The Gloucester & Sharpness Canal is an engineering masterpiece, which cuts through lush Gloucestershire countryside and offers glorious views across the Severn Estuary. When it opened in 1827 it was the broadest and deepest canal in the world, built to allow seagoing ships passage between the port at Sharpness to the docks in Gloucester while avoiding the treacherous waters of the River Severn.
Today, things move at a more tranquil pace and a grassy towpath, fringed with wild flowers, runs for 16 miles beside the waterway. To get the most from a day on the canal, park in the village of Slimbridge and walk down to the lovingly-refurbished Black Shed café, with its unusual curved roof. Perched on the banks of the canal, it’s a great spot to enjoy a cup of tea and watch the boats go by.
Thinking ahead to lunch, grab a sandwich or perhaps take away one of their ploughman’s lunches before crossing the swing bridge and heading west along the towpath. It’s worth pausing for a while at one of the swing bridges: with a little luck, you might get to watch the bridge keeper operate one of these iconic structures, slowly swinging it open to allow a boat to cruise through. Keep an eye out to your right for birds – in summer, the wetlands along the banks of the River Severn are home to waders such as sanderling, common sandpiper, greenshank, ringed plover and dunlin, as well as a popular hunting ground for marsh harriers.
After about three miles, you’ll come to a point where the River Severn and the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal almost touch, and it’s here that you’ll find mainland Britain’s largest ship graveyard: the Purton Hulks. Boats have been run aground here since 1909 to prevent the canal breaching and spilling into the Severn. While many of the 86 vessels have since decayed and been lost from sight, there are still a number of remarkable structures: concrete barges thrusting out of the earth and weathered wooden hulls slowly ageing in the rain, sun and wind. Wander along until you find a sheltered spot with views of your favourite wreck, then lay out a picnic blanket (or find a bench), and tuck into your picnic with panoramic views over the Severn Estuary. To return, retrace your steps back to Slimbridge, perhaps stopping off for a final cup of tea at the café.
Read more about the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal on the Canal & River Trust website.