More canals than Venice?

posted in: Observations | 5

“More Canals than Venice” is something you’ll hear often in Birmingham or from Brummies anywhere, to describe the city. It’s mostly a defensive mechanism, I believe, because Birmingham does not enjoy the best of reputations in the nation’s affections and is  the butt of many a joke. It’s repeated incessantly,  completely oblivious of perhaps better claims from cities like St Petersburg or Amsterdam, which have the added advantage of being much higher in the tourist destination stakes than Birmingham. (Though curiously one of the few boom sectors in Birmingham is hotel construction, with increasing numbers of visitors filling the rooms once they’re completed.)

Perhaps those with the database skills could analyse the OSM data and settle the argument once and for all – which city does have the most canals?

However Birmingham does have one unique claim to fame: a canal roundabout at the junction of the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal and the Birmingham Canal Navigations. And yes, it is tagged with junction=roundabout, although I don’t know whether the direction is correct as I’m not a boat navigator and don’t understand the “rules of the road” for boats. There are certainly no oneway signs present. And I’ve never been present when boats are going round it so I haven’t seen which direction they take.

Birmingham’s canals were built for commercial heavy-lifting during the Industrial Revolution and until fairly recently were woefully neglected. There are still large stretches which pass through industrial areas which can be pretty grim waste-strewn and graffiti-heavy thoroughfares. In contrast, around the City Centre there have been lots of developments of waterside apartments and cafés and nightspots using the canals as an attraction. You have to understand Birmingham is one of the few cities in the world not sited on  a major river so water has a special attraction for the city’s inhabitants and visitors. We even have a waterbus which plies the short distance from the Mailbox (an upmarket shopping mall) to the NIA (National Indoor Arena – a major indoor sports and event venue). It’s mainly used by tourists: locals find it quicker and cheaper to walk.

It makes a strange journey to cross the city via its canals, avoiding the traffic and not being aware of the usual landmarks. All your usual mental landscape of knowing where you are evaporates and you look at the city in a new way. On the subject of avoiding traffic, the canal towpaths make excellent cycle routes and are used regularly by the city’s cyclists.

If you visit Birmingham, take half an hour to descend from its streets to wander along its canals – you’ll come away with a  much better impression of the city – not comparable perhaps to Venice, but better than when you arrived.

5 Responses

  1. Very interesting blog post. We are Sherborne Wharf who operate the canal tours and the waterbus. We will be featuring your blog on our Facebook page at Please do share others you write with us.

    Thanks, Sherborne Wharf.

  2. I don’t think it is a roundabout in the sense of a roundabout on a road where there are strict rules which way you go round it. You would go round whichever way was easiest, avoiding sharp turns (which are difficult in a long narrowboat).

    Another option for enjoying Birmingham’s canals is to hire a narrowboat for a holiday.

    Paul The Archivist

  3. Narrow boats pass each other ‘left to left’ (the opposite of driving on the oad in England. The island is sufficiently far enough away from all the banks to allow two boats to pass each other with ease – so there is no ‘rule of the road’ about which side of the island to pass. Depending on where they are coming from and where they are going to the narrowboat steerer would chose the eaiest/shortest side to pass.

  4. Actually, Cape Coral, FL has the most canals

  5. @vinoavilez

    yeah I live in Cape coral and we have multiple canals in every neighborhood

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