Up The Cut: Birmingham & Fazeley Canal

Birmingham & Fazeley Canal: authors own photo
Birmingham & Fazeley Canal: authors own photo

Last week I braved the heat and instead of coming straight home in a wilt, caught the train to Aston, and walked the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal (and some more, perhaps to be covered later) from there to Aston Junction. I branched off here for the Digbeth Branch Canal, but have walked the stretch between Aston Jct and Old Turn, where the line meets the Birmingham Main Line, previously.

Passing through industrial inner Birmingham this section is, as you might expect, hardly isolated in bucolic splendour.  However, there’s plenty to keep an industrial junkie like me cheerful including plenty of locks – this section is known as the Aston Flight. There are 11 locks starting from the one underneath Holborn Hill Bridge (which is where one accesses the canal from Aston station) to the one at the junction of the Digbeth Branch. A quick look at the 1890s OS map shows the banks of the canal pretty much full up with different factories: Sutton edge tool works, Viaduct brass works, Argosy stove works, Speedwell wire and rivet works, Holling Mills, Aston Manor Paper Mill, Exchange Sawmill, Aston Glassworks, Windsor Street Gas Works, Armstrong Umbrella Works, Coldfield Iron Works and Bridge Zinc Works were all found on this stretch along with several basins and private wharves.

The biggest site along here was undoubtedly the gasworks, run by the Birmingham Gas Light and Coke Company.

Whitwell Maps: Plan of Windor Street gasworks 1854
Whitwell Maps: Plan of Windor Street gasworks 1854

The huge gasholders are still there of course, a significant landmark in the Eastside landscape around Nechells. I’ve spotted them many times returning from Costco at Star City through Birmingham. More pictures from the air in 1938 here and here; queues at the gasworks during the coke shortage of 1951 here.

I’ve always found it a bit confusing as to where Aston is, but lo and behold, teh internets answers my questions. Answer: it is large. Nechells is to be found between the Rea and Hockley Brook, both a bit hidden away, but significant watercourses of the past. That places the start of our walk pretty much in historic Nechells, although Aston station covers it (Nechells was a settlement in the manor of Aston). We then walk under Thimblemill Lane – this was home to, quite literally, a thimble mill, although it was founded as Brodemoor Mill some time before 1532.

The canal stays in the valley of the Hockley or Aston Brook, which runs parallel to it, although culverted. We pass under Rocky Lane and Avenue Road, then (if we could see it) the gas works are on our immediate left. The gas works expanded hugely from the plan above, and warranted its own rail branch from the LNWR (c.1884), as well as its basin, as above. Opposite here too, there’s a basin and is also where the Hockley Brook comes in from the west to form this part of valley. After this, the B&F is crossing watersheds, hence the Aston locks I suppose. There’s a basin of some sort here today as well, but I’m pretty sure it’s not the original one. It looks more like a junction that’s been bricked off, with a lock still in situ; but I can’t find it on Google Maps, or anywhere. It must be some sort of water feature, built recently, after the most recent Google Maps imagery. Strange one.

Birmingham & Fazeley Canal: mystery section
Author’s own photo

From here, under Richard Street, under Dartmouth Middleway (Dartmouth Street as was) to Aston Junction and the most built up section of the B&F. This is a full-up section we’ve walked though, and very pertinent to Birmingham and its industrial history. I’m not giving too much detail here, but you could go into a lot of depth about this region.

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