Birmingham canal boat trips with a difference
Each year Roundhouse Birmingham partner up with Canal & River Trust’s Heritage Working Boat Group to offer trips around the local canal loops. These boat trips are a unique opportunity to see Birmingham from a different angle and to find out a bit of canal history. What makes these different from other canal tours in Birmingham? You’ll be riding in the cargo hold of a restored heritage working boat.
Terry Bayliss is one of the volunteers who coordinates the Heritage Working Boat trips with us, which launch from outside the Roundhouse. We had a catch-up with Terry to find out more about what the Heritage Working Boat Group and the trips.
How did the Heritage Working Boat Group start?
Back in the late 90’s when British Waterways were responsible for the canals and rivers, they decided to apply for a Heritage Lottery Fund Grant to restore a number of heritage working boats to help promote tourism in the Midlands area. In 1999, approval was granted for the project and British Waterways received £260,000 to restore eight boats and two static displays. The boats were in various states of repair with some being stripped back to the hulls, and painstakingly renovated to their former glory.
As the boats became available, a group of volunteers was sought to take them to the various boating events and festivals in the Midlands, and sometimes wider afield. From the outset the aim was to meet with members of the public and invite them on board to talk about the heritage of the canals, the boats, and the people who lived and worked on them. The volunteer group had several different names, but we eventually settled on the Heritage Working Boat Group.
Over the years, a number of the boats went to other organisations. However, when the Canal & River Trust (CRT) was formed in 2012, there was a renewed commitment to use the boats to promote the local waterways. Our aim now is to promote the heritage of the waterways as before, but to try and engage with people who wouldn’t normally visit the canals and rivers, even if they are near to them.
We now operate four boats – Scorpio and Swift, which have an engine, and Leo, which is a butty (a boat without an engine that needs to be towed). These boats were all built in the mid 1930’s. Our final boat is a tugboat named Nansen II, which was built in the 1950’s.
As well as our normal boating trips, we’ve been involved in activities including carrying the Olympic Torch and being part of the Commonwealth Games baton relay last year. We carried members of Black Sabbath to the ceremonial unveiling of Black Sabbath Bridge on Birmingham’s Broad Street. We’ve taken Pudsey Bear to local TV studios. And the Group also has worked with the Canal & River Trust’s education team, known as the Explorers. We jointly hosted trips of school children; using the boat as the backdrop and teaching aid for many activities. The list goes on and on and the events are many and varied!
Can you tell us about the Heritage Working Boat Trip with Roundhouse Birmingham?
Our group has supported the Roundhouse for a number of years, both when the project was being developed, through to last years fully operational year when we organised 50 days of trips throughout the spring and summer. A trip on one of our boats is a unique opportunity to experience a ride in the hold of a genuine heritage working boat and hear how the canals were developed and changed over the last 300 years. Visitors learn about the boats and the people who lived and worked on them. Yes, the boat was your home!
You will also see the changing face of Birmingham city centre, and how the canals continue to form a part of the city’s tourist attractions along with being integrated into new places to live. Our trips are led by our experienced volunteers, who make the trips interesting and engaging and are more than happy to answer your questions along the way. The trip lasts for about one hour after which you are invited to spend a short time in the boats’ cabin, which served as the home for the family who lived and worked on the boat.
During the trip you will also see the Canal & River Trust boat yard at Icknield Port which contains a number of listed buildings and is built at the base of the 300 metre wall that forms the side of Edgbaston Reservoir.
What’s your favourite place on the canal?
My favourite place in Birmingham is Gas Street Basin. I like the way that part of the canal has been developed in recent times with the range of bars and the facilities in the area. I also have many memories of the bars and clubs in the area back in the 1960’s. So not really to do with boating! One of my favourite trips for boating is going to Stourport on Severn from Stourbridge. The canal is very narrow in places where it was cut through the sandstone and also passes through some very attractive countryside with many large houses next to the canal.
Can you tell us about your group’s future plans?
Over the last few years our normal boating programme has been severely restricted following the Covid-19 pandemic. For two years we were unable to use the boats as we normally do. We have managed to continue with some work with Roundhouse throughout this time and we were quite involved with the Commonwealth Games. Last year, our boats were used a number of times to carry celebrities and as a location for TV interviews etc and in 2021, when Coventry was the City of Culture, the group was honoured to carry Prince Charles (as he was then) into Coventry City on Scorpio.
For this coming season we are hoping to continue to support the Roundhouse, but also to return to our normal boating activities and taking them to various events in and around the Midlands. Worcester, Coventry, Gnossall Huddlesford are just a few of the places on the list.
Thanks to Terry for talking to us about the Heritage Working Boat trips. If you’ve got any questions or would like to book for a group, please give us a call or use the contact form at the bottom of this page.