Mark Nicholls takes a narrowboat from the greenery of the Worcestershire countryside into Birmingham’s industrial heartland
The pace is sedate; less than 4mph, as we make our way through the chocolate-brown waters of the canal.
We are on a blue-liveried narrowboat, named Hydra, plotting a course from the idyll of the Worcestershire countryside into the inner-city sprawl of Birmingham and an industrial landscape that some two centuries ago helped shape modern Britain.
As we set off from the Tardebigge basin near Bromsgrove, the first few miles are lush and green. Overhanging trees and vegetation line the banks of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal as we pass beneath red-brick bridges and fields of baled hay.
Like many canals across the UK, it dates from the late 18th century and an era when these waterways formed a crucial transportation network linking the major cities as the industrial revolution gained momentum.
Today, revived and renovated, they are arteries that host beautifully and brightly painted narrowboats, offering a fascinating dimension to the rural and urban landscape.
After a thorough introduction to our vessel’s facilities, steering, and tips for a smooth passage, we eased our way into the quiet countryside through which the Worcester and Birmingham Canal cuts a swathe.
Water-borne traffic, we soon discover, is minimal; you may meet an occasional narrowboat or two coming the other way, but our typical speed is 3-4 mph.
Trees and open fields form the backdrop before we pass through the 613-yard Shortwood Tunnel and then on to Alvechurch Marina and Hopwood.
A few miles further on, we face our first real test in the form of the Wast Hill Tunnel. It is a wondrous feat of engineering, albeit one of dark, dripping gloom. At 2726 yards long, it takes us beneath a hillside that today is overlaid with housing but in the 1790s had posed a significant obstacle to the navvies digging the canal.
Our navigational light illuminates a path ahead of the bow as we make slow and cautious progress in a tunnel that, despite its dank narrowness, we were assured does allow two vessels to pass. Thankfully, we never did meet anything coming the other way.
With no canal path within the tunnel, the canal boat skippers of centuries past would have had to manually propel themselves through what would have been candle-lit gloom, ‘walking’ – or ‘legging’ – along the tunnel sidewall to move the vessel forward, so we were grateful for Hydra’s engine.
A pinprick in the distance offered a hint that there was light at the end of the tunnel, but it was half an hour before we again emerge into the sunlight – now significantly closer to Birmingham and a countryside slowly transforming into the suburbs of England’s second city.
At the King’s Norton junction, we have a choice: remain in a rural setting and head to Hockley Heath or continue towards the big city. Choosing the latter, the leafy suburbs give way to light industry and warehousing, as canal and railway line now run in parallel.
On the tow path, joggers, cyclists, dog walkers or those seeking a bracing stroll are our companions, and all are faster than us.
While a sedate narrowboat journey through the countryside is a delight, heading into the city offers a sense of just why the canals were built; as major trade arteries linking the large conurbations in the days before road and rail.
Today, Hydra is a passenger vessel, and with my wife Sharon and daughter Sarah on board, we continue to make steady progress and in relative comfort too. Our vessel is well-equipped with a double and two single berths, two showers and toilets, a galley and lounge area – heating, a TV and yes, there is Wi-Fi. There are also canal-side pubs, or you can rustle up something to eat on board.
At 65 feet long, Hydra needs some careful manoeuvring at times, through narrow bridges, pinch points – and locks – but she is responsive and readily obeys my touch on the tiller.
Through the relatively short Edgbaston Tunnel, the canal eventually leads us into the Gas Street Basin, the once-beating heart of the canal network of an industrial powerhouse. Today, it is alive with bars and restaurants, offices and flats.
It is 250 years since the canals arrived here in 1769, and 2019 sees Birmingham celebrating the landmark in its canal history.
From the perspective of a narrowboat, I found the industrial landscape as fascinating as that of the countryside and as you make your way through the city, you realise you are on only one small part of a vast network of canals, now overseen by the Canal & River Trust to make available and accessible to the nation.
With moorings at regular intervals, you can pause almost wherever you wish to explore the city centre or some of the sights in and around Birmingham.
The blend of urban sprawl and inner-city canal is mesmerising. From the modern city centre, we pointed the bow towards Wolverhampton via the remnants of a bygone industrial era: warehouse facades and red brick walls, covered in multi-coloured graffiti, works of art in themselves.
Here we join the New Main Line, a broad canal with spurs and loops leading off to factories and business premises crossed by quaint bridges of white-painted ironwork or elaborate brick weave structures that define the character of the route and allow continuation of the canal path.
Reeds again line the banks, and there are bull rushes and trees aside the canal path. Herons are a regular feature, unfazed by the passing narrowboats, occasionally taking off to reveal an almighty wingspan. Elsewhere ducks, coots, geese and moorhens paddle away as we approach.
At Smethwick we negotiate three locks: entering, closing the lock gate behind us and opening sluices with our windlass to allow water to cascade in and float our boat.
As the water level evens out, we swing open the second gate and into the waiting basin to move on into the next lock. The work is relatively straightforward and rewarding as we find ourselves on a new level.
At every turn is a reminder of how important the canal network once was. It was this that drove my desire to take a route that not only offered lovely countryside, but also the inner-city harshness – beautiful in its own way – of an industrial past.
With a narrowboat holiday, there are always questions, particularly for first-timers like us: how far and how fast should you go; is the canal boat easy to steer; will I find somewhere to eat and replenish my water supply; how will I cope with locks?
Well, the vessel is straightforward to steer and there are no currents to worry about; there are several mooring points with facilities such as water; and you’ll soon find a pub to eat in.
As for distance and speed, that is an individual choice about how long you wish to spend at the helm each day, what you actually want to see, and whether you want a leisurely or more active route such as one with several locks to negotiate.
We had collected Hydra from the Anglo Welsh narrowboat company, which is part of the Drifters group which offers 550 canal boats for hire from 45 bases across England, Wales and Scotland, for a Monday-to-Friday break. There are suggested routes and timescales for beginners, intermediates or those who want a more active narrowboat.
Straightforward itineraries from Tardebigge include to Birmingham and back, 28 miles (no locks); Hockley Heath and return, 37 miles (two locks); or the 46 miles (six locks) to the Black Country Living Museum and a return to Tardebigge. The 26-acre open-air museum features rebuilt historic buildings, showing how life was lived in the Black Country during the 19th Century, and is the setting for the canal scenes in the Peaky Blinders TV series.
Picking the route is important. Near Tardebigge, for example, heading in the opposite direction towards Worcester, is a famous flight of 30 locks!
For our short break, we ventured a little beyond Smethwick in the direction of Wolverhampton before turning and re-tracing our steps back to Tardebigge, but there are circular routes you can follow within this network and you can venture to Worcester, Stratford and ultimately up to Manchester or even to London.
A narrowboat break offers a peaceful, tranquil and relaxing few days on the canals, yet it also provides a fascinating insight into the industrial masterpiece of Britain’s canal network.
Mark Nicholls journeyed aboard Anglo Welsh’s boat Hydra, which is part of the Drifters group. Hire prices start at £495 for a short break (three or four nights) on a boat for four people, and £705 for a week. For more information visit www.drifters.co.uk or call +44 (0)344 984 0322.
For suggested itineraries please see: www.waterwaysholidays.com
Also visit www.canalrivertrust.org.uk for more information on the Canal & River Trust.
Mark Nicholls is an award-winning freelance travel writer and author, based in the UK and has written for a range of national titles, specialist magazines and international websites and operated as a war correspondent in locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Photographs by Mark Nicholls