They offer a chance to live life in the slow lane with travel at a maximum of just 4mph, so you have time to take in the scenery and wildlife. Narrowboat holidays on the 200-year-old network offer a safe staycation option, and a chance to see some fantastic sights – whether you’re on a trip afloat or just a day visitor to the towpaths (canal watchers are called gongoozlers) by car or public transport.
Here’s our pick of the waterway wonders…
Bingley Five Rise Locks, Leeds & Liverpool Canal, W Yorks
Five magnificent locks provide a gateway to cruising along the Leeds & Liverpool into the Yorkshire Dales.
Visitors and those in the queue can watch boats working through these iconic 59ft locks, the steepest staircase in the country.
Little Venice, Regent’s Canal, Grand Union Canal, London
A tranquil oasis where the Regent’s joins the Grand Union at Paddington.
Hop on to a London Waterbus narrowboat and take a trip from Little Venice to Camden Lock, via the zoo.
Anderton Boat Lift, Trent & Mersey Canal/River Weaver, Cheshire
The Big Daddy of the network, it’s a Victorian working boat lift and known as the Cathedral of the Canals.
The Five Rise Locks at Bingley, Yorkshire
Perched high on the banks of the River Weaver and constructed from wrought and cast iron, it carries boats the 50ft between the Trent & Mersey and the Weaver and was in use from 1875 to 1983, when it was so corroded it had to be closed.
Restoration started in 2001 and it reopened the following year with a visitor centre. It is one of only two working boat lifts in the UK, the other is the Falkirk Wheel in Scotland.
Standedge Tunnel, Huddersfield Narrow Canal, W Yorks
Deep under the Pennines, Standedge Tunnel is the longest, deepest and highest canal tunnel in Britain at more than three miles long and yet another Telford triumph.
Hundreds of navvies (the word comes from the ‘navigators’ who built the navigation canals) took 16 years to build it and today it’s open for general boaters and tourist trips; a transit can take up to three hours.
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, Llangollen Canal, Wrexham
A 336-yard long civil engineering masterpiece from Thomas Telford and William Jessop, it now has World Heritage Status.
Little Venice in London at dusk is a special place
Completed in 1805, the cast-iron aqueduct is supported by stone arches 126ft above the River Dee. Crossing by foot or boat does require a head for heights, but the view is superb.
National Waterways Museum, Ellesmere Port, Cheshire Again by Telford, its Victorian docks, locks, warehouses, forge, stables and workers’ cottages are a treasure trove of industrial archaeology and historic boats.
The location is special too, perfectly sited on the banks of the Shropshire Union and Manchester Ship canals.Annual passes cost £9.75 adult/£6 child/£25 family.
Caen Hill Locks, Kennet & Avon Canal, Wilts
Settle down for this beauty, it’s the longest continuous flight of locks in Britain and can take up to four hours to transit.
Known as a gongoozlers’ paradise, it was built in 1810 by pioneering Scottish engineer John Rennie and each of the 16 locks – part of a total of 29 – has a side pond to prevent the canal from running dry.
It fell into disuse and disrepair in the 1940s but was saved from closure in the 1960s, then finally restored and officially reopened by the Queen in 1990.
Saltaire,Leeds & Liverpool Canal, W Yorks
A World Heritage Site on the River Aire and the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, the village is named after Yorkshire philanthropist Sir Titus Salt.
He created a model village which is a mixture of mills, homes, river, parkland and Salts Mill, which today is home to one of the largest collections of work by David Hockney.
Visitors also have a good choice of shops, cafes and restaurants.
The World Hertitage site, Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
It’s also been used as a filming location and has featured in the Antiques Roadshow, Peaky Blinders and the recent Netflix football drama The English Game.
Camden Lock, Regent’s Canal, London Possibly Britain’s most visited lock, set in the heart of Camden Market with thousands of daily visitors from home and abroad enjoying music venues, cafes, pubs, canoeing and canal towpath walks.
Birmingham city centre Any good Brummie will tell you England’s second city Birmingham has more miles of canals than Venice (35 to 26).
At the heart of the network at the cafes, pubs, restaurants, shops and attractions at vibrant Brindley Place and the Gas Street Basin area where you’ll find more good canalside food and drink venues.And it’s a lot cheaper than Venice too!
Falkirk Wheel, Forth & Clyde Canal/Union Canal, nr Falkirk
One of Scotland’s most popular tourism attractions, it’s a 21st century marvel to rival the Anderton and combines modern engineering and technology with an ancient law of physics set out by Archimedes more than 2,000 years ago.
The Forth & Clyde and Union Canals were once linked by a staircase of 11 locks which took nearly a day to transit; they were dismantled in 1933.
The rotating 1,200 tonne steel wheel – which was opened by the Queen in 2002 – moves boats by 79ft, then two locks complete the remaining 36ft.
Fact fans: the wheel only uses 1.5kWh of energy to turn, the equivalent of boiling eight kettles.
The modern marvel Falkirk Wheel, the rotating boat lift,
Tring Reservoirs, Grand Union Canal, Bucks/Herts
The four reservoirs are on the edge of the Chilterns and were created in the early 19th century to feed the canal.
They are rich in wildlife, especially wildfowl and bats, and are a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest with numerous footpaths and towpaths for visitors. Anglers flock here in search of specimen catfish, bream, tench and perch.
Lune Aqueduct, Lancaster Canal, Lancs
Built of stone in 1797, it’s another fine example of Rennie civil engineering and is listed Grade 1.
At 664ft long it carries the Lancaster Canal 61ft above the River Lune.
The Lancaster Canal was only connected to the national waterway network via the Ribble Link in 2002 and also offers 41 miles of lock-free cruising, the longest stretch in the country.