Coventry Canal History
The race for supremacy was on in the West Midlands. The businessmen of Coventry wanted to link their city to the local coal fields before Birmingham did the same. Both cities had Acts granted for a new canal and both hired James Brindley as engineer.The Coventry Canal would run from the Grand Trunk Canal (now the Trent & Mersey) at Fradley, past Fazeley, Tamworth, Atherstone and Nuneaton to a basin in the centre of Coventry.
Another set of businessmen, this time in Oxford, wanted to build a canal which would link their city to the Coventry Canal and the rest of the existent waterways network. Oxford, of course, is on the River Thames and together with the Coventry Canal this was the final piece in Brindleys’ “Grand Cross” jigsaw which was to link the 4 great rivers of England; the Mersey, Trent, Severn and Thames.
The Oxford Canal was to join the Coventry Canal some way north of Coventry – which seems a little strange when Oxford is a long way south of Coventry. However, this was in the days before embankments and cuttings and Brindley had to wind his way around the contours of the land. In fact, the Oxford Canal is probably the most convoluted canal in Britain.
The money raised for the building of the Coventry Canal ran out before half the line was finished. The only completed part ran from Coventry to Atherstone – a long way short of Fradley on the Trent & Mersey Canal.
However, this was well within range of the many coal mines to the north of Coventry. By this time the company had sacked their engineer, James Brindley. For 7 years the route stood isolated. Meanwhile, their local rival – the Birmingham Canal – had long since been open and was very successful.
The Oxford Canal was open for 63 miles, running from the Coventry Canal at Longford to Banbury.
Connecting the two canals was no easy process as the two companies argued over water losses and the exact meeting place. For a while the two routes actually ran side by side for quite a distance with no connection. Eventually it was agreed to make a junction at Hawkesbury near Exhall.
For the owners of the Oxford Canal, it was very important that the Coventry Canal should finish its link into the main canal network at Fradley. Unfortunately the Coventry Canal was still in no financial state to continue their line so the two canals were left unfinished, both only half built, connecting to nothing in particular – other than each other.
Despite their money problems, the Coventry Canal Company still hoped to “invade” the Black Country coal fields. The Birmingham Canal already ran into the prosperous areas around West Bromwich and Wednesbury but they had no outlet to the east. The Coventry Canal Company proposed to build a route from their canal to Wednesbury (just north of Birmingham). They got full backing from both the Trent & Mersey Canal and the Oxford Canal as both saw it as an opportunity to get the missing link completed between Fradley and Atherstone.
At a meeting in Coleshill (situated between the towns of Birmingham & Coventry) the supporters and promoters of the project agreed that the new line would be known as the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal. It would run east from Wednesbury to Fazeley. The Coventry Canal agreed that they would construct a link between their current terminus at Atherstone and the terminus of the new Birmingham & Fazeley.
The Trent & Mersey Canal and new Birmingham & Fazeley Company agreed to complete the original Coventry route and meet at a point ½ way between Fazeley and Fradley. This amazingly friendly, multi-company partnership (which was an incredibly rare event) was known as the Coleshill agreement. However, the Birmingham Canal Company were not about to let anybody sneak into their territory and steal away with their coal! They bitterly opposed the whole scheme and arguments continued for several years.
Parliament were brought into the battle and eventually the Birmingham Canal won the day. The government gave them permission to buy out the Birmingham & Fazeley Company and build a canal from the centre of Birmingham to Fazeley. They kept up the Coleshill agreement and the final parts of the Coventry Canal were built though the Coventry Company – perhaps bitter at losing the battle – had to be pushed into completing their short stretch between Atherstone and Fazeley.
With renewed hopes of success due to a soon to be completed canal along with the completion of the Oxford Canal to the Thames and a link into Birmingham, Coventry Basin was extended, taking on the Y-shaped form which can still be seen today.
The Coleshill agreement was completed when the final part of the Coventry Canal was opened. This opened the way for water-borne traffic to travel from Birmingham to London for the first time. It also saw the completion of Brindleys’ Grand Cross – 18 years after his death.
Great optimism came to the Coventry Canal when a new route to London was proposed. Work had just begun on the Grand Junction (or Braunston) Canal, it would connect with the northern part of the Oxford Canal which in turn connected with the Coventry Canal. However, the good news didn’t last long and it soon turned into very grim news indeed. Another new route was under way via Warwick which would completely miss out the Coventry Canal.
The Wyrley & Essington Canal opened on the northern section of the Coventry Canal. This travelled across the northern edge of the Black Country, by-passing the monopolising Birmingham Canal company and opening up new routes to Cannock, Wolverhampton and the River Severn.
A new canal opened which linked into the Coventry Canal a little way north of the junction with the Oxford Canal. This was the Ashby Canal which had originally been planned to reach the Trent & Mersey Canal at Burton though in the end it got nowhere near. In fact, it didn’t even reach Ashby! For around 20 years the Ashby Canal made losses and brought little or no income to the Coventry Canal who had hoped to make a nice profit out of toll charges. Eventually things got better and the Ashby Canal became one of the successes of the canal era and beyond.
The new route to London from Birmingham opened via the Warwick & Birmingham Canal, Warwick & Napton Canal, 5 miles of the Oxford Canal and the Grand Junction Canal. The loss of traffic had a devastating effect on the Coventry Canal and it took the company many years to recover. Of course it was not all doom and gloom as the canal still provided a through route from the Trent & Mersey to London and some boats preferred the Oxford, Coventry and Fazeley route to the Warwick route.
Slowly but surely the Coventry Canal got over its London losses.Along with through traffic from other waterways and an ever growing Ashby Canal trade, there were nine collieries close to the route and a number of quarries. The canal was helped further when the Oxford company had their canal upgraded, cutting 14 miles off their round-the-hills route by use of high embankments and deep cuttings. The Coventry Canal eventually became one of the most successful ever to be built.
The Midland Railway Company bought the Ashby Canal. Both the Coventry Canal and the Oxford Canal feared that they would find it impossible to cope with the loss in tolls if Ashby Canal traffic switched to the rails. The two companies managed to continually foil the railway company and were so successful at it that the Ashby Canal traffic actually increased, leaving the railway with no chance of getting permission to close it down.
During this period the Coventry company, and other companies on the through route from the north to London, bitterly complained about excessive tolls being charged by the Oxford Canal. Meetings were held and the Oxford company were instructed to lower their tolls but they flatly refused. Despite this, the Coventry Canal continued to increase its profits each year. Because it was in a prosperous coal field and on a useful through route it managed to stay in business long after others had faltered. In fact, it was still paying a dividend up till 1947, its last year of independent ownership. Even the devastation that took place in Coventry during WW2 did not dent the canal’s success.
The Coventry Canal passed into government control when the whole canal system was nationalised. During the following decade commercial carrying diminished every year.
A minor loss came to the Coventry Canal when the eastern end of the Wyrley & Essington Canal was closed. Although trade from this canal had long since been declining, it cut off the route along the northern edge of the Black Country.
Coventry Council began a concerted effort to close down the canal which had for so many years brought them prosperity. They planned to fill in the 5½ miles from Hawkesbury Junction into the city centre. But this was a bad time to try and close ANY canal. The Inland Waterway Association, a group of enthusiasts led by Tom Rolt, were waiting for just such an opportunity to show the world how important Britain’s canals were. They staged a rally in Coventry Basin which raised enough support from voters and councillors to stop the closure.The Coventry Canal Society was formed and they have done much since to secure the survival of the waterway.
The last commercial traffic came to an end. During the years that followed the route has become very popular with holiday makers.
In complete contrast to the Coventry Council of 1957, the latest council wanted to attract people into the city. This included a complete refurbishment of Coventry Basin. Consultation with the canal society ensured that the new ideas fitted well alongside the old and in 1995 the basin opened. The basin contains offices, small shop units, car parking space and plenty of room for visiting narrow boats – of which there are many.
A canal society’s work is never done. Towards the end of the year Coventry Canal Society successfully prevented the demolition of 32 Sutton Stop, known as Sephton’s Cottage, at Hawkesbury Junction.The owners were not only ordered not to demolish the building but to restore it to reasonable condition!
Also at Hawkesbury Junction, it was announced that the canal society were to take over the historic pump house. The building was in serious danger of collapse and would need a lot of work. The hope was to make it safe, rebuild floors, restore the engine room and even install a replica engine. The building could also be turned into a visitor centre. Work is under progress.
While Coventry Council have transformed the canal within the city, not all local councils are quite so helpful towards the canal.Plans were announced by BW and other local councils to develop the area around Hawkesbury Junction. These plans included wiping out a historic wharf and replacing it with new houses. Not surprisingly, the Coventry Canal Society bitterly opposed this saying not only is the wharf of historic value but it is still used by trading boats. At the time of writing, BW have refused to back down.
Coventry Canal Route
The Coventry Canal has remained open and is a popular holiday route.It can be found in all the popular waterways guides so I don’t feel the need to give full details here. I will however point to some of my favourite parts of the canal.
Possibly the best place on the canal is its northern terminus where it makes a junction onto the Trent & Mersey. Fradley junction is a pretty settlement with pub, locks, cottages and a boat yard. However, all of these are situated on the Trent & Mersey while the Coventry quietly heads off towards the south east. Fradley can be found just north of the A38 to the north east of Lichfield.
Just south of the A38 is the small village of Huddlesford. Here the Wyrley & Essington Canal used to head west towards Wolverhampton. Up until a few years ago the W&E at this point was in a sorry state but it is now being restored under the name of the Lichfield Canal. The first few yards of the route are used as private moorings and the cottages which stand at the junction are now occupied by Lichfield Cruising Club.
On the minor road south from Huddlesford is the village of Wittington.
One item of interest here is a garden which has a lock gate in it. This is a complete folly as the gate was “acquired” from “somewhere” on the Birmingham Canal Navigations.
Hopwas on the A51 is a pretty area though you’d never guess it from the busy road. Park at one of the two pubs on either side of the road bridge and you will be in for a pleasant surprise.
Fazeley Junction is on Watling Street, no longer the A5 as this has been diverted onto a new bypass. The junction is right beside the point where the A4091 crosses Watling Street. The canal which leaves the Coventry Canal here is the Birmingham & Fazeley. This takes boats right into the centre of Birmingham city. There is a junction house with a number of old canal buildings and a massive mill nearby. Also at Fazeley are a number of redeveloped canal side areas and basins.
Between Fazeley and Tamworth is a long straight stretch of canal on an embankment which includes an aqueduct over the River Tame. East of here the canal curves around into Tamworth, passes under a railway bridge and then arrives at the two Glascote Locks. Just below the flight is a former wharf which is now a small marina belonging Tamworth Cruising Club. Above the locks is a junction which leads under a humped back towpath bridge into Glascote Basin.
East of Tamworth the canal runs alongside houses and gardens and then heads off into the Warwickshire countryside. The only village on this stretch is at Polesworth though there are a number of road bridges and a railway is never far away.
The main lock flight on the canal is at Atherstone. Although there are 11 locks, spread over 2 miles, the flight can be tricky to find by car because the main road (A5) now bypasses the town. Heading east by car you must come off the A5 at the first slip road AFTER the B4116 roundabout. This bends round under the A5. Take the first right, a sharp turn, onto what was once the original A5. This goes under a very low railway bridge and comes to a canal bridge. There are 6 locks downstream from here though they are well spaced out. Climbing upwards are 5 locks very close together. The flight is always well kept and well worth a visit by any canalcoholic.
South east of Atherstone the Coventry Canal enjoys another stretch of countryside, passing the BW yard at Hartshill which dates back to the early days of the waterway. Industry and urbanisation returns at Nuneaton. On a bleak winter day this stretch can look very dreary but it is always interesting.
From here to Coventry there are only brief sightings of countryside. The canal has now entered the area which it was built to serve. This was once a rich mining area though only the old slag heaps remain – and many of these are now being removed or landscaped.
Near Bedworth is Marston Junction where the Ashby Canal begins. This can be reached via a minor road within a council estate between the B4112 and B4113. Although the junction is of interest, it was not a pretty sight when I was there and it does very little to entice potential visitors onto what is actually a lovely canal.
Much more interesting is the junction onto the Oxford Canal. This is Hawkesbury Junction, found 2 miles south of the Ashby junction. Take the minor road east off the B4113 just before the B-road goes under the M6.
Hawkesbury Junction is also known as Sutton Stop, named after the stop lock at the junction on the Oxford Canal. There is an old pump house here (under restoration), numerous old canal houses and the popular Greyhound Pub. Once upon a time there was no junction here at all. The Oxford canal used to run south for several miles with only a towpath between it and the Coventry. The junction today is an excellent place for those who like to gongoozle (watch canal boats passing by). At busy times there seems to be boats moving everywhere and in all directions! Not everybody is happy with Hawkesbury Junction today. New housing developments are being built alongside the junction and those who prefer the canal system only to reflect yesteryear don’t like it.
Five miles south is the end of the line though the journey into Coventry is not one most people would care to remember. Having said that, I’ll never forget my first boat ride on this section. I fell in the canal at Hawkesbury, it was the week between Christmas and New Year – it was cold! After drying off, changing clothes and getting warmed up I was then spat on by a cheerful youth as we passed under a footbridge.
The local authority are doing much to brighten up the canal into the city, and the basin at the end of the line is well worth the effort. By car, Coventry Basin is well sign posted and, heading south towards the city, can be found by turning right (west) off the A444 immediately BEFORE the Coventry inner ring road. There is plenty of room to park in or around the basin area. The basin has 2 short arms forming a Y-shape. Surrounding the water are numerous old buildings as well as some brand new ones. New shops stand alongside, swing bridges cross over the water and an old toll office stands in one corner.