The Lapal Canal has more than its share of obstructions to reopening – but is it really a nightmare restoration, or is there a chance of the dream coming true?
Is the Lapal Canal really a nightmare restoration, or is there a chance the dream could actually come true?
Arustic brick bridge, a gently decaying channel running through parkland beyond to a ruined castle a couple of miles away; in the foreground, a broken-down canal wall being repaired by a bunch of volunteers in hard-hats. It’s not quite the West Coast idyll conjured up by the title of this article – but it’s hardly redolent of the inner suburbs of Birmingham, either. The odd thing is that it’s actually both. This is a Waterway Recovery Group volunteer canal camp supporting the Lapal Canal Trust’s work on a length of canal just three or four miles from the centre of Birmingham – and they’re dreaming of heading for California!
But before we see how close their dreams are to coming true, let’s look back at the history of the canal. What the Trust has dubbed the Lapal Canal is the abandoned section of the Dudley No 2 Canal. This was a 1798 short-cut from the existing Dudley Canal (which became the Dudley No 1 Canal) at Parkhead via Windmill End and Halesowen to meet the Worcester & Birmingham at Selly Oak.
Its main feature was the mighty Lapal Tunnel, at 3,795 yards, the fourth longest on Britain’s canals, and a source of
trouble from subsidence. Finally in 1917, it collapsed and was never repaired.
That wasn’t the end of the canal. At the west end, the length from Parkhead to Windmill End had become part of the through route via Netherton Tunnel in 1858; a further section to Coombeswood survived as a dead-end serving a pipe works, and today provides a link to the Coombeswood Canal Trust’s Hawne Basin; finally, the canal east of Lapal Tunnel carried local trade into the 1950s.
It’s this final section east of the tunnel where the WRG volunteers were working. The Trust’s eventual aim of reopening the entire through-route may seem a tall order – but this eastern section is a much more practical proposition, and that’s largely because of a plan to redevelop an area of polluted former industrial land known as the Battery Park (from a former metal-working process called ‘battering’, in case you were wondering). This includes the filled-in first quarter mile of the canal’s route from the junction with the Worcester & Birmingham at Selly Oak.
It’s been the site for a supermarket development for some years, and LCT has been fighting for canal restoration as part of this work (to the extent of protest boat rallies being organised).
As the plans have repeatedly changed, so has the proposed provision for the canal. It still isn’t entirely decided, but there’s little time left, with the land being clear and construction due to start in October). What’s certain is that a ‘greenway’ through the supermarket site (including a tunnel under a service yard) will be reserved for the canal, with piled edges which will later form the channel.
LCT would still like to see the actual infill excavated, and other improvements (easing of pinch-points and a high level towpath bridge over the entrance rather than the proposed swingbridge), but it’s better than what was on offer a year or two back. And negotiations are under way with the Canal & River Trust and National Grid about lowering a gas main at the Worcester & Birmingham junction.
At the far side of the Battery Park site, a new bridge built as part of recent road improvements provides full navigable headroom, and leads to a well-preserved surviving length of channel. A short
‘The canal runs through Selly Oak Park, its channel is still visible, and with a turning point it, could provide attractive moorings’
section has even been put in water, and beyond there is where we saw the WRG volunteers at work. Their main tasks for the camp were to repair the towpath wall (which had lost many of its coping bricks, been eroded underneath, and was in a generally bad way), to break out concrete laid in the channel near the bridge, and to create an access from the bridge to the towpath. It all helps to ready this length for opening once the Battery Park section is complete.
From here almost to Lapal Tunnel the canal is walkable, so carry on through the bridge and you’ll reach the objective of this current stage of restoration. The canal runs through Selly Oak Park, its overgrown channel is still visible, and with provision of a turning point, it could provide attractive visitor moorings. And subject to negotiations over the Battery Park site, it could be open in just a couple of years – a ‘quick win’ indeed.
Carry on beyond the park and you’ll see that it doesn’t actually get that much more difficult. The route survives intact as a strip of scrub and undergrowth with a footpath down the middle, running between suburban housing from the inter-war period. Even better, there are no road crossings in the entire mile and a half. Just a couple of footbridges and a stream culvert are needed.
Where a surviving bridge still crosses the canal, you’ll have to leave the route, because it’s obstructed by a council yard
(in fact, Birmingham City Council owns the route up to here and is generally supportive of the canal). So take the footpath south from the old bridge, turn left at the end, and on your left are the ruins of Weoley Castle: actually a fortified manor house rather than a true castle, but no less incongruous-looking amid Birmingham’s suburbia. It would make a good destination for this length of canal; abeit not quite the attraction that would justify the cost of restoration.
But carry along westwards on a road parallel to the canal and you’ll arrive at a sizeable area of grass leading up to the main B4121 Barnes Hill. This was the site of a brickworks served by canal until the 1950s, and of the Lapal Tunnel approach cutting. There’s nothing to see today, the area having been infilled to almost 40ft above canal level. But LCT believes that it would be an excellent site for a marina, boatyard and visitor moorings which would justify reopening the canal to this point. And yes – you were waiting for this – it’s in an area known as California!
The level of the land means three locks are proposed on the approach, adding to the cost, but it might well be justifiable as part of a ‘California Marina’ scheme which could also include 100 new homes. It could also be the springboard to reinstating the rest of the canal, not by restoring Lapal Tunnel but by climbing over the hill via an attractive new route through Woodgate Valley Country Park.
Beyond there, it gets more tricky: there’s the M5 to tunnel under before the descent on the other side of the hill, then two main roads before Hawne Basin.
All that’s for the long term. For now, it’s looking hopeful that Selly Oak Park will be reachable in the not too distant future; and that California might be a little more than just a dream…
Volunteers rebuild the towpath wall, and (inset) the state it was in when they started
First destination: the canal in Selly Oak Park could provide attractive visitor moorings
The route to Weoley Castle is still walkable and looks surprisingly rural
The site of the Worcester & Birmingham junction: Lapal Canal goes off to the left
New bridge built during road improvements
Site of the buried Lapal Tunnel portal, and the proposed California Marina If you want your project to be featured EMAIL