A historic waterway unlocked

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This Friday, the full length of the Droitwich Canal re-opens after a multi-million pound restoration project. Simon Calder charts a watery course through the Midlands

Go without the flow: that is the beauty of canal travel. If you have had enough of the rougher kinds of holidays , consider a smooth option.

Late on a summer afternoon, the Worcester & Birmingham Canal is mirror-calm, with most of the narrowboats tied up for the night. Most, but not all. I met Carol Bradley as she got to grips with a recalcitrant lock around the back of Worcester. She was crewing a narrowboat with the curious name of Lindal Iron Ore No. 64.

What, I asked, is the appeal of pottering through Britain at a steady 4mph? "The pace and the people."

The Worcester & Birmingham Canal forms the backbone of a new triangular itinerary that allows the unconverted to test the appeal of a narrowboat holiday on the waterways that helped build our nation. The key is the revival of the eastern stretch of the Droitwich Canal, which had, like so much of the inland waterways network, long been abandoned. "Unnavigable," warns one chart, while on the latest Ordnance Survey map, drawn five years ago, a stretch of it has simply vanished – dried up and filled up in the name of progress. Yet such is the imagination and dedication of enthusiasts, not to mention the power of £12m, that on Friday the full length of the Droitwich Canal officially re-opens – 240 years to the day after its original opening.

The resurrection helps create an itinerary that can easily be tackled in a long weekend. On the 21-mile "mid-Worcestershire Ring" you will experience England at a gentler pace, and acquire new skills – such as the correct steps, in the right sequence, to pass through a lock. Starting in Worcester and heading north-east, you will get plenty of raising or lowering your craft. On its 31-mile course, the Worcester & Birmingham has an average of one lock every half-mile, not to mention five tunnels to deal with the more uncooperative terrain.

Much of the circuit carves elegantly through countryside as English as Elgar: rushes patrolled by mallards, meadows guarded by sheep and woodland that grows heavy with the aroma of summer as the shadows lengthen. Yet you also spend quite a lot of time around the back of places. If you have set your heart on seeing the splendid cathedral and Guildhall, the prides of Worcester, you will need to tie up your narrowboat and bootlaces and start walking; stick to the canal, and you see a different side of towns and cities.

On the outskirts of Worcester I met two brothers, Roy and Duncan Stewart, beginning a fortnight of perfect coexistence. "We observe nature," said Roy. "I know something about birds, Duncan knows something about trees. We're both former scouts, so we observe everything and are always thinking: 'What's around that next bend?' or 'What was the purpose of that building?' or whatever."

So what was the purpose of digging a canal through challenging terrain that requires the nation's longest sequence of locks? Trade, of course, at a time when water provided the path of least resistance for freight. These days, canals are pure pleasure. You tangle with the M5 and nudge up against the cross-country rail line, but mostly carve your own furrow. Soon after the tunnel that gave Tunnel Farm its name, this venerable canal meets an even older thoroughfare: the Roman Road that cuts westward to Salinae, as Droitwich was known to the Romans.

The Droitwich Canal follows its line; until a few weeks ago, you could get no further, but now the canal is open for its full length. The first section (technically the Junction Canal) forms the artery for a linear park, until a skirmish with roads, industrial units and the railway from Birmingham take off the aesthetic edge. You could conclude Droitwich is merely another Midlands town, rather than a fancy Victorian spa, unless you abandon the water and explore.

Beyond Droitwich, the canal that took its name follows a gentle course, mimicking a river valley, until the lock that unlocks the Severn to pleasure-boat users – and the hangers on. Canal towpaths comprise the ideal traffic-free routes. Anglers with their rods, cyclists with their bikes, dogs with their walkers – all coexist easily.

If you will forgive the pun, the Severn dwarfs the maritime links that Man has created to augment Nature's offering. By the time the nation's longest river washes through Worcestershire, it has attained adulthood and is rippling in muscular fashion down to the Bristol Channel. The pleasure-seeker must negotiate a lock or two adjacent to some fierce-looking weirs, but soon you can tuck yourself into the security of the basin at the foot of the Worcester & Birmingham. Who, I asked Roy and Duncan Stewart, does a narrowboat holiday suit? "Everyone," they say.

Commercial channels

The Worcester & Birmingham and Droitwich Canals have their roots in commerce, but in the railway age they ceased to be viable. Elsewhere in the world, though, there are mightier canals that facilitated global trade.

Manchester Ship Canal

The Mersey estuary, gouging deep into north-west England, provided a good start for connecting the capital of cotton with the world, but the Manchester Ship Canal, above left, transcends dramatically the River Mersey, whose course it emulates en route to Salford Quays, close to the centre of Manchester.

The engineering wonders here are the swing bridges that open to allow vessels through – including the all-day cruises operated during the summer by Mersey Ferries. (0151 330 1444; www.mersey ferries.co.uk). Between now and mid-October there are cruises on Tuesdays, Sundays and some Fridays between Merseyside and Salford Quays, for a fare of £37.

C&O Canal

The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, top, was an American project whose time had passed almost as soon as the digging began. Accordingly, the engineering challenges of connecting the Chesapeake Bay near Washington DC with the Ohio River, ended in failure, reaching only as far as the small Maryland town of Cumberland. But cycling or hiking its 184-mile length provides a fascinating slice of American life, through beautiful scenery, past architectural archaeology and ending triumphantly in the US capital.

It is easy to access either end of the canal – Washington DC has frequent flights from Heathrow and Cumberland has a railway station on the Washington-Pittsburgh-Chicago line.

Panama Canal

The "Big Ditch" is the greatest of all the world's canals, constructed at immense human cost through tropical terrain and crossing the Continental Divide. As its centenary approaches in 2014, the Panama Canal, above right, remains an essential part of the planet's infrastructure – though cruise ships are almost as numerous as cargo vessels. It is also a canal that is compelling viewing from dry land – the sight of a vast ship sailing through a jungle is extraordinary.

Panama has connections from the UK via Miami and Madrid. A wide range of cruise ships make the transit between October and April.

Getting there

Both Worcester and Droitwich have good rail connections with Birmingham; Worcester is also linked with London, Oxford and Hereford (08457 484950; www.nationalrail.co.uk).

Getting afloat

Drifters Canal Boat Holidays (0844 984 0322; www.drifters.co.uk) offers boating holidays based on the mid-Worcestershire Ring.

More information

The Droitwich Canals Trust website ( www.worcs.com/dct) is helpful.

The 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey map of Worcester and Droitwich Spa (£7.99) does not show the canal loop in its entirety, but is otherwise fairly useful.

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