Canal Guide

Worchester & Birmingham Canal

Canal boat break feature -May 2014

Worchester & Birmingham Canal

 

Canal boat break feature


The Worcester and Birmingham Canal from Diglis Basin Worcester to Gas Street Basin Birmingham

 Researched and written by Jeannette Briggs

The Worcester and Birmingham Canal runs between the cities of Worcester on the River Severn and Birmingham, in the centre of England.  It leaves the Severn via the Diglis Locks and climbs steadily upwards through pretty countryside and via a huge flight of locks called the Tardebigge Flight.  These are a challenge to pleasure boaters, only exceeded by the Hatton Flight on the Grand Union canal near Warwick, and the Caen Hill Flight on the Kennet and Avon Canal.

Above: The flight of locks at Tardebigge - photo by Richard Dunn and reproduced by kind permission

The work on the Worcester and Birmingham canal started in 1794, and was completed in 1815. It was intended to overtake the Staffs and Worcester canal, by enabling boats to enter the canal from the River Severn at a point lower down than Stourport. This would reduce the journey time between Birmingham and Sharpness, Gloucester and Bristol docks at Avonmouth.  It would also avoid the shallows in the River Severn which are just south of Stourport. 

The canal was a great success at first, but with the onset of competition from the railways trade gradually slowed down.  Commercial carrying of goods from the Cadbury factories at Bournville and Blackpole down to the Gloucester and Sharpness canal and then to the docks at Avonmouth continued until 1964. Nowadays, the traffic on the Worcester and Birmingham canal is nearly all pleasure boating.  The Worcester and Birmingham canal is an interesting one, which has many challenges and which demands a LOT of hard work from the narrowboaters who venture along its course.

The canal leaves the River Severn at Diglis Basin in the heart of the city of Worcester. It passes through the city and through several deep narrow locks, before it leaves Worcester and starts its progress through the countryside around Tibberton. Next comes Oddingley, whch has a quaint half timbered farmhouse and little church overlooking the canal. The Bridge in is a canalside pub at Tibberton and worth a visit, as is Oddingley Church.

Above: Diglis Basin Worcester - photo by Andrew Darge and reproduced by kind permission

 Above: Dunhampstead Tunnel north portal - photo by Martin Wilson and reproduced by kind permission.

Shortly after this you reach a wooded cutting and then see Dunhampstead Tunnel, which is quite short.  There is as usual no towpath through the tunnel, and in olden days the horse towing the narrowboat had to be unhitched and led over the hill, whilst the narrowboat itself was propelled through by "leggers".

 

Above: Leggers "walking" a narrowboat through a tunnel - photo courtesy Blisworth Images and reproduced by kind permission.

Beyond the tunnel you reach Shernal Green, a pretty place and Hanbury Wharf, a true canal settlement, which was also once the junction with the now defunct Droitwich canal. The Eagle and Sun is a great canalside pub here. You leave Hanbury and will enjoy the next pound of the canal, which is all of 5 miles without a lock.  Make the most of this respite, because you will soon need to exercise your arm muscles on lock windlasses......!

You now pass Stoke Wharf and see the Stoke flight of 6 locks ahead of you. At the top of these is a pub called The Queen's at Bridge 48, and you should make the most of this for rest and refreshment, before your next challenge - The Tardebigge Flight of 30 locks in quick succession. Stoke Wharf is again a nice old canalside settlement which has developed as an extension to the village of Stoke Prior. The shops here are few, but there are better supplies at Bridge 42. On the planning ahead front, you might like to ensure that you do have enough supplies for the next part of your journey as shops near the Tardebigge Flight are few and far between.

Above: Stoke Pound - photo by Martin Wilson and reproduced by kind permission

Above : Tardebigge - the canal and the top of the flight.  Photo by Stephen McKay and reproduced by kind permission

The Tardebigge flight does not include any "interesting" (tricky) things to wrestle with, like a set of staircase locks as on the Caen Hill Flight, but it is a huge test of your stamina and patience......  Once you reach Tardebigge Bottom Lock the fun begins. You and your team will have to work relentlessly hard, and you and your narrowboat will climb slowly but steadily upwards.  However, the views from the canal as you do so are spectacular, and will reward you for all the effort expended. Bridge No 51 is known as Halfway House Bridge for obvious reasons.

The climb up the hill, over 220 feet, is relentless and it is not until you reach Tardebigge Top Lock with a little wharf and cottages that you can finally relax.  There is a plaque here which commemorates the founding of the Inland Waterways Association in 1946. The IWA campaigned ceaselessly for the restoration of the waterways as a leisure amenity, largely thanks to the foresight and knowledge of L.T.C. Rolt and Robert Aickman.  They were on board Rolt's famous boat Cressy which was moored here, when the idea came to them to mount a national campaign to save what was left of the canal network. We should all be profoundly grateful to them that they were inspired to do this. 

You have reached the top level of the canal, and can now enjoy the 14 mile length of the summit pound without the thought of any more backbreaking flights of locks to darken your mood! Just after the top lock you come across Tardebigge Tunnel and then Shortwood Tunnel - they are  580 and 610 yards long respectively, and you might need your cagoule and an umbrella out ready for Shortwood Tunnel as it is wet and drips a lot...

Above: Tardebigge Tunnel - photo by JohnM and reproduced by kind permission

Once you emerge from Shortwood Tunnel you will find that the canal "sits" on the side of a hill and winds gently through fields and woods until you reach the little town of Alvechurch. This has some nice black and white houses and is actually below the canal, which seems to skirt round the town and to still remain halfway up the hillside. There is a pub here called the Crown at Bridge 61. A large boatyard, Alvechurch Boat Centre is at Bridge 60 and this has all the supplies you could need, including pump out, gas and water and overnight moorings.  It's a very popular overnight stop of boaters, both the ones who want an early start the following morning down the Tardebigge Flight, and also for boaters who have managed to ascend the flight and are seeking rest and  relaxation after their huge efforts to get to the top! The message is - try and arrive early in the afternoon to secure a good mooring! Buy all your domestic supplies here for the next section of this canal is not particularly well furnished with shops etc.  

Beyond Alvechurch the canal  passes underneath the M42 and then twists and turns around the steep hills for several miles. You are proceeding in a - generally - north eastern direction towards the outskirts of Birmingham. You pass the village of Hopwood, and then approach another tunnel - the Wast Hills Tunnel.



Above: The canal at Alvechurch - photo by Peter Wasp and reproduced by kind permission

Above: Wast Hill Tunnel South portal - photo by David Stowell and reproduced by kind permisison

Wast Hills Tunnel is 2726 feet long and thus is one of the longest in the country. It can be a "wet" tunnel and you might like to have an umbrella handy to fend off the drips......Wast Hill tunnel is cut through the ridge of hills that separates Worcestershire from Warwickshire and The Midlands. You will immediately notice the difference in scenery when you exit the tunnel at the northern end - you see far more built up areas like Kings Norton, and large housing estates and factories.

At Kings Norton Junction you meet with the Stratford on Avon Canal which branches off to your right (in an easterly direction). The Guillotine gate here is notorious - it was inserted to try and "save" the water "owned by the Worcester and Birmingham canal company, and to ensure that the new Stratford canal did not get any of it!

Above: The Guillotine lock at the junction between the Stratford canal and the Worcester and Birmingham - photo by Robin Baker and reproduced by kind permission

See separate article on this canal. After this junction it is a short journey until you reach Bournville Garden Factory and Cadbury World - the chocolate heaven of so many of us! This garden factory was revolutionary for its time - it was built by the Quaker Cadbury family who built the associated housing estates for their workers in the period towards the end of the 19th century.  At that time of course all the raw materials to make their famous chocolate came up the canal from the docks at Avonmouth.  Nowadays, it is all transported by road. Sadly it should be noted here that the BWB do not advise that you leave your narrowboat moored up around this area and then leave it unattended. 

As you leave the surroundings of Bournville you come to Selly Oak and then the leafy suburbs of Edgebaston. This has many nice buildings including those which form the University of Birmingham. There is also a huge supermarket right by the canalside, and very useful it is. You continue through deep cuttings often with overhangling foilage and with a railway line next to the canal for much of this length.  Suddenly the canal takes a sharp turn to the left and you enter Gas Street Basin in the very heart of Birmingham

Above: The canal at The Vale Edgebaston - photo by Andrew Clayton and reproduced by kind permission

Above: Gas Street Basin and The Tap and Spile pub - photo by Colin Smith and reproduced by kind permission

This is the end of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal.  Moorings are available here and are reasonably safe: however we are advised by both the BWB and the Birmingham Canal Navigation society that apart from Gas Street Basin you should not plan to leave your narrowboat unattended around this stretch of the canal. Sadly - there are elements in our society who like a bit of fun by doing thoughtless things to boats....  Gas Street basin has of course numerous pubs, like the Tap and Spile and the James Brindley, and is considered safe as far as mooring your boat is concerned. You are also near Brindley Place and The Mailbox, two complexes which have pubs and restaurants of every description, and which have revitalized this part of the centre of Birmingham.   The city is at last waking up to the fact that its canal network is a huge environmental and recreational asset to be enjoyed, once it has been redeveloped and moorings provided. 

Above: A typical BCN signpost at the junction of the Worcester and Birmingham canal with the BCN near Gas Street Basin - photo by J Briggs.

The Worcester and Birmingham canal is full of interest.  I hope that this introduction to it will whet your appetite to try it for yourself!