What makes the ultimate waterside pub?

Canalside pubs have been a place of comfort for centuries, where boaters past and present can find community, companionship and the welcome stability of dry land

Crate Brewery

Peter Watts

Posted on 30/05/2019

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Canalside pubs are magnetic. There’s something about that combination of water and drink that beckons the visitor. It draws you to the bar, then ties you to a trestle table overlooking the water so you can watch boats bob past amid packs of bickering coots. Perhaps it triggers a collective folk memory, a ghost of what these places once represented. Just imagine being captain of a working boat in the 19th century, work weary, back bent, sun-lashed or rain-doused, hands scarred by rope burns, stinking of horse and generally bummed out from the endless ferrying of other people’s property on and off your craft. At close of day, the pub would represent a kind of nirvana. Here was a rare place of guaranteed warmth and sustenance. You’d find companionship – understanding, sympathy and the chance to forget your woes. There was also stability, a stretch of time spent in a fixed position with reassuring solidity of land beneath your feet rather than an endless wobble every time you shifted your weight.

These pubs offered a form of luxury but they were no extravagance. A canal pub could stable or change horses. It was somewhere to purchase stores – food for humans and horses, medical equipment, boating essentials like rope, oil and candles. There were often blacksmiths or bakers attached. For boaters on the move for weeks at a stretch, they were somewhere for families, bosses or other boaters to leave vital messages, informing of incidents at home, changes in schedules, warnings of broken locks or invitations to other pubs later in the journey. They were important not just for the sanctuary and support they offered boaters, but as crucial cogs in the inland waterways system that made the machine function. In some stretches of canal, pubs were so necessary there might be half-a-dozen within a single mile; at other times, you could cruise for half-a-day without sighting a gaily painted sign.

For today’s canal users, the pub still acts as a communal hub, something that is more than the sum of its parts. Whether it is boaters pootling from point to point, or towpath walkers, joggers or cyclists, or even cross-country ramblers, these pubs are essential landmarks and staging posts as well as places of shared humanity. For locals, they are fixed and reliable spots for weekly gatherings of like-minded souls, perhaps to play games, to sing, to take part in quizzes or to watch sport. A great riverside pub requires only that sense of companionship plus some sort of terrace or garden that allows access to the water.

The most ancient pubs – those with ties to the waterways that go back centuries – will ideally have interiors that are tiny museums of canal history, furnished with aged photographs, bits of boats and, more often than not, local myths and legends. But that’s not essential. Just as the old pubs were often born of opportunity – perhaps a canal was being dug through farmland, prompting the landowner to convert a barn or part of the farmhouse into a pub to attract the canal-using trade – new bars and pubs have flourished in abandoned warehouses and lock cottages, adapting the space and borrowing a sense of its history. In Hackney, Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham, new enterprises have sprung up to serve customers who appreciate the joys of waterside drinking every bit as much as their country-dwelling neighbours and hard-working historical predecessors. The waterside pub is flourishing, and so ingrained are its charms, it will do so for decades to come.

Leggers Inn, Savile Town Wharf, Dewsbury, Calder & Hebble Navigation
The beautiful, stone Savile Town Wharf is an old stable block for canal horses that now houses offices, a coffee shop and the Leggers Inn, which is found in the former hay loft. The canal heritage is taken very seriously at the wharf. There’s an annual canal festival while living traditions are maintained with a chandlery and working wet dock. The Leggers maintains a connection to the waterway through its name – legging was the art of moving a boat through a tunnel using your legs to walk the boat along the tunnel wall – its roses-and-castles décor, and in the friendly welcome it extends to boaters and towpath users. As well as the colourful interior there is a large outside area overlooking the marina. There’s an excellent range of beers and food is served.

Aqueduct Inn, Holyhead Road, Froncysyllte, Llangollen Canal
This bright and friendly old coaching inn close to the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct is thought to have once provided lodgings for workers who built the aqueduct in 1805. It has a great location by the canal, with superb views from the outdoor balcony. The pub is family run and has a range of changing real ales, fresh food and there is a regular weekly quiz night. If you are lucky, you might arrive when the local Fron Male Voice Choir are having one of their irregular and informal post-concert singalongs. Prince Charles visited the Aqueduct Inn a few years ago when Froncysyllte was named village of the year, and was treated to a singing performance, boat trip and chance to witness the traditional New Year’s Day tug-of-war, which takes place over the canal. Watch out, though – the pub is said to be haunted by a poltergeist that will move glasses on the shelves and once hurled a bowl at a barmaid.

Manor Arms, Rushall, Wyrley & Essington Canal
The Manor Arms is close to a nature reserve – Park Lime Pits, a former limestone quarry – and sits on a plum spot overlooking the Wyrley & Essington Canal. This ancient building already had several hundred years of history under its belt before the canals even appeared, having been constructed in 1104. It received its first licence in 1248 but in its early years was used as a mill house and home for monks. It’s also been a mortuary and a brothel, was frequented by bandleader Glenn Miller and was hit by a thunderbolt on VE Day. From the 1800s it was used as stabling for canal horses and earlier this century it was named the country’s best waterside pub thanks to its popularity with boaters and walkers. It’s probably the only pub in the country without a bar counter – instead the beer pumps are mounted on the wall.

Gallows Inn, Ilkeston, Erewash Canal
As you can probably guess, this handsome pub is located on the site of a former gallows. It was once called the Horse and Groom, but locals have always called it the Gallows and that is now once more the official name. The pub can be found right next to Gallows Lock on the Erewash Canal, allowing boaters to grab a bite and ale before, after or even during lock navigation. The lock is so close that drinkers are also able to shout helpful instructions to novice boaters. It is believed that the Gallows was built to service working boatmen, and it still serves as a handy stopping point for anybody travelling by water or along the towpath. The pub’s décor reflects boat painting traditions, and it has live music and regular family events. The landlords run another boating pub, the Steamboat Inn, which is adjacent to the River Trent and Erewash Canal. Here you can find live music, as well as local arts and crafts on display and for sale.

Barge Inn, Melksham, Wiltshire, Kennet & Avon Canal
There are three Barge Inns along the course of the Kennet & Avon Canal, including this ivy-covered charmer at Melksham. It is found midway up the five-lock Seend Cleeve flight, and for years has offered solace, shelter and support to boaters who are either preparing for or have recently completed the daunting Caen Hill flight. The building dates to 1805 and was used as a wharf house, bakery and stables for canal horses. It’s now a supremely attractive and very peaceful waterside boozer, with a rural beer garden and lovely views of the canal. Although run by a major brewery, it maintains a local touch and has an annual beer and cider festival, with live music and charity raffle. Another of the Barge Inns at Honeystreet is currently under new ownership, but will hopefully maintain its close association with both boaters and local crop circle enthusiasts.

New Inn, Buckby Wharf, Grand Union Canal
There’s a strong and rather sad boating history at the New Inn, which despite the name is located in a building that has parts dating back to the 1600s. One of the pub’s former landlords, James Lovelock, earned some extra cash by making water cans – now known as Buckby Cans – for the passing boaters, and these would be decorated in the roses-and-castles style by his daughter. Unfortunately, she fell in love with one of her customers and then hanged herself when she was forbidden by her father to leave the pub. Naturally, her ghost haunts the pub – table 11 is said to be her favourite. Otherwise this is a homely spot with an outdoor patio overlooking the locks, and indoor bar games, including skittles. It’s a gorgeous place, perfectly located and eccentrically decorated.

CRATE Brewery, Hackney Wick, Lee Navigation
London has its fair share of historic canalside pubs. There’s a smattering around Little Venice, a cracker in Islington, another in Westbourne Park, and the glorious Ian McKellen-owned Grapes at Limehouse Basin. But there are also great modern pubs and bars, especially in the east towards Hackney, which celebrate the way the canal has become more closely integrated into everyday London life than ever before in its history. CRATE is a brewery and pizzeria that occupies part of an old sweet factory and former squat. It was renovated as part of the Olympic Park legacy and turned into a studio space as well as a popular and buzzy waterfront bar. You can get a range of craft beers – including cider, IPA, lager and stout – plus stone-baked pizzas. There are regular brewery tours and tasting sessions. It’s an excellent destination in its own right, but also makes a fine pit-stop for anybody exploring London’s rich urban canal network.

<span class=”credit”>Alexander Kachkaev</span>