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Duration: 10 - 14 Nights
TOTAL LOCKS: 139
CRUISING TIME PER DAY: 6.5 HOURS (63 HOURS IN TOTAL)
Maps & Guides for this route: P2, N2, L15, E1 | Click here buy maps
This route will take you on both the River Severn and Avon, and to fully enjoy it you will need at least 10 or 11 nights.
This is the full English! The Avon Ring weaves through the Heart of England, with some of its prettiest countryside and best tourist sites. You will explore Worcester, Tewkesbury, Stratford-upon-Avon and idyllic English villages. But your journey is more than sightseeing and cruising through tranquil landscapes – you will experience engineering marvels such as Tardebigge Lock Flight and Edstone Aqueduct, learn of the hard work of canal and river restoration, and of course sneak a look into the life of the world’s most famous playwright.
Before you set off along the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, the busy city centre of Worcester is only a short walk from the marina. The city is world-renowned for its porcelain factory, Royal Worcester, and for its glorious cathedral overlooking the River Severn below. The canal descends Blockhouse Lock then Sidbury Lock peacefully past the Commandery (war rooms of King Charles II, 1651). In its industrial heyday, the canal carried cargoes of porcelain from the world-famous factory, and the Museum of Royal Worcester offers a fascinating insight. Diglis Basin, with many moored boats, is ringed by restored warehouses (many of which were originally part of the Royal Worcester porcelain factory) and new apartment blocks.
The canal meets the River Severn via its two wide locks. Downstream, Diglis Locks are a pair of manned river locks with an ‘island’ between them – just follow the instructions of the traffic lights. Passing the site of the 1651 Battle of Worcester on your right, and cruising under the busy A38, the river now starts to wind its way past woods and ‘cliffs’ of distinctive red soil. The leafy River Severn makes boating feel an undistracted affair, the chaos of the ‘real’ world blissfully out of sight apart from the odd village or campsite to disrupt until you reach Upton upon Severn. This historic small town is a popular stop-off, and busy moorings sit in front of the many pubs and cafés on its attractive waterfront. The town has become famous for the series of festivals during the summer – most notably the Upton Jazz Festival which attracts performers from across the world. There are also independent shops and a heritage centre in ‘The Pepperpot’ to explore.
Peace is shattered for a while as the river approaches and flows under the M50, but calm is soon restored. The Grade II*-listed cast-iron single-arch Mythe Bridge, built by the great engineer Thomas Telford in 1826 (he liked it so much that he wrote “I reckon this the most handsomest bridge which has been built under my direction”), announces your arrival at Tewkesbury. While the River Severn skirts the town, you will turn left onto the River Avon and go through Avon Lock. The market town of Tewkesbury is packed with half-timbered buildings dating from the Tudors, independent shops, inviting cafés and cosy pubs. Its crowning glory is the beautiful 12th-century Abbey, with the highest Norman tower in England.
The River Avon is in the care of the Avon Navigation Trust and an additional licence is needed. The low-banked river is easy to navigate with idyllic moorings at designated places. It is of course important to follow any instructions from the lock keeper at Avon Lock. Setting off upstream under the Grade II*-listed 13th-century King John’s Bridge, once beyond the M5, the river winds through lush meadows past the village of Bredon (Bredon Hill offers expansive views on a clear day) and its riverside 14th-century Tithe Barn, now cared for by the National Trust.
Through Strensham Lock, the river curves in a wide arc round Eckington, then curves again at the aptly named Swan’s Neck before Nafford Lock. From Comberton Quay, it’s a short walk to the quintessentially Worcestershire black and white villages of Great Comberton and Little Comberton. Another massive curve in the river brings you into the market town of Pershore, famous for its plums – the Pershore or Yellow Egg Plum was discovered in nearby Tiddlesey Wood around 1833 – and for its magnificent Abbey on a site founded in 689AD by King Oswald. Pershore Great Bridge (the old bridge) dates from the 14th century and survived an attempt to demolish it by retreating Cavaliers after the Battle of Worcester in 1651.
Pershore Lock is quickly followed by Wyre Lock, near the village of Wyre Piddle and its locally brewed ‘Piddle’ real ale! The river swirls through remote countryside to Fladbury Lock with a stunning former mill overlooking the weir. Fladbury was home to William Sandys, who in 1636 obtained permissions from King Charles I to begin the process to make the River Avon navigable. Sandys used his personal fortune, estimated to be £20,000-£40,000, to purchase the necessary land and property and to construct sluices, weirs, channels and locks to make the river navigable from Tewkesbury to Stratford. Another restored former mill overlooks Chadbury Lock and, shortly further on, an obelisk in the grounds of Abbey Manor House marks the site of the Battle of Evesham in 1265. Simon de Montfort and his rebel barons were defeated by Prince Edward’s Royalists, with over 4,000 killed.
The river now loops into Evesham – make sure you honk your horn at Hampton Ferry, where the ferry’s wire will be lowered into the river for you to pass. The town owes much of its prosperity to the produce grown nearby, and the river is central to it, its riverside gardens usually busy with people enjoying views across to the many-arched Workman Bridge. The town throngs with visitors and boats during the annual Evesham River Festival, held in July. Evesham Lock has a distinctive A-framed lock house over a former sluice chamber. Above the lock, the river meanders through the Vale of Evesham, one of the most renowned areas in the country for fruit and vegetable growing. In spring, it is filled with blossom and in autumn pickers are kept busy with the resulting produce.
Offenham marks the link between the Lower and Upper Avon, with George Billington Lock the first of the Upper Avon. Built in 1969 during the restoration of the river, it was completed in a remarkably speedy six weeks so that the terminally ill benefactor could see it. All locks on the Upper Avon are named after benefactors of the restoration, and the nearby Robert Aickman New Lock commemorates this former chairman of the Upper Avon Navigation Trust –also famously co-founder and vice-president of the Inland Waterways Association (IWA).
The river now skirts the steep wooded slopes of Cleeve Hill and through Inland Waterways Association Lock before entering Warwickshire and reaching the village of Bidford-on-Avon. Labelled ‘drunken Bidford’ by Shakespeare, it is still busy with visitors though hopefully not quite fitting his description today! Four more locks as the river loops round Welford-on-Avon, then Weir Brake Lock and Colin P. Witter Lock mark your arrival into Stratford-upon-Avon.
The willow tree-lined River Avon meets the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal in Bancroft Basin, where there are visitor moorings. There’s so much to explore in the beautiful timber-clad streets of the world-famous Stratford-upon-Avon, second most visited tourist destination in Britain after London. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust looks after the heritage of William Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon and promotes his legacy across the world. Visit Shakespeare’s birthplace, or his tomb in Holy Trinity Church, and perhaps take in a play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Or just soak in the atmosphere around the river and its many boats.
The canal climbs away from Stratford via the 11 Wilmcote Locks before passing through the outskirts of Wilmcote. Mary Arden’s Farm is a short diversion from bridge 59 if you need another Shakespearian fix. William Shakespeare’s mother, Mary was born and lived in Wilmcote before marrying John Shakespeare and moving into Stratford where she died in 1608.
In isolated surroundings, you reach the first of the Stratford Canal’s three unusual aqueducts, the magnificent Edstone Aqueduct (also known as Bearley). The towpath is level with the base of the cast-iron canal trough so a walker’s eye is level with boats which appear perched in a bath tub. Yarningale Aqueduct is merely a few feet long, Wootton Wawen Aqueduct carries the canal over a main road, and Edstone Aqueduct, the longest, is suspended dramatically over road, railway and river below. All are Grade II*-listed, and Edstone holds a Transport Trust Heritage Plaque. It is worth mooring at Wootton Wawen to explore the timber-framed buildings of the village which is dominated by Wootton Hall and its parkland.
The canal continues on through a rural landscape of fields, trees and sheep, ascending locks at Preston Bagot and Lowsonford. Next to Lock 31 is a traditional lengthsman’s cottage (now cared for by the Landmark Trust). A sculpture by Antony Gormley looking into the lock was placed here in May 2015 as part of LAND project. The M40 crosses the canal just after Lapworth Bottom Lock though its noise can be heard for some time before and after. The 26 locks of the Lapworth Flight spread over nearly two miles, with the first & last four straggling away from the main flight. Halfway up the flight, Kingswood Junction, with its moored boats, split bridges and white-washed cottages, connects the Stratford Canal to the Grand Union Canal via a short boat-filled branch line. Look out for a plaque here commemorating the reopening of the Stratford in 1964. Led by the architect David Hutchings, the canal was restored back to navigable status in just six years, using volunteers and prisoners on day release. “We were not experts therefore we did not know what could not be done.”
The Stratford Canal is famous for its split bridges. They were built in two halves with a tiny gap to allow ropes to pass through so that, in the days of horse-towed narrowboats, the boatman would not have to untie his horse from the boat as he walked along the towpath. The canal is also renowned for its barrel-roofed lock keepers’ cottages – there is one at the junction. The truth behind the quirk is purely practical: engineers building the Stratford Canal knew more about building bridges than houses, so when they had to build lock cottages for the lengthsmen, they adapted their skills, resulting in cottages with these curious barrel-shaped roofs.
Beyond the village of Hockley Heath, the M42 encroaches on the peace and quiet for a while before Earlswood. A short walk from bridge 17 leads to Earlswood Lakes. Three separate lakes or reservoirs supply water for the canal, built over nearly five years in the 1820s using labourers including Napoleonic prisoners of war, and now popular for walking, sailing and fishing. Earlswood Motor Yacht Club is evident from the boats moored around bridge 16.
The canal winds gently through pretty countryside before the railway over the canal marks the start of the built-up area. Shirley Draw Bridge, next to a pub of the same name, is actually a lift bridge operated using both a windlass and a key. The canal winds past the back gardens of Birmingham’s suburbs and through the short Brandwood Tunnel (352yds/322m long).
The Stratford Canal meets the Worcester & Birmingham Canal at King’s Norton Junction, where you turn left to head southwards. Separate canal companies used stop locks at junctions to ensure that their water was safe from other canal companies, and the stop lock at King’s Norton was somewhat different to the traditional lock. The company built a guillotine lock and although this is no longer in use, boats now cruise beneath the mechanisms and two guillotine gates. Entering the immense Wast Hills Tunnel (2,726yds/2,493m long), you emerge into lush Worcestershire countryside at Hopwood. Through a wooded cutting, you cross the valley on a high embankment past Lower Bittell Reservoir before turning under the noisy M42 into Alvechurch, a pretty canal village well worth exploring.
Just beyond Alvechurch, an uplifting panorama of Worcestershire’s unspoilt countryside awaits. Through Shortwood Tunnel (613yds/560m long) then Tardebigge Tunnel (580yds/530m long), the Tardebigge Lock Flight then launches into staggering descent of 220ft in just over 2 miles. It’s the longest lock flight in Britain, with the exhilarating challenge of 30 locks, including a mighty 11ft top lock! A plaque just above Tardebigge Top Lock commemorates the famous meeting between Tom Rolt and Robert Aickman aboard narrowboat Cressy. Rolt and Aickman were the passion and brains behind the founding of the IWA (Inland Waterways Association) in 1946, with the aim of helping keep Britain’s canal networks navigable.
The Tardebigge Flight is quickly followed by the Stoke and Astwood Lock Flights, leading down through glorious countryside to Hanbury Wharf, where the Droitwich Canal heads off west. A lazy lock-free section lined with reeds meanders through Dunhampstead, with its short tunnel (230yds/210m long), and ambles onwards to Tibberton, where visitor moorings sit next to a well-placed pub. The perfect breather before the canal descends the six Offerton Locks, and a further series of locks through the outskirts of Worcester to return to Lowesmoor Basin.
Max: 4 People
Max: 4 People
Max: 6 People
Max: 6 People
Max: 7 People
Max: 6 People
Length: 66ft (63ft from Falkirk)
Max: 8 People
Max: 10 People