The world’s longest canal, the Beijing–Hangzhou Grand Canal, runs for 1,115 miles. The Leeds and Liverpool, the UK’s longest single canal, is just 127 miles. But even that’s an immense journey compared with our network’s smallest canals. And although none of these short stretches is likely to offer a complete day out by itself, they are varied enough to satisfy all canal-lovers’ tastes, from quiet countryside stretches to industrial history, from historic towns to urban London. In age they vary from the Middle Ages to the early 21st century. So if you fancy a short trip – from a few hundred yards to four miles – through cityscapes and landscapes, here’s a selection of the country’s condensed canals.
Beverley Beck, East Yorkshire
The half-mile Beverley Beck has been a canal for a long time – the original small stream was probably first adapted for navigation in the 12th century to join the town of Beverley with the River Hull, and thence to the Humber and the North Sea. It was twice upgraded in the 18th century, and the lock into the Hull was added in the subsequent century. Now home to a preserved tannery barge, the Syntan, and many pleasure boats, the Beck offers excellent views from the water of the town’s historic centre and the Gothic Beverley Minster.
Hertford Union Canal, London
Since 1830 the Hertford Union Canal has run through Tower Hamlets in East London, linking the Regent’s Canal to the Lee Navigation. Never a commercial success, it’s now a wonderful tree-lined thread of attractive waterway, with three locks and with five bridges spanning its one-and-half miles. For much of its length it runs alongside Victoria Park, voted the nation’s favourite park, with its lakes, play areas and café, while at its eastern end there are impressive views of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The towpath is freely accessible to walkers and to cyclists.
Islington Branch Canal, Greater Manchester
Perhaps only a completist would plan to visit the Islington Branch Canal, although its industrial history is typical of its Manchester location. Originally it stretched more than half a mile from its junction with the Ashton Canal, where a bridge takes the larger canal’s towpath above its entrance. Only an early-19th-century brick building survives from the days when wharves handled scrap metal, coal, sand, salt and flint and served industries including a glassworks. The northern end has been filled and built over, leaving only about 400 feet of the branch today.
Wardle Canal, Cheshire
The Wardle Canal is just 154 feet long and links the Trent and Mersey Canal at its east end to the Shropshire Union at the west, via a lock 72 feet long and of single width. It was built in 1829 by the Trent and Mersey authorities to control the junction and to get high tolls from the traffic using it. A plaque by the lock remembers Maureen Shaw, for many years until 2012 resident in the lock house and a familiar face on the canal side. The canal is currently closed after the Middlewich Breach.
Ripon Canal, North Yorkshire
Ripon Canal’s two and a half miles connect the city of Ripon to the wider canal network. Engineered by John Smeaton and William Jessop, it opened in 1773 to carry coal inland, and lead ingots and farm produce from Ripon to distant markets. Railway competition killed the canal, and by 1906 it was impassable; it was officially abandoned in 1956. Local volunteers worked towards its reopening in 1996. From the basin below Ripon Cathedral the canal runs by the racecourse and through peaceful farmland, with three locks enabling craft to reach the River Ure.
Ribble Link, Lancashire
Ripon used to mark the northernmost limit of the connected canal system in England, but with the opening of the Ribble Link in 2002 the Lancaster Canal, long isolated from the network, is now available to anyone intent on heading further north. The first new canal constructed for almost a century, the four-mile Link has a staircase lock at the Lancaster Canal end and a sea-lock at the west, giving access to the tidal River Ribble, with five others between. As it’s only available in one direction each day, and access is governed by the tides, online booking for boats is vital.
John Morrison, Matthew Black, Chris Hills and Tim Green