Page published 7 May 2014
To discover why I was here see the Introductory Page.
Having completed the first part of my walk on the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, which I started part way up the Aston Flight, I was ready to continue the next 800 yards along the towpath to reach the next set of locks, the Farmer's Bridge Flight.
Those coming down the Farmer's Bridge Flight have this view of Aston Junction and the top lock of the Aston Flight.
First, I crossed the distinctive cast iron footbridge over the top lock of the Aston Flight. Under the arch of the next bridge, I turned to take a photograph of the view that those coming down the Farmer's Bridge Flight would see - the top lock of the Aston Flight and, further to the right, the start of the Digbeth Branch, with the first of several redundant arches on the towpath that I would later encounter.
Looking back at the first bridge on this length, the towpath rises and falls constantly as it passes over the.entrance bridges to various wharfs and basins that were once found on this canal.
Once upon a time this was plainly an exceptionally busy part of the canal network with many basins opening of the main line. The first bridge the towpath passes over is still in water, but looks silted up as it stops short at the brick wall of some warehouse. The second has been bricked up canalside. The next bridge was different again. It leads to a car park!
Yet another bridge to nowhere! This one just has a car park on the other side.
Passing under the next bridge the canal straightens out with a clear view of what is still called the Post Office Tower, though, these days, sporting the BT logo. In the distance is Barker Bridge, it's name picked out in white on the cast iron supports to its deck. The area shows signs of money having been spent on it a few years ago. There was clearly new planting done at the time, though this seems to have suffered from a lack of attention since. This length of the canal has also been furnished with benches which seem to be standing up well. While the view may not be the most picturesque, on my return nearer lunch time, a number were in use by workers eating sandwiches and enjoying the sun while others were even fishing.
In the distance is Barker Bridge and the first boat I saw on my excursion.
I'd already spotted one pair of Canada Geese near Aston Junction. Now I spot another. I soon discovered there seemed to be a pair every few hundred yards. The spacing between pairs had me wondering what determines the separation distance. The lake behind our house in Norfolk has a resident pair of geese that return every year. As it reaches nesting time the male starts to get very aggressive, chasing of all other Canada Geese but his mate.
I had to assume that ritual had not taken place here. If it had the females would be on the nest but I saw no sign of a nest, nor any single birds, suggesting a female was hidden away somewhere on a nest. Perhaps these were young birds and not yet fully ready for mating? I never did work it out.
The first boat I saw was moored close to Barker Bridge.
Just before passing under Barker Bridge I came across the first boat I had seen during my walk. It appeared to be a half finished project, rather than one ready to cruise. Given the position of the ladder strategically sited by a window of the building by which it was moored, I had to assume that whoever it was who owned the boat must be fairly athletic!
Unlike our Norfolk geese, these seemed remarkably tame and unconcerned by passers-by.
Having returned down the Farmer's Bridge Flight, I found the first pair of geese I encountered utterly unconcerned by me walking past. They didn't even bother to put both feet on the ground, to make a quick get away easier. At home our geese would take to the water before allowing a human to approach as close as I did to take the photograph here.
At Snow Hill Bridge the canal dramatically narrows, or so it seems. It's mainly the effect of the widened road that makes the the last few yards before the beginning of the flight of locks so dark and more like a tunnel than a simple bridge. Over head you can see buildings that span the canal. It makes me wish I'd turned round at the other side and taken a photograph so I could see what the back of those buildings looked like.
The lock on the far side of Snow Hill Bridge marks the beginning of the Farmer's Bridge Flight.
However, once through the bridge a feeling of narrowness is retained as the buildings close in much closer to the canal and somehow seem taller as a result, but what chiefly took my mind off the buildings that must have been overhead behind me was the huge looming arch ahead.
The mood changes dramatically as you pass under Snow Hill Bridge. The buildings close in around you and ahead appears a huge railway arch.
Beyond the lock the buildings on the left seem to be left over from the heyday of the canal, with many windows, and even a large loading bay doorway bricked up - but there is a hint of modernity ahead as we get closer to Birmingham's Post Office Tower.
The old factory buildings with doorways and ground and first floor level bricked up or converted to windows speak of much and continuing change in the area.
There was something about the buildings, particularly the older ones on the left, that I found fascinating. I couldn't help but wonder at what might have been made or stored in those buildings a couple of centuries ago and how long ago it was that the doorways were bricked up, in some case in stages, with a doorway becoming a window and then the window bricked up.
Thinking about it - with so much width for tracks above, why didn't I hear a single train while I was near that arch?
It wasn't until I stepped right up to the arch that I really appreciated its size. It utterly dwarfed the more traditional canal bridge on the far side. One can understand why, to Victorian railway engineers, that canals would have seemed so "last century"!
More mixed architecture surrounds you, with 20th century buildings in evidence, as you move up the flight.
Beyond the great railway arch the scene seems much the same as before, except that the buildings closer to the lock appear 20th century rather than 18th or 19th while ahead there are signs of still more modern commercial buildings. Looking back the railway arch still dominates.
I'd like to say that at this second lock I remembered to turn round but, in fact, this view was taken later on my return.
At the next lock a flood is in evidence, but looking at the photographs I realise that the bridges below these two locks both have a pair of panels let into the bridges. I wish I had taken more notice of them at the time and worked out what function they had. These two appear to be the only original bridges left on the flight. All the others are modern or have been significantly extended destroying the original parapets.
I took this photograph as I was concerned about the leak in the lock wall that was spilling a steady stream of water down the towpath.
Flood may be too strong a word, but when I first saw the water spilling down the ramp I could imagine this turning to ice and making the incline impassable in winter. Of greater concern was whether it indicated a significant cavity somewhere below and that a collapse of the lock wall could occur. However, on my return the water level in the lock as a couple of inches lower and the sun had completely dried the towpath, so I decided the leak was less serious than I had first thought.
Another view of the lock which was spilling water down the towpath, but this one was taken on my return.
From this point on the nature of the flight changes again. The redevelopment of this part of the city a few years ago brought a dramatic change to the canal. Once redevelopment might have obliterated all trace of the canal, turning the basins alongside the main line into car parks and factories, as it had a couple of decades earlier further down the canal. However, by the turn of the century the scenic and historic interest that canals can bring to a cityscape brought a change in attitude. Now they are scene as a form of urban linear park.
In this re-development the canal appears almost untouched, yet engulfed by the new building.
I recognised this part of the flight, where the canal is incorporated into the new buildings built over it, from photographs in Waterways magazines that I read some 15 years ago. Indeed, it was the reason I had wanted to visit the area. I was not disappointed, but still left a little puzzled. I found it impossible to confirm whether the bay beside the canal was conventional side pound, designed to catch water between locks where there is a very short pound, or whether it indicated that the locks were, at one time, dualled. From what I have read of the history of the canal they never were, but I'd like to know how I could tell that from the evidence on the ground.
From this and the previous photograph you can see this lock is completely within the footprint of the building overhead.
You get a hint of why I was confused about the existence of once dualled locks from the photograph below. The left hand arch, protected with railings, could so easily have been the way to a second lock.
Up ahead you can just make out a second arch in an early bridge, which added to my confusion about evidence of dualled locks in the past.
As I climbed the steps to the next lock I was captivated by some graffiti on the wall. It was difficult to make some of it out as much of the image appeared warped as if captured in a reflection of rippling water in the lock, but I thought I could see church spires, modern office blocks, and perhaps what I was later told was Birmingham's Library building, with its unusal circles on its otherwise windowless walls. I seemed that most other graffiti artists respected and avoided making their marks over it, but did that mean that those that did cover it were part of the original work?
The intriguing graffiti.
Having stared at the graffiti for a while I then found myself thinking about the lock and the arched bridge that ran directly over it. Normally, a bridge will cross the canal at the tail of a lock, as seen on all the previous locks on this flight and many others on the network. It's the natural place to put it as, normally, given the gradient the canal is climbing, it avoids the need for steep ramps on either side of the bridge.
A bridge over the middle of a lock is unusual, and here you can see how the bridge had later been widened with a much wider single span.
This time, however, it wasn't just the fact that the bridge crossed the lock itself that had got me thinking, but it's twin arches, which made me continue to question whether perhaps this really was evidence that dual locks had, at least, been allowed for when the flight was planned.
Looking uphill from Newall Street Bridge - now it seemed there were only modern buildings to be seen.
Looking back at the first bridge on this length, the towpath rises and falls constantly as it passes over the.entrance bridges to various wharfs and basins that were once found on this canal.
Emerging from the low tunnel over the lock I saw ahead only modern buildings. There were no more of the old factories and warehouses that had been in evidence on the first part of the flight. However the buildings still had a semi-industrial look to them. It was the large grey grills and open spaces below that did it. Another thing that caught my eye was the way the nearest building was suspended above the water rather than emerge from it.
It took me another minute or so to realise there was another significant change - building use! The golden tinsel dangling in the large windows in the building on the left was occupied by an Indian restaurant. A large sign on the wall opposite gave a clue. It revealed I was entering the "Convention Quarter".
The sign also told of much else in the area. For example, I hadn't realised that I'd just come past "the internationally renowned Aston Science Park and Aston University" which "are located close to the canal at Aston Junction". For some reason I hadn't connected the Canal's Aston Junction with either of those places.
I was, however, aware of Birmingham's "Jewellery Quarter", though not by that name. The sign told me that this "is the centre of a thriving jewellery industry and has been for 200 years". I had forgotten that the Birmingham Assay Office was on Newall Street and read that it can be seen "on leaving the towpath". Once again, I had separated the Newall Street Bridge I had just passed under with a name that I should have recalled from other things I should have known about Birmingham.
Working up the Farmer's Bridge Flight.
On my way back down the flight I encountered a hire boat working up the flight.There were a couple on board with a wonderfully contented looking black Labrador who lay in silently on the aft deck of it's "semi-trad" stern. I'd have loved to have spent a little time talking, but it was after 12:30, they were busy and undoubtedly anxious to reach the top lock before taking time off for lunch.
Against the dark background I only realised the dog was there after I had taken the photograph.
By this stage in the climb up the flight we have moved into a domestic area. Now we are surrounded by posh looking flats, not factories!
There is still some canalside land awaiting redevelopment. I can imagine that no one in the existing block will want a similar one opposite
As we get further into the "Convention Quarter" it is plain that this is a more recent development - the "Canalside Walk" sign here is dated 2008, not 2000.
Does B.C.P. really stand for "Big City Plan", which is what a "google" for those initials seem to suggest?
People sometimes say that modern architecture is all the same. You can begin to see the point as you move through this part of Birmingham. It's only the interesting footbridge over the canal that seems to give you any sense that this view is much different from a couple of the earlier ones.
I've tried to find if the bridge beyond the lock has a special name but, so far, have failed.
Bridges are key to many a waterway and when there were so many over canals that it's understandable that for simplicity Canal companies almost always numbered them. Equally it's understandable that the old boatmen tended to give key bridges nicknames - and the notice by Bridge 12 on the Birmingham and Fazeley is but one example.
The wording of the notice seems strange to me. What exactly is uncertain and only alleged, that boatmen were paid, that boatmen were paid on Saturdays or that the location is in doubt?
A strangely worded notice by Bridge 12.
Whatever the answer to the question, one thing is certain, wages for boatmen were not paid from the modern bridge that stands on the site now.
Once through Saturday Bridge the surroundings lose the oppressive industrial character that they possessed during the first part of the climb up the flight. While still heavily urban it is blocks of flats, not 19th century factories, that are now all around us and, once again, there is planting and even some patches of heavily trampled grass alongside the canal.
The modern version of "Saturday Bridge" and the beginning of a fully residential area.
In this more open section of the canal the climb up the flight seems to continue at a faster rate. Looking at a map will suggest that may be illusion and it was just the compartmentalised nature of each pound that prevented you seeing further than the next bridge or building that made you less aware of the continuous climb.
Another view from a little further up the flight, this time taken in sunshine as I returned down again.
You can now get glimpses of the surrounding area in the gaps between buildings proving that you are steadily climbing towards the centre of Birmingham.
Alleyways allow pedestrians to join the towpath, which surely must be the quickest way to the central area of the city.
After passing under one more major modern bridge you find yourself at the top lock, beside Cambrian Wharf. More important, from my point of view, for the first time on my walk I see boats (in the plural) and what's more, boaters to talk to. Crossing the bridge below the top lock I wandered along the line of boats. In the corner of the basin was a butty. Beside it, there was a man with a work bench erected, sawing up a collection of pallets. As every plank was cut into a size that I assumed was designed to fit in a typical narrowboat's stove it was tossed into the butty's hold, adding to a growing pile of similar bits of wood.
At Cambrian Wharf I see the last of the grass, another pair of Canada Geese and meet some folk to talk to.
I had a brief conversation with the guy. I had assumed that it was his boat but he told me it wasn't. Another boat arrived at the wharf and managed to squeeze onto the end of the line. I moved down the line of boats. At the next one I started by introducing myself to their dog, which was standing on the bows. As so many dogs do, it enjoyed being tickled and stroked on its chest. Then I made some remark about one of the many brass plaques secured to the cabin doors. "Oh, there's more", came the voice of the woman inside and a side door was flung open to reveal more plaques on the other side. . This was a couple of liveaboards. It turned out this wasn't their winter mooring, as I had first assumed. They were there as part of a regular pilgrimage to visit relations in Birmingham.
On my return trip, with the sun now out, I contemplated popping into the Canal and River Trust office, the white building on the left.
Unfortunately, My back starts to play up if I stand still for too long, so I soon was moving on again, passing over the lock gate and taking a final photo of the wharf before it was out of site. I manage a shot showing yet another pair of Canada Geese. Understandably, the flight itself had no attraction to geese, but here at the top there is a still more open feel to the canal, in spite of the nearby blocks of flats that were still taller than any encountered earlier.
Again, on my return trip, I stood under the Cambridge Street Bridge to take this view of the Canal and River Trust Offices
From Cambrian Wharf it is a short distance past two three storey blocks built to look like old Victorian factories before you pass under another modern road bridge. These two buildings sandwich an older building, the local office of the Canal and River Trust. I was anxious to press on to Gas Street Basin on my way up the flight, but very nearly went to try the door on my way back, as it seemed to act as a canal tourist information office, it was only the beginnings of hunger that made me decide to press on.
The cast iron bridges that are found at the head of the canal and at the top of the Aston Flight remind me of those seen on the Oxford Canal.
Again, it's a few more yards before you finally reach the head of the canal and the junction with its distinctive island that one has become so used to seeing when there are TV news reports made from the centre of Birmingham.
I climbed the ramp to the old cast iron footbridge over the entrance to the canal to get a better view of the approach the Gas Street Basin.
I have stared many times at the Nicholson's Guides that show central Birmingham. The books fail to give any impression of the size of the cut in these parts. The standard bright blue line used to highlight the route of the canal on the maps in all the guides is normally massively over scale. However, here it approaches the correct dimensions. I suppose it's not surprising the canal here is so wide given the volume of traffic that must have moved on these waters at the height of nineteenth century.
I used the bridge seen here to cross the canal to the Sea Life Centre side to walk along to Gas Street Basin.
I climbed and stood for a while at the top of the ramp that led from the towpath to the cast iron bridge over the head of the canal. Taking in the view, I decided I would cross the bridge ahead to continue my walk to Gas Street Basin.
As I stood there I couldn't help but think of how much things have changed since the 1960s when I first encountered the canals. Back then, almost every canal in the country seemed to be on the point of being filled in. Now waterways are seen as one of the most attractive features of a town centre.
Continue to follow the route of my walk to Gas Street Basin and Holiday Wharf.