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Archive for June 29th, 2008

The Odyssey – Summer 2008 Day 16

Posted by indigodream on 29 June, 2008

We got off to a slow start today – we’d heard that there was dragon boat racing in Birmingham and we didn’t want to get caught up in the closures so we just pottered along! Richard’s boatyard was ever-helpful and gave us permission to leave the car in their car park for the weekend – don’t park there without some sort of permission as some of the locals are a bit territorial (can’t blame them!).

Trees - above and in the water!Plenty of interest today (isn’t there always!). We were surprised to find that a large branch had fallen across the towpath mooring overnight and there were several trees across the water further along. The canal was generally full of debris – the usual plastic bottles and tyres in the built-up areas but mainly bits of tree! We’ve only seen the like up in Penkrdige after a big storm a few years ago (which closed the M6) – if there had been a storm of that magnitude overnight then we managed to sleep right through it! All this debris made for a noisy trip – we were accompanied by the constant clunking of stuff bumping along under the counter. We’d normally suspect submerged trolleys and other hardware but in this case we’re pretty sure it was bits of tree!

The Stratford Canal continued it’s winding path through the surprisingly rural outskirts of Birmingham. The M42 intruded briefly but was soon lost in the trees. Trees are a major feature here – the canalside is richly wooded and peaceful. One of our canal guides calls it ‘soporific’ – it certainly was quiet – just a few boats passed us going the other way.

Dogs enjoyign the viewWe noticed a few good pubs – The Wharf at Hockley Heath (just past bridge 25) had good access from the canal (we stalled here with a plastic bag round the prop so were in a good position to notice!). Later on just before Bridge 19 we spotted the welcoming sign of the ‘Cider House’ – fine pub moorings here. It was only 11am so a bit early for a pint but we’d like to explore there again!

Not far from bridge 16 we spotted another welsh boat, along with numerous welsh flags – this time it was nb ‘Rhyddid’ (trans. Freedom) that caught Richard’s eye. There’s a small canal branch here which is obviously used for mooring but also has a handy water point – not sure if it’s just for the moorers.

There are good moorings on either side of Shirley Drawbridge – maybe a bit close to the road for the dogs but there was a popular pub there and useful mooring rings. The drawbridge itself was electrically operated which was relief – the road’s surprisingly busy and quite a queue developed even with Richard’s fast finger on the button! However, just up from the bridge the canal felt quite rural again so Richard hopped off for a wander with the dogs. Good decision – we met another greyhound on the towpath – a BIG black and white boy (Proud Baz) – now six years old but retired early because he was too big for racing. He was a few inches taller than Blue and he’s not small!

Grand new developmentsThere were very grand new canalside developments on this stretch – I love it when towns make the best of their waterfronts – I’m surprised they don’t all take advantage. They reckon that a river frontage adds £200,000 to a property on the Thames! There were many canalside gardens here but a big contrast between how their owners perceived the canal. Some gardens were beautifully maintained with rich hostas (miraculously uneaten by slugs!) sitting on neat decking; others were just backyards full of compost heaps, mess and general debris. We weren’t quick enough with the camera but there was also one where a very ancient sofa was perched precariously on scaffolding poles above the canal. I have no idea whether anyone ever sat there – it looked a complete mess and I hope that it’s destiny isn’t to be wrapped round a prop one day!

Explains it all!Once you get past bridge 7 you’re in the outskirts of Kings Norton. Kelly warned us not to moor here and the sudden rash of graffiti on every flat surface hinted that the local youth are active on the towpath. There were great waterpoints by Bridge 5 but each waterpoint had been thoroughly graffitied. We were also mystified by a long stretch of offside moorings by Bridge 3 – all the boats had hefty metal grills slung over their waterside windows – we were alarmed – were they really used for target practice by the local youth?? Moored boats on the River Wey often have solid boards but that’s to stop the fisherman’s leads from smashing the windows – but we hadn’t see any fishermen here. We cruised by worriedly until we saw the sign pictured above…..

Lots of choiceIt was a shock when we got to the junction with the Worcester and Birmingham Canal – we’ve been here before! We passed this junction a few years ago in our shared boat, Dragonfly, on the way to our epic down the Tardebigge flight. As we turned right towards Birmingham bits of remembered journey came back but alas, our written log belongs to the Dragonfly so we didn’t have any past notes to refer to. That’s surely the strength of the blog!

I did remember that this stretch was prime territory for waving at trains (the track’s right by the canal). One train driver beeped in response to our enthusiatic (and slightly deranged) waving and another one waved – result! We didn’t manage to get any interest from the sad commuters….

Beware of this stretch of canal – although it passes through some industrialised bits it is quiet and tranquil – the people on the towpath smiled and waved and you could be lulled into a false sense of security. There are no boats moored here and there is a lot of graffiti (did someone on Radio 4 really try and claim that graffiti is art on Saturday morning?); the canalside businesses tend to be protected by spiky fences and razorwire so maybe all is not as it seems. The BW notice near Bournville maybe confirms the real situation – they warn that it is an urban canal and that thefts have occurred.

We savoured the rich smell of chocolate wafting over the canal from the Cadbury factory – slow down and enjoy it (unless you’re on a diet!). We had a visit to Cadburyworld last time we were here but we were disappointed – too much history and too little actual manufacturing. Given all the salmonella scares they’ve had since maybe it’s just as well we didn’t see the full process! If you want a good factory tour go round Wedgewood near Stafford instead – brilliant!

The university\'s hydrogen boatJust past Bridge 82 there’s a deceptively quiet mooring spot – all the bustle of Birmingham University is at the top of the cutting! This spot has useful access to the University train station – as we found out a few years ago it has good links to the west (Mum and her cousin started their journey back to Wales from here). Three years ago we moored overnight here without incident but we didn’t stop this time. It was good to see that the university’s involved in planning for the future of the waterways (see photo)

Birmingham is truly stunning from the water- it’s such a great mix of current industrial and swanky waterfront bars. Gas Street Basin and Brindly place were humming with life – possibly even busier than Camden. We were sad to see that the waterside Italian Restaurant which used to have a full-size venetian gondola morred outside had been demolished for development.

Dragon Boats at Brindley PlaceThe dragon boat racing was just finishing when we arrived – good timing for getting the boat through but a shame to have missed all the events. We headed for Cambrian Wharf at the top of the Farmer’s Bridge flight – it’s a bit quieter here. The local BW office was very helpful and gave us some handy advice on where to moor – they reckoned Cambrian Wharf was pretty secure. The ‘town’ side of the canal has 48-hour moorings but the basin itself has 14-day visitor moorings so that’s where we moored. We’re leaving the boat here for a few days – I have a meeting in Manchester on Friday so I’ll be using the boat as a ‘halfway house’. We’ll then resume our exploration of Birmingham next weekend.

When we arrived we were shocked to see that the Farmer’s Bridge flight was closed – not a bother to us but it was unexpected! Apparently a couple of the pounds lower down were completely dry – it took most of the day to get enough water down there to allow boats to pass. Just as well we moored early – later on the moorings filled up with boats that had been delayed coming up the flight.

We took the dogs on a wander round the action at Brindley Place – they were very good in the crowds though Lou was spooked by the loud drumming accompanying some chinese dragon dancers in one of the squares. I’m very pleased that we’re spending another weekend here – Brindley Place (above the canal) is full of lovely squares and fountains with a good array of restuarants etc. However, when we found our way out to one the main streets we lost every hint of the canal – talk about another world!

After much debate we decided to go home in the evening and take advantage of the unexpectedly good weather to get some jungle control done (other people call it gardening!). We walked from Cambrian Wharf to Snowhill – even with bags and dogs and bike it is not a long walkand from there we got a great train back to Dorridge (nearest station to where we’d left the car). Dogs as usual attracted attention on the train. The fare was £3.00 for two humans (and two dogs) and that was a return! Richard cycled back to get the car (3 miles) and I colonised the local pub with the dogs. We met a charming man there who owned a young lurcher (sadly not with him) – he gave the dogs loads of fuss and even gave Lou his jumper to lie on (Blue had my jacket). When Richard arrived with the car Lou was reluctant to leave her hero.

It was a long slog home (dogs had a good chase of rabbits at Cherwell Services!) but we’re glad we did it – we achieved a useful amount of stuff at home (including preparing nice food for the week) – this will make it easier for us to have a long weekend away next week.

Curiosities:

Brandwood TunnelThe Brandwood tunnel has very grand portals – especially looking back on the Grade II listed west portal where there is a Shakespeare plaque. Shame about the graffiti – i don’t think it adds anything really…..

Old guillotine lockFine guillotine lock – no longer in use but a great feature.

All the bridges have on this stretch have little gates in the parapets – firmly locked. We’d passed under half a dozen before we realised they were fire brigade locks – apparently the fire service can draw water from the canal in an emergency!

Fire Brigade doors

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The Odyssey – Summer 2008 Day 15

Posted by indigodream on 29 June, 2008

Does it still count as an ‘odyssey’ even though we haven’t moved the boat?! Whatever – Homer left Odysseus on Calypso’s island for years and he didn’t call his book “the odyssey (apart from the bit where he was making out with goddesses)” so I’ll keep the title as it is!!

Euphoric Blue after a long car journeyForgive me – I’m euphoric at being back on board – hurrah! This in part has been caused by the sense of joy in finally arriving here – we had a terrible journey up from Surrey. I was trying to be philosophical about it but for some reason the 4mph that’s so blissful on a boat is just grim when you’d doing it in a car on the M25!

I must mention the Cherwell Services off Junction 10 of the M40 – they have the BEST dog-walking area of any services in the country. If you nip down the alley between the Travelodge and the main services (past the bins!), you’ll get to a little wooden bridge over a stream and there it is – a very large open field, flanked by woodland, with mown paths among the long grass and rabbits out late evening. We had no hesitation in letting Blue and Lou off the lead for a rummage and we had quite a long walk (and only explored a quarter of the available area)! This was such a relief – it had taken us the best part of two hours to get this far (we’d hope to be at the boat in that time) and we all needed a break.

Another reason to be euphoric – Kelly from the boatyard had done a BRILLIANT job of cleaning the inside of our boat. It was a real temptation just to camp on the towpath and just look at it through the windows – it wouldn’t last once we got on board! Dylan from the boatyard also did a competent job of fixing our back door – this was a relief as I’ll be staying on the boat by myself next week and it’s nice to know that I’ll be secure! Richard had wanted someone competent to check the alignment and that was pronounced perfect. We can thoroughly recommend this place – great service and very helpful people – it used to be Swallow Cruisers but is now Richard’s Narrow boats – tel. 0121 777 0697.

As Kelly predicted, the boat had been fine on this stretch of towpath – no security problems and we had a good night’s sleep – only interrupted by the loud calls of what I think was a peacock at 5.45am. Just on the other side of the fence here there’s a very civilised looking farm with free-range chickens and ducks, three large pigs and a few sheep – all looking fat and contented. We wondered whether it was a ‘petting’ farm – it was all so neatly laid out. We looked around to if they sold eggs but we didn’t see a sign – shame, we’ve had some wonderful eggs from canalside ‘farms’ who just have a few hens scratching in the garden.

Bridge 26 - good dog walking!On the dog-walking front – if you walk from the boatyard in the direction of Bridge 26 there is a decent towpath which is well fenced (despite being close to the road). At the liftbridge (26) the path is securely gated from the road and if you cross the bridge you get onto a useful footpath which seems to run into the village. We didn’t get that far because the main feature was open fields of crops with wide margins where the dogs could have a thorough rummage. Good time had by all!

Curiosities:

Pekingese picnic bench!This unusual picnic bench on the towpath caught our eye – the end panel seems to be in the shape of a Pekingese!

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Guilty Pleasures: a night at the dogs

Posted by indigodream on 29 June, 2008

Guilty pleasures: a night at the dogs

We went to the dogs last night – greyhound racing at Walthamstow Stadium to be precise. We had a great evening – decent food, good service and wonderful dogs. I worry a lot about the greyhound racing industry but one thing you can’t deny is that these dogs love to run! They seem so joyous as they flow around the track – strong backs flexing and extending those streamlined bodies. At the end of the race they’re so excited – prancing proudly with tail held high. They seem genuinely pleased to see their trainers. Several of Blue’s half-brothers and sisters were running (same father), as well as numerous ‘cousins’ (same grandfather) – all as handsome as Blue and all good runners.

But I couldn’t help but see shadows behind them – probably the shadows of my conscience. I KNOW that greyhounds are abused – their living conditions are often spartan, they are just commodities. When their careers are over the luckiest will find new homes; the next luckiest will be humanely killed, the unlucky will be starved or beaten to death or just abandoned. But at the track the trainers/handlers treated the dogs with care and the proud owners fussed their winning dogs with affection. So, are these the same people who can say goodbye to their dog without looking back – either leaving them in a rescue kennel or lining them up to be put down at the end of a race. Are these the people who will inflict cruelty and neglect? I can’t get my head round it.

Richard thinks we need some perspective on this. Do note that our dogs were not abused, they were well looked after by Battersea and Greyhoundhomer. However it has been scary talking to people on our travels as to the problems that their greyhounds had – the worse being found with head bashed in and dumped in a skip. The Federation of Greyhound Owners seems committed to putting things right. Walthamstow prominently displays information on rehoming greyhounds on its web site. It is a wonder how all these dogs adapt – for example there is Chris who we used to meet on Kenley Aerodrome. Found by his owner as a bundle of fur and bones on a country lane, needed 3 months fairly intense care but quickly got over that to be a lovely (cheeky) dog. We always have had rescues, sometimes there has been some evidence of past problems but these dogs seem to realise they have a second chance and put their absolute trust in you. Oh and Walthamstow was a great night out!

I did go to the dogs, I did have a good time but my conscience is rumbling away – I can’t silence it but I will donate some money to the Walthamstow Stadium rehoming charity – there is a link right on the first page of Walthamstow’s web site.

Walthamstow’s closing down in August adding another dimension of worry about what will happen to the dogs ‘attached’ to the stadium. Richard actually managed to make a profit of £4 on the evening (he bet steadily on Blue’s half brothers and sisters!!); I managed not to lose £6 of my £20 budget for the night (!) – so that’s what’ll go to the RGT. I came home and gave Blue and Lou a big hug – I’m so grateful that we’ve been able to take on two rescue greyhounds. Needless to say, Richard grabbed me firmly by the shoulders and steered me quickly past the retired greyhound stand at the stadium – he could just see me bringing another one home. Having said that, if he saw a dog in need I’m sure he’d be the first to crack! [EDIT required here, Sue is not giving you the full story: We were lucky that in the group was a confined space rescue team so they put a rescue harness on Sue, roped her up, 4 people hung onto the rope (sadly we had no tripod handy as that would have been far more fun), a top man looked down from the top of the escalators and allowed the team to release the rope, steady now, steady, ok take the strain she is looking a bit eager…, thanks Lads, very helpful.]

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