From the picturesque Pennine foothills to the bustling centre of Manchester, the Cheshire Ring canal system has unspoilt countryside, industrial relics and plenty of good pubs. It also has 92 locks to develop your arm muscles, as ALEN McFADZEAN finds out

COTTONOPOLIS they used to call it - Manchester, the centre of 19th century Britain's world-encompassing cotton industry. And it still looks every inch a capital, with its domineering architecture and prosperous city-centre thoroughfares.

But what's this chugging along beneath the bustling pavements and glass-fronted gay bars of Canal Street - a narrowboat with a bedraggled crew of disorientated holidaymakers?

Yes. That's us, in our woolly hats and waterproofs, enjoying a week navigating north-west England's waterways, and unexpectedly passing through the very centre of Manchester.

According to Blues legend John Lee Hooker, Canal Street is the longest street in town. Admittedly, he was singing about the one in New Orleans, not Manchester, but the sentiment remains the same.

As the lyric goes, it can "take all day to drive from one end to the other" - especially, I might add, when you have to contend with the horrendous flight of nine double-chambered locks along the part-subterranean Rochdale Canal, while office workers and the city's gay community gaze down on you with detached interest.

Manchester, despite its impressive and, at times, overpowering architecture, is a far cry from the lazy backwaters usually associated with a canal holiday.

But when you embark on your voyage of discovery, you accept that the waterways were built for one essential reason: to link industrial and commercial centres to markets, not open up the countryside so that holidaymakers and anglers can idle away their time.

It is inevitable that, sooner or later, you encounter Victorian mills and sprawling centres of humanity. It just so happens that Manchester has more mills and sprawls a bit further than most places.

Our week's objective was to complete the Cheshire Ring. To the uninitiated, this might sound like a folk dance or an itchy infection but is, in reality, a roughly circular system of waterways - almost 100 miles in extent - that comprises such eminent names from our industrial past as the Bridgewater Canal, the Trent and Mersey, the Macclesfield Canal, the Peak Forest and Ashton Canals, and the strangely eerie and occasionally surreal Manchester section of the Rochdale Canal.

Our starting point was the Black Prince Holidays marina at Stoke-on-Trent, where we picked up our 50ft narrowboat.

With two double beds, shower and washroom, fully-fitted galley and central heating, it proved to be a warm and comfortable base for a week in October - though we had a great deal of trouble trying to tune in the TV, and gave up in the end.

Once out of Stoke, and through the 2,926 yards of the Harecastle Tunnel, we were chugging through open countryside with the Pennine hills rising in the east.

Towns we had heard of but never visited came and went: Kidsgrove, Congleton, Macclesfield, the delightful Marple with its flight of 16 locks.

There were canal-side pubs, darting kingfishers, impressive views, and relics of a bygone age when the canals were the main arteries between England's burgeoning industrial centres.

And then there was Manchester.

Let's not beat about the bush. Manchester is a great city and the canal basin at Castle Quay - with its Victorian viaducts and restored quayside - makes a splendid and picturesque base for a night out.

But with the smooth comes the rough: the industrial wastelands through which the canals pass; the miles of drab suburbs; and the daunting flight of city centre locks, which are double the width of standard locks and are, believe me, exhaustingly hard work.

After cruising beneath the stands of Old Trafford, and turning south onto the Bridgewater Canal, the city was soon left behind and we were again chugging smartly through open countryside.

More pleasant towns followed - Lymm, Northwich, Middlewich, Sandbach - until, at the end of the week, after negotiating a total of 92 locks, five tunnels and numerous swing-bridges, we completed the Cheshire Ring and returned to Stoke.

So was it worth it?

We circumnavigated the ring in a week, but it was hard work and there was little time for strolling around the numerous towns through which we passed. Most people we met doing the same route were taking ten to 12 days and having a much more leisurely time.

The Black Prince brochure states that nine hours cruising a day should be sufficient - but this is wildly optimistic. Ten or 11 hours would be nearer the mark.

If you want to develop your arm muscles amid pleasant scenery and delightful canal-side pubs, the Cheshire Ring is the holiday for you. If you want to take it easy, go on a Caribbean cruise.

* For a brochure on Black Prince holidays, prices and canal routes (many of which are less arduous than the Cheshire Ring) call (01527) 575115 or visit the website at