Why walk a canal by train?
Canals and trains often share routes but they’re not necessarily good friends. As more railways were built, the canals started to lose business, and eventually declined altogether.
This close association might have been bad for the canal companies but it’s great today for the avid train adventurer. Most canal walks start in towns or cities, conveniently near a train station. Some, like the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, also have plenty of other stations to choose from all the way along.
I was spoilt for choice on my walk but managed to avoid the temptation to indulge in chocolate at Cadbury World, when I reached the very purple Bournville station.
The Worcester and Birmingham Canal walk
Start train station: Birmingham New Street
Travel time from London: 2 hours
Travel time from Bristol: 1.5 hours
Finish train station: Worcester Shrub Hill
Travel time to London: 2.5 hours
Travel time to Bristol: 1.5 hours
Author’s adventure tip: Pack plenty of food and drink. Although there are pubs on the second half of this route, the first section is pretty empty once you leave Birmingham. If you do run out, there are plenty of possibilities to cut sections short or mix around the days. You’ll never be too far from a train station.
Practicalities: There’s not much privacy on the towpath. Use a loo whenever you see one but be prepared to be inventive on the wild wee front. Alvechurch Station (end of day one) doesn’t have a toilet but Birmingham, Worcester and Bromsgrove all do. On a hot day wear a hat and sunscreen, the tow path can be quite exposed, and you won’t be tempted to jump in the water.
Your train adventure
If the history of this waterway doesn’t get you excited, the journey itself will. Walking from the centre of a bustling city directly into open countryside is a fascinating experience that I’m not sure you would be able to complete so easily without a canal towpath. Be prepared to spy on back gardens, step aside for bell-pinging cyclists, and become absorbed for a day or two in the wildlife and atmosphere that make up this historical canal. I walked in late March.
Your canal walk
Emerging from New Street Station into the noise of the city might at first leave you confused and disorientated but don’t worry. Once you’ve walked the short distance to Gas Street Basin, you’ll find the Worcester and Birmingham Canal a friendly and accurate guide.
But you won’t be able to stay with it all the way.
This route includes five tunnels. You can walk on a tow path through the first at Edgbaston but you’ll need a map if you want to follow the barge horse routes over the hills of the other four. The longest tunnel is the Wast Hills Tunnel at 2.5 km. The diversion over takes a while but I wouldn’t have wanted to walk through the dank-looking tunnel.
I recommend doing what I did, and splitting your walk into two.
My first day took me from busy Birmingham to peaceful Alvechurch. From here I took a train back to Worcester to stay the night with family. Then hopped back on the train in the morning.
Instead of starting again at Alvechurch the next day, I missed out two tunnel diversions by getting off the train further down the line at Bromsgrove station. All this hopping on and off the canal taught me one important thing.
Humpback bridge signs usually mean canals.
Your canal walking route
With diversions for four of the five tunnels, it is possible to walk the whole length of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. Because of practicalities, I chose to miss out a section between Alvechurch and Bromsgrove.
It’s also possible to cycle this canal route but be warned, the tow path isn’t as solid or flat in the middle as it is at either city end, and some short sections by the locks are quite steep.
The Worcester and Birmingham Canal is 48 km or 30 miles long but that’s without diversions for tunnels, blister plasters, chips or toilets. I turned it into a two-day walk, with train journeys and accommodation in between. The railway follows the canal for much of its route so there are plenty of options for station hopping.
Day one – Birmingham New Street Station – Gas Street Basin – Alvechurch Station
Distance: 19 km
Total ascent: 134 m
Your walking route on OS Maps: Worcester and Birmingham Canal – Day One
This fascinating section of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal takes you out of the city of Birmingham, through a tunnel, past the University, over an aqueduct, and underneath the M42. On the way you’ll spot some interesting riverside life, enjoy the antics of ducks and geese, and sniff for chocolate at the famous Bournville factory. After the Wast Hills Tunnel diversion, you’ll find yourself in peaceful Worcestershire countryside, ready for just a short stroll to Alvechurch Station.
There’s so much to see in this ever-changing landscape, it would be impossible to describe the whole route in detail but I’ve given you five points of interest below.
- Find Gas Street Basin and the start of your canal
Leave Birmingham New Street Station at the Stephenson Street exit to find your way to Gas Street Basin through the Mailbox Shopping Centre. The Basin is the historical meeting point of the Birmingham Canal and the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. See if you can spot the infamous Worcester Bar then find out more about it.
2. Navigate a tunnel and an aqueduct
Sooner than you expect, you’ll come to the Edgbaston Tunnel. It’s not long so don’t be squeamish, this is only tunnel on this canal you can walk through. Just after the University of Birmingham (listen out for Old Joe the clock), you might be surprised to find yourself suspended over the A38 on short aqueduct. Just after that you’ll pass your last shopping opportunity (Sainsbury’s) so make the most of it if you’ve already started your sandwiches.
3. Sniff out a chocolate canal
The Bournville section of the canal used to deliver chocolate crumb to the famous Cadbury factory. You won’t find free chocolate here but if you look carefully, you’ll spot the iconic factory through the fence. As you pass the station, notice the colour of the paint work, it should look familiar. You can disembark your train here for a day out at Cadbury World.
4. Divert or swim at the Wast Hills Tunnel
You definitely won’t want to swim here, the tunnel’s 2.5 km long, and only wide enough for one boat. The diversion over the hill is a bit fiddly but signs showing Barge Horse Walk, and later Wast Hill Lane will help you on your way. Once you make it back onto the towpath at the other end, you’ll have left Birmingham and entered Worcestershire.
5. Relax at the Lower Bittell Reservoir
This is a peaceful spot with benches (something else you won’t find many of along the tow path). If like me, you’re ending day one at Alvechurch, you’re nearly there so take some time to sit and admire the view. The Bittell Reservoirs were built to keep the canal topped up with water but today they are a wildlife haven as well as home for sailing, swimming and angling clubs.
Day two – Bromsgrove Station – Tardebigge – Diglis Basin – Worcester Shrub Hill Station
Distance: 26 km
Total ascent: 116 m
Your walking route on OS Maps: Worcester and Birmingham Canal – Day Two
This is the downhill section of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. Enjoy a history-laden wander through the British Countryside as you meet interesting people, wave at passing boats, and wonder how the lock system actually works. Duck underneath the M5 on the approach to Worcester, then it’s the long walk in through this canal’s second city.
You’ll find your own highlights as you travel but we’ve given you a few to look out for below.
- See water flow uphill at the Tardebigge Lock Flight
To avoid the Shortwood and Tardebigge tunnels, restart your walk below the Tardebigge Reservoir at Upper Gambolds Farm. The humpbacked bridge sign will help you get back onto the towpath. This is a fascinating section of the walk. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to watch your first boats negotiate the famous lock flight.
2. Watch boats make the turn at the Droitwich Canal Junction
There’s plenty to be appreciated here at the point where the Droitwich, and Worcester and Birmingham canals join. If watching careful three-point turns doesn’t float your boat, the chips and drinks at the Eagle and Sun pub will do the trick. Take a break from the weather or enjoy marina views from the beer garden.
3. Discover the M5 from an entirely new angle
You’ll have to divert for the Dunhampstead Tunnel before you reach the M5 but it’s an easy route over, and a welcome break from the towpath. Walking underneath the motorway is a strange experience, particularly if you drive it regularly. Just before you head under the A449, you’ll pass a stone welcoming you to the City of Worcester.
4. Keep right on to the end of the road
You’re nearly there but the canal doesn’t take a direct line. Your route through Worcester is going to take longer than you think so consider a break at Perdiswell Park. If you make it to the Commandery before closing time you’ll find a welcome cuppa but if not don’t worry. As well as boats, Diglis Basin is also home to the Anchor Pub and Kitchen.
5. Greet the River Severn
Watch out for glimpses of Worcester Cathedral as you enter Diglis Basin. You’ll be tempted to stop at the pub here but it’s worth carrying on just a bit further to see the magnificent double docks where you and your canal finally reach the River Severn. Your journey ends here but the boats are free to navigate our longest river between Bewdley and Gloucester as well as the Stafford and Worcestershire Canal.
Some canal walking tips
Choose appropriate footwear
Canal towpaths vary in size and terrain. Around both Birmingham and Worcester you’ll find yourself on fairly flat and even ground but be prepared for some mud and rougher terrain in the country areas, as well as some short steep slopes by the locks.
Listen out for bikes
Another thing you might not be expecting along the towpath is cyclists. They don’t appear so often outside the cities but be prepared to step aside (preferably away from the water) at the ding of a bike bell. Cyclists are generally careful and helpful but if bikes and water make you nervous, try to avoid the cities at morning and evening rush hours.
Take everything you need
Don’t be tempted to pack too lightly for this walk. The towpath doesn’t offer much shelter from the elements so check the weather forecast and pack waterproofs or a sun hat accordingly. Make sure you’re carrying at least two litres of water and plenty of snacks. 15-mile days require more calories than you think.
Have a map available
For the most part the navigation for this walk couldn’t be easier. I only used my mapping app (OS Maps) for the diversion around the Wast Hills tunnel. That said, I suggest making sure you have a downloaded map version available as signal in the cuttings isn’t always brilliant.
Leave only footprints
Have fun, and remember to leave no trace. Don’t presume rubbish will biodegrade quickly, take everything (even fruit peel) home with you.
This was my first canal walk but I’m certain it isn’t going to be my last. I love Birmingham but there was something very special about leaving its bustles and smells behind on foot. No roundabouts or motorways to negotiate, just my trusty walking boots and the towpath. I had been working at the NEC so this was a genuine slow walk home.
Life on the canal bank
One of my favourite sections was through suburban Birmingham where homes backed directly onto the canal. Each garden had made different but clever use of their waterside space with reclaimed materials and relaxation clearly being the order of the day. Further on down the canal into rural Worcestershire, the banks were equally appreciated but the gardens with their huge willows, and sweeping manicured lawns, weren’t as fascinating.
Aching feet and happy sisters
As well as being my first canal walk, this was my first long-distance walk, and I’ll admit to finding the last section through Worcester hard. I did however have a joyful meeting with my sister at the Droitwich Canal junction. We dined on cheesy chips and coke at the pub, and she kept me laughing through the foot ache and weariness. One particularly amusing moment was when, desperate for a break, we found ourselves enjoying a spartan picnic (we were running out of supplies by then) on a weed and graffiti covered bridge.
Near but not quite
My final confession is one I suspect you might also end up making. I found myself unable to pass the Anchor Pub at Diglis without stopping. I’m not sure if it was the benches, the crisps or the beer that tempted me in but I didn’t quite make it to the River Severn.
I’m fairly sure it’s still there though!