Canals are not something one immediately associates with South Africa. There’s only a couple that I’m aware of – one leading from the V&A Waterfront to the Cape Town International Convention Centre, and a few hundred yards around Canal Walk shopping centre. There’s also a few irrigation-type canals, and the few urban rivers that have been given the obligatory canalised treatment. So no – they’re not big. Of course, the main reason is that industrial transport needs only really took off in the late 19th century with the discovery of diamonds and gold. Steam railways had been invented by then, and were a much more economical way (by an almost infinite factor) of joining the mining areas to the Cape Town harbour.
And so coming to Birmingham, which has more canals than Venice (by distance, if not by number) has been something of an education in archaic transportation. The sheer number of canals linking the main cities of England – Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Kings Lynn, London and Bristol, all connected to Brum in the middle, is mind-boggling. Over 2,200 miles in total. It’s said that 50% of the population of England lives within 5 miles of a canal. Not to mention all the old-style technology that still goes along with it. Particularly the locks, and associated pumping stations. Which were directly responsible for prompting James Watt to make his revolutionary improvements to the design of steam engines, which subsequently led to the obsolescence of the canals. They’re hardly used at all for their original purpose now – which was freight transport. Although there is a lumber yard near me in Lapworth which gets at least some of its stock via the canals.
What they are used for is leisure, following a concerted effort (and significant investment) to bring them back to a usable condition. You can hire a barge from a variety of places, and travel around the country at your own pace. Stopping for a night or two when you feel like it, and going wherever your heart desires (and time allows). It’s not a quick way to tour – you’d probably aim to average around 10 miles a day. But that’s the whole point – potter along, passing through small villages off the beaten tracks of the motorway network, stopping in the middle of nowhere to enjoy the peace and quiet of rural England.
I’ve been spending a fair amount of time lately on my bicycle, riding along the tow path which invariably runs next to the canal. This was for horses in the old days, as the barges then weren’t diesel powered as they are now, but were horse-drawn. And each time I head out, I decide a little more firmly that someday, I’ll do more than just a day trip. From where I live, it’s a 20 mile trip to Stratford-upon-Avon. From Stratford, you can carry on down the Avon through Evesham to Tewkesbury, where you join the Severn. Moving upstream gets you to Worcester, from where there’s a canal to take you the 30 miles back to Birmingham. The total round trip is 109 miles – known as the Avon ring. It’s now firmly inscribed on my list of things to do. Whether by bike (taking two to three days) or by barge (taking 10 to 11) will depend on how much time we have available, and how soon we get around to doing it.
One thing’s for sure though: Someday, I’m going to hire me a barge, and relax for a couple of weeks on the water.