Lancaster Canal from Preston to Tewitfield Lancashire

Researched and Written by Jeannette Briggs

The construction of the Lancaster Canal was first proposed in the 18th Century to facilitate the transport of coal from the pits in the south of Lancashire to the farmlands surrounding North Lancashire and the towns of Lancaster and Preston.  It was also envisaged that farm produce from Preston and the surrounding areas could be sent via the canal narrowboats to the ever-increasing population in the towns of south Lancashire on the return journeys.

The Lancaster Canal in Preston - photo by Alan Longbottom and reproduced by kind permission The tranquil beauty of the Lancaster Canal at Nateby - photo by Bob Jenkins and reproduced by kind permission

Work started on the canal in 1792 to designs by John Rennie, who envisaged the building of the canal with wide locks that would be capable of taking large barges.  The route started just to the south of Kendal, and ran due south (for the most part) to Preston.  The canal had only 8 locks in the whole of its length, located at Tewitfield near Kendal, but Rennie also had to construct a huge aqueduct to carry the canal over the River Lune at Lancaster.  Rennie also designed a branch to Glasson Dock to connect Lancaster to Glasson and the coast.

Originally Rennie envisaged that the canal would be extended south of Preston, so that it could link up with the Leeds and Liverpool Canal near Chorley and then on to Wigan.  The southern end of the canal (which started just south of the River Ribble and actually connected with the Leeds and Liverpool canal at Whittle le Woods) was constructed and in operation by 1799.  So two sections of the new Lancaster canal were finished - they were dubbed the "North End" outside the northern edge of Preston, and the "South End". However, there remained the huge problem of the valley of the River Ribble just to the south of Preston, which proved to be too big a challenge for the engineers.  This resulted in the north section of the canal being permanently cut off from the rest of the UK canal network after 1857. The Lancaster Canal was open to Kendal however, and at the height of its operation "Fly Boats" could complete the journey from Preston to Kendal at the then unheard of speed of 10 mph, and within 10 hours. 

The Lancaster Canal in Lancaster - photo by Tom Richardson and reproduced by kind permission The Hand and Dagger pub at Salwick Bridge - photo by Keith Allen and reproduced by kind permission

As was the case all over the UK, the coming of the steam railways spelled the death knell for the Lancaster Canal as a cargo carrying operation, and it was sold to the London and North Western railways in 1885.  The canal fell into disrepair, but the growth of the leisure and canal boat hire sector resulted in the Lancaster Canal being restored over its northern length to Tewitfield, where the 8 locks were located.  These were later filled in to facilitate the construction of the M6 motorway. (There are plans afoot to restore navigation here.....) 
Today, the canal is a much loved recreational asset for the people of Lancashire and Cumbria, with fishermen and dog walkers using it extensively, as well as those enjoying a canal boat holiday.

The Lancaster Canal at Preston once used to reach to the heart of the city, but now starts at Ashton Basin.  It runs in a westerly direction through housing estates and past Haslam Park, and soon enters the open countryside, which for many miles consists of dairy farms and grass fields.  The district is known as the Fylde.  There are not many canalside pubs on this stretch of the canal - an exception is the Hand and Dagger at Salwick Bridge.  Just beyond Salwick the canal passes near the village of Catforth, which has supplies and there is also a boatyard here. For those on a canal boat holiday it is worth stocking up if possible, to my knowledge there is no canal boat hire.

The next settlement of note is Bilsbarrow, a straggling village through which used to thunder the Glasgow-bound traffic on the old A6 trunk road.  Nowadays, the M6 and the West Coast main line railway pass just to the east of Bilsbarrow, and take the bulk of the heavy traffic with them, so the canal is usually delightfully quiet - an essential part of a canal boat holiday. The village has most necessities, including 3 pubs close to the canal. Beyond Bilsbarrow, the canal passes over a small aqueduct near Garstang.  This is a nice little market town with a cobbled marketplace and a quaint old town hall built in 1680.  It is also blessed with numerous pubs and a marina at Nateby (if you intend taking a narrowboat holiday for the first time you should have a firm plan of where to moor each night your canal boat).

The canal at Garstang - photo by Bob Jenkins and reproduced by kind permission The canal at Galgate - photo by Ron Shirt and reproduced by kind permission

Leaving Garstang the canal passes northwards through meadows and dairy farms, but with very few villages and canalside settlements.  Near Forton you get the occasional glimpses of the M6 motorway before you reach Galgate.  This village is also blessed by the presence of the West Coast main line railway, and the ever present motorway traffic noise from the M6. Galgate has the necessary supplies for the boater, and some pubs.

The one branch of the Lancaster Canal which goes off towards Glasson Dock turns off west from here just after Bridge 85.  The branch has 6 locks, a rarity on the Lancaster Canal, and these enable the canal to descend to the River Lune. Glasson has a basin for boats, and is a small port that still receives boats from Europe. There is also a large marina here.

Glasson Dock - photo by Don Burgess and reproduced by kind permission. The fells can clearly be seen in the background.

Returning to the main line of the Lancaster Canal, the route continues northwards until it reaches the historic town of Lancaster itself.  500 years ago the quay here on the River Lune used to handle more cargoes than Liverpool, but all of this has now gone with the silting up of the river. The town has an historic old castle, which is well worth a visit a stop as part of your canal boat holiday and of course with plenty of shops and pubs here.

The route of the canal now sweeps westward around the town and crosses over the River Lune by way of an impressive aqueduct built of stone, a superb example of canal engineering. It carries the canal 60 feet above the River Lune, and is finished with an elegant balustrade - the architect and engineer was of course John Rennie.  It is a Grade 1 Listed edifice, but needs some tender loving care right now, having sprung a leak during December 2008.

The John Rennie aqeduct over the River Lune at Lancaster - photo by David Medcalf and reproduced by kind permission
The Canal at Hest Bank - photo by Humphrey Bolton and reporduced by kind permission

Beyond Lancaster the canal passes once again through agricultural landscapes  before reaching Hest Bank, which is practically on the Lancashire coast, and the sea is clearly visible.  The only thing between the sea and the canal is - once again - the west coast main line railway! 

The canal at Bolton le Sands - photo by Humphrey Bolton and reproduced by kind permission

The next settlement on the canal is Bolton-le-Sands, which has some very pretty houses with gardens that stretch down to the canal.  It also has two pubs.  One of these is called The Packet Boat, which is a reminder of the fact that passengers travelling from Preston to kendal on the fast "fly-boat (packet boat) service used to change boats here to give the horses a rest. After Bolton le Sands the canal reaches the little town of Carnforth.  Once again, this is important as a junction not only of railways but also of roads. 

The canal at Carnforth - photo by David Medcalf and reproduced by kind permission
The canal at the head of navigation at Tewitfield - photo by David Medcalf and reproduced by kind permisison

You can see the fells of the Lake District clearly from the  canal, and only 5 miles north from here the canal finishes suddenly at Borwick, just before the Tewitfield locks can be reached. These were the only locks of any significance on the Lancaster Canal, and they fell into disrepair and were abandoned before the M6 motorway was built over them.  There is currently a move afoot to restore these locks and to open navigation up right through to Kendal once again.

Borwick is for now the head of navigation on the north end of the Lancaster Canal,and you will have to turn your narrowboat here and retrace your steps south. 

If you enjoy walking however, it is a very pleasant stroll along the section of the canal beyond Tewitfield, and you can complete the walk all the way to Kendal.  You can even get a bus back to Borwick to complete your circular trip! The towpath is in the main in a good state of repair and you get the added bonus of the backdrop of the Lakeland fells that surround you.

The nearest one to the canal here is Farlton Fell, from the top of which you can see the great Yorkshire fells like Pen-y-Ghent and Ingleborough, as well as the wide sweep of th Lake District panorama.  You will meet lots of dog walkers and fishermen, all of whom enjoy the countryside from the canal, as you do.

I do hope that you enjoy this brief introduction to the Lancaster Canal and that it will encourage you to try it for yourself.