In some circles Birmingham, a city in the English Midlands just 50 miles / 80km from Platypus Towers, is referred to as The Venice of the North. Really? Venice, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the premier jewels in Europe’s cultural crown, “an extraordinary architectural masterpiece in which even the smallest building contains works by some of the world’s greatest artists such as Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and others.” Birmingham, however…
Although its origins are much older, Birmingham owes its prominent position to the Industrial Revolution. Central to the city’s growth was the production of metal-based goods. It became known as “the city of a thousand trades”, where a myriad of small workshops employed skilled craftsmen to manufacture high quality finished products. It was dynamic and prosperous, but it was no Venice!
Comparisons with Venice are woefully wide of the mark, except in one particular regard: canals. Venice is a city of canals, and Birmingham too has a web of waterways dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. These were excavated to bring in the raw materials needed by local workshops, and to carry away the finished goods they produced to markets throughout the country.
Pretty soon, Birmingham was at the heart of the national canal network. The city thrived, and the nation’s canals bustled with activity. But the development of railways in the mid-19th century heralded a change in fortunes for the canal network locally and nationally. Rail transport – and later, transport by road – proved quicker and therefore cheaper than the carriage of materials and goods by water. Birmingham’s canal network declined, and by 1980 all commercial traffic had stopped.
Once the lifeblood of the city, Birmingham’s canals morphed into fetid rubbish dumps and the warehouses lining them became neglected eyesores, derelict and anachronistic. They served no real purpose, and it’s easy to imagine that some bright spark might have thought it would be a good idea to fill in the waterways and bulldoze the associated buildings.
But fortunately, the City Council recognised that if they were sensitively restored, Birmingham’s canals could help drive the city’s regeneration. Work began in the late 1980s, and when we visited a few months ago we were able to see how this far-sighted vision has been put into practice.
Gas Street Basin is the hub of the city’s canal network, located in what is today the heart of Birmingham’s cosmopolitan nightlife and shopping districts. Here we walked along towpaths lined with vibrant cafés, bars, restaurants and modern buildings, and were also pleased to spot some fine examples of historic canal architecture. Several narrowboats were moored in the basin, adding to the area’s quaint charm.
As we continued our stroll along the towpath, past modern developments that included the International Conference Centre, the National Indoor Arena and the National Sea Life Centre, we encountered plenty of pedestrians and dog-walkers, and some cyclists and joggers too. All were taking the opportunity to get some fresh air, away from the noise and mayhem of the frantic city centre streets.
Gas Street Basin
Meanwhile, colourful narrowboats chugged slowly along the waterways, offering holidaymakers and tourists an unexpected perspective on what is known as the UK’s “second city” (after London, of course!).
Along the way we stopped off for a drink at one of Birmingham’s most distinctive historic buildings. The Roundhouse was built in 1874 as a giant stable complex where 50 horses that worked on the canal could be housed. The need for the facility is long-gone (none of the narrowboats now using the canals are drawn by horses), and for some time the future of the building was in doubt.
However, creative minds have come up with a way forward: now run by a charitable trust, the Roundhouse has been repurposed as a visitor centre, café, display space and offices. It also acts “as a launchpad to explore Birmingham’s brilliant stories and place…[offering] canal-based kayaking, city walking tours, [and] boat trips.”
As we enjoyed our mochas there was time to reflect on what a good job the city authorities have done in revitalising Birmingham’s canal network and infrastructure. While Birmingham is clearly nothing like Venice, the canals give the city a distinctive character that reflects its unique heritage. A canal network dating back over two hundred years could have become a serious burden to the city and its people in the 21st century, but visionary, enterprising developments have turned it into a genuine asset. Well done, Birmingham, I salute you!
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Postscript: Venice of the North
Birmingham is not the only place that has been labelled the Venice of the North. Other nominees include Saint Petersburg (Russia); Amsterdam (Netherlands); Giethoorn (Netherlands); Bruges (Belgium); Stockholm (Sweden); Copenhagen (Denmark); and Alesund (Norway). To which I can only say, get a grip, guys. Each of these places has its own merits, and should stand or fall by those merits rather resorting to spurious comparisons with another, very different place!