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Exploring Britain’s canals: tales from the towpath

It started almost imperceptibly. We’d had a baby and he needed walking. I needed a walk too, to get me out of the house and to give my wife a rest. But where can one walk with a baby in a pushchair? Then I remembered; several years before I’d walked to a favourite pub of mine along a disused railway line and then back along the canal. It had been pleasant. Ok, so jolting a pushchair over rotting sleepers wasn’t perhaps the best idea, but why not the canal? By the end of the summer, in short mile-long stages, I’d walked the entirety of the Caldon Canal and local stretches of the Trent & Mersey. And what’s more, I’d enjoyed it.

I’ve long held an interest in industrial history stemming, I suppose, from a childhood fascination with steam trains. During Britain’s Golden Age as an imperial and industrial power, her railways were her lifeblood, keeping industry and trade supplied. But before the railways came the canals; the great Industrial Revolution that transformed the United Kingdom from just another European kingdom into the world’s first industrial nation was fed, supplied, made possible by her canals. In the early 18th century only those towns and cities on the coast or a navigable river could actually transport their goods and ores to the markets. Following the example of the Duke of Bridgewater, who opened a canal in 1761 from his mines in Lancashire to the burgeoning industrial centre of Manchester, (and extended to the navigable River Mersey a year later), the great canal engineer James Brindley envisioned a ‘Silver Cross’ linking the four main navigable rivers in the land – the Trent, the Mersey, the Severn and the Thames. When completed, it opened up the heart of the nation to industry and things have never been the same since. My own city, Stoke-on-Trent, where the meeting to build the greatest canal of them all, the Trent & Mersey, was held, grew up from being a collection of villages to the greatest centre of pottery manufacture on earth. The statue Josiah Wedgwood, the Master Potter and promoter of canals, greets every visitor to the city when they step out of the railway station.

I was researching a book at the time on the early horse-drawn railways that linked the canals with the mines and quarries, (a kind of cheap way of extending the network), when I was called into the doctor’s. “Your blood pressure is too high; you need to lose weight,” she told me matter-of-factly.
“How?” I asked in trepidation.
“Change your diet; cut out salt, fried food, bread and potatoes.”
“But that’s all the food that I like! It will be hard!”
“A stroke will be harder.”
She had a point. “Anything else?”
“Exercise regularly.”
“But I don’t like exercise!”
“Then find some that you do like.”

I had not been lying when I’d said that I don’t like exercise. I hate gyms and the culture associated with them; I only play games when I have a chance of winning; I dislike running and I get bored swimming. Boredom, that is the key: exercising is unbelievably boring. I needed exercise that would interest me, that could engage the mind as well as the body. Then I realised, I already had the answer! It lay on a towpath nearby.

I went to Birmingham on a shopping trip with my wife. Whilst she explored the markets and shopping streets, I took the baby on my back and walked up the amazing staircase of locks on the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal that runs, virtually unseen, through the city centre from Snow Hill Station to the NIA. It was incredible, walking under brick railway arches, past old industrial buildings, the city’s past coming to life before my eyes. It reminded me of those 19th century accounts of industrial cities that one finds in Dickens or Gaskell novels. At the top of the staircase, Old Turn Junction, there was a sign. It read ‘Wolverhampton 14 miles’. “That’s walkable,” I said to the sleeping child on my back, “and Stafford’s not so far from Wolverhampton, then Stoke, Congleton, Macclesfield, all the way up to Britain’s other great 19th century industrial centre, Manchester.’ There and then I decided to walk it all, in stages, exercise for the body and the mind in one fell swoop. Who knows, it might even put my doctor in a better mood?

Pete, my assistant at work, was a canal enthusiast. He’d gone to university in Birmingham and had walked every mile of the tangle of canals in the West Midlands known as the Birmingham Canal Navigations or ‘BCN’ for short. I told him about my plan and he was all in favour. “You’ll find it fascinating,” he said, “particularly through the Black Country; there’s so much to see. But tell me, which way are you going between Birmingham and Wolverhampton?”
“There’s more than one…?”
“Yes, there’s the Old Mainline and the New.”
“Well, the sign said ’14 miles’…”
“That’ll be the New. It’s much quicker. The Old twisted and turned so much that Telford was brought in to construct a straighter alternative. It shaved about ten miles off the trip. The New is much quicker but the Old on the other hand is far more interesting.”
I was beginning to realize that there was far more than I’d realised to this whole canal walking lark.

My first stage was between Congleton and Macclesfield, twelve twisting miles of canal skirting the foothills of the Peak District. The first three or four miles were pleasant, easy-going and relaxing. I enjoyed the scenery, the silence, the nature. The aqueduct over the River Dane was spectacular and even the flight of locks that followed it was only mildly taxing. After that though, the distance began to tell. I’d only ever walked ten miles once before in my life and that was when I was about eleven. After eight miles I popped into a pub for refreshment and rejuvenation but that benefits accrued did not last long. The last two miles were hell and I literally fell into the bus that took me back to Congleton. For the entire week my body was seized up and I limped around like a war hero at work.

However, a fortnight later, after the next ten-mile slog, I was only seized up for a day and after that it became easier still. The longest single stretch – Penkridge to Wolverhampton, a full 14 miles – I managed without issues although I was tired at the end. By that stage I was really enjoying it all and eagerly looking forward to my next walk.

It’s strange, but all the towns and villages that I passed through were local and I thought I knew them. Passing through at a snail’s pace however, taught me that I did not and slowly I began to learn all about my country, its geography and its heritage, how it evolves from one county to the next. I came across old limekilns and salt marshes, the remnants of canals and railways long-abandoned; a 19th century workhouse and a 17th century gatehouse; beautiful Mediaeval churches and pubs full of character. I sampled ales and I chatted to people. Most of all though I just observed, soaking it all in with gusto.

People tend to think of our canals as being rural; playgrounds on which the middle classes relax on their barges with a glass of wine in one hand and a novel in the other. But the canals were built to supply industry and without them Britain would be a very different country than she is today. Whilst most rave about the tranquil byways of the Shires, I prefer the gritty urban waterways with their abandoned arms leading off into filled-in wharves; old factories and mills; collieries transformed into country parks or housing estates; warehouses that are now studio apartments for the urban rich. On these canals the working classes, the traditional guardians of industry, still hold sway, for where barges fear to sail, there are instead fishermen with cans of lager enjoying a few hours of quiet on the cut.

The most striking revelation however, was just how different the two great industrial cities of Manchester and Birmingham actually are. City centres can give one the impression that every town is similar with their chain shops and grandiose public buildings, but canal towpaths reveal a completely different picture. Birmingham and the Black Country are a maze of twisting, neglected canals lined on either side with small industrial concerns in which the city’s famed ‘Thousand Trades’ are housed, whereas Manchester has fewer canals but these are overshadowed by the enormous mills of the cotton magnates. Asa Briggs’ Victorian Cities – an ideal canal-walking companion – explains the differences between the two cities succinctly. “The real contrast between Manchester and Birmingham was a contrast of economy and social structure and in this respect the two cities were very different from each other during all periods of the 19th century. Four conditions of work in Birmingham set the terms of its social history.” These conditions were a diversity of occupations with over five hundred trades registered which gave the city its “exceptional elasticity”; work being carried on in small workshops rather than large factories with the number of concerns in Birmingham increasing as the century progressed as opposed to Manchester where the scale of existing enterprises grew; thirdly Birmingham’s labour force was skilled, Manchester’s, by and large, was not, and finally, there was greater social mobility in Birmingham which had political implications for it worked both ways and so distress “did not divide masters and men in Birmingham: it brought them together.”

On the canals one sees this clearly in bricks and mortar. Both cities are industrial; both tatty and run-down in places, but the scale of Birmingham is somehow more human. Manchester’s great be-chimneyed mills inspire awe, they speak of power, might and wealth, but one would always prefer to work in one of Birmingham’s small brick manufactories rather than be lost as a nameless worker bee in one of those vast, inhuman cotton hives. The French political commentator wrote that, “separation of the classes, much greater at Manchester than at Birmingham,” and as I plodded along those forgotten waterways, I could see how that was the case and, as Briggs explains, that difference may have had implications for the entire globe for “if Engels had lived not in Manchester but in Birmingham, his conception of ‘class’ and his theories of the role of class in history might have been very different. In this case Marx might not have been a communist but a currency reformer. The fact that Manchester was taken to be the symbol of the age in the 1840s and not Birmingham… was of central political importance in modern world history.” Would Moscow, Beijing, Bucharest and Havana be very different today if that Prussian immigrant had lived in Dudley rather than Salford.

What intrigued me also, was how those trends seem to have continued into the 20th and 21st centuries as well. Both cities are multicultural today yet whilst Birmingham’s population is a veritable mish-mash of colours and cultures, Manchester has two distinct groups – Asian and White. Likewise, the new apartment and office developments lining the canals in Manchester are bold and daring, but outsized and overbearing, whilst Birmingham’s lack some of that innovation but are scaled around people. Even today Manchester remains the ‘shock city’ where all-out wealth exists besides some of the poorest estates in the country whilst Birmingham is, (and apologies to my Mancunian grandfather here), the place that I prefer, being more like a much larger Stoke-on-Trent.

After 105½ miles and several months of weekend and evening walking, my Grand Trek of Two Cities came to an end when I reached the junction between the Rochdale and Bridgewater Canals near to Manchester’s Deansgate Station. I retired to an Armenian restaurant for a celebratory meal but I knew even then that this was really not the end, only the beginning. After all, with a hundred miles of the BCN to explore, plus the majestic Trent & Mersey itself, not to mention the countless other canals that criss-cross the land, I knew that my journey into Britain’s industrial past had only just begun.

And with 5kg lost already, even my stony-faced doctor was pleased about it.

Much more by this author at Uncle Travelling Matt, his personal website.

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