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Birmingham's canal network

Updated on March 18, 2019
The Birmingham Indoor Arena at Old Turn Junction. Turn left for Dudley and Wolverhampton, right for Aston and Fazeley.
The Birmingham Indoor Arena at Old Turn Junction. Turn left for Dudley and Wolverhampton, right for Aston and Fazeley.

Birmingham, and we're talking here about the one in the English West Midlands, not Alabama or anywhere else, was once known as the "workshop of the World", because its exports of manufactured goods found their way to every corner of the British Empire (especially in the 19th century) and to many other places. However, Birmingham is a long way from the sea and, before the railways came along, it was the canals that took most of this produce to the ports.

Birmingham's proud boast is that it has more miles of canals than Venice, but you won't find too many gondolas in Birmingham!

The history of Birmingham's canals is long and complicated, with the result that the network displays some very strange features. For example, the original route north-west towards Wolverhampton, built in 1768-72, followed the contours and therefore took a somewhat roundabout route. A new cut was made in 1825-38, engineered by Thomas Telford of Menai Bridge fame. This route used cuttings and embankments to reduce the number of locks while at the same time being more direct, taking seven miles off the total distance.

However, both canals remained in use, and today you can still navigate a considerable portion of both routes. You can therefore see loops heading off the main canal only to return a few hundred yards further on, and for several miles the two canals run side by side although at different levels.

At Spon Lane Junction in Smethwick one canal crosses the other, joined by a major railway line and the M5 motorway. At places like these you can see the history of transport in a single glance!

Looking towards The Mailbox, with blocks of sought-after flats overlooking the canal
Looking towards The Mailbox, with blocks of sought-after flats overlooking the canal
From the Worcester Bar, with long-established canalside pubs for thirsty boatpeople
From the Worcester Bar, with long-established canalside pubs for thirsty boatpeople

The Worcester Bar

Back in the heart of Birmingham you can see a relic of past rivalry between the main canal companies. At the Gas Street Basin the Worcester and Birmingham Canal meets the Birmingham Canal Navigation, thus forming an important north-south link. However, the Birmingham Canal Company refused to allow boats to pass from one canal to the other, and a barrier, the Worcester Bar, was erected between the two so that goods had to be manhandled from boats on one side of the Bar to the other, just a few yards away. This absurd situation was eased in 1815 when a stop lock was installed, this being a lock at which the water level is the same on both sides, but boatmen had to open and close the gates so that they could be stopped to pay their tolls. Today, boats pass straight through, but the site of the Bar is still very visible.

The Worcester Bar
The Worcester Bar

See and be seen!

The short stretch of canal on either side of the Worcester Bar is now one of the most fashionable parts of Birmingham, thanks to millions being spent on upgrading what was once a neglected and rat-infested backwater. Bars and restaurants flank the canal and this now a popular place for visitors and locals alike, with the Birmingham Indoor Arena at one end, the Mailbox shopping centre at the other, and Broad Street, home to much of Birmingham's night life, bridging the canal half-way along.

It comes as a shock, after you have been struggling through the locks, to find yourselves the centre of attention as you make your way along the canal, with people waving at you and taking pictures. If you've got dirty dishes in your kitchen and discarded underwear on your unmade bed, hundreds of people can see as you creep past a few feet away from them!

Canalside Birmingham
Canalside Birmingham

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