In the heart of Birmingham, the city around which the country’s canal system is based, you can find the Gas Street Basin, arguably the most important spot on the entire canal network. Canals were built to transport cargo around the country during the Industrial Revolution, and basins were the inland ports where that cargo was unloaded. Given the role of canals in Birmingham, and the role of Birmingham in the Industrial Revolution, Gas Street Basin could be the internal hub around which everything revolved. Following changes in canal use from industry to leisure, Gas Street Basin is almost as busy as ever, but it now moves with the sound of shoppers and revellers who visit the many bars and restaurants that now reside in the area.
Gas Street – so named as it was the first place in the city to get gas lighting – was created in the 1790s as a meeting point for the Birmingham Canal and the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, although competition between the two companies meant a physical barrier, the Worcester Bar, divided the basin between the two areas of water. Gas Street Basin would have been teeming with activity for much of its existence, as raw material from all over the country arrived in the country’s second city. As a result it was surrounded by wharves and warehouses, as well as factories. The Birmingham canals largely survived the coming of the railways but were done for by improvements in road transport after the Second World War. The basin became derelict until regeneration got underway in the 1980s.
Many of the original warehouses have now been converted and the basin is a bustling place again, though now with leisure and recreation rather than hard industry. There are many bars and restaurants around Gas Street, and the Worcester Bar can still be seen, while the sights and attractions of Birmingham itself are near at hand. But the basin also acts as something like a living canal museum. It’s one of those places where there’s enough people, boats and surrounding architecture to get a sense of what an industrial canal basin might once have been like. As such, it’s an essential place to visit, either by foot or on one of several boat trips that travel through Gas Street from surrounding canals.