The lovely Lancaster canal – arguably one of the prettiest and most unique of canals in the country – is generally described as having ’43 miles of lock-free cruising’. Which it is- if you exclude the 9 locks that form part of the Ribble link, joining ‘Lanky’ (as she is affectionately known locally) to the main waterways network at the southern end and the 6 which form the Glasson Arm, joining the main canal to the Glasson basin! But I digress…
The Lancaster canal – which starts at the country’s newest city of Preston in the south, before passing through ancient market towns and the medieval city of Lancaster to the north – has many unique features. Until 2006 it was a stand-alone canal. Although early plans had included a link to the Leeds-Liverpool canal, the coming of the railways and rising costs prevented this from happening until the Ribble link was constructed. So now – on certain tides (the link involves crossing the tidal waters of the Ribble estuary), subject to prevailing winds, the availability of a guide and sufficient numbers of narrow boats wanting to cross to make it economically viable – Lanky is part of the main waterways network. Sadly, she isn’t joined to herself, though….some bright spark saw fit to build a motorway across her, severing the northern- most section. There is a stretch of navigable waterway after the motorway, known as ‘The northern reaches’, but time and neglect has seen the demise of the final stretch of canal to Kendal in Cumbria. The course of the canal (and more locks) is still evident and for the most part, walkable.
Originally built to transport coal and limestone, but now home to narrow boats and (*tongue-in-cheek* – in my humble opinion) too many GPR cruisers, the Lancaster canal became known as “the black and white” canal. She is a wide and fairly shallow waterway (in parts extremely shallow due to years of neglect and not being dredged – but that’s another story for another day…). Early cargo- carrying ‘barges’ were wide and shallow, so there was no need for great depth!
Despite her origins being firmly grounded in the industrialization of England (she was one of the first canals to be built), the Lancaster has no readily discernible industrialized areas along her route (excepting perhaps Preston and Lancaster – though that’s a moot point). She flows graciously through open pastures, backed by hills, mountains and forests, whilst never too far away is the open sea. Indeed, at points along her course, salt water and fresh water combine. No other canal affords its cruisers both at the same time!
To the south, the Ribble link joins the canal via the estuary to the Irish Sea. Down the Glasson Arm her fresh waters fill the Glasson Basin, where narrow boats, GPR cruisers and ocean-going yachts sit side by side. She is then joined to the salt water of Glasson dock – a working dock yard – by a Canal and Rivers Trust operated lock. From there she enters the waters of the Lune estuary, which again flows to the Irish Sea. Just a quick aside – the River Lune (which is England’s fastest flowing river!) passes through Lancaster, where the waters of the canal cross the river by the Grade 11 listed Lune Viaduct.
The last navigable section of the canal before the motorway, sees the canal running through spectacular countryside and seascapes. As the hills of the Pennines recede into the distance, the mountains of Cumbria rise ahead, whilst the open waters of Morecambe Bay stretch as far as the eye can see. Well, at least as far as the off-shore wind farm near the port of Heysham!
The end of the line, so to speak, is not long after the canal has passed through Carnforth, where the famous railway platform scene in the film ‘Brief Encounter’ was shot. Tewitfields is the final turning point.
Points of further interest along the canal include the southern section where Springfields Nuclear Reprocessing plant used to be – it’s now green belt land! A very pretty stretch of water with black-and-white houses dotted about. And not forgetting The Windmill public house – a converted windmill – which is well worth a visit for a tasty meal.
Still towards the south is The Jolly Roger boat house and chandlery, whose owner is more than happy to share his knowledge and views about the canal and its users. He’s a very knowledgeable and colorful character. If he swears at you, it’s a compliment – he likes you!
Another much enjoyed mooring point is Guys Thatched Village at Bilsborrow. Besides its ‘olde worlde’ pub and dining room, Guys hosts many events and fairs during the year. More scenic cruising takes the canal to the ancient market town of Garstang, where cobbled streets house many small independent shops and plenty of fine eateries. Interestingly, it was also the country’s first FreeTrade town.
From Garstang to ‘deep cutting’ as the canal enters Lancaster, is prime ‘kingfisher’ spotting country. Other sorts of (could-be) kings are sometimes spotted along this stretch too – it is after all, The Duchy of Lancaster!
Lancaster city – nominal seat of the Duke of Lancaster (more commonly known as HRH The Queen) – is well worth a few days stay. The castle (until recent years a working prison) has a fascinating history and is infamous for being the venue for the Hearing of the trial of the Pendle Witches. It’s open for tours – including ghostly visits to the dungeons….
Olde Worlde Pubs, fine dining and theatre characterize Lancasters social life. Williamson Park – sat high above the city – affords a magnificent view of Morecambe Bay and the countryside surrounding the city. The Ashton memorial (a folly) is home to butterfly house and a very comfortable cafe compliments the beautifully laid out landscaping of John Belcher (1909).