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The City of Birmingham sits on a plateau about 200 feet above the surrounding countryside, and would probably have been passed by by early canals which were intent on linking the Rivers Trent and Mersey and Severn. Local merchants funded a meandering 10 mile canal to serve local coalfields but the rapidly developing Industrial Revolution led to over 180 miles of canals and 216 locks being built over the next 100 years and Birmingham became the heart of the narrow canal network.
Even the coming of the railways did not slow the growth of trade, over eight and a half million tons a year were being carried at the end of the nineteenth century and canals and railways worked together to supply the 'Black Country's' industry and population. There were over 40 basins where goods were trans-shipped. Canals serviced the canalside factories, railways carried raw materials in and products out to the the country and world. Commercial trade disappeared in the middle of the twentieth century and 54 miles of canals were closed, but the remaining network is still a uniquely interesting area to explore, overflowing with industrial heritage, tunnels, flyovers, factories and warehouses. The city of Birmingham is making maximum regeneration use of the space and life that canals can bring into the heart of urban areas and building some stunning waterside developments.. The Birmingham Canal Network can currently be accessed from five directions. From the north the link with the Staffs & Worcs Canal climbs the 21 Wolverhampton locks to join the 'new main line' built by Thomas Telford in the 1820's to straighten James Brindley's twisting contour route. He made use of deep cuttings and embankments and the wide canal had a towpath on either side.
From the south comes the Worcester & Birmingham, and from the south east the Grand Union Canal. The Birmingham & Fazeley Canal comes in from the east, forming a network through the centre of the city of Birmingham. The Dudley Tunnel, closed to powered craft, gave access from the west. Boats now use the wide Netherton Tunnel with towpaths either side and gas lighting built to overcome the bottleneck caused by the old narrow tunnel.
There were also links in the north east area to the Staffs & Worcs at Hatherton and to the Coventry Canal at Huddleston. The two large loops of canals in the North Eastern area served coalfields, especially those around Cannock which were the last to close in the 1960's. Subsidence has always been a major problem because of mining activities. Lappal Tunnel (11,385 yards) which gave a faster link to the Worcester & Birmingham was closed in 1917 due to subsidence, though even it now has a society planning to reopen it.
The Stratford-Upon-Avon Canal runs for just 25 miles from the Birmingham suburbs to the River Avon in Stratford on Avon. There are 54 locks. Although the canal is fairly short it goes through some enchanting countryside in the very Heart of England, cutting through the Forest of Arden with its ancient oaks, and falling gently across quiet rolling countryside and watermeadows to the Avon and Stratford. The area has numerous Shakespearean links. Although the canal initially prospered it suffered badly from railway competition. The lower section from Lapworth to Stratford became almost disused early in this century and was almost closed in the 1950's. However there was a campaign to restore it for pleasure boating and it was taken over in 1960 by the National Trust. It was reopened after restoration work, much of it by volunteer labour, in 1964.
This success gave impetus to many other restoration schemes and greatly increased interest in the use of canals for pleasure cruising.
Once it leaves the Birmingham suburbs the canal passes through nothing other than small villages until it reaches Stratford. The delightfully named neighbouring Warwickshire villages of Preston Baggot, Wootton Wawen and Wilmcote are all attractive with old houses, churches, inns and Halls or Manors. Lapworth is an interesting canal junction where a short spur connects to the Grand Union Canal which runs parallel close by.