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The rise and fall…and rise of Birmingham’s canals

If you look out over the canal from any one of the modern developments along it and you’ll notice that it’s always a hub of activity. Sitting right by the water, Austin Court is perfect as a canal-side events venue, meeting space, or simply as a stunning setting for a private occasion.

Waterbuses take tourists and locals to surrounding parks, shops, restaurants and bars. Towpaths allow walkers and cyclists to explore the city or escape to more rural waterways.

The engineers who built the canals always saw them as a transportation system, though more for commercial goods than for people.

Key to Birmingham’s history

Engineer James Brindley planned and supervised the work for Birmingham’s first canal, the Duke of Bridgwater’s Canal, which carried the Duke’s coal from his mines in Worsley to Manchester. It turned out to be the first of many canals that were built in the 1700s and 1800s.  

At its height, the Birmingham Canal Network had more the 170 miles of canals, transporting coal, iron and other heavy goods from Birmingham and the Black Country to other cities and towns.

The water was filled with noise and movement as narrowboats arrived at Black Country mines at the same time every day. Even at night, there was activity, with gaslights illuminating the way for boats passing through the locks.

Evidence of great engineering

There are some distinctive features of James Brindley’s canals, which you can spot on a canal-side walk through Birmingham today.

Brindley tried to minimise the amount of earth moving by using a route that avoided embankments and tunnels. The loops crisscrossing the New Main Line canal are the remains of these weaving sections of the Brindley Line.

What you’ll see more of today though, is not Brindley’s work, but that of another engineer – Thomas Telford.

By the 19th century, the canals around Birmingham and the Black Country were so busy that they had become difficult to maintain. The Government sent engineer Thomas Telford to inspect Birmingham’s canals and he came up with plenty of ideas on how to improve them.

Appointed as Birmingham Canal Company’s Chief Engineer, Telford set about straightening and shortening many of the city’s canals. He created the New Main Line, which ran through massive cuttings and bold embankments to shorten the distance between Birmingham and Wolverhampton and reduce the number of locks.

From industry to leisure

With the arrival of rail, then road, the transportation of goods by canal dwindled. By 1980, there was no longer commercial traffic on Birmingham’s canals, and many were neglected and fell into disrepair.

Conscious that what had once been the jewel of the city was becoming an eyesore, Birmingham City Council set about regenerating the canal system and the areas around it in the late 1980s.

The area around Austin Court, where the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal joins the New Main Line, was one of the first to be restored.

Among the new developments were The International Convention Centre and National Indoor Arena, which have since hosted international events ranging from the Eurovision Song Contest to the World Indoor Athletic Championships.

Various other developments popped up along the waterside, with Brindley Place the star attraction, filled with theatres, music and events venues, restaurants, pubs and exhibition spaces.

More than a scenic backdrop, Birmingham’s canal system is once again fulfilling its purpose as a transportation system. Today though, it attracts a more diverse crowd, with tourists, locals and even people travelling on business, taking to the waterside to explore all that Birmingham has to offer.

If you’re looking for an incredible space that utilises these historic waterways, Austin Court is one of the best canal-side event venues in Birmingham as well as a favourite for hosting a conference with a view.

If you’d like to talk about having your event here at our canal-side venue, be sure to get in contact with us or call on 0121 667 2960.