Four Counties Ring by Canal Boat

Pippa Wilson on 25 October 2021
I have always enjoyed boating and did the Avon ring 28 years ago with a few friends. I can’t believe it took so long to do this again, but October half term was approaching and with covid being a concern, finances tight and self catered cottages in the UK being booked up so far in advance we decided to see if there were any canal boat options. We found a boat in the Cheshire area that met our criteria. We were 6 adults in total; a couple, two teenagers plus myself and my daughter. We had initially opted to try and do the Cheshire Ring – a circular route of canals of 97 miles and 92 locks. On arrival at the marina, the lads there advised us against this due to it being half term, halloween and with much of the route going through the Manchester city suburbs, It would be necessary to moor up in the city and there had been many reports of kids messing around with the boats there. So, on their advice we decided to go for the Four Counties Ring instead. A similar length – 110 miles and 94 locks which takes you through Cheshire, Staffordshire, Shropshire and the West Midlands. We knew it would be quite a challenge to complete this in a week, particularly with it being late in the year and so the days were getting shorter. We would need to cruise for 8 hours each day, whatever the weather in order to get round so we had packed full water proofs for everyone.

The lads from the marina took us through the first three locks leading out of Middlewich and gave instruction on boat driving and lock operation. It isn’t difficult and we very quickly became quite proficient in all areas. Steering a 62 foot boat takes some doing and the boat was a little quirky but the trick is not to try and do anything quickly. You can be efficient but slow – making sure the locks up ahead are set ready for us, people in the right places and making sure everyone knows what their job is and where they should be.

We were told that the 16 year old boys that were with us were allowed to drive the boat providing an adult was present and this was well received by them. Part of the trip took us through the Harecastle Tunnel which is 2.6km long and needs to be prebooked. We planned our journey carefully and the day before contacted them and booked a 4pm slot. The lady I was corresponding with noted where we were and said that we wouldn’t make it so would expect us in the morning instead. The challenge was set and that day we worked so well we actually arrived at the tunnel at 2:45 in the afternoon (much to their surprise. )

The canals take you through some beautiful countryside but personally I find the industrial areas of towns and cities fascinating and it is great to see how many areas have been redeveloped with the canal at the heart of everything. It is a popular and growing tourist industry and there are many pubs, shops and tourist attractions close to the canal network. Life on a canal boat is quite simple – there is no wifi, we had a flat screen TV with DVD but never used it. One toilet and one shower between all of us and limited water as you carry it on board with you so it is a little like camping. You don’t plan to have a shower every day and you don’t bother with makeup or doing too much to your hair. There is little storage for clothes so we lived out of our bags stored under the bed so jeans, tshirts, fleeces and waterproofs were the order of each day. It was very well equipped with cooking utensils including a cafetiere so we did eat well. We took a couple of frozen meals with us; a veggie lasagne and a bean chili. We also took two free ‘hello fresh’ boxes which we used for the first three nights. Knowing that ALL ingredients are included in the ‘hello fresh’ meals we didn’t need to worry about shopping for anything else. We just bought bread and milk. We also took with us bacon, sausages, eggs, breadrolls and cup a soups and used those daily for both breakfasts and lunches. Two nights we ate out in pubs where we could moor up close by so a good variety of places to eat and a couple of ‘treat’ nights for us too. The fresh air, early starts and the activities of the day were exhausting and most nights we were in bed long before 10pm. We had to work with the light so had to be up early to set off as soon as the sun started to rise. Each morning, one of us would do the ‘pre flight’ checks (as we liked to call them) which involved pumping out the bilge, priming the grease and checking by hand that the propeller had nothing fouling it. Then starting up the engine, switching on the inverter and headlight and away we went.

Our ‘bible’ was a canal companion book that detailed the canal and the route. It shows water points, pump out stations, churches, shops etc and also allows to you roughly calculate how long in cruising time it would take to get somewhere. Because we were on a tight schedule and the days were short, this was extremely important as you cannot cruise after dark. But there really is something quite special when the weather is kind, the chugging engine of the boat lulling you into a soporific state and the remarkable wildlife that can be found in and around the British waterways. Certainly a holiday for all the family and can be action packed or relaxing, depending on what you are looking for.