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Canal cycling

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No hills, no traffic, a smooth surface, and a perpetual waterside view. What could be better than cycling along a canal towpath?

It’s pretty tempting. But consider the flipside: a long rural towpath with mud and ruts. No shops for miles. And a long line of anglers encamped on the towpath, each one glowering at you as you gingerly lift your bike over their carbon-fibre poles. No, not all towpaths are enjoyable cycling routes.

Over the years, we’ve travelled along almost every canal in Britain, whether by bike or boat. Our guide lists all the major canals by region, and describes the cycling conditions. Let’s kick off with some general canal cycling tips.

The towpath in my city is great. Can I follow it to London/Birmingham/wherever?

Umm… maybe?

Towpath cycling can be the most enjoyable way to get around a city. The towpaths in London and Birmingham are always thronged with cyclists.

But get out of the city, and it’s not always like that. Rural towpaths are often unpaved grassy paths. There can be mud, narrow sections, and tunnels where you have to find your own way.

So we’ve put together this guide to explain which canal towpaths are cyclable, and which aren’t. Where there’s a good route, we’ve added a link to our journey-planner.

Whatever the surface, the towpath is never the fastest way of getting from A to B. You have to share with walkers, boaters, anglers, and ’gongoozlers’ – the old canal word for an idle sightseer. But if you plan your route well, and don’t expect to get places fast, canal cycling can be among the most enjoyable there is.

Is cycling allowed on all towpaths?

The Canal & River Trust, the charity which runs most of the canals in England & Wales, allows cycling on all its canal towpaths other than a very few short sections with ‘no cycling’ signs. By and large, cycling is only prohibited in really busy pedestrian areas or occasionally past steep flights of locks.

But there are also navigable rivers, like the Thames, Severn and Trent. Generally you’re not allowed to ride on these towpaths (the land belongs to the adjacent landowners, not to the river authority), and the surface would be too rough in any case.

Obviously there are thousands of miles of unnavigable rivers, too, but we’ve not covered these here as they don’t have towpaths.

So what are the surfaces like?

Traditionally, towpaths were just a grassy path for the horse to walk on. In rural areas that’s often still the case. Such a towpath is no fun on a hybrid bike, let alone a road bike. Sometimes a central strip has been worn down, which is a little more comfortable on sturdy bikes, but it’s still not exactly what you’d describe as a cycle path.

In city centres and some towns, towpaths are usually paved. This obviously makes for much more pleasant riding. You’ll still find cobbles, though, and raised bricks set across the path, particularly beside locks.

Several rural sections of the towpath network have now been improved for cycling, usually as part of the National Cycle Network. The best-known is the Kennet & Avon Canal from Reading to Bath, much of which forms part of NCN route 4. These are sometimes paved, but more often than not have an all-weather, light gravel surface. This can be puddly in wet weather, but generally are suitable for all bikes except those with the very skinniest tyres.

Do bear in mind that an NCN or other cycle route isn’t always a guarantee of a solid surface. Some parts of the Trans-Pennine Trail, in particular, are largely on unimproved towpaths.

How fast can I ride?

Towpaths aren’t pure cycleways: they’re shared with walkers, anglers, boaters, even the occasional horse. The boats on the canal only go at 4mph max, so the towpath has an unhurried air. There’s no official speed limit, but you shouldn’t expect to do much more than 12mph, and in urban or other busy areas it might be much less. Be patient and don’t expect people to step aside for you. In short, if you want to go fast, use the road.

Do I need a permit?

Not any more. The Canal & River Trust’s predecessor, British Waterways, required you to download a (free) permit from their website and print it. CRT doesn’t, so you can just set off and ride.

What else should I know?

Beware punctures. When hawthorn hedges are cut (often in spring), the clippings end up on the towpath. A puncture repair kit is essential: if you’re planning a long rural towpath ride, consider puncture-resistant tyres like Schwalbe Marathon Plus.

Check the Canal & River Trust’s website for towpath closures. These usually take place in the winter months.

A bell will help alert pedestrians of your presence (to inform, not to demand right of way!), but in the relaxed atmosphere of the canal it sometimes causes walkers to freeze from surprise. Better to slow right down and call “Coming past slowly on your left/right”.

Out of all of them, which towpath rides would you recommend?

Our top suggestions would be…

You don’t have to choose a pure canal route, of course. Indeed, canals can be at their most useful when this 200-year old waterway gives you a safe, easy passage under a newer motorway or railway.