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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 as far as Cheddleton and Leek, signposted as NCN 550 and 559. (The final section from Cheddleton to Froghall hasn’t been upgraded, but NCN 550 follows broadly parallel quiet lanes.) One of Britain’s loveliest canals, and a very enjoyable cycle route from Stoke to the Peak District.
Caldon Canal 12mi Open in route-planner »
Coventry to Fradley, near Lichfield. Good quality surface from Nuneaton to Coventry, and around Tamworth. Otherwise a rural unsurfaced towpath.
West of Droitwich, the canal (the Barge Canal) is unsurfaced and generally not suitable for cycling. Droitwich town centre is fine, and so is much of the restored Junction Canal east of Droitwich. 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!).
Chirk to Llangollen 9mi Open in route-planner »
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.
Monmouthshire & Brecon Canal 41mi Open in route-planner »
Frankton, near Oswestry, to Newtown. Effectively a branch of the Llangollen Canal, closed for many years but being restored. From Newtown to Welshpool it’s been improved as part of NCN 81 (Lon Cambria) and is very rideable. North of Welshpool is a work in progress, with several sections still awaiting upgrade.
Montgomery Canal 17mi Open in route-planner »
Welsh mountains to Bristol Channel (boats from Stourport to Gloucester). Not suitable for cycling other than within Shrewsbury and Worcester centres.
Wolverhampton to Chester and Ellesmere Port. Very rural canal with deep cuttings, where water drains onto the towpath making it a quagmire, generally this is only suitable for MTBs. There’s a path parallel to the canal near Wolverhampton, and the towpath is fine 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); bumpier but rideable from there on to Stourton. Good quality in the Wolverhampton suburbs from Compton to Pendeford/Oxley. 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 urban 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.
Bridgewater to Taunton. Towpath upgraded as part of NCN 3, though can be a bit puddly in places. In a couple of sections the cycle route follows parallel quiet roads instead.
Exeter area. Good quality towpath, part of NCN 2 and NCN 34; a very enjoyable short ride to the lockside pubs.
Brentford to Birmingham. One of Britain’s longest canals and variable in quality! Rideable in London, particularly the Paddington Branch (Uxbridge to Paddington), part of which is currently being upgraded. North of Rickmansworth the canal is usually rural with an unimproved towpath. Leighton Buzzard to Milton Keynes is a rare well surfaced section (NCN 6). Within Birmingham the towpath is newly upgraded for cycling. Generally, though, this is a bumpy towpath and not suitable as a long-distance route from London to Birmingham.
Tiverton area, Devon. Very pleasant isolated canal; towpath mostly upgraded to a firm compacted surface as part of NCN 3 (cycle route follows parallel roads on occasion).
Reading to Bath. Excellent cycle route, part of NCN route 4. Eastern and western ends have a firm surface. Central section (Newbury to Devizes) is unsurfaced and NCN 4 follows quiet lanes instead, though MTBs could continue on the towpath. Western section from Devizes to Bath is exceptionally picturesque. Connects with the Bristol–Bath railway path and with the Two Tunnels route in Bath. See our full guide.
London to Hertford. High-quality compacted (or occasionally paved) surface. Part of NCN 1 and NCN 61, though these occasionally duck off onto quiet roads or other paths.
River Lee 27mi Open in route-planner »
Rochester to Tonbridge. No cyclable towpath. (Run by the Environment Agency.)
Oxford to Coventry. Generally unsurfaced singletrack, not suitable for cycling. Good quality within Oxford city. Banbury–Cropredy is also regularly ridden although can be rough.
London Paddington to Limehouse. Without doubt, Britain’s most popular cycling canal. Entirely paved. Can be very busy with cyclists as well as walkers and sight-seers: certainly not a fast route. Some short sections are closed to cyclists and an alternative route is signposted.
Regent's Canal 9mi Open in route-planner »
Hoddesdon to Bishop’s Stortford. Tributary of the River Lee. Mostly an unimproved, unsurfaced towpath but in good enough condition for hybrid bikes and similar.
London to Reading, Oxford and Lechlade. Thames Path generally not suitable (or legal) for cycling, but there are some good sections from central London as far west at Staines/Egham. Also surfaced and regularly cycled within Reading and Oxford. NCN routes 4 and 5, aka Sustrans’ Thames Valley route, roughly parallel the river as far as Oxford. (Run by the Environment Agency.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
Today cycle.travel’s route-planner gets the biggest single improvement since it launched – a new feature we call Smart Turns.
cycle.travel now casts a forensic eye over every turn and junction on your route. Turns across busy roads get downrated; so does weaving from street to street in cities; so does any turn where you have to dismount. Routes with fewer turns are preferred, and safe crossings (e.g. ‘toucan’ crossings) get a bonus too.
The result is safer and simpler routes in both town and country. But, more than that, the turn-by-turn directions for each route are also clearer and more reliable.
New instructions like ‘Cross major road’ and ‘Leave town’ help you navigate each step at a time. Two-stage turns, where the road flares past a central island, are shown as one clear instruction. So too are doglegs, where a left is followed immediately by a right. Plus there are new symbols to highlight unusual sections of route: unpaved trails, busy roads, ferries, and sections where you need to push.
We’ve also made it easier to follow long-distance cycle routes, such as EuroVelo or the National Cycle Network, without repeatedly dodging off-route and back on again.
As well as this major new feature, we’ve made dozens of smaller improvements to cycle.travel’s route-finding. It’s now smarter about routing on unpaved tracks, particularly in mainland Europe. Roads with (legally) cyclable hard shoulders get a better rating. Cycle contraflows and other one-way systems are handled better.
We’ve made a concerted effort to improve OpenStreetMap’s minor road data in the rural US, so you can find a safe, enjoyable route without having to ride down an Interstate or other busy road.
Finally, we’ve added Croatia and Mexico to the route-planner. Mexico doesn’t yet have height data but we’re working on it!
These improvements are partly laying the groundwork for two exciting new additions to cycle.travel this summer – watch this space.
As always, the foundation of cycle.travel’s route-planning is the wonderful OSRM project, and the data contributed to OpenStreetMap: big thanks to all the OSRM developers and OSM contributors for their hard work.
The Rhone Cycle Route, a 1,100km tour beside the river through Switzerland and France, has been anointed as the newest member of the EuroVelo route network.
The designation as EuroVelo route 17 is intended to give the Alps-to-Mediterranean route the same popularity as the successful EuroVelo cycleways along the Rhine, Loire and Danube rivers.
The Rhone route passes through Geneva, Lyon and Avignon before splitting into two final legs to the Med – one to Montpellier, one to Marseille. The Swiss section has a rapid descent from the headwaters to Lake Geneva, while the French section is mostly flat. Over 50% of the French route is on traffic-free ‘greenways’.
The EuroVelo designation is awarded by the European Cyclists’ Federation, the umbrella group for cycling organisations, and partly funded by the European Union. You can find out more about EuroVelo 17 on their website.