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

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