The Canal and River Trust – National Treasurers series
The Canal and River Trust looks after 2000 miles of, you guessed it, canal and river. There are campsites on the canal banks, river walks, fishing, boating, cycling, beautiful scenery and noisy, abundant wildlife.
Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal
The village of Talybont-on-Usk is a quiet highlight and makes an ideal base because its setting is so dramatic. When you’re on the towpath near the Star Inn (walled beer garden facing the canal) you can hear the rushing of the River Usk down in the valley – at Talybont the river and canal are close together and the river opens out into the expanse of the Talybont Reservoir.
There are long stretches of deserted towpath to explore under the trees. Go there in the evening and the place is a playground for bats, which feed on the canal insects. It’s extremely rich in birdlife here, too.
The countryside around Talybont is wild and beautiful. The Taff Trail, a 55-mile long-distance walking route from Cardiff Bay, passes through the village, and the Brinore Tramroad, a former transport route for coal, takes you up into the hills on foot or by bike. Stay at Talybont itself or choose the five-pitch Caravan Club CL overlooking Cambrian Cruisers’ boatyard near Pencelli.
What’s more, you can walk alongside them on the towpath, looking down over the River Dee. It’s one of the scariest walks you can do in Britain without climbing a mountain.
The Pontcysyllte was completed in 1805. Its mortar was made with ox blood, lime and water, and would have looked like treacle.
This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for very good reason. In fact, of all the wonders of the English and Welsh canal system, Pontcysyllte has to be the most incredible to look at.
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A few miles away, and still within the World Heritage Site, there is another aqueduct you can cross on foot for views that are even more beautiful. The Chirk Aqueduct over the River Ceiriog was designed by Thomas Telford and runs next to a stone viaduct. Crossing it takes you across the border between England and Wales.
Both Chirk and Llangollen make brilliant bases, though bear in mind that the International Musical Eisteddfod of Wales is at Llangollen for six days each summer. At Llangollen there’s a choice of campsites overlooking the canal, and at Chirk the Caravan Club has a site right next to Chirk Castle.
The countryside is extremely beautiful. The Ceiriog Valley is a hidden kind of place, which Lloyd George called "a little bit of heaven on Earth."
People often only visit the Berwyn Hills, to the west, when they want to see the famous tall waterfall, Pistyll Rhaeadr, but the Berwyns also offer dramatic moorland and mountain peaks up to 830 metres.
The Kennet and Avon Canal
For us, Bradford on Avon is the highlight of the K&A. It has grand Georgian architecture and tiny weavers’ cottages, a beautiful Saxon church, and even a 300-seat concert hall, and it sits in the hills between the Mendips and the Cotswolds. Visit on a day trip while staying at one of two amazing waterside sites – one at Bath eight miles away, and one at Devizes, 14 miles away.
Getting between these places on the western stretch of the K&A is made simple by the fact that the towpath is Britain’s most popular waterside cycleway, with cycle hire available in Bath, Bradford on Avon, or Devizes.
The route from Bath to Devizes is car-free for 21 of its 22 miles, with most of it on widened canal paths. Whether you cycle or explore a little on foot, don’t miss visiting Caen Locks near Devizes.
This engineering wonder is a row of 29 locks within two miles, with 16 of them right next to each other. It’s a Scheduled Ancient Monument; exhausting work for boaters, but a brilliant place to see dragonflies and damselflies, as well as water voles, and bats in the summer evenings.
Rochdale Canal – Hebden Bridge
The Independent voted it the British town with the most individuality (2005). This former wool town takes its name from its medieval packhorse bridge and a word which means bramble, or wild rose.
It clings to the Pennines at Hebden Water and the Rochdale Canal. The steep valleys limit building, so houses were built on top of each other over four to five storeys, with upper storeys facing uphill and lower ones facing downhill.
The town’s shops tend to be small and interesting: take a look into the Yorkshire Soap Company’s shop on Market Street, for example, to see handmade soaps displayed as if they were cakes!
The town’s literary credentials are absolutely of the Premier League: poet Sylvia Plath is buried here in Heptonstall, and Ted Hughes set a poem, Stubbing Wharfe, in an 18th century inn by the Rochdale Canal.
The town is a walking hub, offering bus services to nearby Hardcastle Crags, for example. Or simply explore the towpath of the Rochdale Canal, which only reopened to boats in 2002 after being restored by volunteers from the Inland Waterways Association. It’s easy to walk, even though it’s hillier than most of Britain’s canals.
Birmingham and Fazeley Canal
The city centre is a vibrant mix of noisy ring roads, plate-glass shopping centres and the pomp of civic architecture. Canals and locks sit right in the centre of it all, giving an easy route to peace and quiet at all times. In fact, there were once 180 miles of canal and 216 locks, with access to the city from five different directions.
The canal junction area at Brindleyplace has a choice of waterside cafés, and you can use the towpath network to reach attractions such as the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, and the Ikon Gallery.
You can go on to cycle from Birmingham into the Black Country along canal towpaths and, at Dudley, the Canal and River Trust runs a 45-minute boat trip into the limestone caverns.
Chelmer and Blackwater Canal, Essex
The Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation is unusual because it is run by Essex Waterways, a subsidiary of the Inland Waterways Association; this came about because the canal was never nationalised, so this wasn’t part of the canal package handed over to the new Trust by the government in 2012.
The Inland Waterways Association has a Caravan Club CS right on the canal banks at Hoe Mill Lock.
If you like photography, you’ll love the walk from Heybridge Basin towards Chelmsford. You soon reach a place where pleasure boats are reflected in the canal, and the expanse of the Blackwater estuary is visible over the opposite bank. When the tide’s in, it’s a world of water.
Head for Daisy Meadow car park at Heybridge Basin and, in peak season, you can take a one-hour cruise up the canal on the Elver, a 24ft narrow boat, or hire a rowing boat by the hour. Just a mile or so along the coast, Maldon is famous for beautiful Thames barges... and sea salt. Two quayside pubs will vie for your custom.