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.

There are now five ways to enter the BCN . From the northwest 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. The Staffs & Worcs also has a junction with the Stourbridge Canal which comes into Birmingham from the southwest. From the south comes the Worcester & Birmingham, and from the southeast the Grand Union Canal. The Birmingham & Fazeley Canal (actually part of the BCN) comes in from the east.

Boaters come back year after year to explore more of the BCN’s hidden loops and backwaters. And the BCN also has a lot of pleasant countryside to enjoy too, it isn’t all industry! Why not explore the Rushall Canal and the Wyrley & Essington Canal, known by boatmen as the ‘curly whirly’ because of its twisting route. Once one of the busiest parts of the BCN carrying coal from surrounding mines, now one of the greenest and must peaceful! In fact some canals are so peaceful that more visiting boats are vital to ensure they stay open.

Gas Street

Gas Street – Photos Waterway Images

There are closed entrances to the BCN too. Closed canals which used to give access to the north of the BCN include the Hatherton branch of the Staffs & Worcs and the Lichfield Canal which ran to a junction with the Coventry Canal at Huddleston. Restoration is underway on both. There were also two large loops of canals around Cannock serving coalfields which were the last to close in the 1960’s. 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. A trip boat runs into Dudley Tunnel from near the Black Country Museum.

Wolverhampton top lock

Subsidence caused by mining activities has always been a major problem on the BCN. 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!

A little bit of BCN history! Birmingham sits on a plateau about 200 feet above the surrounding countryside and was being bypassed by the early canals which were intent on linking the Rivers Trent and Mersey and Severn as easily as possible. Local merchants funded a meandering 10 mile canal, the Birmingham Canal, to serve local coalfields which joined forces with the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal in 1784 to become the Birmingham Canal Navigations. Other canals such as the Tipton Canal and the Wryley and Essington Canal joined in or were taken over and new canals such as the Tame Valley Canal were built. To reduce congestion Telford created the New Main Line bypassing the twisting Birmingham Canal and many other improvements were made. The rapidly developing Industrial Revolution led to over 180 miles of canals and 216 locks being built over 100 years, hence ‘more canals than Venice’, and Birmingham becoming the heart of the narrow canal network. 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.

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

However commercial trade disappeared in the middle of the twentieth century and 54 miles of canals were closed. But 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 potential of the space and life that canals can bring into the heart of urban areas and building some stunning waterside developments.

Key Facts

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

The International Conference Centre
The International Conference Centre

All materials and images © Canal Junction Ltd. Dalton House, 35 Chester St, Wrexham LL13 8AH. No unauthorised reproduction.

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