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TOTAL LOCKS: 49
CRUISING TIME PER DAY: 7.5 HOURS
Maps & Guides for this route: P2, N3, L12 | Click here buy maps
This Ring takes in parts of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, the Birmingham Canal Navigations, the Grand Union Canal and the Stratford Canal. The route from Alvechurch includes several aqueducts, 4 tunnels (one twice!) and 49 locks - can be done in 4 nights.
A contrasting cruise along country and city miles, you will tip-toe into the heart of Britain’s canal network via industrial landscape and heritage railways, through glorious open countryside leading right into the historic canal capital of Birmingham. With junctions – King’s Norton, Old Turn, Aston, Bordesley and Kingswood – aqueducts, lock flights and tunnels to navigate, the Birmingham Mini Ring is a great challenge for a boater’s skills.
It’s worth allowing some time to explore the pretty village of Alvechurch, just a short walk down the hill from its boatyard and moored boats, before your cruise starts. Cruising left on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal and under the bridge by the marina, head northwards past the village’s back gardens. The canal turns sharply under the noisy M42 before it escapes across the valley on a high embankment past Lower Bittell Reservoir. There are two reservoirs at Bittell, both of which were built by the canal company, the larger of the two being used to feed water down to the canal via the feeder next to the cottage at the far end of the embankment. They are now both idyllic spots for bird watching and angling, and the larger Upper Bittell Reservoir also has a sailing club. A footpath from bridge 66 leads the short distance to its shore.
Continuing through a steep wooded cutting you arrive at Hopwood, and then leave the lush Worcestershire countryside behind as the canal vanishes into the immense Wast Hills Tunnel (2,726yds/2,493m long). You emerge from the tunnel a short distance before King’s Norton Junction, where the Stratford Canal heads off eastwards to Stratford-upon-Avon, while your journey continues straight on.
Over 200 years ago the now world-famous Mr Cadbury built his chocolate factory and village for his workers on the canalside at Bournville. Today, what chocoholic could resist stopping off to visit Cadbury World, as well as finding out more of the fascinating history of chocolate. It’s also worth a wander round Bournville village with its quaint green surrounded by shops, overlooked by a statue of George Cadbury himself from the Quaker Meeting House. The canal continues north beside the railway line close by. Just beyond Selly Oak, the campus of Birmingham University is on your right and shortly beyond is the expanse of Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Entering the pretty residential area of Edgbaston, characterised by its white Georgian buildings, the canal skirts the edge of the Botanical Gardens which provides a beautiful setting before heading into the short Edgbaston Tunnel (105yds/96m long).
The last mile into Birmingham is a mix of old and new as the Worcester & Birmingham Canal takes a sharp left turn at the Mailbox (the former Royal Mail sorting office, now a mix of designer shopping, bars, television and radio studios) to join the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN) at the ‘Worcester Bar’. The great spaghetti of canals that converge in Birmingham was once the beating heart of the Industrial Revolution. Cargoes of coal, glass, porcelain, chocolate crumb and the heavy trade of the Black Country were carried by canal boat to and from Birmingham. The big business of Britain’s canals was to link the nation to world markets and in the hot flushes of fierce commercial battles between the canal companies, the daily plight of boat crews sometimes petered into insignificance. Water was precious to competitive canal companies and, in a bid not to lose any of its canal water, the BCN insisted a solid bar was built to separate its canal from the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. The ‘Worcester Bar’ was built in 1792 and remained in place for 30 years, forcing canal workers to lift cargo over the bar to load and unload clumsily from boat to boat. In 1815, everyone huffed a sigh of relief when a cut was made and the Berlinesque bar was penetrated. The lock has gone, and boats roam freely today, but the bar is still visible to the informed tourist eye.
Gas Street Basin gives a clue to its importance in its name, as it was the first area in Birmingham to be lit by new-fangled gaslights. The neon lights of the modern city reflect a different millennium over Birmingham’s canals now, and mark the ever-evolving meeting place of old and new. Boats cruise into Birmingham through the backdoor of the city, yet arrive at its thriving heart. The bronze bull of the Bullring, the markets, Antony Gormley's sculpture, designer shopping, multi-cultural panache and a spectacular controversial library - that's Birmingham. Yet first impressions don't give away the city's biggest secret. It is at the heart of Britain's canal network and spaghettis more miles of water than Venice (over 100 navigable miles of it!).The historic waterside hub is alive with bars and restaurants. Symphony Hall, ICC, Barclaycard Arena and Brindleyplace spoil visitors with choice and beg you to stay as long as you can. Birmingham’s famous markets are only a short walk from the canal, and there are also art galleries, museums, theatres and dizzy opportunities for shopping too.
Once you’ve explored the city, it’s time to follow the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal from Old Turn Junction up the 13 Farmer’s Bridge Locks. At Aston Junction, turn right along the Digbeth Branch and through Ashted Locks and the short Ashted Tunnel (103yds/94m long) before heading south along the Grand Union Canal from Bordesley Junction. Your journey continues down Camp Hill Locks and beneath the arches of numerous railway viaducts. The railway shadows the canal before crossing over again at Railway Bridge 88E. Tyseley Locomotive Works Visitor Centre, on the site of a former Great Western Railway locomotive depot, is a short walk from Bridge 88 and has a huge collection of vintage and steam locomotives. It is only open for special open days so get in touch first if you’re interested in timing your journey to fit.
Heading now through Tyseley and Solihull, your surroundings are primarily suburban housing and former busy wharves before entering a tree-lined cutting with high bridges. The canal finally breaks into open countryside just before the village of Catherine-de-Barnes with its welcoming pub and restaurant. Crossing the River Blythe over a short aqueduct, the proximity of the M42 makes itself known but once you’ve cruised under it peace returns with the descent of the five Knowle Locks. The village of Knowle is a short walk from the top of the locks and dates in part from the Middle Ages, with a church dating from 1402. It was built to prevent the villagers from having to walk the three miles there and back to Hampton in Arden for mass on Sundays, which involved the treacherous crossing of the Blythe (now much less threatening!).
Just beyond Kingswood Bridge 65, it’s worth mooring up to take the short walk from the bridge to the northeast along the Heart of England Way is the National Trust’s Baddlesley Clinton House, a medieval manor house complete with its own moat. Your route now heads west via a short boat-filled branch line and lock to Kingswood Junction, with its moored boats, split bridges and white-washed cottages, which connects the Grand Union Canal to the Stratford Canal. The Stratford Canal is famous for its split bridges. They were built in two halves with a tiny gap to allow ropes to pass through so that, in the days of horse-towed narrowboats, the boatman would not have to untie his horse from the boat as he walked along the towpath. The canal is also renowned for its barrel-roofed lock keepers’ cottages – there is one at the junction. The truth behind the quirk is purely practical: engineers building the Stratford Canal knew more about building bridges than houses, so when they had to build lock cottages for the lengthsmen, they adapted their skills, resulting in cottages with these curious barrel-shaped roofs.
Kingswood Junction is part of the way down the 26-lock Lapworth Flight so as you head north along the Stratford Canal, you immediately have to work your way through a quick succession of locks. Passing the tiny village of Hockley Heath with its welcome pub, the M42 encroaches on the peace and quiet for a while. Earlswood. Earlswood Motor Yacht Club waves from white sailcloth sashes and eager boats moored just beyond bridge 16, with a footpath from bridge 17 leading just half a mile to Earlswood Lakes. There are three separate lakes or reservoirs to supply water for the canal, built over nearly five years in the 1820s using labourers which included Napoleonic prisoners of war, now popular for walking, sailing and fishing.
Cruising gently through pretty countryside, the railway over the canal flags the beginning of the built-up area. Shirley Draw Bridge, next to a pub of the same name, is actually a lift bridge operated by using both a windlass and a key. There is a short aqueduct then a number of bridges as the canal now winds its way past the back gardens of Birmingham’s suburbs. The short Brandwood Tunnel (352yds/322m long), is swiftly followed by a swing bridge.
There was once fierce rivalry between different canal companies and they used stop locks at junctions in order to ensure that their water was safe from the other canal company, and so the stop lock at King’s Norton was somewhat different to the traditional lock. The company built a guillotine lock and although this is no longer in use, boats still cruise beneath its mechanisms and two guillotine gates. Turn left at King’s Norton Junction to retrace your route south back to Alvechurch Marina.
Max: 4 People
Max: 5 People
Max: 5 People
Max: 4 People
Max: 7 People
Max: 8 People
Max: 6 People
Max: 6 People
Length: 66ft (63ft from Falkirk)
Max: 6 People
Max: 6 People
Max: 8 People
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Max: 12 People