Birmingham Canal Navigations

I was prompted to find this photograph following Vladimir Brezina’s excellent post on kayaking along the Gowanus Canal on the day before hurricane Sandy hit New York.  I went looking for something both industrial and seasonal and came up with this, taken long ago in April 1978.  The scene is Windmill Junction on the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN) with Cobb’s stark Engine House standing to attention in the background, as it has done since 1831.

Windmill JunctionThe oft repeated fact is that there are more miles of canal around Birmingham than in Venice.  If you ever travel over the M6 at Spaghetti Junction, be aware that beneath there is a wholly different watery world progressing at a much slower, sane pace.

The character in the foreground is my good buddy, Mick.  This was the first of many week-long great escapes from wives, work and the daily grind; as it was our first such ‘adventure’ I remember it best.  It doesn’t quite compare with the potential hazards of kayaking the Gowanus but it did have its drawbacks.  Canal boats have become much more sophisticated over the years but back then they were Spartan, un-insulated and on days such as this, like sleeping in an icebox.  Another peril of the urban waterways was junk – some animal, some mineral.  As the engine began to labour and the rate of progress slowed to snail’s pace it would become obvious that something was attached to the prop.  Very reluctantly, it was then off with the weed hatch and hands into the icy dark waters to extract the offending object; you were never quite sure what it was until it came free.

Mick was a statistician and very thorough in all things.  We were not just going to cruise the BCN, we were going to cruise every last navigable inch.  This would involve trips down side arms knowing full well that the only way back was on ropes in reverse.

When we reached this stretch the entire pound had been emptied; undeterred we opened the paddles on all of the lock gates above so the water would flow down from the summit, a procedure that involved a degree of panic once the pound filled; it takes a while to turn the taps off.

Oldbury LocksThe pound is between the two bottom locks at Oldbury with the M5 flying over in the background. This arm leads up to the highest point on the BCN and in those days you would get a certificate from the pub at the summit for completing this section of canal – not something we were going to miss; I must still have it somewhere.

Our diet for the week was Banks’ Mild and Midland pies, a lethal combination in a confined space, much like life on the ISS I imagine.

It is good to remember old friends.


  1. Mary Gilmartin · December 12, 2012

    I like everything about your first photograph, the age, the landscape and the snow on the ground. And, of course what’s better than having a good buddy by the name, Mick.

  2. Vladimir Brezina · December 12, 2012

    Now THAT was an adventure! I like all those elevation changes, and having to fill your canal with water before you can proceed 🙂 The Gowanus, which is just a short tidal creek, doesn’t even begin to compare!

    • northumbrianlight · December 12, 2012

      It was certainly one of the more adventurous canal trips I have been on but I am not sure it is in the same league as a kayak on the Gowanus or any of the waterways around Manhattan. I came into New York on P&O’s Arcadia in September – that must look monstrous at water level from a kayak 🙂

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