Birmingham has a longer canal system than Venice, and this basin was once its watery core. Two canals extend in opposite directions from here: one the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN) Main Line, the other the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. Bisecting the middle, however, is a long brick divide. The reason? A finite water supply. ‘Canal companies went to great pains to jealously guard their precious quota,’ says Graham Fisher MBE, broadcaster and writer of this Discovering Britain viewpoint, ‘particularly so in areas such as the BCN where the height above sea level was a major consideration and water supply problems were endemic.’ The BCN company, which held the monopoly, insisted that Worcester and Birmingham be kept separate.
The Worcester Bar, as the divide became known, was built in 1792. Today, it is still lined with boats, back then, however, it would have been busy with traders unloading and reloading their vessels. Without a passage of water, they were forced to heave their cargoes over the bricks to get them to boats waiting on either side. Separation was impractical and also forced the Worcester and Birmingham Canal company to build expensive reservoirs for its own water supply. ‘One can only speculate how much more viable both companies may have become if they’d had the wisdom to pool their resources,’ says Fisher.
“The waterways have since had a massive regeneration that has made the city what it is today”
A resolution came in 1815, in the form of a narrow passage on the west side of the basin, just wide enough for a narrowboat to slide through. In its banks, you can still see the notches from long-gone barriers that prevented boats passing without paying tolls. Although it improved the access for traders, it arrived ‘quite honestly, a little late in the day,’ says Fisher, ‘and the threat of rail competition was looming large on the horizon’.
Canals became redundant over the 19th century, but lingered in Birmingham due to hundreds of short extensions that accessed factories in places lorries couldn’t reach. By the 1960s though, the warehouses had become derelict and the canal an eyesore. It wasn’t until the G8 conference of 1998 that Gas Street Basin reappeared in the public eye. When Bill Clinton and Tony Blair enjoyed a pint on the canal side it was a marked point in Birmingham’s history. ‘The waterways have since had a massive regeneration that has made the city what it is today,’ says Fisher.
This was published in the November 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.