The Stratford on Avon Canal from Kings Norton Birmingham to Lapworth (next to the Grand Union Canal) and then on to Stratford on Avon

Researched and written by Jeannette Briggs

Above: An idyllic option - canal boat holidays on the Stratford on Avon Canal - photo by Stephen McKay and reproduced by kind permission

This canal begins at Kings Norton, a leafy suburb of Birmingham and ends at the lovely old town of Stratford on Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare.  It is almost as though the reason for the canal's existence at all is for boating holidays and pleasure boating. But - believe it or not ! - there were hard commercial reasons for the building of the canal in the first place. The original plan was for the transportation of coal from the River Severn up to Birmingham, and the canal was built between 1793 and 1803 from the junction with the Worcester and Birmingham at Kings Norton, then right through to Lapworth and Kingswood which are very close to the Grand Union main line.  By 1815 the canal had reached Stratford on Avon, from where it was linked to the River Avon, which was then navigable all the way to the confluence with the River Severn. 

Inevitably, with the advent of competition from the railways, trade declined rapidly, and by 1890 the amount of commodities carried on the canal was less than 25% of that when the canal first opened.  By 1950 the canal section at the Lapworth end had badly silted up, and several of the lock gates were leaking and in dire need of repair. There was a move to close the canal altogether, but these proposals were met with loud protests from canal societies and a campaign was mounted to "save the Stratford Canal".  In 1959 the National Trust were successful in leasing the canal, and restoration then commenced in earnest.  Much for the work was done by prison labourers, and volunteers who belonged to the National Trust and other bodies like the Inland Waterways Association Waterways Recovery Group. The formal re-opening ceremony was in 1964, and the canal and River Avon have proved to be one of the most popular of all the canals among leisure boat owners and users.  A journey along this canal is a delight from start to finish.

Above: The Guillotine Lock gate at the start of the Stratford on Avon Canal - photo by Robin Baker and reproduced by kind permission

The Stratford on Avon canal leaves the Worcester and Birmingham canal at Kings Norton Junction. The canal heads east through the leafy residential suburbs of Birmingham, heading towards Lapworth. You pass through Brandwood Tunnel - a short one - and a tree-lined cutting.

Just beyond Bridge 3 after the tunnel is Lyons Boatyard, with full facilities, gas, pumpout and overnight moorings. The canal continues in a south westerly direction passing through leafy suburbs of Birmingham and these are in the main most attractive.

You next come across a curious canal bridge made of steel (Shirley Draw Bridge) which is driven electrically.  You will need a key to operate the machinery if the bridge is set across the canal.  There is a great pub, The Drawbridge, right by the canal, which serves good food.  You can also stock up on supplies in the village.

Above: Brandwood Tunnel - Photo by David Stowell and reproduced by kind permission

Above: Shirley draw bridge - photo by David Stowell and reproduced by kind permission

Once you leave Shirley Draw Bridge you will be in open countryside There are no locks on this section and you can make good progress along the canal, which is lined with trees for long stretches. There are few signs of suburbia, and no villages for many miles, so you might need to stock up on basic supplies before you leave the Solihull area. The canal  continues in a south easterly direction and is - in the main - a delight , with only the noise from the constant traffic on the M42 to interrupt your peace and quiet. It is not until you reach the village of Hockley Heath that you come across signs of human habitation like shops, a pub called The Wharf, and a boatyard - Swallow Cruisers - which has full facilities (but not canal boat hire). As you leave Hockley Heath  and approach the village of Lapworth you actually see a lock.  This is the first of the series of locks called the Lapworth Flight  that start the descent of the level of the canal to Kingswood Junction, where the Stratford on Avon Canal links with the Grand Union Canal. 

Initially you will come across four locks which are fairly well spaced out. After this you will get a breathing space, before you have to tackle the rest of the locks, which come in quick succession.  They make for hard work from the boat crews.  The scenery around you is lovely and you also have the pleasure of seeing the unique bridges in wrought iron that criss-cross the canal.  They are "split" in two with a gap in the middle, so that the tow ropes from the horses could be passed through the gaps and the towing horse did not have to be disconnected. 

As you approach Kingswood Junction you will find shops at Bridge 34. After 5 more locks, the last of which is Lock No. 19, you can turn off left to approach the Grand Union. This is the actual Kingswood junction. By Lock 19, incidentally, you will find a rubbish disposal point and a water point. Alternatively, you can stay with the Stratford canal for another two miles and turn off left again along the Lapworth Link after Lock No. 22 to reach the Grand Union.  The link is a short "cut" which gives you direct access to the Grand Union - see earlier chapter on this. Strangely, there are no canalside pubs at this point. The nearest is the Navigation Inn at Kingswood Bridge on the Grand Union canal.


Above: The Lapworth Flight of locks - photo by David Stowell and reproduced by kind permission

Above: The Stratford canal at Kingswood link - photo by David Stowell and reproduced by kind permission

Once you leave Kingswood Junction the canal turns south and passes through some quiet peaceful countryside, which only the passing of traffic on the M40 to disturb you briefly.  You can see a typical Barrel-roof cottage just south of the point where the M40 crosses over the canal. You will have to negotiate a few locks on your route, but you will not be faced with anything as tough as the Lapworth series of locks.

There are few signs of human habitation until you reach Lowsonford. Here there is a lovely little canalside pub called the Fleur-de-Lys. Leaving Lowsonford once again you are in gentle countryside, with a few locks well spaced out.  The next village to look out for is Preston Bagot, which is really pretty and has a nice old Norman church visible from the canal. It also has a great pub just off the canal called The Crabmill Inn.

Above: A typical barrel-roofed lock keeper's cottage at Lowsonford - Photo by David Stowell and reproduced by kind permission

Above: Preston Bagot - The Crabmill Inn  just a short walk from the canal - photo by Stephen McKay and reproduced by kind permission

Beyond Preston Bagot the canal continues though pleasant countryside along a long pound without any locks until it reaches Wootton Wawen, which is the home of a large marina. It has lots of pretty half timbered houses and a beautiful church, St Peter's, which is over 1000 years old. The church can be seen from the canal - it is a short walk to reach the building but well worth the effort.  Wootton also has a canalside pub, the Navigation Inn. If you choose to moor here and walk up the village to see the Church, the Bull's Head is opposite the church, and is again one of those wonderful old English pubs that will not disappoint you. Wootton has shops for basic supplies and a boatyard - Anglo Welsh.

Above: The locks at Preston Bagot - photo by Stephen McKay and reproduced by kind permission

Above: A typical "split bridge" near Wootton Wawen - photo by David Stowell and reproduced by kind permission

After you leave Wootton Wawen you will cross the Edstone Viaduct, which carries the canal above a shallow valley with a road and a railway, and then you pass through some gentle but unremarkable scenery with few signs of habitation. 

The Viaduct is not a "spectacular" one, but interesting in that the towpath for the horse (originally) was sunk into the trough, as you can see from the photo.

Soon you will approach Wilmcote, which is a beautiful Warwickshire village, famous for being the home of Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden. This is easily accessible from the canal: the house that is traditionally called Mary Arden's House, was actually built  years after she left the village, but is still maintained by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. There are two pubs in the village.

Above: The viaduct at Edstone - photo by David Stowell and reproduced by kind pemrission

Above: The top lock at Wilmcote -photo by Ian Paterson and reproduced by kind permission

Leaving Wilmcote the canal suddenly commences a descent through 11 locks which brings it to the level of the River Avon in Stratford on Avon itself. The Wilmcote locks are well spaced out and they bring you to the outskirts of one of the most visited tourist towns in England.  Although, to begin with, the surroundings of the canal are not particularly pleasing, with factories and housing around you, the canal suddenly enters a large basin set in parkland in the centre of the town, right next to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, and you will be surrounded by boats and tourists, and ice cream vans and hot dog stands. The Canal joins the River Avon at this point but you need a special licence to be able to navigate on the river. Every possible need for boaters can be supplied here.  Stratford on Avon is of course tremendously popular, and if you intend to make an overnight stay here you should aim to reach the town early in the day to secure a good mooring.
Above: The canal basin at Stratford on Avon - photo by David Morris and reproduced by kind permission.

I hope you enjoy the Stratford on Avon Canal, and marvel at the fact that less than 50 years ago there was a serious proposal to demolish it along its whole length.  It would have been lost forever - what a tragedy that would have been for us all!