If the newcomer to boating has a mental image of ’what canals should be like’, it is surely that of the Stratford Canal. Picture-perfect for mile on end, with delightful little bridges and lock cottages, elegant aqueducts and flights of locks, it is a pleasure simply to look at – and enormously enjoyable to cruise.
It might help that the southern section was for many years run by the National Trust, whose careful stewardship/benign neglect (delete as applicable) meant that it survived almost unaltered. The canal begins at Bancroft Basin in Stratford, beside the River Avon and in the shadow of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The rather unprepossessing outskirts of the town apart, it just gets better from there on.
For all that this is a classic canal, it has much to make it distinctive. The aqueducts, at Bearley, Wootton Wawen and Yarningale, are attractive cast iron structures with the towpath set below the water trough, giving an unusual viewpoint much exploited by canal photographers. The lock cottages have barrel-shaped roofs. The tiny bridges at many lock tails have a gap in the middle for the horse’s rope to pass through.
Lapworth is the site of a unique junction with the Grand Union: the two canals ‘kiss’ and part again, with a triangular layout of connecting cuts. It is one of several attractive canalside villages on the route, but even suburban Birmingham looks good from the Stratford Canal. By the time you reach Kings Norton Junction, the northern terminus of the canal, the city centre is just over 5 lock-free miles away.
It is not a lazy cruise. The Wilmcote and Lapworth lock flights are considerable; those at Wilmcote, in particular, have a reputation for stiff gates. The Lapworth locks can be busy in summer, especially when half the hire-boats doing the Avon Ring seem to arrive on the same day. For many, the Stratford Canal is their first taste of working canal locks – but what a place to begin.