The Ashby de la Zouch Canal, to use its full name, was built between 1794 and 1804 from the Coventry Canal at Marston Junction near Bedworth to Wadlands Wharf near Overseal. The connection to Ashby de la Zouch was made by tramway to avoid locks, as the whole canal was constructed on one level as a contour canal with the only lock being a stop-lock at Marston Junction with normally no difference in level from that of the Coventry Canal. It was originally intended to be the first stage of a broad canal that would link the Coventry Canal to the Trent at Burton-on-Trent, as can be seen from the wide bridges built to take barges. However, the planned flight of locks and a long tunnel beyond Moira never proceeded. As its only link was with the narrow Coventry Canal few barges used the canal and the stop-lock at Marston Junction was narrowed as early as 1819 and is now disused. This makes the Ashby Canal, with the Coventry Canal to Atherstone, part of one of the longest level pounds in the country.
Passing for much of its length through a rural area its main traffic was always coal from the mines around Moira and Measham and it became known to generations of boatmen as the ‘Moira Cut’. Having to compete with collieries at Bedworth which were nearer to Coventry for the local trade, it developed an early long distance trade to the London area where the main competition was with the coastal trade or ‘sea coal’ from Newcastle-on-Tyne. There was also significant limestone traffic including some to the short-lived iron furnace at Moira.
By the end of the nineteenth century traffic and maintenance were declining and in 1918 mining subsidence caused a breach at Moira requiring a diversion section to be built. Continuing subsidence led to the progressive closure of the northern end, 2 miles from Moira to Donisthorpe in 1944, another 5 miles to Ilott Wharf in 1957, and a final mile to Snarestone in 1966 with the canal then terminating in a field just beyond the Snarestone Tunnel. Nevertheless, coal traffic continued on the canal until 1981. Since the last coal mine closed in 1990 the ground settlement has ceased allowing the possibility of the canal being re-opened.
In conjunction with the restoration of Moira Furnace as a visitor attraction, a short section of the canal was restored in 1999. With the backing of Leicestershire County Council (LCC) this has been extended in several phases to run from Donisthorpe via Moira and down a new 14 ft wide lock to a new terminal basin next to the ‘Conkers’ National Forest Centre, giving 1½ miles of restored canal accessible by slipway for trail-boats. In 2005 LCC obtained a Transport & Works Act Order to restore the canal from Snarestone via Ilott Wharf and a new route partly along a railway line back to Measham, and enabling works started in 2009 at Snarestone. There are now no legal obstacles to this project although the rate of progress will be determined by access to funding. Eventually, it is hoped to complete the whole route but severe land subsidence between Oakthorpe and Donisthorpe may require the canal to lock down and up again and/or take a different alignment.
Apart from the short Snarestone Tunnel (250 yards) and some aqueducts, major engineering features on the canal are few although the wide accommodation bridges are a notable feature. The Ashby Canal is designated a Conservation Area throughout for its built heritage and amenity value and the 6 miles from Carlton Bridge 44 to Snarestone is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its natural heritage. This has caused some opposition from the nature conservation bodies to proposals for new marinas leading to increased boat traffic which might affect the ecology, although a marina at Hinckley was far enough from the SSSI section to be permitted. However, as a cul-de-sac the Ashby Canal is not as heavily used as many other waterways although its undemanding lock-free route and pleasant countryside are an increasing attraction.