Scotland’s canals are run by a Government body with the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin name of Scottish Canals. All four of them are open for cycling.
Fort William to Inverness. This waterway along the Great Glen joins several lochs, including Loch Ness, with several canal sections. The canal was built with a towpath but the lochs obviously weren’t! For cyclists, the best route is along NCN 78 (the Caledonian Way), which links the gravelly canal towpath with forestry tracks, a converted railway path, and minor roads. It’s not ideal for fast road bikes but fine on anything that can handle a bit of gravel.
Lochgilphead to Crinan. Famously pretty yacht canal that shortens the route to the Hebrides. Fully suitable for cyclists, and part of the long-distance Caledonian Way.
Glasgow–Falkirk and Falkirk–Edinburgh. A continuous towpath cycling route between Scotland’s two greatest cities. In Glasgow, there’s a spur from the main route at Maryhill towards the city centre. Otherwise, you can continue to Port Dundas along the canal, and from there to Dumbarton on a tarmac cycleway. The surface is generally good, often light gravel though occasionally a little muddy: the Union Canal is the more erratic of the two. Signposted throughout as NCN route 754.
West Stockwith, near Gainsborough, to Worksop and Chesterfield. Unimproved grassy footpath from the Trent to Worksop, except within Retford. Resurfaced as NCN 6 for a couple of miles west of Worksop, and then muddy but rideable on a suitable bike up to the old tunnel at Kiveton. On the other side of the collapsed tunnel, parts of the towpath have been upgraded in conjunction with nearby railway paths to form NCN 67, part of the Trans-Pennine Trail.
Long Eaton to Langley Mill, near Nottingham. Suburban canal in D.H. Lawrence contry. Good all-weather surface from Long Eaton to the edge of Ilkeston as part of NCN 67, which then heads west via the long-lost Nutbrook Canal. The Erewash continues from Ilkeston to Langley Mill with an unpaved but firm enough surface, popular with local cyclists.
Watford Gap to Leicester. Very rural towpath, not suitable for cycling apart from the branch into Market Harborough, and within Leicester city centre.
Nottingham to Grantham. Derelict canal slowly being restored to navigation. Good quality compacted surface from the edge of Nottingham – though the line in Nottingham city centre is lost – past Cotgrave to Harby. It then becomes a grassy footpath until near Bottesford, where the surface improves as part of NCN 15 into Grantham.
Rambling network of rivers and lakes (‘broads’). Generally no cyclable towpaths but there are plenty of enjoyable country lanes in the area. (Run by the Broads Authority.)
King’s Lynn to Ely and Bedford. No consistent cyclable path though sometimes minor roads, and very occasionally a cycleway, run along its banks. Good NCN routes on quiet roads and railway paths in the area. (Run by the Environment Agency.)
Northampton to Peterborough and Wisbech. No cyclable path except in the Peterborough area. (Run by the Environment Agency.)
Leicester to Nottingham. Now resurfaced and improved from Leicester as far north as Syston/Cossington. Also cyclable on the canal section within Loughborough. Otherwise a rural river with no opportunity for cycling.
Nottingham to Gainsborough and the Humber. No cyclable path but some minor roads run directly along the riverbanks in its lower, tidal reach.
Lincoln to Boston. NCN 1 runs alongside on a converted railway trackbed, the ‘Water Rail Way’, and on quiet lanes. The Fossdyke Navigation, a Roman canal, continues west from Lincoln and is cyclable as far as Saxilby.
Goole to Wakefield and Leeds. Part canal, part river. East of Castleford it’s mostly unimproved grassy towpath and unsuitable for cycling. The navigation splits into two branches at Castleford. The branch towards Wakefield has an excellent, newly surfaced towpath from Altofts and Stanley Ferry to Wakefield. The branch to Leeds has a reasonably good compacted surface from Methley into Leeds.
Wakefield to Sowerby Bridge. Again, part river, part canal. River sections not rideable. Canal sections east of Brighouse are unimproved but can be cycled if you don’t mind the bumps. Brighouse to Sowerby Bridge has been paved as the Calder Valley Greenway and is a superb route (NCN 66).
Ripon to York and the Humber. No cyclable towpath. The Transpennine Trail and other NCN routes run parallel.
Selby to Castleford. Unimproved grassy towpath other than a short section in Selby itself which forms part of the Trans-Pennine Trail.
Keadby to Sheffield. No rideable towpath for most of its length. The (often bumpy) Trans-Pennine Trail runs parallel in several places. Cyclable with a firm earth surface between Rotherham and Sheffield.
Manchester to Ashton. An invaluable route from the city centre out to Ashton. From Manchester out to Sportcity, the towpath was improved for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The rest of the towpath on to Ashton has been upgraded more recently.
Manchester to Runcorn. Towpath slowly being upgraded as the ‘Bridgewater Way’. Excellent quality in much of Manchester and other urban areas. Rural areas are mostly unimproved and cycling is officially prohibited. (Run by the Manchester Ship Canal Company.)
West Yorkshire to Ashton/Manchester. The eastern half, from Huddersfield to Marsden, is being upgraded to cycle route standard. From there on to Ashton, it’s generally ok for cycling though not formally a cycle route. Note that the 3.5 mile Standedge Tunnel at the summit (Marsden to Diggle) has no towpath: bikes need to follow the A62 over the top instead.
Preston to Carnforth area. The southern rural section is a grassy footpath, too bumpy and tiring for cycling. From Lancaster to Carnforth is a lovely ride, however – alternately paved, light gravel and compacted. The surface in Preston is good, too. NCN 6 on country lanes provides an alternative to the unimproved sections. The Canal & River Trust has an ambition to create a ‘Lancaster Canal Towpath Trail’ as a continuous cycle route from Preston to Kendal (the historic terminus of the canal).
Leeds to Wigan and Liverpool. Though popular as a 110-mile cycle challenge, the towpath is of mixed quality. Many urban sections are well-surfaced, especially in the Leeds, Bradford, Bingley and Keighley area (recently upgraded); around Accrington and Blackburn (part of NCN route 6); and through Burnley (NCN 68). Foulridge to Barnoldswick is also good quality (NCN 68). However, several rural sections are single-track and bumpy, such as either side of Skipton. Be prepared to use nearby roads as an alternative.
Marple to Stoke-on-Trent. Rural towpath, not generally suitable for cycling. NCN 55 runs parallel on old railway trackbeds.
Manchester to Ellesmere Port. No accessible towpath. Trans-Pennine Trail runs parallel. (Run by the Manchester Ship Canal Company.)
Ashton to Whaley Bridge. Excellent, newly resurfaced towpath from Ashton to Hyde. From there on to Marple and New Mills it’s mostly unimproved and often very muddy. The good surface returns at New Mills for a picturesque ride on to Bugsworth Basin, the historic terminus of the canal, and a stopping point on the Pennine Cycleway (NCN 68).
West Yorkshire to Manchester. Good quality towpath, mostly compacted, cobbled or paved. National Cycle Network route 66. Some very picturesque sections. An excellent route across the Pennines. Short unpaved sections between Rochdale and north Manchester.
Winsford to Runcorn. Many sections of towpath upgraded recently as part of NCN 5 and other routes. Other rural sections, however, are just grassy footpath and not easily rideable: check cycle.travel map for full details.
Nuneaton to Hinckley and Measham area. Rough and jarring on a bike. Not recommended.
Tewkesbury to Stratford. Riverside path not suitable for cycling. (Run by the Avon Navigation Trust.)
Birmingham to Fazeley, near Tamworth. The urban area out as far as Minworth has a good surface and is an interesting ride past locks and under Spaghetti Junction, though may not feel welcoming at night. From Minworth to Fazeley it’s unsurfaced but in reasonably good order.
100-mile network of canals around Birmingham, Wolverhampton and the Black Country (yes, that is more than Venice). Most are very suitable for cycling: some even have towpaths on both sides of the canal. Surfaces are generally compacted, but tarmac is common around the urban centres – particularly Birmingham city centre itself, where many upgrades are taking place. Some of the towpaths in the northern Black Country (particularly the Tame Valley Canal) can be rougher. The 1.7-mile Netherton Tunnel, near Dudley, has a cyclable towpath for the brave!
Stoke-on-Trent to Leek, Caldon and the Peak District. Recently upgraded for cycling. One of Britain’s loveliest canals, and a very enjoyable cycle route from Stoke to the Peak District.
Coventry to Fradley, near Lichfield. Good quality surface from Nuneaton to Coventry, and around Tamworth. Otherwise a rural unsurfaced towpath.
Generally unsurfaced and not suitable for cycling other than within Droitwich itself. NCN 45 and 46 run close by.
Urban canals within the Black Country linking Dudley, Halesowen and Merry Hill. Generally cyclable, including excellent quality towpath near Merry Hill.
Hurleston, near Nantwich, to Llangollen. Very popular holiday boating canal. Mostly unimproved singletrack towpath. Chirk to Trevor and Llangollen has been resurfaced as part of NCN 84/85 and is a superb ride, not least thanks to the famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (do dismount!).
Newport to Brecon. Towpath gradually being upgraded to cycleway standard. From Newport to Cwmbran, the canal is partly derelict but the towpath generally good. The boats begin at Cwmbran from where it continues as a firm though unpaved surface to Govilon, near Abergavenny. From here to the outskirts of Brecon it’s mostly unimproved, but nonetheless very popular with cyclists on hybrids and MTBs. There’s a parallel quiet B-road as an alternative. The quality surface resumes at Brynich Lock for the last two miles to Brecon.
Frankton, near Oswestry, to Newtown. Effectively a branch of the Llangollen Canal, closed for many years but being restored. Northern half of the towpath is unimproved. From Pool Quay (near Welshpool) to Newtown has been surfaced and forms part of NCN 81, Lon Cambria.
Stourport to Gloucester. Not suitable for cycling other than within Worcester city.
Wolverhampton to Chester and Ellesmere Port. Very rural canal: many sections are wholly unsuitable for cycling due to water draining into the deep cuttings. Fine for a short distance in Wolverhampton and around Nantwich. Chester to Ellesmere Port is well surfaced and part of NCN 5.
Stourport to Wolverhampton and Great Haywood, near Stafford. Good towpath from Stourport through Kidderminster to Kinver (NCN 54). Otherwise largely unimproved rough singletrack.
Stourbridge to Stourton. Canal from the southern Black Country to Stourton on the Staffs & Worcs. Urban sections are good for cycling; rural section largely unimproved.
Stratford to Birmingham. Stratford to Wilmcote surfaced as part of NCN 5. Otherwise southern section is unimproved singletrack and not easily rideable. Better surface closer to Birmingham, particularly along the very pretty Lapworth flight of locks, and within the city limits the towpath is being resurfaced for cycling use.
Shardlow near Derby to Burton, Stoke-on-Trent, Northwich and Runcorn. Long cross-country canal. Most sections are unsurfaced singletrack but rideable with care. Stone to Stoke-on-Trent is part of NCN 5 and well surfaced. The towpath through Stoke has been upgraded as part of the city’s network of canal and railway paths. Rural sections from Northwich to Runcorn are less rideable but NCN 5 runs parallel, partly along the River Weaver towpath.
Worcester to Birmingham. Very rideable in Birmingham and Worcester. Rural sections are often too rough to be enjoyable, but the long Tardebigge lock flight (Stoke Prior to Tardebigge village) is well surfaced and pleasant to ride; so too the canal around Alvechurch village. Long tunnel just south of Birmingham (Wast Hill) has no towpath.