The Birmingham Canal Navigations

Many people wouldn’t think of spending their holidays cruising beneath city streets, past the backyards of factories and industrial estates and alongside busy railway lines, but the amazing network of canals, junctions, locks and tunnels left over from the industrial revolution has a fascination all of its own. Boaters come back year after year to explore it’s hidden loops and nooks and crannies! And some canals are so little used that more visiting boats are vital if they are to be kept open.

Although much of the BCN is urban there is a lot of pleasant countryside too, Sneyd Junction for instance on the Wyrley & Essington Canal, known by boatmen as the ‘curly whirly’ because of its twisting route. It now sees few boats but was once one of the busiest parts of the BCN carrying coal from surrounding mines, now long closed.

Birmingham sits on a plateau about 200 feet above the surrounding countryside, and would probably have been passed by by early canals which were intent on linking the Rivers Trent and Mersey and Severn. Local merchants funded a meandering 10 mile canal to serve local coalfields but the rapidly developing Industrial Revolution led to over 180 miles of canals and 216 locks being built over the next 100 years, hence ‘more canals than Venice’, and Birmingham becoming the heart of the narrow canal network.

Gas Street

Gas Street – Photos Waterway Images

Even the coming of the railways did not slow the growth of trade, over eight and a half million tons a year were being carried at the end of the nineteenth century and canals and railways worked together to supply the ‘Black Country’s’ industry and population.

There were over 40 basins where goods were trans-shipped. Canals serviced the canalside factories, railways carried raw materials in and products out to the the country and world.

Commercial trade disappeared in the middle of the twentieth century and 54 miles of canals were closed.

Wolverhampton top lock
Wolverhampton top lock

However the remaining network is still a uniquely interesting area to explore, overflowing with industrial heritage, tunnels, flyovers, factories and warehouses.The city of Birmingham is making maximum regeneration use of the space and life that canals can bring into the heart of urban areas and building some stunning waterside developments.

The BCN can currently be accessed from five directions. From the north the link with the Staffs & Worcs Canal climbs the 21 Wolverhampton locks to join the ‘new main line’ built by Telford in the 1820’s to straighten Brindley’s twisting contour route. He made use of deep cuttings and embankments and the wide canal has a towpath on either side.

From the south comes the Worcester & Birmingham, and from the south east the Grand Union Canal. The Birmingham & Fazeley Canal (actually part of the BCN) comes in from the east, forming a network through the centre of the city of Birmingham.

Key Facts

Over 100 miles of narrow canals, lots of locks, a multitude of canal junctions, loops and a quite a few tunnels!

Farmers Bridge Locks linocut by Eric Gaskell
Farmers Bridge Locks
Linocut Eric Gaskell

Closed routes. A number of routes into Birmingham are no longer available. The Dudley Tunnel, now closed to powered craft, gave access from the west. Boats now use the wide Netherton Tunnel with towpaths either side and gas lighting, built to overcome the bottleneck caused by the old narrow tunnel.

Closed canals also linked the north east area to the Staffs & Worcs at Hatherton and to the Coventry Canal at Huddleston, restoration is underway on both at present. There were  two large loops of canals in the North Eastern area serving coalfields, especially those around Cannock which were the last to close in the 1960’s.

Subsidence has always been a major problem because of mining activities. Lappal Tunnel (3,795 yards) which gave a faster link to the Worcester & Birmingham but was closed in back 1917 due to subsidence, though even it too now has an energetic society with plans to reopen it!

The International Conference Centre
The International Conference Centre

Canal Rings

The BCN has dozens of Birmingham Rings.
See our Birmingham Rings Cruising Guide

It’s also part of the Black Country Ring with the Staffs & WorcsTrent & Mersey and B’ham & Fazeley Canals.

Then there’s the the Avon Ring with the Worcester & B’ham CanalRiver Severn, River Avon & Stratford Canal.


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