One of my favorite walks is along the towpath of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. Managed by the Canal & River Trust (formerly British Waterways) the canal is just a couple of miles to the east of where I live in north Worcestershire.
Construction of the canal began in 1792, and was finally completed in 1815. Connecting central Birmingham (to the north) and Worcester (to the south, on the River Severn to which the canal connects), there is a drop in elevation of 130 m (428 feet). Fifty-eight locks were needed to navigate the topography, including the 30-lock flight at Tardebigge (also close to my home), one of the longest flights of locks in Europe, as well as five tunnels (including the Wasthill Tunnel under the Lickey Hills, at almost 2.5 km), and three reservoirs to ensure a constant supply of water to the canal. Near Tardebigge is the old engine house – now converted to luxury apartments – that pumped water from the Tardebigge Reservoir and kept the water level of the canal topped up below Tardebigge Top Lock. North of this lock towards central Birmingham, there are no locks.
With the building of the railways in the 19th century, many of the canals were abandoned for commercial traffic and fell into disrepair. Not until the middle of the 20th century did travel on the canals become a major leisure industry. Canals were rehabilitated and opened up for navigation once again all around the country.
The canal towpath is a haven for wildlife, and during the different seasons there is always a great variety of birds to observe, on the water and in the vegetation that hugs the canal on the opposite side from the towpath.
So why is it called a ‘towpath’? Before the days of steam traction or today’s diesel engines, canal boats were hauled along by men or, quite commonly, large working horses. In the video below, a narrowboat on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal is being pulled along as in days of yore. The video also excellently illustrates just how a canal lock works, the effort required to raise or lower the water level, and open and close the lock gates.
As I stroll alongside the Worcester and Birmingham Canal I never cease to wonder at what was involved to construct the canals at the end of the 18th century and early 19th. With access to little or no machinery, the canals were hand dug by huge squads of workers – the ‘navvies’ (derived from ‘navigator’ or ‘navigational engineer’ – who later went on to build the railways). Can you imagine what effort was required, what the working and living conditions must have been like for the men (and presumably their families, because we do know that wives and children followed the navvies when constructing the railways)? Not only had the canal bed or ‘cut’ to be dug, but the bed had to be lined in many places with clay to make them waterproof and reduce or prevent leakage. Then there were the elegantly constructed and brick lined canal locks and bridges. The lock gates themselves, most often made from oak, had to be man-handled into place, weighing many tons.
Now while one can wonder at all this when the canal is open for business as it were, when it’s drained and closed for maintenance – as was the case recently at Tardebigge Top Lock – you really can appreciate the scale of the whole endeavor, and what it takes today to repair the canal even with access to all sorts of machinery.