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Phil Clayton
Phil Clayton

A labyrinth of cuts

By Phil Clayton, Chairman of the BCNS
Phil Clayton, Chairman of the Birmingham Canal Navigations Society (BCNS) writes about the the world famous, 100 mile long network of Birmingham and Black Country waterways.

The canals which seam through Birmingham and the Black Country are a part of the weft drawing together the fabric of our area’s history. 

Netherton Tunnel
Netherton Tunnel

A murky weft maybe, and one which is now broken in places, but still a thread which we can follow back to discover something of our past as well as letting it lead us through the present. 

The canal building era in our area lasted just under a century from the construction of the Birmingham Canal, begun in 1768, to the opening of the Cannock Extension in 1863. 

In its heyday the Birmingham Canal Navigations stretched for a hundred and sixty miles and were largely squeezed into an area of a little more than sixteen miles by fourteen. 

Phil Clayton
Phil Clayton

This, the greatest concentration of canals in the country, was a labyrinth of cuts, short cuts, arms, basins and branches.

Canals crossed canals on aqueducts, tunnels burrowed through hills and over 200 locks joined the various levels together.

Hundreds of boats plied their trade linking mines, furnaces and factories.

Pelsall Junction
Pelsall Junction

Even after closures and abandonments a hundred miles of these liquid timelines remain to be explored.  It still is exploration, for the system is changing all the time - just look at the middle of Birmingham. 

Mind, you don’t need a boat to explore the BCN,  I made all my early discoveries on foot or by bike.  In fact I’ve still got my old Birmingham A – Z with all the canals coloured in – you don’t need to do it with the new editions, they’re already in blue!


Stewart Aqueduct
Stewart Aqueduct

Thirty five years ago I arrived in the Black Country and started walking the canals of the BCN. 

I have vivid memories of night time walks through Round Oak Steelworks with glimpses of hot metal and fiery furnaces, of legging an old open day boat with a tilley lamp on one of its beams into Dudley Tunnel. Of digging out the towpath along the arm in what was to become the Black Country Museum. 

Other interests intervened but I was always drawn back to that magical network of waterways. In the late eighties I acquired a boat and in the early nineties I discovered the BCN Society. 

I found that they were a most welcoming group of people, so welcoming that I was soon on the Committee and editing the Society Journal Boundary Post. 


Cleaning up Walsall Canal
Cleaning up Walsall Canal

I learned that the BCN Society had been founded in 1968 at a time when our local canals were under threat.  Commercial carrying had finished and the leisure industry was in its infancy. 

Few visitors wanted to cruise canals which were generally perceived to be full of rubbish and semi-derelict. From its earliest days the BCN Society has been actively involved in schemes to preserve and restore stretches of canal under threat
of closure through neglect and under-use.  

A notable early success was the saving of the Oldbury Lock flight, a massive rescue undertaking which reached fruition in 1973.

Stalls at a BCNS rally
Stalls at a BCNS rally

During the next couple of decades the Society set out to place signposts at all the major junctions of this complex system of waterways to guide walkers, cyclists and boaters and there are now more than thirty signs around the BCN. 

In 1997, with the help of a Heritage Lottery Fund Grant the BCNS acquired its workboat, Phoenix, and in the summer of 2002 the Society moved into its own headquarters in the restored Titford Pumphouse at the top of Oldbury Locks; a fitting tribute to those early supporters who fought to save the lock flight.


Stewart Aqueduct
Stewart Aqueduct

Canals bring the countryside into the towns. Choose a day in May to stand at the foot of the twenty one locks which take the canal up into Wolverhampton or take a Spring walk through the Galton Valley in Sandwell; it’s sometimes hard to realise you’re in a massive conurbation.

Less than a mile away from the greenery of Galton Valley is one of my favourite places on the BCN. A secretive, out of the way spot which is passed unknowingly by thousands every day on the main line railway and motorway.

At the Stewart Aqueduct Thomas Telford’s canal of 1829 burrows under James Brindley’s earlier navigation while the Birmingham – Wolverhampton railway runs alongside and the M5 motorway crosses them all. Two centuries of transport history compressed into a hundred vertical feet. The Birmingham Canal Navigations are full of surprises like this.  


Cleaning up Walsall Canal
The BCNS in action in Walsall

Many parts of the BCN have been transformed. The canal is very much at the heart of developments around Brindley Place in Birmingham and other local centres like Walsall and Wolverhampton are following suit.

The Waterfront at Merry Hill is another area unrecognisable from the canal scene of thirty years ago.  Other stretches remain underused and unappreciated and the BCN Society, in co operation with other voluntary groups and British Waterways, works to
improve them. 

Pulling shopping trolleys, old bike wheels, sofas and empty gas bottles out of the canal is often more fun than it sounds ! 

A day out on Phoenix is always a worthwhile experience whether it’s cleaning up a stretch of waterway or, as we did before Christmas, chugging around the middle of Birmingham in the city’s Light Boat Parade. If you were there, we were the ones
with the fireworks and 'Steptoe & Son' !


Windmill End, Dudley
Windmill End, Dudley

Now in its fourth decade the BCN Society still continues to pursue the aims it was originally founded for.

We aim to conserve, improve and encourage a wide range of interests in the 100 mile network of canals around Birmingham and the Black Country, known as the Birmingham Canal Navigations.

So that, many years in the future, we can still have a canal network to be proud of.


The BCN Society welcomes new members. Please see our website for more information, or contact Phil.
E-mail:, or phone 01902 780920.

last updated: 27/01/06
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kathy bull [cooper]brownhills]cornwall
i remember the chemi hill leading to the cut all the old factorys ,we had some great times growing up in brownhills walking the canal bank from lichfield road round to ogley then onto the anchor bridge blackberry picking and the old locks it was great and i will never forget it keep up the good work.

chris Morgan
I come from South Wales to the BCN every March / April to join in the annual clean up, its a fascinating area, all the old industry and that. Well done to Phil and the BCNS.

Bob Cooper
I remember playing in the cut down Spon Lane and Bromford Lane in the 40's.Me and a mate pinched a barge one day and our parents and the police found us poling it towards Bromford Lane bridge.We swam and jumped the locks, we'd climb into the steel bridges that carried the railway alongside the cut, we also did this near the Albion Gas Works where we could cross the canal in between the girders and drop incendiary bombs,[ duds] that we had pinched from the Army Dump behind Bromford Lane.I remember also pinching the aeroplane wing fuel tanks from the dump and used them as rafts on the Sinkings [Segs] the outer cover of these tanks was made from a special type of rubber to help prevent fires on the plane, this made fantastic catapult rubber. I'm here in Tasmania now all teary and nostalgic about the cuts, also heard today that the Baggies have been knocked out of the cup by Portsmouth.Ah well.

Norman Round
I am 86 and I remember as a youngster swimming in the canal at Cinder Road Gornal Wood. The land on the righthand side was used by my grandfather to provide hay and fodder for his cattle kept on a field in Himley Road and I used to help in the gathering at haymaking time.

I love the canals and have run them from old hill to stourbridge and never get tired of them, nice to see parts of them are getting decent footpaths to encourage others, The abundance of wildlife and the people along the canals are a pleasure, even some of the young lads playing on makeshift rafts and fishing bring back old memories of may days in Bilston on the Sankey cut

Stan Hasketh
As a kid we played by Lane Head and Bentley sections of the canal with visits to Darlaston section from time to time. Since then I have boated most of the canals in the north of England. A great resource that should be protected. Great to think it will survive.

'TIN CAN COLLEGE' - our friend Philip Corbett from Australia. Here in Darby End we lovingly referred to it as 'THE WATERCRESS UNIVERSITY' - great to hear from someone who remembers the grand old school. The site has an Aldi stores on it now but I have still got a reasonably good photograph of the school in one of the Black Country Bugles, plus some photographs of the late 1940's senior staff. Hard disciplines in those days but we learned well.

Roy Wilkinson
Just a suggestion for Ken Douglas, try the Canal Museum Birchills Walsall.

Catherine Davies
I moved to Springfield when i was four. The nature reserve Warrens Hall Park was 5 minutes from my door. I was never aload over there to play as a child as my parents didn't understand nature. I moved from there when I was four. Then at the age of 38 I moved back here to where I grew up. Now every morning I wake up and from my window The park is what I see. I love every part of it and most people would think me sad by saying on a hot summers day sitting besides one of the 6 pools and many canals with my 3 collie dogs is my favourite place on earth. From not being aload there when i was young i go there every day now and watch it change through the seasons.

Netherton Tunnel pic on this page looks more like Coseley tunnel to me...?? Just a thought.

Gary, Devon (formerly Willenhall)
Not only an important part on industry but great fun too. As kids we used to play around the cut at Lane Head, Willenhall. We would jump in, swim and catch sticklebacks. Never thought twice about what was in there. How times have changed. I'd never let my boy swim in a canal. How times have changed!

Paul Connop (Nr Seattle USA)
I now live in the Pacific Northwest not far from Seattle but come originally from The Lye and its so nice to see things that I remember from my days working in Narrowboat Way Dudley. I used to sit on the side of the cut with my lunch and watch the birds and wildlife go by as just over my shoulder you could hear industry at full force just make you proud to be from the Black Country. Thanks for the pic's...

kenneth douglas
I am in the process of building a canal horse drawn boat. The type that moved cargo from the larger boats along the midland smaller canals, and was the home of the boatman and his family. I am having problems finding the various dimensions and I'm reduced to scaling from old photographs in the very few books available at our local library. All I need is a plane and side view, with a few dimensions, can you assist me. Ken Douglas

Andy Tilley Australia
Windmill End, Dudley I use to live in that street and play on the fields raft down the canal when i was a kid thanks for the memories

Philip Corbett Australia
Thanks for a trip down memory drain. l grew up in Old Hill Went to school at the Tin Can College, spent many a hour on my bike around Windmill End, biking on to the 9 locks.. Thanks for the Pic's..

Any one else remember ? If I recall correctly, the Black Country Museum originally began when a group ran "legging barges" (you could leg yourself if you wanted) through the canal tunnel and back, starting from the end where the old British Federal was, on a Sunday morning at a cost of 6d. (old money of course) These 'trips' may not have been anything to do with the museum, but it was certainly before the museum was built.

paul clemo
I have many happy memories of the canal especially the Stewart aquaduct. Back in the 70s we used a tarzan swing on many of the bridges along that stretch even out to the motorway pontoon in the middle of the canal. The highest of these swings being off the Spon Lane bridge, one reckless (brave)lad from Dawes Avenue estate climbed the 60 odd feet to fasten the rope. We also managed to get into the old coal building by climbing out over the cut under the coal chutes and then up the chutes inside. Another favourite was to wait on the canal bank under Spring Lane for the footballs kicked over by the Albion players training, after sending them back for a little while we would then make off with the ball and be at Chances before they got down the bank, not quite as fit as we were.

Rob Osborne (31yoa)
i live in dudley all my life,iv walked threw lots of tunnels in my time,with a light.and not got wet..But if u go in2 Netherton tunnel.its like a bowl of water.ppl say its dry,,but i know its not,and its not safe at all.the waterways want 2 do sumthing about it ,,but thay say we got no i wont be use,ing it agen.

keith jones
great stuff i used to enjoy fishing in baileys lane near ocker hill tipton. i now live in neath south wales

robert bradley
my main interest is the fazeley canel around castle vale - minworth and am looking for history of the "night soil" boats to minworth operated by Tame & rea. and the boats operated by hardy-spicers to the rover tyburn road and back

Thank you for a splendid pice on the wonders of BCN. I am especially glad to see I'm not the only one who thinks the layers of motorway-railway-canal (and glass factory) are especially interesting. Thanks also for not mentioning a certain Italian city, as the comparison will never be apt. Regional canals have their own strong identity and don't need others for comparison! I look forward to the day when the entire network is a linear park with pageants, parades, and the participation of people all along their routes.

how things change - no one with any 'class' went near gas sgtreet basin when it was a working canal era. now there's brick paved towpaths all the money is spent there by those who are fashionably wealthy.

Marilyn Bullock
I think this is a galant job and wish you all the best.

Allan Gilbert
Phil failed to mention that he edited the BCNS magazine, Boundary Post, for ten years. As Editor of the Inland Waterways Association's Midlands magazine, Navigation, I have always used Boundary Post as a valuable source of knowledge about all things BCN. Phil seemed to have a bottomless pit of information and along with author, Ray Shill, presented it every quarter without the need for repetition.

John Dodwell
Well done, BBC! Far too few people realise what a wonderful linear park the Birmingham Canal Navigataions provide to the people of the Black Country and Birmingham

J Eric Wood
I must add my name to those who have already congratulated you on this excellent article and superb photos of the BCN. There is no doubt that we should shout its praises from the roof tops. No one has such a wonderful canal system apart from Venice. We must do our best to ensure it is there for future generations and must supprt the Restoration of the Lichfield and Hatherton which will bring much need boat and tourism to the BCN. Well done.

Ron Cousens
I was one of the early members who dug out Oldbury Locks in the 70's and have been a member of the BCNS ever since. We could never have imagined in our wildest dreams then that one day we would have our own headquarters in the Pump House at the top of the locks. It makes us feel that our hard work actually achieved something after all!

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