Shropshire Star

Could travel rules lead to surge in interest in the region's canals?

For some people, their dream holiday is lying on a beach in the Caribbean, for others it might be a trip to one of world's hip and happening capital cities.

Harrison Ford at the helm of a narrowboat on the picturesque Llangollen Canal in Shropshire, in 2004

But for many, a relaxed meander through the canals of the West Midlands, Shropshire and Mid Wales take a lot of beating.

Like Hollywood stars Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart, who famously navigated the canals of Shropshire during a stay in the UK, many are discovering there are few things more relaxing than messing about on the water.

The Canal & River Trust is forecasting a surge in popularity for narrowboat holidays this year. With tight restrictions expected to be placed on overseas holidays for the foreseeable future, a growing number of people are expected to turn to Britain's canals for a break with a difference this summer.

And with the West Midlands and Welsh borders so steeped in waterway history, that could be good news for the region's tourist industry.

Chris Hall, from Berkshire, has travelled the length and breadth of Britain's waterways, and says part of the attraction is the diversity of different scenery.

"I've been up and through Wales, up through Birmingham, I've done the Shropshire Union Canal, that's a beautiful stretch up to Whitchurch and Chirk, and around Llangollen," says the 55-year-old warehouse manager.

"The downside is they are very expensive, but the upside is that the locks and the swing bridges are part of the entertainment, that and spending time with the family, getting away from it all, and seeing the different types of scenery.

"That is the entertainment, watching the world go by."

The profile of the region's canal heritage received a boost in 2004 when Indiana Jones star Harrison Ford, and his future wife the actress Calista Flockhart, were pictured taking a boating holiday in Shropshire. The celebrity couple were pictured navigating the picturesque Llangollen canal which runs through the county, up to the popular riverside town just over the border in Wales.

Leighton Jones, West Midlands manager at Black Prince holidays which has 45 boats located around the region, says he is expecting a very good year.

"We're very busy taking bookings for after June 21, when all the restrictions have been lifted," he says.

"We're not as busy before then, at the moment it's limited to a single household, but it will be a good year, we think."

He said the canals around the Black Country and Shropshire were always popular, but said they would affected by the travel ban on visitors from abroad.

"We get a lot of overseas customers doing that area, and we have obviously lost them, but I think wee will make it up with customers from the UK."

Actress Calista Flockhart on the Llangollen Canal in 2004

From today single household holidaymakers can take to the water, providing they stay in self-catering accommodation overnight. From May 17, the rules will be relaxed to allow hire boat holidays, although they will still be restricted to either two households or a maximum of six people. All restrictions are expected to be lifted on June 21, subject to government advice and announcements.

Karen Wyatt, of Canal Cruising in Stone, near Stafford, says she is expecting a busy summer this year, although it will probably be a while before the bookings begin in earnest.

"I think the cheaper holidays, the caravans will be the first to go, then it will be us," she says.

Mrs Wyatt says circular routes, known as 'rings', are always popular with tourists. The so-called Black Country ring – a 68-mile circular route which takes in five waterways around the West Midlands – is a popular choice, as well as Llangollen and The Potteries.

"We get people from all over England, and all over the world," she says.

"The 'all over the worlds' won't be able top come, but the English will make it up this year."

Mrs Wyatt says it is the search for a simpler, quieter life that attracts many people.

"It's about getting back to basics, getting to know your family rather than watching the television," she says.

"It's about walking, talking, visiting nice pubs. You get to see the history, the industry and the countryside, visiting museums. You can go to Wedgwood and throw a pot, have it fired in the kiln, and have it posted back to you. You can go to Shugborough Hall and places like that."

Brevich Jones, who runs Jones family holidays from Penkridge, says there has already been a healthy number of inquiries for the summer.

"We have got quite a few bookings," he says.

"We're down compared to a normal year at the moment because we've only been able to run until March, but we're expecting to make up for that over the summer." Mr Jones says people from all over the country come to experience the joys of the West Midlands waterways.

"There is a saying that a canal holiday is the fastest way to slow down the earth," he says.

"It's a lovely experience, everything seems so much more relaxed. Even if you think you know the area, it looks so much different when viewed from a boat."

Other popular canal routes include the 84-mile Stourport Ring, a two-week trip taking in Wolverhampton, Birmingham and Worcester, or for a shorter break, the 45-mile Birmingham Ring, which also takes in Wolverhampton and Walsall via the Essington and Wyrley Canal, known as the 'Curly Wyrley' among the boating fraternity due to its meandering route.

Richard Parry, chief executive at Canal & River Trust, says, “Research shows that simply being on or by the water makes people feel happier.

"Hire-boat holidays offer a relaxing getaway whilst staying local and safe. Spring, summer or autumn, all are the perfect time to get aboard a boat, with all your own facilities, and discover the magic of the nation’s canals.”