England’s Canals are a major part of the United Kingdoms network of inland waterways. With over 2,200 miles (3,500 km) of navigable canals and rivers linked into a single network, the canals connect the Irish Sea, the North Sea, the estuaries of the Humber, Thames, Mersey, Severn and Ribble rivers with Industrial cities like Birmingham, Liverpool, Coventry and even London. They have a colourful history dating from as early as the Roman times, but in particular, the canals played a crucial role during the Industrial Revolution.
The majority of canals in the United Kingdom can accommodate boats (called narrowboats) with a length of between 55 and 80 feet (17 and 24 m) and are now used primarily for leisure.
That’s where we come in.
In the days of the industrial revolution, the canal barge was far from leisurely. The narrowboat’s are 7 feet across and about 60 feet long, and had cramped living quarters at the stern and a large cargo hold area. Horses were used to tow the narrowboat along the canal, freighting all manner of raw products and finished good’s up and down the length of the nation.
Today, the cargo holds are gone, and the narrowboat’s are fitted out with all the mod-cons, much like a caravan.
Many narrowboat are privately owned, and some people live on their boat full time. A number of hire companies offering 4 and 6 berth narrowboat’s for weekly hire.
We received our wonderful experience as a gift from our dear friends Karen and Barry.
Karen & Barry picked the narrowboat up from a marina at Alvechurch, south of Birmingham, and spent 7 days bringing the boat north, through Birmingham and along the Worcester-Staffordshire Canal to the village of Penkridge. We rendezvoused with them there, and took the narrowboat on for a further 8 days. Our route continued along the Worcester-Staffordshire Canal, onto the Coventry Canal, then onto the Birmingham-Fazeley Canal. The complete circuit completed by both families during the two week period is called the Black Country Ring, and takes in a mix of wonderful country side and industrial areas.
The speed along the canal is limited to 4mph (6.5km/h), so cruising the canals is a fantastically relaxing way to see the English country side.
It’s not all relaxation though, as the canal is controlled across the rolling landscape by a vast number of locks. In some instances where the land slopes steeply there could be a dozen or more locks set apart by a very small distance like a stair case. We encountered several sets of staggered locks. The Curdworth Locks, Aston Locks and Farmers Bridge Locks. Operating the locks can be hard work. There are a number of ground paddles that are lifted by winding a rack and pinion gear to set the water level in the lock. Then there are solid gates that are manually pushed open and closed. A lot of the mechanisms are quite tight and take a fair effort to operate.
At the Curdworth Locks we were on our own. Gina and Lucy operated all of the locks themselves, while I drove the boat through. We were very grateful to Barry who joined us back on the narrowboat to give us a hand with the Aston and Farmers locks as we made our way into Birmingham.
Whilst not as pretty as the country side, the industrial areas that we passed through as we came into Birmingham were a wonderful insight into how the city organised and how the days past may have been. Factories built right up to the water’s edge stand as a reminder of the heritage of the Industrial Revolution – an event that shaped the world we live in and began in the heart of the West Midlands.
Following on from the grit of industry, and on through the Aston and Farmers locks, we made our way into Birmingham’s Gas St Basin.
Gas Street Basin in Birmingham City Center is the heart of Britain’s canal network. In days gone by it was the hub of a thriving canal transport network and would have been alive with the sound of cargo being loaded and unloaded.
Today, the bars and restaurants of Brindleyplace cluster around the attractive basin as the narrowboats pass leisurely by. Industrial heritage meets modern, cosmopolitan living. The name Brindleyplace honours James Brindley, original engineer of the Birmingham Canal and many other waterways. Mooring at Gas Street Basin and you’re a short walk on to Broad Street and all the shopping, refreshment and entertainment options of England’s second city.
From Birmingham we made our way south again heading back to Alvechurch Marina, along the Birmingham-Worcester Canal. This section of canal takes in the Wast Hill tunnel.
The Wast Hills Tunnel was built in 1796 and is 2726 yards (2493 meters) long, making it one of the longest in the country. There are several ventilation shafts along its length which were initially used for the tunnel’s construction. It is wide enough to accommodate two narrow boats. Just.
It takes a good half an hour to manoeuvre the narrowboat through the tunnel, and in the centre there is only the light on the boat and the two small “lights at the end of the tunnel” spots at the bow and stern.
Of course, we met a narrowboat coming the other way about a third of the way through, but with now a full weeks experience up our sleeves, we took this well within our stride. They didn’t build the tunnel any bigger than they needed though, I can assure you of that!
And so, we arrived back at Alvechurch Marina and disembarked.
Was 8 days enough? No, I don’t think so, but a wise friend once told me that if you’re ready to go home at the end of the holiday then the holiday was too long.
With miles and miles of canals complete with locks and tunnels and swing bridges and factories and countryside, it could be easily possible to spend a lifetime exploring the waterways of England, Wales and Scotland.
I can easily see how people who own their own narrowboat, and fit it out to their own liking, can cruise forever and a day. (The canal goes to Stratford-Upon-Avon, where those words were coined by the way).
For us, 8 days was a wonderful gift that will stay with us forever. A reminder of how to live in the slow lane and of the depth of history that flows through England’s Industrial heartland.
To our dear friend Karen and Barry – thank you so much for your incredible generosity. We are so grateful and appreciative of this wonderful experience that you have shared with us.