Authorized in 1783 and completed in 1789, the Digbeth Branch Canal runs for just under a mile from Aston Junction to Warwick Bar in Digbeth where it joins the Warwick and Birmingham Canal and the Grand Union. The canal descends through six locks and two tunnels, so the walk is not without interest, especially considering the area's history and the current developments that are transforming this part of the city, not least caused by the arrival of HS2.
Aston Junction is adjacent to the Aston Expressway, it isn't the prettiest and like many such locations it has become hidden from view and covered in graffiti. Starting from the Horseley Bridge (1828) which straddles Aston Top Lock, you skirt Aston University and Science Park under Love Lane and Lister Street bridges. As is usually the case, the canal is lined with the visible and slightly less visible remains of wharfs and basins. When the landscape opens out there are extensive moorings alongside the Advanced Transport and Infrastructure College, and some of the nearby new developments have adopted the names of Priestley Wharf and Faraday Wharf to reflect the area's history.
Under Heneage Street Bridge and you reach Ashted Top Lock and then the north portal Ashted Tunnel which a claustrophobic 103 yards long, illuminated but still a little scary. Once out of the tunnel there's a large amount of development going on and archaeological projects have uncovered two glass works and Ashted Pumping Station that stood on the left as you come out of the tunnel. Operating from 1810 until 1922, its Boulton and Watt steam engine was bought by Henry Ford for his museum.
Carrying on along the paint splattered locks under Belmont Row Bridge, you now pass another university, this time Birmingham City. Next up is Curzon Street Bridge and Curzon Street Tunnel which is longer (160 yards) and much wider than Ashted, thus allowing two way traffic. It curves gently in the same fashion as the Monaco Grand Prix tunnel but with less salubrious surrounding. Above you can hear the railway rumbling and an army of pigeons cooing. Curzon Street Station still stands, it's Grade 1 listed, formerly the terminus for the first London to Birmingham railway and now the end of the line for HS2.
Proof House Junction quickly comes into view and the Proof House is on your right. One of only two in the country, it was established by act of parliament in 1813 to test the safety of locally manufactured firearms. Birmingham had been a major manufacturer of guns since the 1600s and the Proof House is still busy today, tours are available and there's also a museum.
Turn left under Proof House Junction Bridge and a disused railway bridge and you'll see the former Geest banana warehouse adjacent to Warwick Bar and the start of the Warwick and Birmingham Canal which connected here in 1796. Beyond is the huge Fellows, Morton and Clayton warehouse (1935) and The Bond or Ice House.
Digbeth, known by thousands of travellers for its coach station, is an increasingly colourful place. The canal and railways encouraged its industrial development but now creative and digital businesses are taking over from metal bashing. There are many notable buildings, whether canal related or not, in the Warwick Bar Conservation Area and to reach it, retrace your steps and cross the Horseley bridge, this leads towards Typhoo Basin (originally Bordesley Street Wharf). Although badly damaged during the war, Typhoo packaged tea here in their Bauhaus influenced factory from 1925 until 1978, and Pickfords occupied the adjacent basin. The tow path is now boarded off but there are steps up to Fazeley Street where you turn left towards the front of the FMC warehouse.