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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Exploring Birmingham Canals

Looking at the blog, I see that I didn't blog on any rides this year. I had been off the bike through the early part of the year after the removal of a melanoma on my right calf and a hernia operation. However, in August, I did manage a ride round some of Birmingham canals with an old school friend back. We rode from my home into Selly Oak where we joint onto the Worcester and Birmingham Canal and rode into the city. At the National Indoor Arena, we turned right along the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal. We followed this out to the M6 where we turned left along the Tame Valley Canal toward Wednesbury and a lunch stop at a small café in Holloway Bank, Wednesbury. At the junction with the Walsall Canal, we turned left back toward Birmingham City. I was aware of the number of canals that traverse Birmingham but I wasn't expecting that we would follow so many on this circular route. After the Walsall Canal, we joint the Birmingham Mainline Canal back into the city. This journey was intended as an exploration of the Birmingham canal network. I was familiar with the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, the part of the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal out to Aston University, and the Birmingham Mainline Canal from Bromford Road into the city.

The Worcester and Birmingham Canal has an aqueduct near the Queen Elizabeth II Hospital that was built during my time at the University of Birmingham. There are few access ramps between Selly Oak and the city but it is a fairly popular commute route. With a railway line on the other side of the canal path away from the canal and the university on the other side of the canal, there a limited views across the city. However, it is a pleasant ride with trees lining the southern side of the canal. In the central city, there is the Mail Box, Gas Street Basin, the National Sea Life Centre, and the National Indoor Arena. This is a very popular area and at almost any time is quite busy.

The Birmingham and Fazeley Canal goes across the northern side of the city through what is predominately an industrial area. This canal has a lot of locks as it heads down to the junction by Aston University and there are some newer buildings that have been built out over the lock ponds and canal. The cobbled ramps can be hard on bike and rider but it is an interesting place to explore. Reaching the M6 interchange or spaghetti junction and you begin to realise how this area has one layer built upon another. Road ramps cross and curve over the canal junction to the extent that it is difficult to determine exactly how many layers are there.

The initial part of the Tame Valley Canal is under the M6 but once clear of the M6, the canal strikes a line through primarily a residential area of the city. Some locks through this section raise the canal as we head west. Sandwell Valley Park and the Junction of the M5 and M6 bring a break from being surrounded by the city and the canal begins to be on a raised path around this part. However, this part of the canal also shows signs of limited use but we did have a heron flying ahead of us for a short way.

Beyond Sandwell Valley Park, the canal is still raised as we head into Wednesbury. Here we get a view of a private windmill up on a hill the other side of Wednesbury town centre. Attempts the following day to find it showed just how difficult it was to locate on the road but that it was clearly visible from the canal.

We decided it was tine for a lunch stop and went in search of a café. This proved relatively easy to find being less that a 100 yards from the canal. The food was good and we took time to chat for a while before heading back out to the canal. I find that I learn more about places that I visit on the bike than I do when visiting them in a car. However, travelling the canal paths at times you are enclosed and the rest of the world is shut out. Without leaving the canal path, we would have had trouble finding a café.

A short stretch remained of the Tame Valley Canal before we came to the Walsall Canal. The Walsall Canal seemed enclosed between industrial premises. This continues down the Birmingham Main Line Canal until it splits. The upper stretch rising through locks to a stretch under the M5. We followed the Main Line Canal to just after the M5 where we took a ramp up to explore the junctions under the M5. At this point, there is an old canal that crosses the Main Line Canal under the M5. It joins the upper branch of the canal under the curve of the M5. The M5 at this point is on a fly over. There are some interesting supports especially over the mainline canal but little of the old structures have been touched by the more recent engineering.

Further along the Main Line Canal, we again head up one of the ramps to the upper canal and back track to take a closer look at an old pumping station now the Galton Valley Canal Heritage Centre. Unfortunately, it was closed but both the upper and lower canals show signs of their past heritage. The upper canal also has an aqueduct to a branch that goes into an industrial area. There are also a number of heritage bridges and a short tunnel along this stretch.

The remainder of the canal into the city centre has some side branches. One of these I explored on a previous ride but by now we had ridden far enough and it was time to head for home. These rides always throw up things of interest especially when exploring historic waterways such as Birmingham canals.