Sight unseen: Gongoozling

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The Independent Culture
IN HIS new guise as quiz- master, Jeremy Paxman might well ask which British city has more miles of canal than Venice. Come on, come on, we haven't got all day. This city was also an island port. The chances are that not even Paxman's admonitions would call forth the correct answer: Birmingham.

Surely not our Birmingham, heart of the Black Country, home of Spaghetti Junction, Crossroads and a football team whose managing director is a woman and whose owner built his business empire on dirty mags? A city that no one visits other than through dire necessity or because they have taken a wrong turning on the motorway?

Yes, indeed, Birmingham: a city full of unexpected pleasures, many based on the canals that wind their way below street level. For well over a century, Brum was the centre of Britain's inland waterways, allowing direct access to Britain's four largest sea ports.

The towpaths now offer pedestrians a variety of unusual perspectives. If you are feeling fit, why not start in Paddington, west London, and stroll 147 miles up the Grand Union Canal into Birmingham - the kind of light exercise Charles Dickens used to polish off on a Sunday afternoon?

As your journey nears its end, you are continually aware of the strange juxtaposition of old and new - the contrasts that give places a distinctive feel. You can hear the jets from Birmingham airport, the rush of trains and the dull roar of motorway traffic.

Keep going past the empty warehouses and gloomy tunnels that drip-drip with water and lead nowhere - until suddenly, you reach the mellifluously named series of 13 locks known as Farmer's Steps, built end-to-end to raise the barges 40ft for the next part of their journey.

All about is the thrusting evidence of a 20th-century city: office blocks, conference centres, telecommunications tower. Old and new side by side: the canal, which stimulated industrialisation; the hi-tech communications which drive our world relentlessly forward.

The people who worked on the canals had a name for the idle loafers who watched them sweat on their narrow boats: 'gongoozlers'. Perhaps Birmingham Tourist Board should give the city a new slogan: 'Come to Birmingham for a good gongoozle.' It would do wonders for its image.

Farmer's Steps are beside Saturday Bridge in Summer Row, Birmingham.

(Photograph omitted)