CRUISE GUIDE: BLACK COUNTRY RING
From the rejuvenated heart of Birmingham, take a tour around the West Midlands, from a series of Brindley’s old loops to picturesque rural routes and from industrial heartlands to modern cityscapes
Join us on a trip which combines old loops, picturesque rural routes and modern cityscapes
In the last issue we travelled from Worcester to Gas Street Basin in the centre of Birmingham. Now we continue our journey by embarking on a wide circuit of five canals circling the Black Country.
Gas Street Basin has long been the focal point of the Birmingham Canal Navigations or BCN. Lines of colourful boats still fill the basin, but now these are mostly pleasure craft, where in days of yore they would have been working boats. The basin is overlooked by the towering Hyatt Hotel, but some of the original buildings have been converted to new uses as bars and restaurants.
Gas Street Basin is now sandwiched between two areas of intense redevelopment called the Mailbox and Brindleyplace. This former run-down part of the city has become a vibrant arts and entertainment area which includes the National Indoor Arena, the International Convention Centre and the National Sea Life Centre. Add to this numerous restaurants, bars and a large shopping complex and you have an area popular both with visitors and the local populace. A number of trip boats try to give visitors some idea of what it was like in the days of the working boats.
Old Turn Junction is the meeting place of three canals, and here we turn left on the BCN Main Line, following the signpost to Wolverhampton.
Thomas Telford engineered a new Birmingham Main Line Canal, completed in 1838. Its straight route, embankments and deep cuttings chopped seven miles off the old canal built by James Brindley. But Brindley’s canal already served many factories and foundries, and so it
remained as a series of loops from the main line, and most of it still does today.
The entrance to the first, the Oozells Street Loop, can be seen shortly after the Sea Life Centre. It is followed very soon by the Icknield Port Loop on the left, then, on the right, by the Soho Loop. If you follow this you will pass Hockley Port basin and Soho House, a museum celebrating steam engine pioneers Matthew Boulton and James Watt whose factory was nearby. The loop rejoins the main line at Winson Green.
When Brindley’s canal reached Smethwick it was necessary to build locks each side of a hill. Today, the old and new main lines split at Smethwick Junction, where the Old Main Line climbs the three Smethwick Locks.
Meanwhile Telford’s New Main Line goes into a deep cutting passing under the Engine Arm Aqueduct, built to carry a branch canal that served as a water feeder from Rotton Park Reservoir. The pumping engine has long gone; replaced in 1892 by a new pumping station which still stands between the two main line canals at Brasshouse Lane, Smethwick. At 151ft, Telford’s Galton Bridge was the longest single-span bridge in the world in 1829. Today, some of its visual impact has been lost by the building of a railway bridge on one side and Galton Tunnel (built in the 1970s to carry a new main road) on the other.
The New Main Line becomes really dramatic where the old line crosses by the Stewart Aqueduct, in turn dwarfed by the towering M5 motorway viaduct.
The two canals run parallel to Tipton where they merge for most of the rest of the journey to Wolverhampton.
Don’t miss the Black Country Museum, on a short arm off the Old Main Line.
Once clear of industrial Tipton Green the canal passes along a green cutting to Coseley Tunnel, then to Wolverhampton through a region where foundries and steelworks once lit up the night sky.
Boaters may wish to sample the delights of Wolverhampton City Centre before tackling the 21 Wolverhampton Locks. The first few locks pass through a very industrial area with a gas works, a former brewery and a refuse incinerator, but the end of the flight is so rural that it’s hard to remember you are only a couple of miles from the city centre.
At Aldersley Junction we leave the BCN, take a right turn, and join the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal.
We continue past Autherley Junction, through a narrow cutting to Cross Green which has a waterside pub. The canal twists and turns along a lock-free course to Gailey Lock, the first since the
‘The end of the flight is so rural that it’s hard to remember you are only a couple of miles from the city centre’
Wolverhampton flight. The old roundhouse toll office is now a canal shop.
The canal soon has a noisy neighbour in the form of the M6 motorway, but they part company and the canal takes a more peaceful course to Penkridge, which has an abundance of pubs and restaurants. Canal and motorway have a brief reunion at Teddesley where there is a large boatyard, then the canal continues its northerly course through Acton Trussell and around the outskirts of Stafford to Baswich and Milford.
Next comes Brindley’s low arched aqueduct carrying the canal over the River Sow to Tixall Lock. The open expanse of Tixall Wide leads the canal over another lovely aqueduct across the Trent to a large boatyard immediately in front of the elegant junction bridge at Great Haywood. It’s a great place for two Brindley canals to meet, as the Staffs & Worcs gives way to the Trent & Mersey.
Turn right and continue to Haywood Lock: consider visiting Shugborough Hall (see inset) or for energetic walkers, a trek to Cannock Chase. The canal now follows the lovely Trent Valley with distant views of Cannock Chase. It crosses the River Trent on Brindley Bank Aqueduct and skirts around the edge of Rugeley to Armitage.
There used to be a tunnel at Armitage, but problems with subsidence led to it being opened out into a cutting in 1971. Boaters should note that this is very narrow and only wide enough for one boat at a time. After that comes the large Armitage Shanks factory, famous for making toilets, which has been here since the beginning of the 19th Century.
Once past Armitage and Handsacre the canal passes through three miles of splendid wooded countryside to Woodend Lock, then, after a sharp bend, it descends through two locks to Fradley Junction. This is a very busy boating location where a terrace of old buildings, including The Swan inn, faces the junction with the Coventry Canal. The Swan was a popular stopping place in the days of the working boatmen. There is a café and information centre in the old maintenance yard and Fradley Pool, opposite, is now a nature reserve.
Now we turn into the Coventry Canal, another vital link in Brindley’s Grand Cross linking the rivers Trent, Mersey, Severn and the Thames. Technically this first section between Fradley and Whittington Brook is a detached portion, separated from the rest of the Coventry Canal by a length from Whittington to Fazeley Junction which was built for the Coventry by the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal Company. At Whittington a
weathered stone still marks the change.
It’s a pleasant 11 miles to Fazeley, passing a junction with the old Wyrley & Essington Canal at Huddlesford. Beyond Whittington is a beautiful section called Hopwas Wood, unfortunately used as a military firing range (notices are posted when the guns are active). At Hopwas village, two pubs face each other on opposite sides of the bridge.
The waterway surroundings become more built up as the canal reaches Fazeley. There are shops and pubs around the junction, where you follow the sign to turn right for Birmingham.
Soon you will pass two splendid old mills and a marina. Next comes the curious castellated footbridge at Drayton Bassett followed by the Drayton Manor Theme Park.
The canal heads out into the countryside with a large expanse of lakes to the east. These old gravel workings have been incorporated into Kingsbury Water Park (see inset). Its visitor centre can be reached from Bodymoor Heath where there is a popular waterside pub. Aston Villa FC have their training ground near here: look out for millionaire footballers drowning their sorrows over their recent relegation from the Premiership! Five of the 11 Curdworth locks are situated in open countryside but have the M42 motorway nearby. The top lock is close to a motorway junction but Curdworth Tunnel leads the canal away from the roads. More locks appear at Minworth, where the canal’s rural aspect is replaced by the approach of Birmingham. An intensely built up section at Erdington and Bromford leads to the former
Fort Dunlop tyre works: once the world’s largest factory, now redeveloped as an office and retail park.
Salford Junction is where the Birmingham & Fazeley meets the Tame Valley Canal and the Saltley Cut or Birmingham & Warwick Junction Canal, under a system of towering motorways popularly known as Spaghetti Junction. Bear left and soon you reach Cuckoo Wharf which has a water point and moorings. After that come the 11 locks of the Aston flight.
These end at Aston Junction where the Digbeth Branch goes off – but don’t put the windlass away, as there are another 13 locks on the Farmer’s Bridge flight.
You are now in the ‘Heartlands’ regeneration area, approaching the city centre between offices and residential tower blocks on a flight of locks known as ‘The Old Thirteen’ by the working boatmen. Above the top lock is Cambrian Wharf, with some surviving original canal buildings, then it’s just a few more yards to Old Turn Junction, pivotal point of the Birmingham Canal Navigations, where we began this circuit, and where we will end it.
Old Turn Junction in central Birmingham The BCN Old Main Line climbs the three Smethwick Locks
Tixall Lock on the Staffs & Worcs
Fradley Junction and the famous Swan pub
On the Trent & Mersey near King’s Bromley
Flowers decorate Curdworth Locks
Rural cruising near Whittington
Fine old mill building at Fazeley