Tour of Britain's History through its Canals and Railways
This small group tour uncovers British history through the canals and railways of the Industrial Revolution. Learn how the Industrial Revolution brought significant and lasting change to Britain. Discover how engineers overcame geographical obstacles using viaducts, bridges, aqueducts, tunnels, and locks. Witness first hand many impressive structures that transformed Britain's economy, some now restored for recreational purposes. However, our tour program is not only a study of the physical impact such a fundamental change made to world history. Led by local guides selected for their expertise, we also provide the opportunity to examine and discuss the resulting social upheaval.
Explore British history through its canals and railways
The Industrial Revolution laid the foundation for economies of scale in manufacturing by lowering unit cost and maximising labour. Major rivers were linked up with canals, and railways made more efficient with the introduction of rolling mills and the high pressure steam engine. These major improvements in communication and transportation systems led to a better standard of living for some. Yet for many, it meant grim employment in atrocious working conditions.
The Industrial Revolution in England, Wales and Scotland
We travel by road from England’s midlands through to Wales, follow the west coast to Scotland, and then return down the east coast to London. The tour also visits locations beyond the canal and railway theme so fundamental to Britain’s recent history. These additional locations include the Menei Suspension Bridge, Market Drayton, Stirling Castle, Durham, and York Minster. We also enjoy tours of Shrewsbury, Chester, the beautiful Lake District, and London itself.
To discover more, take a look at our recommended reading list and check out our blog about how the Industrial Revolution transformed Britain!
Odyssey’s escorted small group tour of Britain’s history is designed for the mature traveller seeking to learn as they travel. We offer two departures for this popular tour of Britain each year, limited to 18 travellers. For further detail on our small group tours of Britain's history through its canals and railways, click the ‘Top 5’ or ‘Itinerary’ buttons above! If you’re keen to experience this tour, please call or send an email. Or, to book, simply fill in the form on the right hand side of this page.Tour Notes
- Itineraries may change if flight schedules, site availability, and other inclusions are amended prior to departure.
Overview: Upon arrival in Manchester, we will come to our hotel individually. Our tour will commence with a welcome dinner.
Accommodation: 1 night at Novotel Manchester or similar.
Overview: Our first visit will be to Marples, which is a town on the edge of Greater Manchester. The Manchester region was the centre of great developments during the Industrial Revolution. The region was abundant in energy from coal for the spinning, weaving, and dying processes of the cotton fabric producing mills in the area. The expanding network of canals, and later railways, allowed for the movement of materials, products, and manpower to and from the factories. We will see the Grand Aqueduct, which carries the Peak Forest Canal over the River Goyt, and the impressive flight of 16 Marple Locks.
Later in the day we will visit Northwich as we cross the Cheshire Plains. Nearby at Winsfield, underground salt has been recovered since Roman times. An expansion of the industry in the mid 19th century relied on canal transport. To accommodate this, the recently restored Anderton Boat Lift was devised and built at Northwich in 1875, so enabling barges from the River Weaver Navigation to transfer their loads of salt to the Trent Mersey Canal. After visiting this boat lift, we will travel to Shrewsbury.
Accommodation: 3 nights Prince Rupert Hotel or similar.
Overview: We will travel to the Shrewsbury region, which is located on a loop of the Severn River just a few kilometres from the Welsh border in Salop (Shropshire). It is a beautiful, historic market town with many black and white, half-timbered houses and is the birthplace of Charles Darwin. Just to the east of Shrewsbury is a new town, Telford, named after Thomas Telford (1757-1834), who took a leading role as an architect and engineer with the development of British canals and in the building of many significant roads and fine bridges throughout the country. We will see several of Telford’s engineering masterpieces during the tour.
We will see a number of structures associated with the Severn River, including a beautiful, graded, seven arch bridge at Atcham village just south of Shrewbury. This bridge, which spans the Severn River, was constructed circa 1770 by OJohn Gwynne. We will also see the first cast iron bridge, which was constructed at Iron Bridge township across a gorge of the River Severn. The bridge was planned by Robert Pritchard and opened in 1781. Such a project, made possible through the development of the blast furnace, was just the start of a plethora of constructions to take advantage of the new advances in iron foundry.
Accommodation: Prince Rupert Hotel or similar.
Overview: Travel today will take us to Market Drayton and on to the Derwent Valley Mills, a World Heritage Site which contains a fascinating series of historic mill complexes, including some of the world’s first modern factories.
Accommodation: Prince Rupert Hotel or similar.
Overview: Today we will travel through Ellesmere, which is a pretty market town close to the Welsh border, adjacent to the Mere (one of several shallow lakes that formed in depressions after the last ice age) and on a spur of the Llagollen Canal. Telford lived here during the building of the Llangollen (Ellesmere) Canal between 1793 and 1805. We will also explore Chirk Castle in the Wrexham District of North Wales. Built in 1295, Chirk Castle was built in 1295 as one of many similar structures along the Welsh Marches (Border) to defend England. The castle, which is now owned by the National Trust, features superb views to the east, an award winning garden with lots of topiary, and an interesting interior. We will stop for 3 nights at Llangollen.
Accommodation: 3 nights at Gales of Llangollen or similar.
Overview: Our journey today will take us across Wales via Snowdonia onto the Island of Anglesey. This will allow us to see the Menai Bridge, which is another Telford construction, that enables crossing the Menai Straits between the mainland and Anglesey and makes travel to and from the Irish ferry at Holyhead possible. The monumental wrought iron and stone suspension bridge was an engineering triumph completed just before Telford’s 70th birthday.
We will ride on the railway from Blaenau Ffestiniog to Porthmadog. Blaenau Ffestiniog was the industrial centre for the largest slate mine in the world, boasting 80 kilometres of underground railway on 26 levels. The journey to Porthmadog is described by an avid British train-travel writer as “terrific” and “glorious.” Another writer describes it as “a spectacular railway with stunning views.” Before our return trip to Llangollen, we will stop to enjoy the view around Mount Snowdon (1,085 metres), the highest mountain in Wales.
Accommodation: Gales of Llangollen or similar.
Overview: Today we will see the Llangollen Canal, which is another engineering feat of Telford’s, who worked with William Jessop to construct the canal. In 2009 an upper section of the Llangollen Canal was inscribed on the World Heritage list.
We will see Shropshire Union Canal Horseshoe Falls, which is a weir built in 1806 used to divert water from the upper reaches of the Dee River into the canal stream. This creates a flow in the canal and water is carried from here via Ellesmere to the canal terminus just north of Nantwich, where it joins the south-north Birmingham Liverpool Junction Canal.
We will see the impressive “canal in the air” at Pont Cysyllte Aqueduct. Here Telford bridged the Dee valley with huge stone arches upon which he assembled an iron aqueduct trough and a towpath. We will travel along the canal in a longboat.
Accommodation: Gales of Llangollen or similar.
Overview: During our travel north to Liverpool across the Cheshire Plains, we will stop at the ancient city of Chester, located on the north side of the River Dee and the Shropshire Union Canal. The city was once a major Roman Fort, and the amphitheatre and much of the city wall stem from this time. Chester’s galleried streets, the Rows, date from the Middle Ages and we will have some time to explore these.
We will spend much of the afternoon at the Ellesmere Port, which is located at the junction of the Shropshire Union Canal and the Manchester Ship Canal on the south bank of the Mersey River. We will also visit the National Waterways Museum. If available during our visit, we will take a short cruise on the Centaur on the Shropshire Union Canal. The Shropshire Union Canal was Telford’s last major work and ran from Wolverhampton (Birmingham) to Port Ellesmere, with many spur canals along its way, completing a major south-north link for the canal system.
Accommodation: 2 nights at Holiday Inn Centre or similar.
Overview: We will travel from Birkenhead to Liverpool, where we may see some activity on the Mersey River. We will also see Liverpool city highlights and historic spots related to railways. We will travel inland to Manchester and see Salford, the major dock of the Manchester Ship Canal. The Manchester Ship Canal runs parallel to the Mersey River and made Manchester a most significant port, inland from seaside Liverpool. Salford was a major junction for canals, particularly those associated with cotton and silk spinning and weaving in local mills during the 18th and 19th centuries. We will also visit the Museum of Science and Industry before returning to Birkenhead.
Accommodation: Holiday Inn Centre or similar.
Overview: Today we will travel from Birkenhead to Windermere in the Lake District for a 2 night stop. We enjoy a cruise on the Lancaster Canal across the Lune Aqueduct. Lancaster Canal was built along the contour, essentially eliminating the need for locks. The canal was engineered by John Rennie to carry coal, lime, slate and timber, and passengers between Kendall and Preston. A more recent spur canal, the Ribble Link, was constructed in 2002 near Preston connecting Lancaster Canal to the greater part of the canal system.
We will go inland to see the impressive 24 arched Ribble viaduct, which was built in the North Yorkshire Dales across the Ribble valley to carry the Settle to the Carlisle railway line. We will learn about its sad history as well as the story behind its threatened destruction and its rescue in 1960. The viaduct site in the Yorkshire Dales happens to be close to Askrigg, or “Darrowby” as it was portrayed in the television series “All Creatures Great and Small.” If time permits we may visit this small town. Later in the afternoon we will travel westward via Kendal to Windermere
Accommodation: 2 nights at Belsfield Hotel or similar.
Overview: Windermere became a holiday destination once the railway arrived in 1847. The West Coast Main line links the Lancaster and Carlisle Railways. Many of the local landforms that make this northwestern part of England naturally attractive were fashioned through past glacial activity which gouged out and blocked valleys, so forming lakes. We will see several lakes and Keswick, then go up to Castlerigg Stone Circle, an impressive 4,000 year old monument. We will travel through Borrowdale and over Honister Pass, past Buttermere and return via Grasmere, Rydal, and Ambleside.
Accommodation: Belsfield Hotel or similar.
Overview: We will travel via Carlisle, through the outskirts of Glasgow, Loch Lomond, and Glencoe to Fort William with some comfort stops, a lunch break, and photograph stops.
Accommodation: 1 night at Ben Nevis Hotel or similar.
Overview: We will take the Jacobite, a train that travels through a spectacular highlands landscape. Along the West Highland Railway Line between Fort William and Mallaig, we will see several interesting bridges, tunnels, and the Glenfinnan Viaduct. The line was opened in 1901 to provide easier access from the remote Atlantic coast to Glasgow and further afield.
In the afternoon we will take a bus to Banavie near Fort William, where the road and railway cross the Caledonian Canal. This is another Telford canal construction that began in 1804 and was completed in 1822. A change in water level at this point required Telford to build a great flight of 8 locks (Neptunes Staircase) as the water dropped from Loch Lochy down to Loch Linnhe at sea level. After visiting the locks we will take an afternoon drive to the southern Highlands via the Trossachs to Stirling, where we will stay for 1 night.
Accommodation: 1 night at Golden Lion Hotel or similar.
Overview: Before crossing the border and driving into England we will spend time visiting Stirling Castle, which is one of the largest and most important castles in Scotland with roots going back to the 12th century. Most of what we see today was built between 1490 and 1600.
We will also visit Falkirk, which is about halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh. It is located on the upper reaches of the Firth of Forth, the estuary of the Forth River. The Forth and Clyde Canal passes to the north of the city, and as the name suggests it connects the Clyde River (and the Atlantic Ocean) in the west with the Forth (and the North Sea) in the east. The Union Canal runs, at a higher level, between south Falkirk and Edinburgh. Both canals are connected today by the Falkirk Wheel, an attractive piece of machinery built in 2002 to transfer boats between the two.
We will complete our journey south in Durham where we will stay for 3 nights.
Accommodation: 3 nights at Radisson Blu Durham or similar.
Overview: We will visit Newcastle-upon-Tyne, which was first settled by the Romans. It was a staple wool-manufacturing town in the mid 14th century, but made its name through a monopoly on the export of coal to London in the 16th century. In the 18th century, it was a major centre for printing and industrial development through ship building and heavy engineering, making it a hub during the Industrial Revolution.
In more recent times, the city has seen a major revival tour, featuring the revival Quayside and the Millennium Bridge. After a short city orientation and walk there will be free time to visit the local museums and galleries. We will travel back to Durham on a coastal road through South Shields, Sunderland, and Ryhope.
Accommodation: Radisson Blu Durham or similar.
Overview: In Durham we will have a walking town tour and free time. Durham is located on the River Wear, where the Norman Cathedral is located high above a U bend in the river and looks over much of the city. We will visit Durham Castle, which predates the Cathedral. It is now part of the university complex. Both the Cathedral and Castle were listed as a World Heritage Site in 1986.
Accommodation: Radisson Blu Durham or similar.
Overview: We will begin the day by driving south to Darlington to visit the site of the first steam-worked public transport. The Stockton Darlington Railway was established in 1825 to carry coal and passengers to the coastal Tee River.
To the south of Darlington and Stockton is the North York Moors National Park, which is a large expanse of heather moorland next to the coastal towns of Whitby and Scarborough. In mid morning, we will take the railway crossing the north Yorkshire Moors from Pickering to Goathland (used as “Aidensfield” in the Heartbeat television series). This line was established in the 19th century from Whitby and has been preserved by private funds. We will go on to Whitby by bus for lunch and free time. We will travel via Scarborough to York for 3 nights.
Accommodation: 3 nights at Park Inn Hotel or similar.
Overview: Activities today will include a guided city walk in York to the cathedral, wall, shambles, Guild Hall, and the Yorvick Centre, followed by free time. York, or as the Roman founders called it, Eboracum, is on the River Ouse. This walled city has a very rich cultural background. It was a road hub which had navigable river connections to the sea at Hull and inland. York became a major railway centre beginning in 1839.
Accommodation: Park Inn Hotel or similar
Overview: Our morning visit will be to the National Railway Museum. In the afternoon, we will travel to the southern end of the Yorkshire dales to visit Fountains Abbey, a wonderful remnant from 1593, and Harrogate, a spa town with lovely public parklands and gardens.
Accommodation: Park Inn Hotel or similar.
Overview: We will take a long drive with a lunch time stop en route to Birmingham where we stay 1 night.
Accommodation: 1 night at Jury’s Inn or similar.
Overview: Today we explore Birmingham by walking along it’s canals and learn about the city and its rich industrial past. After lunch we depart for London for a 2 night stay. If time permits, we’ll visit the London Canal Museum where we will learn about the history of London’s canals, the cargoes carried, the people who lived and worked on the waterways, and the horses that pulled their boats.
Accommodation: 2 nights at the London Lodge or similar.
Overview: After breakfast at the hotel, we will spend a whole day sightseeing in London. First we visit the Royal Observatory and the Maratime Museum. We then head to the Brunel museum in the Brunel Engine House. We will return to our hotel late in the afternoon in time for our farewell dinner.
Accommodation: The London Lodge or similar.
Overview: Today we will have a morning visit to Greenwich, including visits to the the Royal Observatory and the Royal Maritime Museum. Our tour will conclude with a transfer back to London.
What’s included in our Tour
- 22 breakfasts and 12 dinners.
- Cruise and rail services.
- Gratuities and necessary tips.
- 22 nights of hotel accommodation.
- Transport in comfortable and modern coaches.
- Services of a tour leader for the duration of tour.
What’s not included in our Tour
- Items of a personal nature such as telephone calls and laundry.
- Comprehensive travel insurance.
- International airfares and departure taxes.