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Saturday, 5 May 2012

Has the time come to stop going round in canal circles?

BACK when the canals were first being transformed from working waterways to a key part of the UK leisure industry some bright spark invented canal 'rings' as a way of marketing holidays - but the Four Counties Ring, Cheshire Ring, Warwickshire ring and all the rest should become a thing of the past.

"The truth is that rings, although superficially attractive, as holidaymakers get to see a lot of waterway and don't have to retrace their steps, are not something we should be promoting in this day and age," says Simon Jenkins, boss of Norbury Wharf Ltd, a hire boat company and boatyard on the Shropshire Union - and the Four Counties Ring.

He believes that encouraging ring journeys gives the opposite impression of the waterways to the one the industry needs to cultivate.

"The essence of a holiday on the canals is slow, relaxed, journeys through beautiful countryside and fascinating heritage, but as soon as you set the target of completing a ring it becomes a race to get round in the time of your boat-hire or your allotted time if you are a shared ownership participant.


"That might be OK if you are taking two weeks to complete something like the Four Counties Ring but we often have people completing it in under a week and that means long days, whatever the weather, and missing most of the canalside attractions along the way, to say nothing of speeding past moored boats and eroding the canal banks with wash.

"Most importantly the holidaymakers don't get to relax and enjoy the canal itself and the places along the way. I think they would be more likely to come back if they were encouraged to plan more relaxed journeys and incorporate some of the great places they can visit.

"There are great business benefits for hire firms like ours and all the canalside towns and villages in that approach, as we get less wear and tear on our boats and the local businesses see more of the holidaymakers who are no longer rushing past to complete a ring."

Norbury is doing something about it by highlighting other options in its monthly magazine for customers and suggesting out-and-back routes that will allow them to take their time and explore along the way.

It starts by highlighting the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port - just two to three days of travelling from Norbury and a fascinating insight into the background of the very canals they are exploring.

There are plans to look at what the canalside towns and villages of Staffordshire, Shropshire and Cheshire have to offer the passing boater, as well as suggesting that hire and share boaters should remain flexible and simply travel as far as is comfortable for half their allotted time before turning back.

Simon Jenkins says: "Any experienced boater will tell you that a canal can look completely different when you are travelling in the opposite direction. It is surprising how you spot different views and it gives you a chance to repeat something, like a pub meal or a good local butcher which you enjoyed on the way out.

"I know we are particularly lucky at Norbury that we sit on one of the most beautiful canals in wonderful countryside with lots of lovely little towns and villages within easy distance, but any hire boat operator or boatyard can do the same thing. It will also decrease the pressure on the system as a whole in times like this when we have droughts and restrictions on locks."

He says it is significant that experienced boaters rarely launch out on circular journeys as they know what they like and aim to enjoy themselves without being more exhausted at the end of the holiday than when it began.


  1. Well said Simon
    All you see is hire boat going from a 2 b not starting out at 7.30am and not stopping till 7.30pm with out stopping and how with longer queue at locks it will take longer
    even in the waterways would annual it say you can do Four counties ring in 1 to 2 weeks which is 110mile 89locks and 2 tunnels which in the Nicholson book say that should take 67hours
    At 12 hours a day and no hold up for lock, slowing down for moored boats, queuing for water

  2. Interest post. My first canal boat holiday was the Stourport ring in a week, which was marvellous. I don't regret doing a ring at all; though I can fully understand how going out and back along a route can be just as interesting. We weren't rushed at all - with just one day of heavy rain, when we moored up and enjoyed our own company, it was a great holiday.

    My friends loved the holiday so much they sold their gorgeous flat in Brighton and bought their own boat to live on, and I love reading their blog about their travels:


    We have completed the Four Counties Ring AND gone to Llangollen and back - all in a week - and we repeated the student-experience thirty years later. And we passed moored boats at a considerate speed. Both trips were most enjoyable.

    And that's the point - the canals can be enjoyable for all manner of people in all manner of ways, and it's useful to share all the various options and read others' experiences.

    Having chosen for myself a dawn-to-dusk trip in the only week's holiday that I have, then it reduces my enjoyment to hear the Leisure Police telling me that I'd enjoy it all so-much-more if I spent an extra fortnight doing it; or that I need to do something completely different, including lots of treks to interesting castles (I hate castles); or indeed that I should spend my evening in this upmarket winebar rather than in that there basic pub.

  4. Peter
    If that's what floats your boat then you should be able to do it, especially if you don't impact on other boaters. This post certainly isn't about the 'leisure police' it is about offering a different way for boaters who feel the canals should be about relaxed, lazy days enjoying the water and the places beside it. Nobody is suggesting you shouldn't continue to bust a gut if you know that's what you want.
    The concept is that rings are not the only or even the best way of enjoying a canal holiday.

  5. We are deliberately doing an 'out and back' this year. We start from Audlem on a Friday afternoon and we're heading for Liverpool Docks. We have a mixture of 'bust a gut' and relaxed cruising as we have to be at Aintree by 9am on the next Friday (in practice, probably Thursday night)ready for our booked BW transit. We leave Liverpool on the following Monday (in another BW transit) but we have 9 or 10 days to get to Church Minshull. Canal Planner tells me it will be 7½ hour days (long for us) going and 4¼ hour days going back.

  6. Just catching up on the blogs that I read after completing the Avon Ring (just getting off the Avon on time). Because we use timeshare boats and they only cover certain departure points, rings are a way of seing as many different points as we can. However we like to moor up in the early afternoon so that we can visit towns and villages instead of just passing in the distance. Perhaps with the Euro millions on Tuesday...