Britain’s canals transformed the country in the 18th and early 19th century into an economic superpower. By building a network of waterways, Britain was able to transport coal, the fuel of the Industrial Revolution in large quantities around the country. Then, along came the railways to spoil the party.
The popularity of canals faded as the new star of industrial transportation took over. Today, the waterways cut a sedate path through some of the country’s finest scenery and this network of locks, tunnels and aqueducts makes for many a fine walk.
Birmingham was known as the city of a thousand trades. The centre for production of everything from steam engines and buttons to toys and guns, it was the heart of a manufacturing phenomenon in its heyday.
I will never forget my first steps along the Worcester and Birmingham Canal – the rain was coming down in sheets. My hood was firmly up, obscuring my peripheral vision, as I began my journey through the city with more miles of canal than Venice (though it should be noted that Venice is much smaller). I was aiming for a two-day walk that follows the entire length of the 31-mile canal that cuts through to the beautiful Worcestershire countryside all the way to Worcester. But of course, that’s what is great about a canal walk – you can slip off the trail whenever you want. There are no summits to reach here.
Your first leafy encounter out of the city is the affluent district of Edgbaston, home to the famous cricket ground.
An oasis of calm
Landowner Sir Henry Gough-Calthorpe envisioned a rural oasis in the heart of an industrial city, free of factories and warehouses. Despite this, by 1815 the Worcester and Birmingham Canal was completed and cut through the Gough-Calthorpe estate, much to the protest of the locals.
You’re almost at the outskirts of Birmingham when you approach a station with a very familiar name – Bournville.
Richard and George Cadbury toiled hard to find a suitable spot next to the canal to escape the terrible slums of the inner city and they had a trailblazing vision of creating a workers’ paradise. Bournville was the first planned community in England, built to house the Cadbury factory workers in pleasant conditions, away from the slums of Birmingham. This section of the walk is a deeply cruel challenge for me as a chocoholic – the sweet smell of chocolate wafts enticingly through the air.
Within a mile you’re in rural Worcestershire. The canal now nestles beneath a canopy of high trees, surrounded by rolling green countryside.
Another few miles and the quaint little village of Alvechurch passes by. This sleepy hollow is birthplace of the late Godfrey Baseley, creator of The Archers, the longest running radio soap opera anywhere in the world. The surrounding countryside supposedly inspired the rural setting of his creation.
If you wish to retire for the day, now is the time. You might as well, because this is about the halfway point of the journey.
Should you opt to crack on, you’ll get to Tardebigge. Tom Rolt’s 1944 book, Narrow Boat detailed his travels as a newlywed along what remained of the decaying canals.
The book captured the imagination of the public and inspired literary agent Robert Aickman, who wrote to Rolt. They met on Rolt’s boat Cressy (moored at Tardebigge) and that is where the Inland Waterways Association (IWA) was born. The IWA went on to restore more than 500 miles of canals and navigable rivers between its founding year 1946 and today, with another 500 miles subject to future restorative plans.
The village also gives its name to the longest flight of locks in the UK. This dramatic two-mile flight of 30 locks lowers the canal 67m (220ft). This was the countdown to the finish line.
When celebrated canals engineer John Rennie was drafted in to assess the initial plans for the locks, he abandoned the idea of a complicated boat-lifting device in favour of one of the deepest narrow locks in the country.
Negotiating this flight of locks is considered by boaters to be a rite of passage due to the stamina and time it takes.
As I reached the edge of Worcester, luckily I couldn’t smell Worcester sauce in the air, just the whiff of the home straight – lock number one.
HOW TO GET THERE
Make your way to the centre of Birmingham. Start the canal walk at the Gas Street Basin, off Broad Street, a short walk from the train station.
FIND OUT MORE
Canal River Trust
The Birmingham and Worcester Canal guide
The Waters Edge, Birmingham B1 2JB
0121 647 7151
Dine in luxury as you
take a gentle cruise
Manor Coach House B&B
Hindlip Lane, Hindlip,
Worcester WR3 8SJ
01905 456 457
Tucked away down a quiet country lane, this beautiful B&B is just a 15 minute walk from the Worcester and Birmingham Canal.
Worcester WR1 2ND
Porcelain was big business and a huge part of this city’s industrial heritage – see the world’s largest collection here.