This summer I travelled with my bike from Derby to Kidderminster cycling along some beautiful lanes and canals, stepping off a new train and finishing on an old one.
Beginning at Willington, my route followed the Trent and Mersey Canal, Coventry Canal, Birmingham & Fazeley Canal then Birmingham Main Line Canal before leaving the waterways at Dudley to head west to the Severn Valley (fun fact: when in 1784 the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal Company merged with the Birmingham Canal Company it became, for 10 years no less, the ‘Birmingham and Birmingham and Fazeley Canal Company’).
Towpaths in the East Midlands were very bumpy and not really suitable for cycling. But it was a week day so I didn’t come across many walkers and as long as I went slowly I had a great time and the scenery was idyllic.
On the first night I stayed at the Camping and Caravan Club at Kingsbury, who were very helpful, friendly and good value. The only quirk worth mentioning is that the site is a black hole for phone signal for some reason!
As soon as you cross the border into Birmingham the towpath becomes an excellent cycle path, whilst the boat traffic disappears. What followed was a risk-free urban exploration into the underbelly of the West Midlands. The whole ride through Birmingham was truly remarkable.
It’s incredible that these canals have survived, in places now literally buried by 200 years of railways, roads, factories, housing and motorways, yet still navigable by narrow boat.
Perhaps the most striking example of this is at Spaghetti Junction.
I was slightly obsessed with the ungodly stylings of motorways as a kid, and so Spaghetti Junction attracted much fascination. On a trip to the West Midlands I successfully nagged my pa to drive us through the it (despite it being slightly out of our way). It was a huge let down, but cycling under it proved to be surprisingly rewarding.
Gravelly Hill, as the maps call the area, has been an important junction for centuries, the meeting point of the Birmingham & Fazeley, Tame Valley, and Grand Union Canals, meaning in times past one could sit at this place and watch boat traffic from the length and breadth of England pass by.
I recently discovered there is a word for such canal rubbernecking. Defined a something between back-seat driving, train-spotting and sunbathing: it’s called ‘Gongoozling’. Honestly!
Today’s traffic thunders overhead while the canals lie empty, but the waters flow remarkably clean and I spotted a Little Egret, Rainbow Trout, Grey Wagtail and followed throughout by an adorable Mallard family.
The cleanest waters flowed in the River Tame which threaded a remarkably wild-looking course beneath the canals, which themselves found their way underneath railway lines and local roads, the motorways on monumental concrete piles high above. It is quite a dystopian place. But if you come with no expectations, quite reassuring too.
Tunnelling through Birmingham
Further into Birmingham some sections are so dark that headlights are needed and there are some very steep ramps up and down: fun once you get the hang of them, but you do need to pay attention, especially when carrying a tent. Once adjusted the ups and downs are lots of fun, becoming something of a platform game.
I stopped off at Birmingham Library, which was overfull with young people trying to revise for A-Levels (adults! We need to fund more study spaces!).
Continuing on beyond the City Centre I had to walk a little while because the queue for Ariana Grande at the Birmingham Arena was strung out along the narrow tow path. There was a jostling with refusenik cycle commuters and joggers, and perhaps inevitably someone ended up in the drink and had to be pulled out.
Into Dudley the canals gasp for air beneath the M5 motorway and I would shortly leave them headed West. J R R Tolkien grew up in Worcestershire and watched this part of the West Midlands become urbanised and industrialised. In the prologue of the Lord of the Rings he laments the loss of this countryside and admits he was likely inspired by it when writing the chapter “the Spoiling of the Shire”. This route brought that to life.
The Severn Valley
The second night I stayed at the wonderful Unicorn Inn, Hampton Loade. Due to the bridge being gated off at Hampton I had to do a long detour to Bridgenorth to get there, but the campsite were unruffled by my request to arrive after midnight. The cheap breakfast, friendly staff and sunshine was very welcome.
I then caught the morning diesel on the Severn Valley Railway to Kidderminster. The Station Master was more than happy to take my bicycle (although the fare was cash only – is that surprising for a steam railway?). And so my trip ended!
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