It’s common knowledge in these parts that Birmingham has more miles of canals than Venice - and we’re all very proud of it. But far fewer people know that Birmingham also has three rivers flowing through it.

It’s easy to see why, neither of these rivers is large enough or deep enough to be navigable by a boat - most are hidden away below street level, only visible in parks and nature reserves. But just because they’re not the biggest or most visible, doesn’t mean they’re not important.

The Rea played a crucial role in the founding of our city - way back in the seventh century. And one of our other lesser known rivers helped inspire one of the nation’s most prized authors to bring his masterpiece to life.

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There are three rivers flowing through Birmingham: the River Cole, River Tame and River Rea. The River Cole might not be as well known as the River Rea - but it is significantly longer and passes through much of the city.

Stepping stones closest to Stratford Road on the River Cole
Stepping stones closest to Stratford Road on the River Cole.

The River Cole flows for 25 miles through Birmingham via the Kingfisher Country Park near Stechford and then onto Shire Country Park in Moseley. After that it flows past Sarehole Mill towards Hall Green and by Stratford Road via the Blackberry Way and Burbury Brickworks Nature Reserve in Sparkhill.

The River Cole may not be as well-known as many of the other rivers in the region, but it played a significant role in the life of J.R.R Tolkien whose fantasy book The Lord of the Rings was described by The Times as the ‘book of the century’. The Coldbath Brook, a tributary of the Cole drives the mill at Sarehole Mill - used as inspiration for the Shire in his famous novels.

Sarehole Mill is powered by a tributaryof the River Cole.
Sarehole Mill is powered by a tributary of the River Cole.

Sarehole Mill itself sits on Cole Bank Road - named after the river. In the late 1890s Sarehole was the childhood haunt of J.R.R. Tolkien and his brother, a place Tolkein said were the ‘happiest’ years of his youth.

The Mill and the surrounding area influenced the Middle Earth he created in his books. When illustrated in his original books, he always drew the mill in Hobbiton with a little tower, just like Sarehole Mill.

The John Morris Jones Walkway in the Shire Country Park next to the River Cole. (Credit: Elliott Brown)
The John Morris Jones Walkway in the Shire Country Park next to the River Cole. (Credit: Elliott Brown)

Earlier this year, works were carried out as part of the River Cole project to create new green public spaces along the banks of the river. Led by the University of Birmingham with key partners, the development project will transform 55 hectares of unused space.

Keiran McKenzie, Assistant Director of Healthy Communities at The Active Wellbeing Society said of the project: "We felt it was important to get the residents who live around the River Cole area involved in this project because it is their local area.

“We asked people about their perceptions of the River Cole area, whether they use it at all, and if not, what the barriers are. What was clear from our initial engagement with local schools, GPs, residents, and community groups is that people were concerned with the safety of the environment and keen to address littering, fly tipping and anti-social behaviour.

“With the support of community partnerships, local organisations and residents, we have proactively removed barriers in a collaborative way, and in doing so, rebuilt people’s confidence to access this area again. It is our hope to see the community continue to cherish and use the River Cole as their space."