Link page to waterways, rivers, canals, firths and estuaries in the United Kingdom.
Travel topics > Natural attractions > Waterways > Inland waterways in the United Kingdom

Hiring a (narrow) boat and travelling part of the extensive canals and rivers of England, Scotland and Wales is a great way to see the British country side and discover hidden gems in the towns and cities.

Llangollen Canal
Bridge over Birmingham Canal Old Main Line in downtown Birmingham


Waterways were the original transport highway in the United Kingdom, with trade on some rivers pre-dating the Romans.

As natural rivers did not in all instances serve all of the growing industrial areas, the 18th and 19th centuries saw the creation of artificial 'cuts' and canals, as the Industrial Revolution continued.

Although the canal network was rapidly overtaken by the rail network for much trade from the mid 19th Century, it remained in commercial use well into the mid 20th century, before it declined. Today some canals have been restored for pleasure-boat use by travellers, and although rare, you may occasionally still see a commercial vessel operating.

The modern network in England consists of a series of linked waterways (both river and canal), some isolate navigable rivers and the Norfolk Broads.

Scotland has three main canals which are in separate parts of the country, and several navigable tidal river sections and sea lochs.

Although not considered by some as waterways, a series of large "drainage" dykes and channels in the Fens between the River Nene and River Wissey (The Middle Level Navigations), and to the west of Boston in Lincolnshire (the Witham Navigable Drains) are considered navigable. The primary purpose of these channels is land drainage.

Major waterwaysEdit

Map showing canals of Great Britain and Ireland. Canals in orange, rivers in blue, streams in grey.


  • The River Severn becomes a large estuary near Bristol.
  • River Nene
  • River Trent



  • The Grand Union Canal links the Thames with Birmingham. It is also known as the Grand Junction, the name of a canal company that built a portion of the route.
  • Kennet & Avon, in Southern England, links the Thames at Reading with the River Avon near Bath. The River Avon can then be used to reach Bristol.
  • Basingstoke Canal, opened in 1792 in Surrey and Hampshire originally linked Basingstoke with the Wey Navigation (between Woking and Weybridge). In 1932 the Greywell Tunnel, close to Odiham fell in, reducing the navigatable part of the canal which now passes through Woking, Frimley, Farnborough, Aldershot, Fleet and Odiham to 49.8 km.


  • Caledonian Canal links Inverness and Fort William in Scotland, down the length of the Great Glen. Only one third of the 60 mile length was dug, as the canal links Loch Ness, Loch Oich and Loch Lochy. The canal can take boats up to 150ft long and 35ft wide.
  • Crinnan Canal, a smaller inland canal is a useful shortcut for yachts, avoiding a long sea voyage around a peninsula in western Argyll. The canal can take boats up to 88ft long and 20ft wide.
  • The Union Canal and the Forth & Clyde Canal are linked by the Falkirk Wheel. Together they are 66 miles long and take boats up to 63ft long and 19ft wide.


  • 1 The Canal Museum, Stoke Bruerne Bridge Road, Stoke Bruerne, Towcester, NN12 7SE, +44 1604 862229, . A museum originally established in 1963, which now forms part of a nationally recognised collection relating to the English Canal network. Adults - £4.75, Child (6-15) - £3.10.
  • 2 National Waterways Museum, Llanthony Warehouse, Gloucester, +44 1452 318200. Explore the rich heritage of canals and rivers in this country. Investigate historic craft and explore Llanthony Yard.    
  • 3 Falkirk Wheel (Half hourly buses from Falkirk town centre, or a good walk from the Falkirk "Camelon" railway station. You can also cycle along the Union Canal from Edinburgh - the route (about 50 km) is part of the National Cycle Network Route 754). Built in 2001 to reconnect the Forth and Clyde Canal with the Union Canal, it is the world's only rotating boat lift. Boat trips up on the Wheel take about an hour. Boat trips cost £8.95 adults, £4.95 children, £7.95 concessions. Free entry to the visitor centre / cafe / gift shop.    
  • 4 London Canal Museum, 12-13 New Wharf Road, London, N1 9RT, +44 20 7713 0836. Museum on the history of London's canals. £6 Adults, £5 Concessions, £3.50 Children, £14 Family.    

See alsoEdit

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