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Cruise historic canals in narrowboats at Birmingham, England

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Forget Venice, with just 43 miles of canals. Birmingham, birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, retains 100 miles of waterways flowing through eight historic canals.

No longer heavy-laden with goods, the historic canals are recreation webs for pleasure boating, cycling, walking and enjoying a waterside pint or two.

Britain’s Birmingham was once called the City of the Silver Cross because of the way the sun shone on the canal water. To recapture some of this waterway heritage, just hop on a narrowboat and glide into the past.

Birmingham’s Gas Street Canal Basin

The Gas Street Basin is the heart of the British canal network, one of the most intricate in the world. There are more than 2,000 miles left from the canal system, which began about 1700 and lasted commercially for more than 200 years.

In Birmingham, engineer James Brindley opened the Birmingham Canal Main Line in 1769. Narrowboats carried coal, salt, limestone, wood and chemicals — plus chocolate crumb to the Cadbury chocolate factory.

Quickly, the Gas Street Basin became so busy that owners installed gas lights in the locks so the boatmen could work 24 hours a day.

Today, Birmingham’s historic canals are all about leisure. Sit at a canalside table at Brindleyplace and enjoy a ploughman’s lunch and a pint as narrowboats like Dalton Dame and Mad Hatter putt by.

Mastering the narrowboat on Birmingham’s canals

Travelers can join the historic canal fleet by renting a narrowboat and skippering it themselves. The operator will show newbies how to steer by the rudder in the stern, cruising along at 4 mph.

But be warned: Birmingham sits atop the Midland Plateau, about 200 feet above the surrounding countryside. That meant engineers had to build locks to move the boats up and down, and locks mean more work for modern boaters.

If you cruise the 30 canal miles from Birmingham to Worcester, for instance, you’ll reach Tardebigge Flight with 30 locks in little more than two miles – it’s one of Britain’s steepest waterway inclines.

Walk and cycle Birmingham’s canals

Hikers can follow the historic canal tow paths for miles, hopping off to visit Birmingham’s National Sea Life Centre or the multi-media Ikon Gallery. Serious walkers dedicate a weekend to the 29-mile Worcester to Birmingham canal walk.

Cyclists can follow the tow path from Gas Street Station to Aldersley Junction, a 14-mile time trip that winds through tunnels on its way past aqueducts, basins, stables and a pumping station.

Cruising with a meal

Prefer to sit back and enjoy the view? Narrowboat crews are ready to welcome travelers onboard.

Away2dine is a luxury floating restaurant on Birmingham’s canals. Travelers can glide along for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea or a relaxing three-hour dinner.

The boats board at the Handmade Burger Company, The Water's Edge, Brindleyplace. It’s not far from The Mailbox, once England’s largest mail-sorting office. The Mailbox is now a chic entertainment center with dozens of bars, restaurants, shops -- and the only posh Harvey Nichols store outside London.

Away2dine’s sleek narrowboat Moira Rose sets out at noon Sunday for the traditional English roast lunch, or evenings from Wednesday through Saturday for a dinner cruise. Passengers step down into the long boat and settle in at tables with white linens and tea lights.

For the dinner cruise, you might start with roast duck salad or poached salmon as the boat pulls away from the dock and heads into the Gas Street Basin.

Soon the Moira Rose is passing Brindleyplace and sliding under an 1827 iron bridge. It’s a great vantage point just inches above the inky waves.

The route continues past new condos, fitness clubs and businesses, juxtaposed with a few crumbling walls and rusting narrowboats from the old days. But much of this fluid heart of Birmingham is being rejuvenated, old factories removed so England’s second city can build again.

When you go

Birmingham’s waterways are part of more than 4,000 miles of canals, rivers and lakes in Britain. Canal and River Trust has downloadable maps of the canal network for boating, hiking and cycling.

Visit Birmingham has complete listings of canalside restaurants, bars, businesses and activities.

More information on Britain.

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