Britain's best waterways

Julie Smith 30 January 2024

Britain is filled with beautiful waterways where you can while away the hours wandering along a canal towpath, punting along the river and immersing yourself in the natural world of a biodiverse nature reserve.

But which of Britain’s many waterways ticks all the boxes for a day out to remember? To find the answer to this, Norfolk Cottages have looked at a number of different factors to find the best ones to visit in 2024. 

Spending time by the water

Family crossing a river on stepping stones

Spending time by the water can be soothing for the soul and calming for the mind and luckily Britain is blessed with around 7,000 miles of waterways of which 5,000 miles are currently navigable. 

Here at Norfolk Cottages, we don’t mind whether it’s a natural river or a man-made canal, we like a stretch of water that’s not just lovely to look at but has plenty of things to see and do. This has all been factored into our methodology to find the country’s best waterways. 

Our methodology

In order to name Britain’s best waterways we have looked at and ranked the following factors:

  • Length of navigable waterway
  • The number of Wildlife Trust nature reserves near the waterway
  • The amount of biodiversity in the area
  • The number of Sites of Special Scientific Interest
  • Whether the waterway runs through an Area of Oustanding Natural Beauty (AONB) or National Park
  • Number of heritage sites near the waterway
  • The length of canal towpath or river walk
  • Whether day boat hire, canoe hire and guided boat tours are available
  • Whether the river or canal is included in ‘most beautiful waterway’ lists
  • The number of Instagram hashtags

All data was collected in 2023 from sources including The Inland Waterways Association, Canal and River Trust, The Wildlife Trust, English Heritage, Historic Scotland, Cadw, NBA Atlas, Natural England and other desk research.

The top ten waterways to visit 

Graphic with the ten best waterways listing and an illustration showing some of the ranking factors

The Broads

Windmill alongside the water in the Norfolk Broads

The Broads National Park comprises around 125 miles of navigable waterways and is the UK’s largest wetland landscape. It’s home to more than a quarter of Britain’s rarest animals and plants with more than 190 miles of footpaths and nature trails to follow. 

River Tyne

Bywell Bridge crossing River Tyne in Northumberland

The River Tyne may only have 25 miles of navigable waterways but you can walk along its full 73-mile length which takes in the Northumberland National Park and the North Pennines AONB. It’s also one of the cleanest rivers in the UK and home to 19 Wildlife Trust nature reserves.

River Thames

Iffley lock on the River Thames

The River Thames is split into tidal and non-tidal sections with 135 and 77.8 miles of navigable waterways respectively. It’s Britain’s most iconic river and the Thames Path is a long-distance walking trail that follows the full length of the River Thames from its source in the Cotswolds to its end point in Woolwich.  

River Severn

The River Severn with Worcester in the background

The Severn is Britain’s longest river flowing from high in the Welsh mountains for over 220 miles through the Shropshire and Worcestershire countryside. You can hire canoes or boats to explore around 46 miles of navigable waterways with nature reserves including the beautiful Alney Island.    

River Trent

Newark Castle on the River Trent

Britain’s only north-flowing river, the Trent has almost 95 miles of navigable waterways and a towpath that covers 154 miles. Heritage sites close to the river include Hardwick Hall and Bolsover Castle, while the National Water Sports Centre near Nottingham offers canoeing, sailing, water-skiing and rowing.

Kennet and Avon Canal

Narrowboat in front of bridges of Kennet and Avon canal

This lovely waterway flows for 87 miles between Bristol and Reading. There’s a peaceful towpath following the full length of the canal that’s perfect for gentle strolls or family-friendly cycling and five boats offering relaxing day trips from various points on the water. 

River Wye

River Wye with town of Ross on Wye in background

The River Wye is navigable by canoe or kayak for more than 100 miles and is regularly named as one of Britain’s most beautiful waterways. It spans the border between England and Wales and heritage sites along the 155-mile river include Tintern Abbey and Chepstow Castle.

Grand Union Canal

Various boats moored on Grand Union Canal

Britain’s longest canal, the Grand Union, stretches from Birmingham to London with a 147-mile towpath that passes through Warwickshire, Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire and the Chilterns. Boat trips include a narrowboat ride from Stoke Bruerne, which is home to The Canal Museum and tells the story of Britain’s waterways.

River Dart

The River Dart with boats at Totnes

This Devon river flows from high in Dartmoor through to Dartmouth and the English Channel. It crosses much of Dartmouth National Park with the River Dart Country Park, a family-friendly attraction with adventure playgrounds and bike trails near the river. River cruises are also available on a traditional paddle steamer. 

River Stour (Suffolk)

Wooden boats at Dedham Vale on River Stour

There are actually five River Stours in the UK and it’s the 47-mile Suffolk stretch of water that has made our top ten list. Explore 25 miles of the River Stour (Suffolk) which is navigable with boat trips setting sail from Sudbury and Dedham Vale, and canoes available to hire from Sudbury Boat House. The Stour Valley Path also follows much of the river for scenic walks. 

The best rivers and canals in the UK

Boats moored on Oxford Canal 

Along with the overall top ten, Norfolk Cottages have split the results into natural rivers and man-made waterways using the same methodology and criteria. 

The ten best UK rivers

  • River Tyne
  • River Thames
  • River Severn
  • River Trent
  • River Wye
  • River Dart
  • River Stour (Suffolk)
  • River Avon (Warwickshire)
  • River Nene
  • River Ouse (Yorkshire)

The ten best man-made waterways

  • The Broads
  • Kennet and Avon Canal
  • Grand Union Canal
  • Trent and Mersey Canal
  • Oxford Canal
  • Regent’s Canal
  • Llangollen Canal
  • Leeds and Liverpool Canal
  • Monmouthshire Canal
  • Lancaster Canal

Plan a Norfolk getaway by the water

Bond Island Windmill on River Thurne

Bond Island Windmill on River Thurne

With almost 40 rivers including the Ant, Bure, Waveney and Yare which feed the Broads National Park, Norfolk is the perfect destination for spending time beside the water. 

Browse our range of waterside cottages to find your perfect base for exploring.

Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing, please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.

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