Barge right in

24th September 1999 at 01:00
Where to start in Birmingham? Go straight to the heart of the city and explore one of its arterial waterways with this canalside tour, easily walked in a day, suggests Phil Revell.

Twenty-four hour congestion with tailbacks para-lysing routes through the city - a situation so bad that a northern relief route was mooted as a last-ditch attempt to unclog the Midland's busiest transport artery. It sounds like Birmingham today but the original Birmingham relief route, the Grand Union canal, was opened more than 150 years ago to deal with congestion on the city's waterways.

Britain's second city has more miles of canal than Venice and they offer school groups a vivid contrast between the old and the new.

The first Birmingham canal was built by engineer James Brindley in 1769. It was an immediate success, linking the coalfields of the Black Country to wharves in the heart of the city. Prices per ton fell from 15 shillings to four shillings and the canal created rapid industrial growth in the area. Boulton and Watt's Soho works was minutes away from the canal and from 1796 the engineers produced a succession of steam engines, many of which were used to pump water on the new canal system.

But the waterway became a victim of its own success, with more than 4,000 boats passing through one flight of locks during March 1841 - one every 10 minutes, 24 hours a day. The congestion was broken at last in 1844 by a new canal running to the west and north of the city. The Grand Union linked the canal systems of the Midlands and the North to London and created a genuinely national network. But, within a few years, the railways had begun to challenge the supremacy of the inland navigators and by 1880 the golden era of canals was over.

For school groups the best starting point is on the Birmingham and Fazeley canal, completed in 1789 to open up a northern route out of the city. Down a flight of steps from a busy main road the years fall away. Despite the modern developments which surround and tower over the canal, this section retains the atmosphere of the past. It's worth walking north, towards Snow Hill railway station, under narrow brickwork bridges and alongside the locks which drop down sharply and the city's noise is left behind. One hundred and fifty years of use have left their mark and children can see where horses hooves have worn away the towpath and where narrow boat ropes have cut into woodwork, bridge supports and lockgates. Saturday Bridge is where navvies would gather on a Saturday, waiting for their wages, the Toll House is where clerks would collect the fees from passing boats.

As the towpath leads to the Aston Junction with its roundabout, the surroundings become a reflection of the waterway's modern role as a linear park. Around the Gas Street basin there are the narrowboats still in use as floating homes surrounded by modern development. The Sea Life centre, International Convention Centre and National Indoor Arena all back on to the canal.

Birmingham's planners have created an area of terraces, walkways and piazzas which wouldn't look out of place in that other city with a lot of canals. School groups can hire a narrow boat and extend their tour, or they could change tack and spend some time in the city's museums and galleries.

Ten minutes' walk from the canal, the area around Hockley has been a centre for jewellers and silversmiths since 1780 and the quarter's Discovery Centre gives an insight into the trade.

Birmingham Museums Education Service, tel: 0121 303 3890. Toll House: contact British Waterways, tel: 0121 506 1300. Narrow boat cruises: Parties Afloat, tel: 0121 236 7057. Jewellery Quarter Discovery Centre, tel: 0121 554 3598. Sea Life Centre, tel: 0121 643 6777

* ALL IN A DAY'S WALK

From Victoria Square in the heart of the city walk past the Gas Hall museum and art Gallery down Edmund Street. Turn left onto Newhall Street, cross one busy junction and ahead on the left is the old Science Museum - this is your start point. Walk towards Snow Hill for a few hundred yards before retracing your steps and following the towpath to the junction with the Birmingham Canal. Cross the bridge past the pub and walk past the International Convention Centre to Gas Street basin. Cross the basin and return on the far footpath, past Brindley place and the Sea Life centre. Cross back to the ICC and walk through the convention centre, across Centenary Square and back to the main shopping area.

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