When visiting Birmingham it is almost inevitable to come across the proud boast that the city has ‘More Canals than Venice’. Birmingham has been called the ‘Venice of the North’ but this isn’t a title that it holds uniquely because it has also been applied to Saint Petersburg, Bruges, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Manchester and Edinburgh amongst others.
It is important to understand that the city makes this claim on the basis of waterway length because it has over one hundred miles of navigable waterways compared with about sixty in Amsterdam and just twenty five in Venice. But thinking in terms of the number of canals, it is wrong; Birmingham only really has six canals whereas Amsterdam has 165 and Venice has 177. I am just saying.
After walking around the Civic Centre we made our way now to Brindleyplace which is at the heart of the canal infrastructure of the city and which has been regenerated and thoroughly reinvented as a tourist attraction. By the 1970s Birmingham’s canals were in a serious state of disrepair, crumbling away, dirty and smelly and lined by derelict warehouses and the City Council even considered a proposal to fill them in and turn them into cycle routes but canal enthusiasts would not allow this to happen and instead they approved a multi-million pound restoration scheme.
I have always been fond of canals because when I was a boy we lived near the Oxford Canal that had been commissioned in 1769 and built by the canal builder James Brindley. The canal was an incredibly dangerous place really but of course we didn’t realise that at the time. During the summer we used to wait at top lock and offer to open and close the gates for passing canal craft in the hope that we would receive a few pennies for our labours.
If the canal was dangerous then the locks were doubly so but this didn’t stop us from daring each other to jump from the elevated tow path down about three metres and two and a half metres across to the central section of the double locks. I shudder to think about it now. We used to swim in the canal too and that was a stupid thing to do as well. Not only was the murky water about two metres deep and lurking with danger but it was also full of bacteria and germs especially in the black cloying mud on the bottom that would ooze through your toes so it’s a miracle that we didn’t catch typhoid or something else really, really awful.
Talking of catching things, we used to go fishing down the canal and this wasn’t quite so dangerous except when my friend Colin Barratt (who was forbidden by his parents to go to the canal on account of not being able to swim) fell in while struggling to land a four-ounce Perch with a homemade rod and line.
One minute he was standing on the towpath with his garden cane rod and bit of string and there was an almighty splash and Colin was thrashing about in the water struggling for his life. Between us we dragged him out without having to jump in ourselves and took him home and didn’t see him again for about three months after that but to make him feel better we told him that it was a monster Pike that had pulled him in.
The last time that I had lunch by the side of a canal was in Venice at the Ristorante Da Raffaele and although there were no gondolas gliding by in Birmingham it was just as nice to sit by the side of the water in the sunshine and enjoy a pasta in the UK Midlands and after lunch we walked for a while along the towpaths before heading back to the city centre, New Street railway station and a short return train ride.
I had enjoyed the day in Birmingham and look forward to going back some time soon.