Let’s get the hoary old chestnut out of the the way first. Birmingham has more miles of canal than Venice. Yes, it’s probably true, depending on the boundaries you choose. But Birmingham’s canals can stand on their own without such hackneyed comparisons.
Just over 100 miles of the ’BCN’ is navigable today, down from 160 miles at its peak. The through-routes are largely intact: most of the lost mileage came from short arms to collieries, factories and the other works that made Birmingham and the Black Country the engine room of the Industrial Revolution. Plenty of these works still stand canalside in varying states of dereliction. A true BCN aficionado is one who looks out for and celebrates these fascinating survivals, rather than nervously speeding through on the way to the nearest spot of countryside.
The BCN in its entirety, then, might not be for everyone. But any boater will find at least something to cherish. Gas Street Basin and Brindleyplace form the much photographed hub of the canals, though geographically they are at the far corner of the BCN. Here are pubs and clubs, the International Conference Centre and National Indoor Arena, a floating coffee shop and a never-ending stream of trip-boats. Tidy and brightly lit, it’s urban cruising at its most accessible.
The Birmingham Main Line, where it all began, runs north-west from here to Wolverhampton and the Staffordshire countryside. There are two Main Lines for much of the way. Thomas Telford drove a straighter course through James Brindley’s original, circuitous route, but with so many factories built along the old line, both continued in existence. The Old Main Line, winding and varied, is a good introduction to BCN cruising; the New Main Line, stark and straight, is like nothing else on the system.
North of here is a bewildering network of canals: the Walsall, the Wyrley & Essington, the Tame Valley and the Wednesbury and their many, many branches. These brought coal from the Black Country to the factories of the city. The ’Curly Wyrley’, so-called for its winding, lock-free course, was so busy at the time of the daily coal run that a small tidal wave was said to be created.
The two escape routes from the northern BCN closed in the 1950s, but are now under gradual restoration as the Lichfield Canal and Hatherton Canal – with the aim of encouraging more people to cruise this fascinating area. Until then, it makes an interesting diversion with some surprising rural spots along the way. As ever in urban areas, watch out for shallow channels and occasional weed growth.
To the south, two long tunnels (Netherton and the low, rarely navigated Dudley) connect to the Dudley and Stourbridge canals, and thence to the Staffs & Worcs and the Severn.
BCN Main Line from Birmingham to Aldersley is part of the Staffordshire Ring, the Cruising Guide for which is in Waterways World June 2020