Ice breaking on the Ashby Canal

Back in 1988 we took my dad for a week’s canal holiday. About a year before my dad had undergone heart surgery so we made decisions on boat and route based on his health. We went for luxury in the boat department. Something with plenty of size was needed; something which could have a cabin with a permanent bed for dad. And bearing in mind the fact that our week was at the end of October and into November we decided on one with good heating.

We also decided that we’d go up the Ashby Canal. We never had so that was reason enough, but it was also lock free which meant there would be less temptation for dad to overstretch himself.

We hired a boat at Nuneaton. We’d actually hired from that firm earlier in the year – a big and more basic boat but we had espied a suitable candidate for a holiday with Dad.

We set off on October 29th in really lovely weather. People may think the Midlands of England are industrial (or ex-industrial), grubby and not at all the place for a holiday. That just isn’t so. Mostly, on a canal trip you’ll see pleasant, gentle English countryside – like this with bridge number 4 over the Ashby Canal.


The Ashby Canal was little used back then so the water ahead of our boat is still and undisturbed – perfect for reflections!

When we awoke on the morning of 1st November there was a thin sheet of ice on the canal. It wasn’t enough to stop a boat but it was quite an eerie experience listening to the noise of ice breaking as we moved through it.

It proved very hard to photograph but this shot to the rear of the boat shows the disturbed water where we had broken the ice giving way abruptly on either side to the area where the ice sheet remained.


I have to say ice breaking was a one and only experience for me but as far as canals were concerned it was a serious problem. Canals could be closed if they got seriously iced over for boats couldn’t break their way through it. Canals had special ice breaking boats and one happened to be on dry land at the terminus of the Ashby Canal which is at Snarestone.

My wife and I took a look at it.


As can be seen it is a boat of hefty construction with sturdy iron plates riveted together. It isn’t flat bottomed like most canal boats. That’s so that it could rock better. It was, of course, either horse or human pulled. Teams of men stood in the craft holding the hand rail and they rocked the boat as it attempted to pass through ice – which caused the ice to break up – a cunning and simple solution to a canal problem.

By the way, we did make sure Dad had a full canal experience.

Here we are about to exit Snarestone Tunnel.


And we also managed the Watford flight of locks.


This is very close to the Watford Gap services on the M1 geographically, but nigh on 200 years apart in time.

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