and Blackburn, and onto the Rufford Branch northwards to the Ribble Link. After transiting the Ribble Link (special planning/passage booking required) Join the Lancaster Canal at the edge of Preston to make the final lock-free stretch up to Tewitfield. Here, the M6 motorway forms a currently impenetrable barrier to the canal’s original terminus at Kendal in the Lake District

A row of houses and an old winch line the canal, with blue skies reflected in the water. The Lancaster Canal offers 41 miles of lock-free cruising, the longest stretch in the country.

*Travel from Bristol out to the Severn and back to the Gloucester & Sharpness requires expertise and a seaworthy boat on such vast stretches of water. It’s recommended to take a pilot with you. You should also double-check the legal requirements and your insurance coverage. Many insurance policies do not cover tidal waters. An alternative would be to take the Grand Union from London to Birmingham.

Can you travel from one side of the UK to the other?

If you’re keen to make it from the south to the north without crisscrossing all over the country, you could follow a simpler route.

Grand Union Canal: Starting in London, follow the Grand Union, our longest canal, through the Northamptonshire countryside to Braunston Junction.

Aerial view of a canal with a narrowboat entering a lock, surrounded by fields and buildings. The Grand Union Canal and the Oxford Canal meet at Braunston Junction.

Coventry Canal: At Braunston Junction, take the Oxford Canal to join the Coventry Canal at Coventry. Then head north towards Nuneaton.

Trent & Mersey Canal: Connect to the Trent & Mersey at Fradley Junction near Alrewas and continue north-west through Stoke-on-Trent.

Macclesfield Canal: At Alsager, join the Macclesfield Canal to meet the Ashton Canal into Manchester.

Bridgewater Canal: Take the Bridgewater Canal (operated by Peel Holdings – passage booking required) out of Manchester to join the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.

Leeds & Liverpool Canal: Continue northward through places like Burnley, Skipton, and Wigan.

Lancaster Canal: Transfer to the Lancaster Canal near Preston and head north to finish your journey at Tewitfield.

Can you travel from east to west on a canal boat?

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in the summer This 'stream in the sky' has been named as the most captivating UNESCO World Heritage Site globally.

Starting in Boston, take the River Witham through the quiet, flat Lincolnshire countryside to join the Fossdyke Canal to the River Trent. Follow the Trent through Nottingham to the Trent & Mersey, which you’ll take to Stoke-on-Trent.

At Middlewich, join the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union across to the Llangollen Canal and take the Montgomery Canal all the way to Cricklade (the rest of the canal is not navigable).

Alternatively, stay on the Llangollen to navigate one of our seven wonders of the waterways: the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.

Last Edited: 24 June 2024

photo of a location on the canals
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