Trudi, part of our team here at Waterways Holidays has been gracious enough to write up her experiences of the Worcester & Birmingham Canal and Birmingham Navigations:
Beginning our holiday at Stoke Prior near Bromsgrove on the brand new ‘Princess 4’ narrowboat, our trip to Autherley – on the junction between the Shropshire Union Canal and the Staffordshire and Worcester Canal – began by travelling East towards the lengthy ‘Tardebigge flight’ (which also makes up part of both the Stourport Ring and the Avon Ring). We had just four crew in total: Me, Captain Ken, our good friend Bob and our little dog Tasha.
Having cruised along the rather attractive River Severn / Staffordshire & Worcester route to the West of Stoke Prior before, we chose to do something different and have a ‘bit of a challenge’. So off we set off in the direction of the 36 Tardebigge locks, towards the Gas Street Basin, Central Birmingham and the 21 locks through Wolverhampton. We fully understood that parts of the route we had chosen may not be the most scenic on the UK canal system, but were very interested to see some of the more historic, industrial and urban areas that we expected to pass through along the way.
The locks start almost immediately after Stoke Prior and follow a meandering route through pretty countryside, past fields of sheep and horses and next to some lovely old canal side cottages. Although the thought of 36 locks in a row can be daunting, this flight is nothing like the famous ladder of the Caen Hill Flight near Devizes in Wiltshire. Instead, it wends its lazy way up the hill and around one or two bends in the canal. In fact, sometimes you can’t even see the last lock as you reach the next. There’s no doubt about it, it takes a while (4 hours and 25 minutes in total) to complete, but as you’re waiting for the water in the locks to fill or empty, at least you have something pleasing to look at.
After the locks, you have a new aspect of this particular canal to look forward to…..3 marvellously long tunnels (the 580 yard Tardebigge Tunnel, the 613 yard Shortwood Tunnel and the amazing 2726 yard Wast Hill Tunnel). After the second of these tunnels you may wish to stop for some dinner or a pint and there are two pubs to choose from, the Crown or the Weighbridge, both of which serve very decent food. Having stopped briefly at the Crown, we continued on towards another pub/restaurant, Hopwood House at Hopwood, and moored outside there for the night and enjoyed a rather scrummy meal from their wide selection of pub grub.
The next morning we got up early to continue our adventure and journey through the Wast Hill Tunnel which is so long that the tunnel entrance becomes just a pin-prick of light as you proceed towards the middle and then gradually increases again as you inch slowly closer to the far end (a tip: put all of your internal boat lights on and aim your headlights upwards to help you navigate in a tunnel). Another feature of some tunnels is that you often get cold water that drips from the ceiling on onto your head, so make sure you wear a hat!
Just after the end of the tunnel is a junction at which we turned left towards central Birmingham. However, if you peer to the right as you pass the junction you will see a very interesting ‘Guillotine Lock’. This lock was constructed to prevent water loss between the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal to the right and the Worcester & Birmingham Canal (to Birmingham) and dates back to 1814.
Continuing towards central Birmingham, we soon passed Cadbury’s World (for you chocolate lovers) and the ‘Cadbury’s’ purple-painted Bourneville Train Station close by. As we proceeded along this stretch of the canal, the scenery definitely became more urban and it was apparent that we were getting close to the city centre. Countryside turned into old warehouses, views of the clock tower at Birmingham University and then offices overhanging the canal.
Cruising into central Birmingham, Brindley Place and the Gas Street Basin is quite an eye-opener and I could see why it would be so popular with both Stag or Hen parties and families alike; there are so many things to see and do right there within view of the canal and loads of places to eat out or to go for a drink. There are bustling, modern bars with balconies overlooking the water; restaurants offering Italian, Indian, Chinese and Thai cuisine and placid pavement cafés with colourful parasols, perfect for a quiet breakfast in the morning or for afternoon tea. Nightclubs are just a taxi (or bus) ride away, as is Jongleurs Comedy Club. For families, the National Sea Life Centre and the ICC loom over the canal; the Symphony Hall and the National Indoor Arena are just a short distance away. In fact the Gas Street Basin itself could be described as a visitor attraction, with it’s narrow channels between bustling wharfs – very interesting.
Next the canal splits into two routes, then two again: the ‘New Main Line’ which is a very direct route through the City, mostly running alongside the train line, or the ‘Old Main Line’ which drifts through the suburbs, behind yards, past new housing estates and around old terraces, empty red brick warehouses and even right under some vast concrete motorway bridges at a couple of points! We chose to cruise along the Old Main Line until, passing a statue of the bare-knuckle boxing champion William Perry as we skirted some ornamental gardens in the Tipton area, we stopped for some lunch and to buy a few basic provisions. Whilst we were there we tried a local ‘delicacy’ called Grey Pays & Ham at the nearby Fountain Inn (yum yum).
After lunch we continued on towards the Wolverhampton Flight on the last leg of our journey. Something that we all commented on as we cruised along, surrounded by crumbling red brick storage houses, weeds and scrap yards, was how surprisingly clear the water was along the Old Main Line. We could see right to the very bottom, with various fish darting away from our engine noise as we passed – perhaps the result of fewer people choosing to travel this route now that the New Main Line is available. There were also plenty of ducks and geese nesting amongst the reeds alongside the canal too… Just a few days later and we would no doubt have been enjoying the ‘splash of tiny feet’.
Very soon we passed the junction for Dudley and it’s famous open air ‘Black Country Living Museum’ which has it’s own historic canal basin as well as lots of early 20th Century buildings which have been relocated from around the Black Country and rebuilt with painstaking detail to reflect life at the time (1850’s to 1950’s) in a specially built village with staff dressed in costume. It features a 1930’s fairground, original trolleybuses and a canal trip boat that takes you through the 2900 metre long Dudley Tunnel (second longest tunnel in the UK). However, there was no stopping for us that day as we wanted to get the Wolverhampton Flight completed in good time.
The outskirts of Wolverhampton as you enter along the canal are nothing much to look at, with high rise flats and offices and the odd double decker bus passing over bridges that span the waterway; but the scene changes considerably as you enter the pound just before the first of the Wolverhampton Locks. There are colourful flower beds, lovely old red brick cottages, attractive signage and the feeling of being in a quiet oasis, separated from the roaring traffic above you. Here began our next challenge – 21 locks, each of which requires not just a lock key but a ‘water-saving’ key as well, which is a kind of double bolt on the lock to stop any extra water loss. This means they took a little longer than usual to open as we only had one water-saving key and couldn’t risk throwing it from one side of the canal to the other, in case we lost it!
It was a rather cold and breezy afternoon as we moved as a team from one lock to the next, to the next….but we managed to complete all 21 within 2 hours and 50 minutes and had definitely warmed up by the end of it! The route of the flight was quite twisty in places and passed under one or two grey metal railway bridges, close to a couple of tall factory chimneys and what look like robust gas pipes, this being a more industrial section of the canal. Grass verges and fences lined the towpath and lots of cyclists swished past as we gradually continued with our task. The Wolverhampton Flight of locks are individually numbered, so you can keep tabs on how many you have done and how many there are yet to do, so it was great to be able to do a countdown.
Eventually we reached the last of the Wolverhampton locks and emerging from underneath a red brick bridge, came face to face with the lush, green and very pleasant Staffordshire & Worcester Canal. Just a few more minutes, a left turn, then one more lock and we had reached our destination – the pretty base at Autherley Junction, which has a shop, a water point and some very helpful staff. Mooring up for the evening, we stuck a couple of Cornish pasties in the oven and put our feet up…..aaahhhhh.
Click for more information and availability on canal boat holidays in Central England. To speak directly to one of our friendly team at Waterways Holidays Ltd, call us on 01252 796400, open 7 days a week.