Birmingham Canal Navigation
Does Birmingham really have more miles of canal than Venice? The exact numbers depend on where you draw the city boundaries, but the whole Birmingham Canal Navigations system extends for 100 miles in total. It is one of the most intricate canal networks in the world. These waterways converge at the city centre bustle of Gas Street Basin, where historic boats and canal architecture mingle with modern-day restaurants, cafes and pubs. But elsewhere on the 'BCN', you can really get away from it all on winding suburban canals and a series of surprisingly rural branches. The canals were the life-blood of Victorian Birmingham and the Black Country. At their height, they were so busy that gas lighting was installed beside the locks to permit round-the-clock operation. Boats were built without cabins for maximum carrying capacity, and a near-tidal effect was produced as swarms of narrowboats converged on the Black Country collieries at the same time every day. The BCN has survived remarkably intact, with 100 miles still navigable from a peak of 160. The main lines and city centre canals are well patronised, but the waterways of the Northern BCN remain truly off the beaten track. But should you decide to tackle some of these rarely cruised waters, beware - boating the BCN can become addictive.
Birmingham & Fazeley Canal
The Birmingham & Fazeley soon leaves urban Birmingham behind for the green, peaceful and rural Midlands. The canal starts right in the heart of central Birmingham, dropping through 13 locks in less than a mile at Farmer's Bridge by the Post Office Tower. But its urban origins are soon forgotten as it travels north-eastwards for 15 miles through Minworth and Curdworth. Nicknamed 'The Bottom Road', the canal is now devoid of much of the industry for which it was built. Salford Junction, the waterway interchange in the bowels of Spaghetti Junction, is starkly impressive. At Drayton Bassett, once the home of Sir Robert Peel, the canal is crossed by a curious Gothic footbridge.
Birmingham Canal Main Line
Designed by Thomas Telford, the 'New Main Line' runs through massive cuttings and bold embankments through the heart of the Black Country. The 19th century equivalent of a motorway, the Main Line runs straight as an arrow from Birmingham to Tipton before heading off to Wolverhampton. Thomas Telford's improvements shortened the route between Birmingham and Wolverhampton by around seven miles whilst also using fewer locks.
Birmingham Canal Old Main Line
Much of the old Birmingham Canal is still open to boaters and walkers - and the sense of history is almost overpowering. The Old Main Line plays a prominent part in many modern developments, such as the houses at Tividale Quays. These focus on the waterspace, a trend unimaginable only a generation ago when housing shied away from the 'grimy' canals. Superseded by Telford's straight New Main Line, the seven-mile stretch of James Brindley's Old Main Line from Smethwick Junction to Factory Junction sees fewer boats than Telford's newer and shorter route. Other parts of the original line survive in curious 'loops', some navigable, some lost. Like manmade oxbow lakes, these demonstrate how the first Birmingham Canal - which followed the contours of the land - was superseded by a straighter, shorter route through the Black Country.
Daw End Branch Canal
Almost totally rural, the Daw End Branch - pronounced locally as 'Doe' - is an essential link in the Black Country's waterway system. The canal runs for just over five miles from Catshill to Longwood on the northern Birmingham Canal Navigations, linking the Wyrley & Essington with the Rushall Canal. A small spur leading to Hayhead is now used as a boat club mooring. In the 19th century, the Scott family mined high quality Silurian limestone from what is now Hayhead Wood Nature Reserve and took it by canal to feed the furnaces of the Black Country. It was also used for building Rushall Manor.
Dudley No 1 Canal
This surprisingly green waterway also boasts the famously claustrophobic Dudley Tunnel - where boats are legged through by manpower alone. The Dudley No. 1 Canal (there's also a No. 2) runs for five miles between Tipton and the Stourbridge Canal at the bottom of Delph Locks. Much of this is the famously claustrophobic Dudley Tunnel, where boats are legged through by manpower alone. The canal formerly served the Round Oak steel works, now transformed into the Merry Hill shopping complex. Dudley Tunnel passes directly underneath the town and its castle, through a remarkable network of limestone caverns. The tunnel is navigable, but size restrictions and a one-way system apply. Boaters should apply for details from Dudley Canal Trust on 01384 236275. But if you don't have your own boat, you can still explore the tunnel complex. The Canal Trust runs regular in-and-out boat trips into the caverns, and through the summer months, there are trips all the way through the tunnel - one of Britain's longest.
Dudley No 2 Canal
The Dudley No 2 Canal runs for ten miles through suburbia and the remains of industry. It now ends prematurely at Hawne Basin, near Halesowen. The derelict section of line after the basin is also known as the Lapal Canal, and extends through the lengthy Lapal Tunnel to Selly Oak. Once a through-route from industrial Dudley to Selly Oak and rural Worcestershire, it now ends prematurely in Halesowen. The lengthy Lapal Tunnel - famously Britain's most claustrophobic - is no longer passable. But in time, the Lapal Canal Trust hopes to restore the waterway to its former glory.
The Walsall Canal is fast becoming an example of an urban waterway revived. Environmental improvements along the canal have made it a waterway for local people to be proud of - most notably through the dramatic developments at the once derelict Walsall Town Wharf, including an acclaimed art gallery. And more is planned! The Town Arm, in the heart of Walsall, is almost unrecognisable from just a few years ago when it was on the point of being lost forever. Totally renovated, it now has mooring facilities for boaters and a range of exciting attractions.
Worcester & Birmingham Canal
Although the Worcester & Birmingham Canal is one of the most heavily locked in the country, the hard work in navigating it is more than compensated by long stretches of idyllic scenery as the line descends the 30 miles between Birmingham and Worcester. Leaving Birmingham, the canal manages to remain on the same level for 15 miles, diving through tunnels when necessary. Then the locks begin - and how. The Tardebigge Flight has 30 locks in just over two miles, making it one of Britain's steepest. Though largely rural, the line is steeped in history and its five tunnels contribute an aura of mystique.