Which is the best canal for a novice narrowboater?

This is a question I’m asked often and it’s quite a hard one to answer because, by and large, the canals are all much the same when it comes to difficulty or ease of navigation. There’ll be long straight bits, there’ll be curvy wiggly bits, there’ll be locks, swing and lift bridges, the occasional aqueduct, tunnels … you get the picture.

What’s more, I’m reluctant to steer you away from any of those things because they are a core part of the charm and heritage of the canals. If you miss out on the things that make the canals what they are, have you really experienced the canals at all?

That said, I do recall my trepidation when I first set out on my narrowboat from the marina. The idea of tackling a lock when I had only ever read about them or seen other people go through was certainly daunting.

So … if you really are quite nervous about taking a boat out on the canals and would prefer, perhaps for a first trip, to avoid much of the aforementioned elements, then I commend to you the Ashby Canal in Leicestershire.

The Ashby has no locks for its entire 22 mile length; you just cruise along from end to end uninterrupted. Whilst there are bridges, none of them need to be lifted or swung out of the way. There’s only one tunnel, just before the far end of the canal at Snarestone, and it’s a mere 250 yards long so you can see if anyone’s coming the other way (if you line up with it carefully; it’s at a bit of an odd angle on the approach)

It is a beautiful canal too, winding its way through lovely countryside with part of its stretch designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (where you are urged not to empty shower or basin water, so-called ‘grey water’, into the canal which is where it usually goes)

There are marinas and at least one hire base on the Ashby so you’re sorted for facilities if you need them. What’s more, the canal connects to the Coventry canal from which you can go up to Atherstone or down to Coventry itself without going through any locks either! And if you’re willing to attempt the very shallow stop-lock at Hawkesbury Junction – it has a lift or drop of just a few inches, so slight that you barely feel the boat has moved at all – then you can progress down the North Oxford canal all the way to Hillmorton. Even there, the three locks tend to have volunteer lock-keepers in attendance from Spring to Autumn and they will be delighted to help you through.

The Inland Waterways Association has a splendid page of information about the Ashby at waterways.org.uk/waterways/discover-the-waterways/ashby-canal and you can watch the videos of my trip along it in summer 2019 by clicking here (videos 172, 174, 175, and 177 – the ‘missing’ numbers are videos from festivals I attended)