Friday 17 January 2014

Birmingham Canals Running Route

Click here for route map
Length 8 km (5 miles), terrain: flat
NOTE: By leaving off the last section, the distance is cut in half

Pictures courtesy of the creative folks at Flickr Creative Commons. Thanks! 

For other running routes, see Route List

If you're staying and working in downtown Birmingham in the UK's Midlands, you might feel intimidated about heading out for a run. It's pretty urban, with loud streets and buses everywhere. Railway yards and freeways cut swaths through the neighborhoods, and big parks or green areas are nowhere to be found. The whole city center has been wonderfully revitalized in recent years, with new pedestrian shopping streets, but extended green areas are still in short supply.

But, luckily, Birmingham is bisected by a network of old canals, which provide a bit of water and greenery away from the traffic: the perfect place to go for a run.
A narrowboat underway in Birmingham, photo by Cmdr Gravy
I first discovered the canals many years ago, while working at a client's along the Grand Union Canal on the east side of Birmingham. During each lunch break, I wandered along the canal trail, picking ripe blackberries and enjoying the serenity, marveling at the old boat locks and basins where the canal barges could tie up.

The canals were dug in the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, in the early 1800s. Birmingham was the center of the whole revolution, with the world's first modern factories sprouting up all over the area. And the canals provided a way to move Birmingham's goods faster than along the muddy, rutted roads. But just a few decades later, the railroads killed the canals, and they fell into a kind of Snow White deep-sleep. Urban planners have now discovered the delights of waterside living, and have encouraged the redevelopment of the old factories and warehouses that lined every canal.
The main canal at Broad Street, photo by Aff
The canal are lined by towpaths, trails where men and horses pulled the barges, step by step. So each canal has always had a waterside trail that fits runners perfectly. It's kind of fun, running the narrow path along the water, going past ancient boat locks, under bridges, often down below the raised street-level all around you.

The canal-side buildings in the Birmingham town center have been redeveloped to provide a whole new evening entertainment district, full of restaurants, bars and shops. You're sure to see a few places where you'll want to return in the evening, after the run.

This means, of course, that the towpaths in the town center can be crowded in nice weather, in the area between the Mailbox and the nia, but once you're out of that area, you can run without zig-zagging around lots of pedestrians.

The Birmingham Canals Route
We'll start the run at the back end of the Mailbox, a converted ex-Royal Mail sorting center. The Mailbox has its own little basin harbor on the back side, and is the perfect place to start.
Start of the run, at the Mailbox basin, photo by Slack12
So head to Commercial Street. At the right of the Ramada Hotel, take the steps going up, at the "Mailbox" sign. You will find yourself at the little canal basin, surrounded by the Mailbox's shops, pubs and restaurants. Now take the stairs up behind the Ramada, which connect into a pedestrian bridge over one branch of the canal and then head northwest along the canal towpath.

You'll pass the extravagantly designed cube of the Indigo Hotel with its strange roofline on the left, before crossing the bridge.
Heading west from the Mailbox, photo by Slack12
In just two blocks, you'll come to one of the coolest spots around: the Gas Street Basin, full of narrowboats, with a few pubs and cafés. Right after this, you go under a building built over the canal at Broad Street, then the Brindley Place pubs and cafès on the left.
Did someone say there are narrowboats at the basin? Photo by Roger Marks
Keep running northwest towards the gigantic National Indoor Arena (or "nia") straight ahead. When you get to the arena, you will also have the big aquarium on your side of the canal, the National Sea Life Centre.

Just past the aquarium, you'll cross a side canal on the left. Turn left to follow it as it loops around to join back up to the Birmingham Main Line Canal again. This quiet "Old Line" canal is now lined with nice new apartments and offices.
Urban living along the Old Line Canal, just before it connects to Main Line. Photo by Leonardo Morgado
After just 400 meters, the Old Line Canal will have curved back around to the Main Line Canal again. Now just follow the towpath to the left for 100 meters to the next bridge, at St. Vincent Street, at about the 1.3-km mark. We'll turn around and head back here. Just run under the bridge, take the steps up to the bridge, cross it, and take the other steps down to the northern towpath, and now head back east.

NOTE: You could continue westwards along the Birmingham Main Line Canal for miles, with towpaths lining both sides, but it's pretty industrial out that way. It's better to add distance to the last leg of the run, along the more scenic Worcester and Birmingham Canal later.
Looking east from turn-around at St. Vincent Street bridge. Photo by Miroslav Petrasko
So now, heading eastwards, follow the curve of the canal to the left around the very impressive nia, and head northeast up the side canal between the nia and the Malt House (a big pub on the other side of the canal). You're now heading up the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal.
NIA on left, Malt House on right: head up that side canal past the ship roundabout! Photo by reveriewit
There is only a usable towpath on this west side of the canal, although there are spots across the water where walkways line it for a while. You're running towards some big buildings ahead, including the really tall BT telecommunications tower. Run up to about the second street bridge and turn back and run back to the nia again, at the 2.5-km mark.

NOTE: One of Birmingham's oldest and most interesting neighborhoods, St. Paul's Square, is just around the corner from the northern turnaround spot at Ludgate Hill, but there's no exit to the street there.

Now turn left to cross the old iron footbridge to the Malt House and then run eastwards along the northern towpath back towards the Mailbox.

You'll run around the north side of the Gas Street Basin, running right between all the narrowboats, then you have to take the footbridge to the south side of the canal.

You are now back near the start of the run: just turn left and run the two blocks back to the little basin at the Mailbox.

You could just end the run now, making it a 4-km run. But to add a bit more distance (we'll double the run, actually), you can turn right just before the last footbridge to the Mailbox, and run southwards along the old Worcester and Birmingham Canal. This canal is quiet, and lined with grass and bushes, and is a nice place to add some more kilometers. A railway lines it, but not many trains go by.
The Worcester and Birmingham Canal, photo by Simon Hammond
You can run for many kilometers towards the south here, if you want to add extra distance. This route will turn around at the University of Birmingham, though, two kilometers down the canal.

When you get to the university, which is on the left (east) side of the canal, there is a small basin with a sign for the university, and a footbridge that crosses the canal.

Now turn around at the basin and run back north the last two kilometers to the Mailbox, having had a delightful run in an otherwise very loud and urban city center.


  1. Hello! This is great! I'm about to move to Birmingham and the apartment will be near the Mailbox. Must save this route! Is it safe to run there? Are the streets OK at 6am in the winter? Coming from Toronto where it's not that pretty either for the most part but generally innocuous. Thanks!

  2. Hi Gráinne, winters in the UK don't normally involve much ice and snow. I think the streets are safe, but maybe others have different opinions.

  3. Thanks so much for that! It puts my mind at ease. I would be sticking to well lit areas anyway...I just can't tolerate months of the treadmill!

  4. I disagree with your statement that "big parks or green areas are nowhere to be found". Please check out the absolutely wonderful 2 mile route inside Handsworth Park in Birmingham. It's truly a hidden gem!

  5. OK, you're right, but it's a bit of a run first to get there. I meant green areas in the town center, but Birmingham does have some great parks further out: Sutton Park is a wonderful place to run, for example. Thanks for the tip!