A monochromatic cat peers timidly through the scraper cover of a narrowboat and eyed my kayak suspiciously. Nearby, a flock of Canada geese waddle nonchalantly across a slipway as strands fly overhead.
Elsewhere on the canal, a cheerful vendor sells fudge from a boat galley and drinkers mingle on sun-drenched terraces. The serenity is broken only by the chatter that emanates from grinning friends, groups of roaring teenagers and the odd bachelor and bachelor party crowds reveling in weekend getaways.
In such an environment, it’s hard to believe I’m in a city. And not just any city – this is Birmingham, the second largest city in Great Britain. And, it turns out, the city of the country’s canals. Amazingly, it has more kilometers of canals than Venice and Amsterdam, but its historic waterways somehow go largely overlooked.
Hopefully that will change soon. Amid last summer’s Covid restrictions, charity Roundhouse was testing quiet guided kayak tours along the canals of Birmingham city centre. Buoyed by their success, they’ve just re-launched them for their first full season, hoping to change people’s perceptions of these often misrepresented titans and provide visitors and residents alike with a more sustainable way to enjoy the city .
“It’s a secret legacy,” says Keith Wraight, Roundhouse’s program and partnerships manager, who helped launch Bustling Birmingham Kayak Tours. “It’s fun, but in two hours you learn a lot about Birmingham’s heritage and history without realizing it. Due to Birmingham’s industrial heritage, there has always been an image that the canals are not a pretty place. But now people have turned and embraced the channels and we want to show that.”
The tours are part of the culmination of an eight-year project between the Canal & River Trust and the National Trust to refurbish and repurpose the Roundhouse, a Grade I listed 1874 circular brick building originally used as the Council’s stables and storerooms. The newly refurbished block, which now houses a visitor center with exhibitions and offices, is also the starting point for a range of sustainable city tours, both guided and self-guided, on foot and by bike, and by water.
It’s heritage through stealth
Roundhouse has trained volunteers to become British canoe instructors who act as guides and give participants a taste of the 56km canals that meander through the city center (by comparison, Venice is said to be just 42km long, Amsterdam 50km).
The first stop on my kayaking tour was Oozells Loop, a small basin that was once home to a plethora of factories including a grain and sawmill and a lumberyard. Leisure-seekers used to stay away, the thick black blanket of coal dust smeared on the walls, the stinging air, the refuse from the horses that pulled the boats, and the industrial filth, all warnings that these were pure working waters.
But nowadays the great cast iron and stone bridges have been renovated, towpaths rebuilt and spruced up warehouses converted into upscale apartments and leisure complexes. A block of Smart Flats still bears the Baxter Paperworks name, the first company to patent and manufacture the square-bottomed paper bags we still use today.
Nigel Sisman, one of our volunteer guides, recounted how work on Birmingham’s first canal began in 1768 under James Brindley, the remarkable engineer behind Manchester’s already groundbreaking canal building programme. Other channels followed and business boomed; Importing and exporting heavy goods like coal and iron became easier, quicker and cheaper, and as the Industrial Revolution swept the Midlands, the canals became the motorways of their day, the city’s artery, with gas lighting installed at every lock , to allow 24-hour use.
We paddled along to Gas Street Basin, where we saw an old icebreaker boat, notable for having the underside of its bow sticking out of the water. When canals froze over – which was common at the time – such boats were sent out, pulled and rocked by up to 20 horses, to break up the ice.
Further down was the Mailbox, once the UK’s largest sorting office for Royal Mail and now full of waterfront restaurants, hotels and designer brands. In his previous incarnation, artisans in the city’s famous jewelry district would send their work there on Fridays and arrange for it to be returned to them on Monday morning, as it was safer than leaving it in their workshops.
The canals became the highways of their day, the city’s jugular artery, with gas lighting at each lock to allow 24-hour use
Nigel, who works in the gas industry, told me he had joined the Roundhouse volunteers to show people the real Birmingham. His colleague Helen Colson, who also accompanied us, uses it to get back into a more relaxed lifestyle; A country soul by nature, she had to move to the city for her job in IT and finds the calm of the water healing.
Judging by the noise emanating from the canalside terraces, the symbols of Birmingham’s industrial past have already done a pretty good job of reinventing themselves.
The bustling Birmingham kayak tour with Roundhouse Birmingham is £30 per person or £25 for concessions including children under 12 and students.
There are direct trains to Birmingham from London, Cardiff, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Leeds and more.
Make a weekend of it and spend a night or two in this vibrant city, which is hosting the Commonwealth Games this summer.
For an eco-friendly stay, try the Clayton Hotel. As part of their commitment to green tourism, no waste goes to landfill and most lights have been upgraded to LED. They have also reduced their carbon footprint, planting tree seedlings and recycling old pallets to create a rooftop bee hotel and vegetable and herb gardens. Under their current Easter package, double rooms for two people are priced from £99 per night, B&B.
Alternatively, follow in the footsteps of Charlie Chaplin, the Rolling Stones and Tom Cruise and stay at the historic, Grade II listed Grand Hotel, which has recently reopened after a £50million refurbishment. From £129 room only.
For a fancy post-kayaking brunch, head to The Pig and Tail in Birmingham’s Jewelery Quarter. Its “ethical-sustainable-respectful” ethos ensures products are locally sourced and only renewable energy is used. Guests are encouraged to share their eclectic plates and platters, like the baharat-blackened monkfish with curried yogurt or homemade double chocolate brownies served with a variety of accompaniments. You can also help yourself to a board game or sample a local beer from the Attic and Glasshouse breweries.