They’re known for colourful boats, discarded shopping trolleys, and (originally) crop irrigation, but Britain’s extensive canal network might also be good for your mental health.
According to recent comments by the Canal and River Trust, canal-side walks are being prescribed by GPs to help people deal with depression and stress.
Chair of the trust Alan Leighton told the Daily Telegraph that the charity is keen to promote a “natural health service”, adding that one GP service in Buckinghamshire has already begun prescribing a canal-side walking route to help patients with high blood pressure and mental health issues.
The revelation follows the rise of “social prescribing”, pointing a patient towards a certain situation or activity, in order to improve their condition.
Whether it be the sound of gently running water or the lush greenery that usually goes with it, canals seem to have a calming influence.
So, from a week on a well-furnished narrowboat, to a lunchtime stroll down a river bank – here are some highlights from Britain’s most charming, and life-affirming waterways.
1. The Lancaster Canal, Lancashire
Connecting Preston with the villages of southern Cumbria, the Lancaster Canal features Britain’s longest stretch of canal without a lock. With 42 miles of pristine, even, uninterrupted drifting, this northern waterway ranks as one of the calmest and purest canal experiences, easily enjoyed by foot, boat or bike. Throw in a handful of wildflowers and acres of green pastureland, and you have a scene of Eden-like tranquillity. Bliss.
2. The Oxford Canal, Oxfordshire
One of the busiest canal routes in the UK, the Oxford canal meanders slowly through a succession of photogenic villages, arguably setting the standard for picturesque British waterways. The 78-mile route also boasts some of the best (and most creatively named) pubs in the home counties; look out for The Jolly Boatman, The Rock of Gibraltar and The Old Bookbinder’s Ale House. Just try not to load up on too much Oxfordshire ale if you’re piloting a barge – it’s illegal to be drunk in charge of a canal boat, and you don’t want to be caught speeding.
3. The Forth & Clyde Canal, Central Scotland
Formerly a route for industrial vessels to cross Scotland coast to coast, this popular canal traverses the lush countryside between Glasgow and Edinburgh. It’s ideal for a bit of wildlife watching; eagle-eyed visitors will spot kingfishers flaunting their vibrant plumage, dragonflies skimming along the surface of the water, and herons lurking in the reeds searching for prey. For all you botanists and trivia buffs, it’s also the only place in the world you can find Bennett’s pond weed, rediscovered in the 1960s after 30 years of apparent extinction.
4. Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal, North Wales
One for the thrill seekers, this Unesco World Heritage site carries its cargo across a monolithic aqueduct wrought of stone and cast iron, rising 126 feet from the valley floor. You can traverse the structure by foot or by barge, and enjoy knockout views of the rolling landscape below. The rest of the canal – all 80 miles of it – isn’t bad either.
5. Regent’s Canal, London
London may not seem a haven of verdant tranquillity, but Regent’s Canal provides an intriguing way of seeing the city and getting your nature fix at the same time. One of the capital’s best-kept secrets, the waterway ambles serenely from Little Venice through Primrose Hill and Victoria Park, all the way to the hustle and bustle of the Docklands. An accessible canal at the heart of the metropolis, narrowboats and footpaths are in ample supply, or, for a more interactive experience, you can hire a kayak.
6. The Shannon-Erne Waterway, Northern Ireland
A canal spanning two mighty rivers and the UK border, the Shannon-Erne Waterway connects the Shannon and the Erne via 40 scenic miles of Irish countryside. A short-ish waterway with a wilder feel than some of its peers, it’s punctuated with villages that come alive in the evenings. At the northern end, you’ll find Lough Erne, a large lake dotted with islets, each demanding to be your next picnic spot. Kick back, do a bit of fishing, and enjoy the views.