Enjoy some of the UK’s most exciting contemporary art in this cutting-edge gallery before taking in Birmingham’s iconic canal history

Words by Steph Wetherell

Posted on 30/10/2019

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Located in the centre of Birmingham, the Ikon Gallery is housed in a striking neo-gothic building, an old school that was converted into a gallery and now houses some of the best in international contemporary art. The idea for a gallery came about in the 1960s due to the lack of support for contemporary artists in the city and the gallery had several different homes across the city until it moved into its current premises in 1997.

“Ikon presents temporary exhibitions, dedicating gallery space to focus on a single artist – these are often the first presentation in the UK by the artist or the largest show to date,” Rebecca Small from the gallery explains. “It has a long history of working off-site, taking art to different and often unexpected places in the city including shopping centres, the canals, heritage buildings and care homes – in fact Ikon has worked on the canals for 20 years!” The gallery also runs a comprehensive learning and education programme alongside its exhibitions to help ensure everyone has access to the visual arts.

With more than 100 miles of canals in the city, by the 19th century, Birmingham waterways were suffering from severe congestion and acclaimed engineer Thomas Telford was brought in to solve the issue. Unlike his predecessor James Brindley who designed the Old Main Line, a gently ambling waterway that slides through the city in large loops, Telford favoured deep cuttings and large embankments in his canal design. As a result of these decisions, he managed to cut an astonishing seven miles off the distance between Birmingham and Wolverhampton with his construction of the Birmingham New Main Line.

Heading westwards along the towpath, you quickly get a feel for the difference between the Old and New canals – the old sweeps in long arcs, the new cutting efficiently through the city, creating islands in the city as it crossed each of the old loops. The walk also gives you a taste for the contrast between the modern buildings, and the city’s industrial heritage; one moment you’re walking past towers of flats, the next alongside warehouses and chimneys.

One of the key features of Birmingham canals are the cast iron bridges, and Galton Bridge was another of Telford’s triumphs – its 150ft (46m) span made it the longest single span bridge at the time, and a good landmark to aim for on your walk. From here, retrace your steps or head up to Smethwick Galton Bridge train station to find your way home.

Plan your day out along the Birmingham Canal Navigations with our online guide

Illustration by Elliot Brown