The Ashby Canal is unusual among British waterways in several respects. For one thing, it doesn’t go to the place after which it is named, and in fact it never did-although it came close!
For another thing, it proceeds for 30 miles through gently undulating countryside without a single lock. It is therefore ideal for the novice narrow-boater who just wants to get used to steering a boat round lots of twists and turns without having to worry about negotiating locks. On the other hand, “doing the locks” is great fun too!
The canal was originally built to transport lime and coal southwards from the works and mines near Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire. The canal links to the Coventry Canal near Bedworth (Warwickshire), and hence directly to Coventry and indirectly to Birmingham, and via the Oxford and Grand Union canals to all points south. For boaters on the Warwickshire Ring with two days to spare, a trip up the Ashby and back is well worth the trouble.
The first plans for the Ashby Canal included a link to the River Trent at Burton, but this was soon seen as being over-ambitious. Indeed, it was envisaged from a very early stage that when the canal reached the point where locks would be essential, a series of narrow-gauge tramways would connect the canal to the mines and limeworks. The canal itself therefore only ever reached as far as Moira, which is about three miles from Ashby.
The first disaster to hit the canal was the realisation that the coal reserves at Ashby were nothing like as great as had been thought. There would therefore not be the traffic to allow the canal to make a profit, and any thoughts of extending the canal to the Trent were shelved for ever. Good fortune then arrived, in the shape of extensive coal seams being discovered at Moira itself, so the canal found itself a purpose almost by accident. Moira coal was of such high quality that it was in demand as far south as London, and the route to get it there had just been constructed!
However, the second disaster was caused by the very thing that made the canal a success. When you take coal out of the ground, you almost always create subsidence as the layers above the coal seams press down to fill the holes that have been created. This happened in the Measham area, just south of Moira, in 1918 and again in 1966, the end result being that the present canal is about eight miles short of its original length.
As things stand, the canal ends at Snarestone, which is a tiny village with an excellent pub, but not much else. To go the whole length, you have to go through the Snarestone tunnel, which is 250 yards long, but you have less than half a mile before you must turn round and come back through the tunnel.
The coalmines at Moira have long been abandoned, but the village now has a new lease of life as the headquarters of the National Forest, which is a scheme to transform a huge area of central England, much of it blighted by its industrial and mining heritage, into woodland and forest. The visitor centre at Moira, Conkers, is an excellent place to learn about how a forest works and its wildlife, as well as being an adventure centre for all ages. The plan is therefore to bring the Ashby Canal back to Moira so that the industrial history of the area can be linked seamlessly with its new role.
The Ashby Canal Association has been working hard over a number of years to achieve this goal, and there is already a half-mile stretch of usable canal running alongside the Moira Furnace, but it unconnected to any other waterway. It is no longer possible to use the orignal route for the stretch between Moira and Snarestone, so the plan is to make use of a disused railway line through the small town of Measham.
For much of its length, the Ashby Canal meanders through open countryside. Because it sticks to the 300 foot contour for the whole of its length, and villages in this area tend to be built on hilltops, the canal passes within sight of several settlements without actually going through them.
One exception is the town of Hinckley, towards the southern end of the canal. This is an ancient town founded on the hosiery industry, but the canal skirts its western edge, passing close to a modern industrial estate and the Triumph motorcycle factory. The Limekilns pub is worth a visit, as it is built where the canal passes underneath the A5 trunk road, which was originally the Roman Watling Street. The building appears to be on two floors if you are on the road, but three if you are on the canal.
Close to its halfway point the canal crosses the site of the Battle of Bosworth Field, fought in 1485 between England’s just and rightful king, Richard III, and the foul usurper Henry Tudor. The battlefield site is well marked out along a circular pathway that offers a good, brisk walk, and there is also a visitor centre. However, there is much debate as to whether the battle actually took place here or about half a mile away.
If you moor up at the battlefield you can also take a trip on the Battlefield Line Railway, which is a preserved four-and-a-half-mile section of the former Ashby and Nuneaton Joint Railway. Throughout the summer there are regular services between Shenton (battlefield) and Shackerstone. The canal passes close to all three stations on the line, although it takes six miles to do so! The Shackerstone Railway Society has preserved a large number of steam and diesel locomotives, many of which make regular trips along the line.
The thing most worth seeing on this beautiful stretch of water is the English countryside at its peaceful best. Canals attract wildlife in droves, and you will almost certainly see family groups of swans, ducks and moorhens either swimming around between the reeds or looking hopefully at you for titbits. You may also see herons, birds of prey and, if you’re really lucky, kingfishers. Look out for water voles as well.