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Grand Union Canal

Canal in Knowle

In the late 1700s, water borne transport was proving very successful as a means of moving goods around the country. To the south, the Severn and Avon had been used extensively for navigation for some time, and Stratford was an inland port at which goods were transferred to horse drawn coaches for transportation to Birmingham, and vice versa.

Birmingham was then connected northwards to the Trent and even to the Mersey via the growing canal network by the 1770s. It was natural that plans would be drawn up to connect Birmingham to the south by canal as well, to the Avon, the Severn and to the Thames. Surprisingly, it was latter which was achieved first, when the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, the Coventry Canal and the Oxford Canal provided a through route to the Thames at Oxford in 1790.

The challenge of connecting to the Avon was one of terrain and particularly the notorious challenge of crossing the Cole and Blythe and the substantial drops into Stratford and Warwick. Plans were, however, approved in the 1790s.

In May 1796 the first 9 miles of the new canal opened from Birmingham to Henwood, further progress being prevented by the collapse of the newly built aqueduct over the Blythe, one of the factors that led to the dismissal of engineer William Felkin that year. His replacement, Phillip Witton, completed the task and the canal opened to Warwick in 1800.

The Warwick and Napton Canal opened that same year, providing connections from the Avon to Birmingham and to the established Oxford Canal. In that same year the Oxford canal was also connected to London by the Grand Junction Canal, and the heart of the Midlands Canal Network as we know it today was complete.

This also meant that the principle of alternative and competing London to Birmingham routes, firstly through Oxfordshire and Warwick (and B93) and secondly though Hertfordshire and Rugby was established, one that would be followed after half a century by the railways and then much later by the motorway network!!

And it was competition from the alternative that prevented the Birminghm-Warwick-Napton route from achieving great success. It was a much shorter route, but the number of locks, particularly the long flight at Hatton to be faced not long after the short flight at Knowle, made it a more arduous and time consuming route. As a result tolls had to be kept low in order to compete, and profits were not great. Early problems with water shortage, which led to the building of the substantial summit feeder reservoir at Olton did not help greatly, either.

The Stratford Canal opened in 1802 and connected to the Warwick and Birmingham Canal at Kingswood Junction. The goal of connecting the Avon to Birmingham had been achieved by two routes. and Knowle saw much traffic move a couple of miles east, away from the turnpike through the High Street and onto the canal.

Numerous wharves served the area, and evidence remains of the early Copt Heath Wharf on Barston Lane just beyond the M42 towards Ravenshaw and Kixley Wharf, near the end of Kixley Lane. Heronfield Wharf was near where the Herons Nest is today and Knowle Hall had its own wharf where the Kenilworth Road crosses the canal and where the boat moorings are now.

On New Years Day 1929, the canal got a huge boost when the route from Birmingham to Napton route, the Grand Junction Canal and the Regents Canal in London amalgamated into the new Grand Union Canal. All of the locks from Birmingham to Napton were upgraded to a new standard, making it part of one of the most important canal routes in the country.

Since then, of course, traffic steadily declined and the two basins in every lock were reduced to one again. But then traffic has steadily grown once more, as leisure traffic has almost totally replaced working traffic and, in the summer peak. queues are once more forming at the locks at Knowle. Meanwhile, pubs like the Black Boy have reverted to their traditional role of lubricating the thirsty canal traveller.