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

Canal Boat - - This Month - TEXT & PIC­TURES BY DEREK PRATT

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

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