Birmingham by Canal

A guest post (thank you!) by my son who lives in Birmingham at the moment. The post muts rank among the most interesting ones on this blog.

The bike my son´s speaking about is this: https://starostneradost.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=11458&action=edit

 

 

One of the staple ingredients of touristy cycling in Britain are its canals. Once major transport arteries, they form quite an extensive route network in certain areas and are home to some impressive Victorian engineering to be marvelled at. Most of this impressive engineering only serves the purpose of eliminating any height difference in order to keep the canal perfectly level, or to allow the boats to negotiate any height difference.

 

With the advent of railways and motorways, most canals lost their relevance as transport arteries and were in some cases left to decay or even built over. Those which do survive serve mainly recreational and touristy purposes, both in terms of navigation and cycling. The towpaths along most canals allow for very scenic rides, uninterrupted by noisy motor traffic. The lack of any height difference eliminates the need for exhausting climbs, save for some shorter ‘ramps’ at some overbridges or locks.

 

The story is a slightly different one with the canal I recently visited: The Worcester and Birmingham Canal, which runs through a very densely populated area. Along its towpath, one can cycle from Wasthill Tunnel near the outer suburbs of Birmingham to Gas Street Basin, located in the very centre. Along the way, it passes major traffic destinations such as several railway stations, Queen Elizabeth Hospital and the University of Birmingham. This means that this specific canal is used by a certain number of commuters and forms a major cycling artery for the south-western parts of Birmingham.

 

To gather the material used in this post, I rode the length of the canal between Gas Street Basin/The Mailbox and Wasthill Tunnel several times. That provided me with enough observations and photos for a blogpost on an enjoyable and scenic ride along a canal. Drawing on these observations, I will then go on to making some remarks about the usefulness of this route for daily commuting, which the majority of cyclists I encountered seem to be using this path for.

 

The bike I used for all the rides is my current daily rider: A Dutch Gazelle, which I brought along from Germany. It may not seem to be the most appropriate choice for the somewhat hilly geography round here, but so far I haven‘t had any issues at all with its weight. I got the bike just a few months ago, so I am not completely used to its exact dimensions and its weight, which turned out to be quite a bit of a challenge on the narrow paths along the canal. As Dutch bikes are quite a rarity in this neck of the woods, it‘s been a conversation-starter several times.

 

I joined the canal path at Selly Oak, near the Bristol Road (B384) overbridge. Getting there meant using the somewhat narrow cycle paths along the A38 Selly Oak Bypass.

 

1 SOakNarrow

 

Yep, that path is barely wide enough to accommodate one bike, yet it is meant to be two-way. On the opposite side of the road, there is exactly the same arrangement – that effectively makes four substandard cycle lanes along the same road, when providing two adequate ones could have been done so easily. A few yards along the road, this path narrows even further and is squeezed between a traffic light pole and metal railings, before ending abruptly. Cyclists are left to deal with the messy road junction that is Selly Oak Triangle. The A38, B384, and A4040, all of them busy roads, converge into a sea of traffic lights, with several supermarket car parks thrown in for good measure. Somewhere in that mess, the access ramp to the canal is to be found after some searching.

 

Once you’ve found the access to the canal, nicely hidden behind the back of the car dealership, you’ve finally made it.

 

2 OnCanal

 

After passing underneath the B384 overbridge, we get a rather magnificient view of Selly Oak Railway Bridge.

 

3 SOakRailBridge

 

The railway and the canal run fairly close to each other, and the B384 climbs quite steeply to pass under the railway and over the canal.

 

4 SOakBillboard

 

Considering the traffic on Selly Oak Triangle that we just escaped from, the derelict plot of land in the foreground and the graffiti on the bridge, that advertising billboard just adds insult to injury.

 

5 RailOverbridge

 

The railway overbridge makes for the first nasty squeeze, with the canal narrowing to the width of a single boat and the ceiling over the towpath getting distinctly low. With hindsight, it’s not too much of an inconvenience, considering the things to come. After the bridge, we can catch our first glimpse of the University of Birmingham.

 

6 UniFirstGlimpse

 

The tower on the left is a large chimney stack. In the middle, Muirhead Tower, home to the School of Government and Society, shows its concrete and glass glory. The clock tower on the right is Europe‘s tallest free-standing clock tower, Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Tower. Colloquially, it is known as ‘Old Joe’ among the staff and students of the University.

 

Just as we think that we can finally pick up some speed, the path and canal narrow again:

 

7 ApprAqueduct

 

The narrower section with the concrete ‘pavements’ in the distance is on top of Selly Oak Aqueduct. The clock tower in the top-left hand corner belongs to the Old Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

 

8 AquedTopRbt

 

The viaduct takes the canal and the railway over the A38 Selly Oak Bypass and its hideous cycle lanes. I caught the A38 at an unusually quiet moment – usually, traffic is getting in lane (read: queueing and fighting for space) for the roundabout. A few hundred yards later, traffic plunges into Selly Oak Triangle.

 

9 AquedTopHalls

 

On the other side of the aqueduct, the A38 runs between several privatised Student Halls and approaches the Campus itself, hugging its southern boundary, before proceeding towards the city centre.

 

A little further along, the canal starts hugging the western edge of the University campus. Through some gaps in the foliage, we are allowed some views of the campus – with some strategically positioned signs to match.

 

10 UniFoliageSign

 

We continue on our journey. To our right, the campus begins immediately behind the trees, although you‘d never guess. To our left, the same applies to University Station – yep, there‘s a complete, working railway station hidden behind the fence and the shrubs.

 

11ContJourney

 

Next on the list are the overbridges for Pritchatts Road and Somerset Road. There is no connection between Pritchatts Road and the canal, which caught me out on my first visit. You‘ll have to deviate either via the University‘s West Gate overbridge or Somerset Road overbridge. Getting to the canal from these bridges requires negotiating a flight of stairs – not exactly ideal. At The Vale, there is an access ramp to the overbridge, as well as ample space and some benches for taking a break.

 

12 TheVale

 

The railway needs to make a larger bend to line up for the upcoming tunnel, so it runs several metres away from the canal at this point, freeing up the space for this resting area and the gently curved access ramp to The Vale. The only issue is that we are still hugging the University‘s western boundary – the bridge does not connect to a public right of way. However, the University does allow public access ‘during daylight hours’, according to the signs. Talking of signs, there is another strategically positioned photo opportunity:

 

13 ValeSign

 

The large tower is part of the Maple Bank complex of The Vale, the University‘s own student halls.

 

 

14 ValeCont

 

After a good rest, we continue once more. It is only now that the railway starts to become more apparent – right behind the green fence on the left. A little further around the bend, Edgbaston Tunnel awaits us.

 

 

 

15 Tunnel 16 InsideTunnel

 

That path on the left is exactly wide enough for one bicycle – panniers will be challenging; a trailer nigh on impossible. One always needs to make perfectly sure there is nobody coming the other way, and then squeeze between the railings and the wall. Certainly an experience.

 

17 AfterTunnel

 

After the tunnel, the railway line does not make a secret of itself any more. What follows is an arrow-straight run of almost half a mile up to the next overbridge, visible in the distance.

 

Virtually all of these bridges are built in a similar fashion, creating the illusion of the canal continuing almost forever in a non-changing environment. It is only when you arrive at the overbridge for the A4540 Middleway Ring Road, which of course is a 1960s concrete job, that you realise things are about to become a bit more urban in a moment. Or are they?

 

18 AfterMiddleways

 

This shot is taken immediately after the Middleway Overbridge, facing the city centre. Not exactly urban, is it? Round the gentle curve, we meet the last overbridge before the end of the canal. In the meantime, this bridge has gained some scaffolding, narrowing the path to about two feet.

 

19 LastOverbridge

 

Immediately behind that bridge – boom! We‘re right in the city centre.

 

20 boom

 

The three photos above were taken within a hundred metres of each other – that‘s a sudden transition! Gas Street Basin, the point from which almost all of Birmingham‘s canals start, is around the corner to the left.

 

Now compare and contrast this to the other end of the line (or at least the towpath): The northern portal of Wasthill Tunnel, eight miles away in the outer suburbs.

 

21 WasthillTunnel

 

That tunnel is too long to allow for any pedestrian and cycle traffic.

 

So, I hear you saying, we’ve got this de facto cyclepath that dumps you right in the city centre after an extremely scenic ride, and cleverly avoids South Birmingham’s traffic-throttling suburbs on the way. The spacing (or lack, depending on your point of view) of junctions or crossroads, with all crossings being grade-separated thanks to the use of overbridges, makes for almost motorway-like cruising along at speeds usually unachievable on surface roads, with little or nothing interfering with progress. Commuters must love it, surely?

 

Well, I’m not so sure.

 

It is the towpath’s grade-separated nature, avoiding any crossings on the level, that also is among its biggest flaws. Getting onto the path or turning off can get challenging in some cases. At many overbridges, the towpath and the crossing road do not connect at all, as in the case of Pritchatts Road, Raddlebarn Road, or the Selly Oak Bypass (the latter probably being explained by the height difference) or only by means of a steep flight of stairs, such as University Station/West Gate, Somerset Road, or Bath Row. This means that cycle and disabled access is severely limited. Over the eight-mile journey, there are just six places where you can get to or off the path without negotiating a flight of stairs: The Mailbox, The Vale, Selly Oak, Pershore Road, Lifford Lane, and Wasthill Tunnel/Foyle Road. Most of these points are concentrated towards the southern parts of the canal, i.e. away from the city centre. The turnoff at The Vale has the additional problem that it does not connect to any public right of way. A sign at the end of the bridge informs you that you are entering the University’s private land, which, according to the sign “the public is welcome to use during daylight hours”. This effectively leaves you without any level access between The Mailbox and Selly Oak, a distance of three miles. In many countries, rural motorway junctions are spaced closer than that!

 

Cycle commuting along the Worcester and Birmingham Canal is only feasible for those commuting from the south-western corner of Birmingham to either the University or city centre. However, the outer suburbs such as Bromsgrove or Redditch are too far away to make cycling a truly feasible option for most people. The main radial roads that the canal route could bypass are the A38 Bristol Road and the A441 Pershore Road. Especially the latter is severly lacking in terms of cycling infrastructure. The A38 has seen major investment in the form of the Selly Oak bypass scheme, which came with some rather hideous cycling provisions. My daily commute involves crossing both of these roads on the level, and the congestion has to be seen to be believed. The general southern Birmingham area is characterised by an apalling lack of both cycling and driving infrastructure. During the evening rushhour, Cannon Hill Park basically becomes a cycling motorway, only to come to a screeching halt at the badly congested B4217 Salisbury Road. In terms of driving infrastructure, there’s the A435 Hollywood Bypass and ermmm… well. Again, the rat-running and ensuing congestion along residential roads such as Stoney Lane and Yardley Wood Road has to be seen to be believed.

 

So, what is there that stops this towpath from becoming a cycling superhighway, convincing commuters to switch from driving to cycling en masse?

 

In terms of alignment, not much at all. Okay, some bends are a bit tight, reducing forward visibility. Vertical alignment? Well, it’s a canal, so it has to be dead flat of course. The locks at Parson’s Hill Junction actually come with a sign explaining that these locks are studiously maintaining a water level difference of one inch (!) between the different branches. Except for some ducking under overbridges, you’ll get from Stirchley to The Mailbox with just a few feet of ascending and descending.

 

It is this ducking under bridges and threading through Edgbaston Tunnel, that makes things hairy. Under most bridges, you really need to mind your head as these are almost invariably of the arched type, compromising headroom over the towpath quite badly. In most of these places, the path is not wide enough to accomodate traffic in both direction at the same time – you have to take it in turns with oncoming traffic. This is an especially large issue inside Edgbaston Tunnel – the path, hemmed in by the tunnel wall on one side and railing between the path and the water on the other side, is barely wide enough for one bicycle. Two pedestrians will struggle to squeeze past each other, so pushing your bike is not an option. The only option: Crank your neck round the edge one last time to check for oncoming traffic, take your life in your hands and cycle through it. Thankfully, ending up in the water is nigh on impossible. Accidentally steering towards the water or ‘ricocheting’ off the tunnel wall and then ending up in the water is made impossible by the railing.

 

Generally, width is a bit of an issue on the whole path, even on the ‘open’ sections. The path could certainly do with an extra foot or two in most places. However, this is much easier said than done due to the path being sandwiched between the railway line and the, well, canal. Roadspace, both in terms of pavement and verges, really is at a premium, and it is up to the users to avoid ending up in the water. Especially during your first few rides, this can be quite unsettling. Due to these width constraints and the lack of forward visibility mentioned earlier, overtaking slower cyclists or pedestrians becomes an extremely hairy business.

 

What really got me, though, is the state of the road surface. I know that this specific towpath is lucky to have a paved surface, but I daresay it would almost be better to go without it in this case. Compared to the unpaved south edge of the Birmingham Canal, I am almost tempted to say that the latter was a lot smoother to ride on and allowed for higher speeds, save for the odd muddy puddle. On the Worcester and Birmingham canal, you will need a mountain bike with full suspension in order to maintain at least a decent speed without having your bike shaken to bits or, even worse, shedding your load into the water.

 

I have some very fond memories of zooming along the recently opened Véloroute du Lin in norther France last summer, for long stretches maintaining 40kph except for the somewhat daft junction arrangements, forcing traffic on the Véloroute to stop and give way at every single crossing, including the tiniest and most overgrown of dirt tracks. On the Worcester and Birmingham Canal with its grade-separated junctions, even 20kph will become an incredibly shaky business. Of course, this comparison is not a truly just one as I used different bikes for these trips: The Ellis-Briggs Randonneur I used in France may be much more appropriate for maintaining high speeds in cramped conditions than the much heavier and larger Gazelle I used here. Nevertheless, the point about the truly awful road surface remains.

 

 

To conclude: Is the towpath of that much use for cycling? I’m afraid not. While the idyllic setting lends itself to recreational cycling, the disadvantages discussed above do constrain the recreational value. If squeezing between oncoming traffic and a tall fence while being shaken to bits by the bad road surface is your idea of recreation, then go right at it. Everyday commuting? Progress is not as quick as it could or should be, and you will often find yourself having to use or even doubling back along other roads to destinations located in the immediate vicinity of the canal due to the lack of access, which somewhat defeats the point of riding along the canal in the first place. Again, the road surface does constrain speeds quite dramatically. Any load you accidentally shed from your luggage rack or your panniers almost inevitably ends up in the water – not exactly the fate you imagined for your laptop or these vitally important project files.

 

How could the situation be improved? Well, it’s obvious, really: Widening the path by an extra foot or two (where possible) will eliminate the hairiest of squeezing manoeuvres, but what’s really needed is resurfacing. In my view, improving the towpath that way would be a much more feasible way of providing truly cycle-friendly infrastructure than the rather hideous cycle lanes along the A38.

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