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Archive for July, 2008

The Odyssey – Summer 2008 Day 25

Posted by indigodream on 28 July, 2008

Stewponey (Stourton) Locks to Caunsall Bridge (26)

Wild carp and clear water

Wild carp and clear water

Last night’s mooring spot proved to be as perfect as pictured – it was uncannily quiet and we had a sound night’s sleep. Despite leaving the side-hatch ajar (on the waterside!), the shimmering heat woke us up at 8am and we decided to get up and open some more hatches before we baked. The clear water was made transparent by the bright sunshine and we got an amazing view of a shoal of wild carp – easily 18 inches long and more.

Thinking back to yesterday, we regretted having missed the Stourbridge Town Arm and resolved to catch up with it today. We were moored by a winding hole and were going to take the boat back up there but RIchard had one of his ‘brilliant’ ideas – why not cycle there and back instead? Now, I’m not a keen cyclist (slight understatement) and there are snails, tortoises and grannies on zimmer frames that go faster, but I had no excuse. Only yesterday I was saying to Richard how I should make an effort to do more exercise – I just hadn’t realised that he’d been listening. “He’s a husband, he never listens, why start now” I whined to the dogs as I took them for their morning ablutions. They were unsympathetic – they were off back to bed (too hot for them to run with us) and didn’t care about my trials.

Interesting bit of heritage near the end of Stourbridge Town Arm

Interesting bit of heritage near the end of Stourbridge Town Arm

Anyway, the bikes proved to be a great way to see the town arm. We got to cycle along the lovely stretch back to the junction – it was even better the second time round. From the bikes we could look over the hedgerows towards a lively stream flowing beneath us and gurgling over waterfalls. On the map this looked like the source of the River Stour but it may have been a tributary. The towpath was buzzing with walkers and cyclists – it was just great. We turned onto the Town Branch and immediately the canal closed in – it seemed narrow and a bit oppressive. However the water was crystal clear with shoals of fish and the canal opened out a little further on. We were left in no doubt that Stourbridge’s industrial heritage is glassmaking – we passed several glass and crystal factories on the way.

The Town Arm was also colonised by cheery walkers and cyclists – a bit to my dismay given my marginal control of the handlebars. My uncontrolled wobble around a large pile of horse droppings was a reminder that maybe the old heritage and modern leisure uses of the canal don’t really mix! I didn’t collide with anything though I did run straight into a wall with surprise when I managed to pedal to the top of a steep bridge! Richard was disgruntled because I’m so little I could ride under the low bridges without ducking! Towards the end of the arm we met some intrepid boaters who’d moored on the towpath. Now, we’d had dire warning about this bit so were stopped for a chat. They were a family of boaters split between two boats – they cruise at weekends and seem to have covered a fair bit of the country. Sadly we didn’t jot down the names of their boats but we may well meet again. Anyway, they’d had no trouble at all overnight – this may have been because of the helpful Community Support Police Officer who’d been patrolling the towpath. He told them what to do if there was any bother and told them what location to give the control centre if they had to ring 999. Happily they didn’t need to.

They did tell us a frightening tale of trouble that they’d had in Perry Barr when they were forced to moor between lock 2 and 3 – the mechanisms were all locked at 7pm and they couldn’t go any further. This was sobering news – the evening blockade is not mentioned in Nicholson’s or the boater’s guides and there isn’t a sign either. The hapless crew had to moor under a footbridge and were pelted by a hail of stones and bricks in the wee small hours. The police turned out when called but it sounded thoroughly horrible and they persuaded BW to come out and help them down the locks at 4am-ish. So, when the boater’s guides suggest that it’s safe to moor at Perry Barr top lock they’re being VERY specific – it’s only above the top lock and nowhere else.

Boaters are terrible gossips and they also told us the tale of a woman who colonised this stretch of canal with, apparently, all her possessions in large trolley bag. She was on the towpath last night with a young man; despite the fact that they looked homeless they surprised the onlookers by driving away in a Porsche. While we were chatting she came back – this time dropped off by a man in a very swanky mercedes! There was much speculation that she was a ‘professional’ woman – she was certainly very flirty with Richard! This led on to yet more speculation as to whether her (large) trolley bag was full of the props and toys of her trade. We were disgraceful – I train pharmacists for a living and I’m always telling them “don’t make assumptions about people, just ask”. How I wished we’d got this woman’s REAL story.

The very end of the Stroubridge Town Arm

The very end of the Stourbridge Town Arm

I was so disappointed when we got to the end of the town arm. I’d had visions that it would be in ‘town’, with coffee bars and such. By this time I’d cycled three miles – I needed a frappuccino, I’d EARNED a frappuccino! But the arm ends in a secure mooring basin surrounded by grim fencing and enclosing a working boatyard and dry dock. Great to see the basin being used (last night’s trip boat came from here) but it was exactly how Richard had described. The canal just doesn’t exist from the road and there’s nothing particularly attractive about it to make it appealing for development.

I was so pleased that we’d explored the arm but I was desperate to get back to the boat now. Richard was impressed by how vigorously I cycled back, but I was chanting the mantra of reluctant exercisers everywhere “the faster I pedal the sooner it’ll be over!”. Despite this, I think that using the bikes to explore short branches, especially where there’s a lack of winding holes, is a great idea – I’m sure we’ll do it again.

The heat was oppressive today – much more humid and after the biking I was at boiling point. Maybe this explains why I spent the rest of the day in a daze as I was gently spit-roasted on the tiller! At least the dogs fared better today – I finally remembered that we had a tower fan on board and Lou squiggled around on the sofa gently letting the breeze cool each of her extremities in turn. Blue just complained – he wanted to run around, but he was too hot to run around – he naturally blamed us for it all and whinged mightily.

View from the Stourton Locks

View from the Stourton Locks

Our next adventure was, thankfully, on the Indigo Dream! We worked our way down the Stourton locks, feeling a great sense of welcome and wellbeing at the fine lock gates, beautifully maintained canalside gardens and friendly passers by. The dogs could safely roam between locks 1and 2, then again between 3 and 4 BUT there’s a busy road crossing the canal between locks 2 and 3 so they were confined.

We then turned left onto the Staffordshire and Worcester Canal. We’ve been here before (on the Dragonfly) and Richard remembers thinking that the right turn onto the Stourbridge looked daunting. I’m sure that many boaters feel the same – turning from the Strourbridge onto the Staffordshire and Worcester was like turning from a farm track onto a motorway! No-one seems to fancy the Stourbridge Canal! I’d encourage anyone who has the flexibility to do the turn – I’m sure you won’t regret it.

Go on - that's not a scary turn!

Looking back at the Stourbridge Canal - go on - it's not that scary!

Having said that, this whole stretch of the Staffordshire and Worcester canal could be used in a holiday brochure. It’s outrageously scenic with enticingly deep valleys, lush green woodland and soft red sandstone cliffs. There are flotillas of picturesque boats both moored up and moving. No wonder boaters congregate here, it feels so civilised, no-one’s wondering if it’s safe to moor or whether there’s bandits on the bridges. Yet lovely as it is, I felt a pang of regret for the BCN, Dudley No 1 and Stourbridge. I’m sure they’ve got the potential to be as loved as the Staffordshire and Worcester if only more people would venture their way. But that’s my sermon over, you have to love this stretch of the Staffordshire and Worcester, it’s so nicely balanced – just enough locks to keep it interesting but widely spaced enough not be too arduous. After the Stourbridge, Dudley No. 1, Tame Valley etc it felt very strange to see so many other boats on the move. We even met one in the short tunnel, well, we didn’t really meet as we came round the corner and hit reverse but Richard was still in BCN mode so was gobsmacked to meet anyone.

Note: There’s a good winding hole just above Bridge 28 – it’s not marked on our Nicholsons. There’s also an unmarked rubbish point and BW services nearby. We really said goodbye to Birmingham when we threw the last binful of prop debris away!

A picture for the brochure!

A picture for the brochure!

It was so attractive on this stretch that we decided not to rush. We moored up early just after Bridge 26 (which has easy access to the road and a small car park); Richard cycled back to get the car and I packed up in anticipation of getting back to Surrey by 7pm. I was deluded – we got stuck in a monstrous traffic jam on the M40 and got home at 9pm. Luckily we had stopped at our favourite services at Junction 10 – the dogs had a good run and a splosh in the stream; we stocked up on goodies so we were well prepared for the subsequent delays.

Plant of the day

My plant of the day (photo below) is Indian Balsam – it grows in amazing profusion along this canal

Indian Balsam

Indian Balsam

and looks so exotic with its orchid-like flowers towering six foot above the water.

Cheesy video of the day

Richard found that someone’s posted a video of Indigo Dream on YouTube accompanied by some truly cheesy music. It’s extremely weird to see ourselves on a complete stranger’s website – we never realised we were being filmed. Thank heavens we’re smiling, thank heavens for soft focus!

Blogs and Logs

I am so pleased that we’ve decided to use the BLOG as a boat’s log – I wish I’d done it on our old share boat. All our notes on our cruises stayed with the

This week's mooring

This week's mooring

boat (as it should) but now I regret not taking a copy. I have missed being able to look back on what we thought of these places when we cruised them on the Dragonfly. Mind you, with my atrocious memory, it’s like cruising an undiscovered land so maybe it’s for the best….

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The Odyssey – Summer 2008 Day 24

Posted by indigodream on 27 July, 2008

Merryhill to just above Stourton Top Lock

Our overnight mooring spot - perfect!

Our overnight mooring spot - perfect!

We’ve had an afternoon of almost crystalline perfection today – the sort of cruising that I wish I could put into a glass globe to preserve it for the winter time. If I did, then I’d shake it up on Christmas Day just to see the summer dust, chaff and sparkling sunshine swirling around the Indigo Dream while she gently drifted down the canal.

I’m writing this post on the back deck – it’s slowly cooling down and the last of the day’s light is softly draining away. We’re in a quiet spot surrounded by cornfields; the water’s deep and reflective, with a generous fringe of reeds and sedges. I was mobbed by a cloud of midges but they’ve been chased away by a flock of house martins and swallows – they’re so close I feel I could touch them; they’re so agile that I don’t stand a chance!

Of course I might have been dodging a different swarm if we’d moored a boat length further up – we were just tying up when we realised that a hole in the towpath was occupied by a wasp’s nest. A bit of hasty reversing put us out of harm’s way!

Another veiw from our mooring.

Another veiw from our mooring.

Although it’s very quiet here I’ve got for company some genial cyclists passing on the towpath and we’ve just been overtaken by a trip boat full of merry old folk all eating fish and chips, wafting the delicious smell over the water – it really doesn’t get better than this. The trip boat has passed back – the fish and chips have vanished and now there’s BEER. I asked the long-suffering young helmsman which were the most rowdy – the oldies or the youth – he assured me that they’re both as bad as each other πŸ™‚

So, that’s what’s made it a special end to the day, but what about the rest. Ok, let’s start with ease of transport – we couldn’t face the traffic last night so we left bright and early (by our standards!) and got to Merryhill in around 2 hours. I know it’s mundane

Nefertiti (?) blessing the waters in Merryhill

Nefertiti (?) blessing the waters in Merryhill

but a morning without a traffic jam is always a good start! Beginning our trip from a shopping centre is so useful. We were able to take the car down, pay for our extra day’s mooring (which we arranged with them by phone yesterday), fill up with a delectable Starbuck’s caramel frappuccino then load up with heavy stuff (like LOTS of cans of dog food). We then parked up right behind the boat to onload. We wanted to leave the car at the waterfront for the day/night (in a 2 hour parking bay) – we rang the security guards (the number’s on the lamposts) and they were fine about it. We are gradually learning that the trick is to let them know rather than take the p***.

As usual, we set off about two hours later than intended but it was a lovely sunny day and I knew we’d manage a long afternoon. What a contrast – today was children’s picture book of a summer’s day – hot but not humid, sunny but not brutal, crystal blue sky with a few puffy clouds just for effect! I have to say that I now know how it must feel to be a ready meal – last week I was chilled and frozen and today I’ve been warmed right through πŸ™‚

It’s been a bit too hot for the dogs – I don’t think they’ll be needing jimjams tonight! But for most of the day the locks have been secure and they’ve been able to have 5 minute bobbles here and there – just enough to keep them interested before flopping back onto the shaded sofa.

The alien shopping centre!

The alien shopping centre!

The view down to the Merryhill Shopping Centre from the canal embankment is quite something – the centre looks so alien there. If you’ve ever looked down at Bluewater in Kent then you’ll know what I mean – that looks like a weird spacecraft that’s set down in the old quarry for a brief visit! The moorings here were well-occupied today and further along we noticed that there was an abundance of mooring rings plus good lighting and lots of CCTV cameras. Greygal commented that she’s moored safely here before and I think we would now as well.

After the bustle of Merryhill we were surprised at how abruptly the canal becomes rural again. The Delph 9 (originally), or 8 (as is now), or 10 (if you count the pub!), were charming. There aren’t any roads

Great view from the Delph 9.

Great view from the Delph 9.

after the first lock until you get down to the 7th or 8th lock and it’s very green, so the dogs had their first proper rummage of the day. About three locks down we noticed a man preparing the next lock, windlass in hand. I groaned because the pounds are a bit short and I wasn’t looking forward to passing an upcoming boat. But it wasn’t an upcoming boat – it was John.

Now Richard’s heard of John before – apparently he haunts the locks hereabouts and helps boaters through. Although it was a bit disconcerting to have a complete stranger volunteering to do so much hard work on such a hot day, we soon got used to him. He was a knowledgeable and considerate lock crewman – he always took his time and always checked with me before opening the paddles; checking again whether the boat was well off the cill before opening a second paddle. At the end of the flight he set off at full speed down the towpath – he reminded me a bit of Blue, forging ahead then stopping to see if we were following. He waited at a low bridge and signalled us through when he saw that there was enough headroom then he set off again. We had an inkling then that he was walking all the way down to the Stourbridge 16 to help us

John!

John!

again. I had my usual paranoid misgivings here – was he an axe murderer? Was he a crook? But NO, I believe he is just a quiet, simple and gentle soul who enjoys helping people. It’s a rare old thing and I was bit ashamed for thinking the worse.

The last part of Dudley No 1 Canal is rural and scenic. The water is very clear here, though unfortunately as we passed by bits of wood, bubble wrap and other garbage kept emerging from the depths. But we also saw shoals of fish flashing through it all so it wasn’t so bad. These later proved to be perch with green bodies and bright red dorsal and tail fins. We passed an old boatyard (Delph Marine) which had some fine old redbrick buildings – it was good to see some boats as there really isn’t much traffic on this canal.

The turn onto the Stourbridge Canal has some interesting modern industry around it – we wondered what a tall slim chimney was for – it was belching steam from an opening on its side but nothing was coming out of the top. Maybe I should campaign for all waterside industries to put up a sign so that curious and interested boaters can know what they do!

A view from the Stourbridge 16

A view from the Stourbridge 16

When we got to the Stroubridge 16 there was John, busy getting the top lock ready for us. This flight again seems cut off from the world there’s isn’t any road access until lock 4, so we let the dogs out for another rummage. There looked to be great dogwalking potential in the Buckpool Nature Reserve near the top of the flight but we didn’t explore – it was far too hot for Blue and Lou to be running around.

This flight wasn’t quite as charming as the Delph 9 but it was still scenic with richly planted side-pounds and hordes of friendly and helpful passers-by. We felt very welcome here. The lock gates are quite leaky but even this was positive as the sun sparkled through the mini-waterfalls and lit the gloomy pits of the deep locks with tiny rainbows.

Stuart Crystal's bottle kiln

Stuart Crystal's bottle kiln

As we approached lock 9 I thought we’d been mysteriously transported to Stafford (where we spent so much time on Dragonfly). There in front of me was a huge bottle kiln. However this one was a lot bigger and in much better repair than the ones that dot the Staffordshire landscape. We passed right by it later on and found it was a glass works belonging to Stuart Crystal. They do guided tours but we were much too late to take advantage – another time maybe – it has visitor moorings and looked interesting.

As I was sitting at the bottom of Lock 9, Richard kept warning me about the ‘long pound’ that was ahead of me. I hadn’t a clue what he was going on about until he and John opened the bottom gate! I don’t know why they bothered with a pound at all – it was all of 15 feet long – may as well call it a staircase and be done with it! It was very reminiscent of Bratch and maybe the lock cottage name says it all – “double lock cottage”!

There’s a scenic view back from lock 11 onto some fine old dock buildings (now a shop) and what looks like an old victorian train station but which is also a boatyard – very confusing. Just beyond here we lost John – there was a single-handed boater coming up the flight and we suggested that he help him instead. The single-hander was delighted!

View back from Stourbridge Lock 16

View back from Stourbridge Lock 16

As we went down the flight the water became clearer still and revealed more water plants and less garbage. There’s a good stretch of parkland between lock 15 and 16. Some boaters we met in the morning warned us NOT to moor here as he darkly described how local youths use boats for target practice. We were tempted by the Stourbridge Town Arm but we were concerned that it was getting late in the day and that we would be stuck with rowdy moorings on a Saturday night, so we kept on down the canal.

I’m so pleased that we did – the next bit is stunning – rolling countryside all decked out in harvest gold; dappled shade through green woodland and finally bursting out into the brilliant evening sunshine about a quarter of a mile above Stewponey Top Lock. Funnily enough I’d say this was the cleanest bit of canal we’ve seen today but we

The rural Stourbridge Canal

The rural Stourbridge Canal

still managed to totally foul the prop with a few plastic bags and a red jumper (but no resulting topless woman!). This is where we’re moored now and it feels quite magical – only time will tell whether it stays that way all night!

It’s pitch black here now apart from the huge orange glow in the sky behind us – presumably Birmingham and Dudley – a reminder of the bright lights we’ve left behind.

Kids!

We did encounter some kids on the last rural stretch of canal – they had a rope hanging from a tree and were swinging over the water and dropping in. They had the sense to get out of the water as we passed by, but one lad was hanging on to the rope when his so-called friends pushed him in. He splatted into the side of the boat – no harm was done (to him, that is, needless to say the steel boat was completely undented!) but I still found a few choice words!

Richard’s Reminiscences

Richard cycled back to get the car – quite a feat considering the steep hills that we’d locked down. On his way he saw two Alvechurch hire boats working their way down the Delph 9 – he was impressed – that’s quite a big day’s cruising if they’d only picked the boats up this afternoon. He was also a complete hero as he found an excellent chinese takeaway and bought some much needed sustenance back to the boat. He commented that Stourton from the road is a different world – you’d never believe that a canal existed here, let alone such a scenic one.

Photoblog:

Beautiful Buddleia

Beautiful Buddleia

I just wanted to add a few photos from the Delph 9 and the first stretch of the Stourbridge Canal between the Delph 9 and Leys Junction – it’s more scenic that you’d imagine.

Richard lock-wheeling between the mythigcal 9th lock and the legendary 10th lock!

Richard lock-wheeling between the mythical 9th lock and the legendary 10th lock!

One of the Delph 9

One of the Delph 9

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BCN Moorings Guide

Posted by indigodream on 24 July, 2008

Kevin Maslin’s guide now added to the main tool bar, hopefully visible to all.

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The Odyssey – Summer 2008 Day 23

Posted by indigodream on 22 July, 2008

Aston Science Park to Merryhill

The fine apprach to the Farmer's Bridge flight

The fine approach to the Farmer's Bridge flight

As I mentioned in day 22, we had an untroubled night at the Science Park mooring and woke refreshed and ready for the day’s cruising. I had a last look at the signboard and made a resolution to cruise the Digbeth Branch & Saltley Cut again – I missed so much yesterday.

Out first adventure today was the Farmer’s Bridge flight – we last did this three years ago in our share boat, the Dragonfly – we were impressed then and we were impressed now! This flight is well known – it must be – there was a positive stampede of boats going down the flight. This was pretty amazing considering how little traffic we saw yesterday. Surprisingly, the flight is safe for the dogs – it wends its way among the buildings in splendid isolation – there are roads around but there’s no access from the water. The canal and city seem to be quietly going about their separate business without in any way encroaching on each other. Lou particularly enjoyed the flight as she foraged for the remnants of Saturday night chips on the towpath (much yelling from us to stop but I’m sure she scoffed a few). Blue joined her but for some reason he can’t digest potatoes so they came back on the tide later – is there anything more horrible than a retching dog?!

I can live with this sort of graffiti!

I noticed that the imposing Snowhill Tunnel had the lurid violet lighting – it didn’t detract from the scale of the place. Just above the tunnel I heard the evocative sound of a steam train – up on the railway bridge behind us were the classic puffs of smoke and the soft squeal of the steam whistle. It felt as if we’d gone back in time – the modern city seemed a million miles away.

As you approach the BT Tower, the locks become closer together and the buildings start to close in around you. This makes for awkward passing places – my least favourite being the lock pound that goes right underneath the tower block that’s been built above it. I hate passing boats here and, of course, both times we’ve done the flight that’s exactly what’s happened. It’s just about the only time I’ve regretted not installing bow thrusters!

Under the tower!

Under the tower!

The buildings formed a brisk wind tunnel on this stretch – I needed Richard’s help on the rope to get me past the couple of boats in the short pounds. The boaters coming down seemed very surprised to see us – one was setting up 5 locks ahead and it didn’t seem to have occurred to him that someone else might want to use them! But it all makes sense – the Farmer’s Bridge is a transit flight – people will try to escape from Birmingham in the morning hence the downward traffic; in the afternoon boats arrive from the North and rush up to the security of Gas Street Basin.

One boater looked a bit surprised when Richard asked him not to open a paddle till I was ready in the lock. After all the lock dramas that have been reported recently I was glad that Richard was in charge lockside. After watching me struggle with the wind, Richard decided to take a turn driving for a change (the locks here aren’t particularly heavy). He was beginning to forget how to drive into locks but I thought he did ok!

Although the flight is dog-friendly with a convenient dog mess bin by the top lock do watch out at lock 4 – there is access to the road at just behind the lock. It looks as if it was secured at one time but the gate’s long gone. We did let our two carry on rummaging around but we had to keep a close eye on them – Blue sees forbidden territory as a challenge!

View from the top of the Farmer's Bridge flight

View from the top of the Farmer's Bridge flight

I’ll leave the Farmer’s Bridge with the classic view down the flight – we may post more photos later – we’ve taken nigh on 300 since we’ve arrived in the city!

Thank heavens we’d pre-booked our mooring at Merryhill otherwise we might have negotiated another week’s mooring at Cambrian Wharf! It was here that we parted company briefly – our backwards route meant that we were now conveniently placed to pick up the car and take it to Merryhill ready for the drive home later. I took the car and left Richard to commune with the mainline – he doesn’t often get the chance to go boating alone (he normally does the car shuffle). I was pleased that he had the chance – I’ve enjoyed my solitary cruises.

? Bird's Foot Trefoil

? Bird's Foot Trefoil

I’m going to leave the water for the moment because I drove down to Merryhill then caught a taxi back to the canal. Although I’m a great advocate of the waterways I can really recommend seeing Dudley by road. It’s got the most tremendous sculptures on the roundabouts – a giant winged horse, a larger-than-life bronze foundryman, great crucibles and bells – all signs of a rich industrial heritage. We had a very smooth pick-up, proving to Richard that the bike is not the only way to get back to the boat!

Rosebay Willowherb

Rosebay Willowherb

As we cruised down the mainline toward the Netherton Tunnel I realised that I hadn’t taken any plant photos on the BCN. I took some immediately – I took loads on the Aylesbury arm and really the BCN is no less beautiful! Admittedly, it’s colonised by flowers like perennial sweetpea and rosebay willowherb – all great survivors on waste ground – but flowers are flowers, and colour is colour – the BCN is far from a concrete grey waterway.

Back we went through the Netherton Tunnel – sharing it with three other boats this time! Then we were out into the sunshine of Windmill End Junction.

Perfect dog-walking at the Bumblehole

Perfect dog-walking at the Bumblehole

This was our third trip here in as many weeks and I’ve developed a real soft spot for Dudley No 1 canal. The Bumblehole has perfect dog walking, the moorings today were full of boats and the visitor centre was open – I felt so at home here. There is another large chimney on the hill overlooking the junction. There’s a poignant story behind it (according to the canal society’s excellent leaflet) – the chimney belongs to a pump house that was used to drain the mines that honeycomb this area. In 1926, the pump was stopped during the general strike – when the strike ended the pump couldn’t clear the water that had accumulated so mines and pump were stilled forever. I was softly haunted by the thought of the water creeping into every crevice and reclaiming the land beneath our feet.

As we lingered at the bumblehole we were overtaken by two hire boats – absolutely not a problem but they were slow. I had to send Richard indoors for a lie-down – the sight of the rev counter as I loitered around at 600 revs was too much for him. But if I’d gone any faster I’d have been a menacing tailgater! Still, it’a lovely canal to take slowly – there’s plenty to see and lots of people to talk to on the towpath.

I did have a philosophical muse when we reached Blowers Green Lock – being an experienced boater doesn’t only mean that you can do difficult manoeuvres – it also means that you know when not to bother! As there were two boats queuing for the lock ahead of me I just stayed out of the way in the narrow bridge hole, watching novice drivers trying to hover in the basin in a strong, gusty wind. Don’t ask me why they didn’t tie up to the bollards – it would have been so much easier. Richard did assist them through the lock – after all, we did need to get on – we had the big drive back to Surrey ahead of us! For both boats it was their first lock and they had not realised that they needed a handcuff key. The first boat crew (possibly Danish) asked questions and were really keen – Richard reckoned that will have a great time. However he managed to refill the lock and open the gate before the teenage crew off the second boat joined him! How much help and advice to offer ‘novice’ boaters is always a dilemma – back when we were hirers I sort of appreciated help but I also wanted to take my time and work things out for myself – I found that experienced boaters sometimes rushed me too much.

We eventually got to Merryhill and moored at the pontoon – the noise doesn’t matter as we’re not on board! We brought the car right up to the boat (only possible on a Sunday when the office parking is empty) and offloaded a month’s worth of debris that had accumulated on board. As usual, it took us ages to leave – we can never say goodbye to the Indigo Dream but at 6.30pm we were on our way and we finally left Birmingham!

Prop memorabilia

Easifit - the felt you can rely on!

Easifelt - the felt you can rely on!

We did have to clear our prop a few times – we had the usual plastic bags but we also had a pair of trousers and a dress – we didn’t see the resulting naked people on the towpath – shame, it would have been a bit of entertainment on the lock-free stretches!

I have a fantasy about making my living from the blog (dream on!). However, we can do a great plug for Dupont Easifelt underlay – non-breathable and unbreakable – even with 1200 revs from a BIG prop. We tested a 5 metre sample and it didn’t give in. Richard is going to add it to his specifications. How much do you think we should charge for this product placement? Dupont is a BIG company – maybe Β£2000 per metre tested πŸ™‚ A big thanks to Redrow (nearest housing development but no direct evidence that it was them, yer honour!) on the Tame Valley Canal for providing the sample.

Reviving the BCN

When we moored on the pontoons at Cambrian Wharf we chatted with some of the residents there and were impressed at how they’d built relations with the local BW staff and with the community police officers. The residents said that they’d worked hard to make their bit of canal into a great place to live.

Ivy clad industry on the BCN mainline

Ivy clad industry on the BCN mainline

I was thinking that maybe this is the approach that we should take to the whole of the BCN. Maybe if more of us cruised there we wouldn’t be so alien to the locals. At the very least, we’d add life and colour to the waterways and the sight of boaters on the water would instill confidence so that other boaters would give it a go. At the most, more boating traffic might encourage the police to take an interest in the towpaths and would encourage BW to spend more time clearing and patrolling the outlying regions.

I know that the BCN has a fearsome reputation but there are some fine canals here and I’m glad that I didn’t let my paranoia put me off. In my zeal for the BCN I wondered whether I was, in fact, exhorting other boaters to be martyrs for the cause – putting life and boat at risk for the sake of an old puddle! I don’t think it’s that bad – nothing happened to us, maybe we got lucky, but I think that luck is a more common commodity here than you might think! We’re now keen to find out more about the BCNS – these good people have been promoting the wonders of the BCN for years! Unfortunately we can’t get the BCNS website to work but hopefully it’s a temporary glitch….. There is a nice write up on the bbc web site here

Cute doggie photos to finish…

Blue

Blue resting after a run at the Bumblehole

Lou

Lou

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The Odyssey – Summer 2008 Day 22

Posted by indigodream on 21 July, 2008

Cambrian Wharf to Aston Science Park

As I’m writing this on the Sunday then our BCN blog headline is “CRUISE -BY SHOOTINGS FAIL TO HAPPEN”. Yes, we’ve done another big chunk of the BCN with no incident. Let me tell you more…….

Looking up at the engine branch aqueduct

Looking up at the engine branch aqueduct

Oh we are so slow in the morning! Richard had this fantasy about being on the helm at 8am and locking down the Farmer’s Bridge flight in the soft light of a summer’s morning. What actually happened is that we woke up at 5.50am, heard the wind and rain, turned over and promptly went back to sleep for another 3 hours! Of course, this sloth was partly fuelled by the bottle of bubbly that we downed on Friday night to celebrate my exam success!

Note: The Handmade Burger Co. restaurant right on the water in Brindley Place does amazing food – their burgers are actually made of meat! One portion of chips is enough for two (and if it’s us saying it then you can believe it!). We can also recommend their side order of roast vegetables – lush!

Anyway, after our slow start we seemed to be in the hands of FATE. By 11am I was convinced that Birmingham is, in fact, a mythical realm like Brigadoon or Shangrila – you can enter but you can never leave πŸ™‚

Telford's mainline and people waving not throwing!

Telford's mainline and they're waving not throwing!

Our plan was to start with the Farmer’s Bridge flight. Two boats went down while we were still stumbling around in dressing gowns, leaving the unattractive prospect of all 13 set against us. The dreaded red light came on in the loo just before we cast off (we have had kids on board …). We’d just made the decision to go for the flight anyway when yet another boat nipped in before us. Rather than chase them all the way down the locks we decided to go to Sherbourne Wharf for a pump-out. There was a queue! The pump-out here is Β£15 – on the pricey side but it was well done. On the wharf’s advice we tried to do a quick sneaky turn in the loop without reversing back into the hole proper, got caught up in the wind, thought rather than re-set and try again why not go to the far end of the loop to get back onto the mainline. Of course, when we got to the end of the loop we realised that the turn back to the mainline was really very awkward so we drastically changed our plans. Rather than do the Farmer’s Bridge, we’d go down the mainline and do our planned trip backwards. This meant that we’d end up back in Cambrian Wharf on Sunday – see what I mean about never leaving!

Teh transport layer cake from below!

The transport layer cake from below!

We set off down Telford’s Mainline (yet again) – this time we eschewed the lure of the loops and stayed on the canal equivalent of the M1. It was thrilling – the canal is straight, wide and deep – it cuts though all obstructions with a dogged determination – this canal means business – literally! I can only imagine what it must have been like for the first working boats to go down there. No more meandering round and queuing at every factory branch – it must have been revolutionary. Doing our cruise backward meant we got to see a stretch of the mainline that we’d previously missed – we enjoyed spotting the landmarks on the ‘old’ mainline that we passed through a few weeks ago. Of course, they were all 20 feet above us now and all the more spectacular for that. We particularly enjoyed the transport ‘layer cake’ again – above out heads this time – the aqueduct carrying the ‘old’ mainline, the railway above and topped off with a thick frosting of M5 with its pillars sticking into the canal like the end of some monstrous birthday candle!

All along the BCN we’ve been impressed by the grace and beauty of the original cast iron bridges – now lovingly painted and a real reminder of the canal’s origins. We’ve also been awed by the scope and vision of the engineering. The people who built these canals must have had an energy and drive that I can scarcely grasp. There are prettier waterways, but to understand what the canals were actually FOR then you can’t beat the BCN.

Attractive modern canalside industry

Attractive modern canalside industry

After all the marvels of the mainline we wondered what awaited us as we took the turn at Pudding Green Junction and started our cruise down the Wednesbury Old Canal. It started well, there was a group of very young fishermen at the junction – they were very affable – that lifted our spirits. It also cheered us to see that the towpath is being improved – this is a great way to restore the waterways – the most vibrant canals that we’ve seen have a flourishing life on and off the water.

Humans and dogs enjoyed the Ryders Green flight. It was good to have the stimulation of a few locks after the unremitting force of the mainline. These locks were well-maintained with smooth mechanisms and balanced gates. There are no roads around after the first lock so Lou and Blue were thoroughly stimulated running up and down the flight. What struck us as we went down was the care that the modern developers had taken to make their buildings attractive from the waterways – it made us feel valued. We felt even more welcome when we reached the next road bridge – we had a crowd of smiling spectators and a trio of young lads came to watch us locking down and to quiz Richard about the minutiae of lock operation.

The natives are friendly!

The natives are friendly!

Note: There’s a HUGE Asda within easy walking distance of Lock 7 of the Ryder’s Green flight.

We loved this stretch of this canal – it had it all really, including a hunting kestrel being mobbed by black-headed gulls – maybe this is the true meaning of the urban jungle! We were very tempted to carry on this branch – it looked green and inviting ahead, but we’d already messed with our schedule so much that we decided to leave that adventure for another day.

We’d had a great morning’s cruising so were looking forward to the Tame Valley Canal – the write-up in Nicholson’s suggested that we were in for something special. I’ve mentioned before that the BCN is a canal of the mind – the canal is what it is, but it’s our attitude that shapes our perceptions of it. The stretch of canal from the Tame Valley Junction (Ocker Hill) to Rushall Junction messed with my head. I took an instant dislike to it for no logical reason. It is straight, lock-free and largely deserted. We asked some fishermen ‘how many boats come this way?’ – ‘you’re the first today’ was the reply. We could have been the first ever by the looks of disbelief on the faces of the odd passerby or the enthusiastic waving from windows in the new developments as we cruised past .

The open vistas of the Tame Valley Canal

The open vistas of the Tame Valley Canal

Despite the lack of people, the towpaths were in good repair with seas of soft pink grass sighing alongside. In my mind, though, they were sighing “go away, leave us in peace, you’re not welcome here, leave us alone” – as if the whole canal wanted nothing more than to die quietly, unregarded. I know, what a flight of fancy, I guess it was just that sort of afternoon! We had our only bother of the day along this stretch – a malicious bit of verbal abuse (and ONLY verbal) from a group fishermen – they were aged 8 – 10 years! I was annoyed with myself for being put off a canal by some cheeky kids!

Note: There’s a self-operated pump out machine at Ocker Hill.

In all fairness, this canal has plenty of interest. This would be great place for dog-walking as there are few roads around and the towpath is wide and rural. There are some great old factory buildings and there’s lots of plant life for the botanically inclined. Despite the fall down to this level, this stretch is incredibly high. The canal towers over the surrounding landscape and soars over roads and rivers. I’ve never been over more aqueducts.

A soaring aqueduct on the Tame Valley Canal

A soaring aqueduct on the Tame Valley Canal

Note: The canal splits around a large low island (gauging station?) at Rushall Junction. Richard will NEVER let me forget that I was so busy not paying attention when this island just suddenly appeared that I banged the boat straight into it. Dogs started looking for the emergency exits and were not impressed at being forced to stay onboard with the mad helmswoman!

For some reason, the stretch from Rushall junction to Perry Barr seemed much ‘nicer’. It was equally deserted but the green woodland around made it feel less derelict (though there was plenty of wood in the water – it’s been a stormy July!).

Our spirits started to lift again at Perry Barr Top Lock. There’s a comprehensive range of BW facilites here and the lock cottages are inhabited and welcoming. There’s also a useful BW car park so there’s good access as well. This spot is listed as a ‘safe’ mooring (see below) and I can well believe it.

View up to the birmingham plateau

View up to the birmingham plateau

Perry Barr locks are well-maintained and ‘easy’. After the top lock, the flight backs on to housing (well-fenced) so the dogs had another good run here. The Perry Barr flight drops over 100 feet and there were new views at each deep lock. One view was towards the BT tower in the centre of Birmingham – we heard its siren call and headed on! The M6 crosses the canal twice on this stretch – lots of interest for Richard the engineer; lots of anxiety for me as the pillars looked particularly manky for the load they were supporting. I did wave at the traffic and a truck beeped back so that was a result! The pounds between locks 9, 10 and 11 were full to the brim and overflowing onto the towpath – not sure why as the locks were all properly closed. We rang the BW emergency line to let them know – I they were even more astonished than the locals to find a boat on this stretch!

The meatball in the spaghetti! Sn attractive old redbrick bridge over the River tame

The meatball in the spaghetti! An attractive old redbrick bridge over the River Tame

A BIG highlight of the day was the approach to Spaghetti Junction. We’ve done it from the other direction but for the full impact we’d recommend coming at it from Perry Barr. There are innumerable layers of roads here – we cruised insignificantly below it all and with every metre, another ribbon of road was revealed above. Then, unexpectedly, we weren’t the bottom of the heap any more – below the whole plate of pasta was an old brick bridge over the river Tame (I think) flowing forgotten below us. You’ve just got to see it!

At this point, Richard did a mooring recce – would we go back to Cuckoo Wharf or venture up the Grand Union. Cuckoo Wharf was a possibility – we know it’s secure and we could turn the boat to come back up the Grand Union in the morning. BUT, we’d have had to encroach on some unauthorised mooring space so the fates, once again, drove us back towards the centre of Birmingham!

Note: there were some young drug dealers under spaghetti Junction – we didn’t bother them and they didn’t bother us – there’s worse at Camden Locks!

Industrial backwater - a view of the Digbeth Branch

Industrial backwater - a view of the Digbeth Branch

We turned onto the Digbeth Branch of the Grand Union, toyed with the idea of mooring at Star City (see below) before making the momentous decision to carry on cruising. It was late afternoon and the sun had finally come out (we’d been drenched and freezing for most of the day). This was a big decision – the next ‘safe’ mooring on our list was several miles and 13 locks away – it would be a long day and a late finish. But then again, it was a nice evening…..

Now, I have to give you a bit of a ‘health warning’ here. I’m pleased that we pushed on because it made for a better Sunday’s cruising BUT I am sorry that I was quite tired when I did this stretch. It meant that my optimism tank was running empty so I failed to appreciate the best bits of the Digbeth Branch. My advice to anyone is DO THIS BRANCH but do it early in the day – not because of bandits (there were none!) but because you’ll be in the best frame of mind to enjoy the cruise.

Sunshine makes all the difference

Sunshine makes all the difference!

The first lock-free stretch of the Digbeth is very industrial and a bit bleak – a few people on the towpath but largely quiet. The towpath here is well-maintained and there were fields alongside which looked good for dog-walking. The first locks we encountered were the Garrison Flight. There was a strange sight at the bottom lock – around 50 plastic petrol tanks floating in the water – the sort you’d see on 2-stroke garden equipment like hedge trimmers etc. Some of them still had petrol in. I couldn’t believe that someone could get away with such blatant fly-tipping. We met another group of 10 year olds here – they were cheeky but no trouble. They were curious about the boat and we just talked to them. It’s an approach that I’m picking up from Richard – he treats everyone as if they were model citizens who would be our friends if we only had time to get to know each other. As he smiles, waves and chats amiably they seem to buy into his vision for a brief while. The kids did pick up handfuls of stones from the towpath as I went past but I cast a beady eye over them and said “I hope you’re not thinking of chucking those stones at my boat”; a chorus of incredulous “no”s came back and the boat was left unmolested. I did see them kicking some of the petrol tanks from the towpath into the canal but I don’t hold them at fault here. They’re taking their cue from the adults around here – kids didn’t dump those tanks or any of the other rubbish that we encountered in this canal.

Oh no - there's a hoodie at the helm!

Oh no - there's a hoodie at the helm!

This whole branch has a somewhat defeated air – as if it’s been abused beyond endurance and just wants to it end – to be filled in and built over. The locks aren’t so well-maintained and there’s graffiti everywhere – ugly and disrespectful of its surroundings. It’s so sad because there’s some grand heritage here. We were heartened to find that a bit further up the ‘gentrification’ process has started with some new waterside housing (already graffitied at canal level). On day 23 you’ll see my plea for more people to cruise these forgotten waterways – I’m sure that just the presence of boats can make a positive difference.

We briefly turned into the evocatively named Typhoo Basin – there’s no towpath here so the basin was clean and undisturbed but there was no indication of its former relationship with the Typhoo tea company (back when tea was as precious as gold). The flock of canada geese here were most disgruntled to have visitors!

buyer to collect!

Telly for sale: buyer to collect!

The next lock flight was the Ashtead – by now it was pushing 8pm and I was reaching the end of my tether. Richard laughed when he saw that the bottom lock was blocked by a large television – he joked about whether it would still work. But by now I was in the blackest of black sulks and scowled nastily at him, as ugly as any of trash in the water! The telly wasn’t a big deal and he just pushed it out of the way with the barge pole – no drama. Funnily enough, although there’s a load of garbage in the water here, nothing fouled the prop – just goes to show!

My black sulk turned to tears as we ascended the lock – there was a distressed young man here – his dog had collapsed on the towpath and was having fits. His phone had no charge but another passer-by had rung the RPSCA and a vet was apparently on the way. I couldn’t imagine a vet wanting to come out to such a bleak bit of towpath and was worried that they wouldn’t come. We gave him some water to see if that would help but his dog was just too ill to take it. We had to move on up the flight but it was so hard to leave the young man alone. We had a glimmer of good news from another passer-by at the top lock – the RPSCA had turned up and were helping the dog. I don’t know the outcome but at least we know that help turned up. Despite the grimness of the canal I was struck by the kindness of strangers here – someone rang the vet, everyone who passed offered help and comfort, both to the distressed pair and to each other. It lifted my spirits to think that there’s heart still beating under this be-garbaged wasteland and that I shouldn’t just the whole place by its graffiti.

Being in a hurry we missed things or did not get the full story of our surroundings. What is that double stop lock for? Is that really a banana warehouse? Is the Proof House still there?

We finally finished the day at the Aston Science Park. As you pass under Heneage Bridge the canal suddenly brightens up, the graffiti disappears and there’s the welcome sight of a row of mooring bollards. It’s all modern office development here so I yelled at Richard for bringing us to such a miserable mooring – he sensibly ignored me – these moorings proved to be very fine indeed (see below). I was at such a stage of fatigue that I was growling at Richard and the dogs for maliciously breathing while sitting on the sofa – thankfully I didn’t attempt the blog – I might have joined the ranting brigade πŸ™‚

From the time we turned off the main line to Aston Science Park (15 miles, 32 locks) the number of boats that we met was ….. 0. In the 5 miles or so from Sherbournes to Pudding Green Junction I think we only saw one other boat.

A word on moorings in Birmingham

I’m sure that we all want moorings where we can feel safe and secure. The trouble with the BCN is that it has a terrible reputation.

I found myself thinking of the immortal final words of Wuthering Heights:

“I lingered round them, under that benign sky: watched the moths fluttering among the heath and harebells, listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass, and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”

Emily Bronte could have been describing large tracts of the new mainline and of the Tame Valley canal – rural, remote and peaceful. Would we have had ‘unquiet slumbers’ if we’d moored in any of these spots? Who knows?

We chose not to risk it and followed a guide to ‘safe’ moorings that Richard got from Kevin Maslin. We’ll try and get a link to it (and his permission to link) – I expect others would find it useful! Wouldn’t it be great if this list could be expanded as people feel more confident to explore this system.

Rushall Junction and Perry Barr Top Lock are both listed as ‘safe’ mooring spots along the Tame Valley Canal.

We investigated the Star City moorings on the Grand Union (just after Salford Junction). Bit of a difference of opinion among the human crew here. I though they looked ok – offside pontoon moorings, fenced off from the big ‘Star City’ entertainment complex but with access to the restaurants along a funny path outside the fence, no cans, bottles or broken glass around, and a bit of greenery for dog-walking opposite!. But Richard simply had a bad feeling about the place – he worried about the well-trodden path down to the moorings and wondered whether low-life inhabited it late at night, he was also concerned about noise from the Casinos etc after dark. We didn’t stay there but we’d love to hear from anyone who has – if they’d been ok it would have saved us a lot of late-evening locking!

We eventually moored at the Aston Science Park at the top of the Ashtead Locks. It’s barren here – lots of concrete and office buildings BUT is has lots of bollards, informative (and miraculously un-graffitied signboard), lots of CCTV and a security guard regularly patrolling the towpath. We had a quiet and undisturbed night.

Interesting bits:

Brick cliff props!

Brick cliff props!

BW are having a campaign against Japanese Knotweed on the Wednesbury Old Canal – there’s a patch growing in some of the factory grounds adjacent to the towpath and it’s been sheeted over in an attempt to kill it off. Good luck!

The Tame Valley canal here is in a deep-ish cutting – we were amazed to see that sections of the sandstone were propped up with rough brickwork all along this section.

Look at that fine chimney!

Look at that fine chimney!

There’s a huge old chimney at the bottom of the Perry Barr locks – it is mainly built from fine red brick but near the top there’s a decorative band of yellow brick with metal ribbon scrolls on each face, it’s topped off with an attractively sculpted red brick top. It epitomised something that’s struck me all the way along this canal – why did the hard-headed and relentless businessmen who built this city bother with such niceties? Some of these industrial buildings have such attractive details, – putting them in must have eaten into their all-important profits. But then again, what about the philanthropy that built Bourneville. There’s something here – a contrast between the public face and the hidden heart of the city – I wonder if that’s the same in modern times.

The Ashtead Tunnel

The Ashtead Tunnel

There are two interesting tunnels on this stretch. Curzon Street Bridge (so broad it feels like a tunnel!) has taken Limehouse Cut’s fashion for lurid lighting – it was lit with red, blue and green bulbs with a particularly sinister violet in the darkest part – all a bit weird really. I am sure we read somewhere that it was Grade II listed?

The Ashtead Tunnel would be narrow anyway then someone put a towpath in!

The bridge below is for my cousin – Mrs Jones!

This slender footbridge atop piers big enough to carry the West Coat mainline is a striking feature.

Richard was bemused by why BW is putting in new oak bollards at the locks – what are they for? These are narrow locks, would you use a rope in a narrow lock? We don’t – but then we have a system of only opening paddles on the helmswoman’s nod. Richard’s first thought was that it would be better to fix down the lock ladders properly – the top bolts have either sheared or are completely missing. On the other hand if they are needing to put in bollards then are the missing bolts on ladders deliberate so people don’t tie onto the ladders?

New bollards at Perry Barr locks

New bollards at Perry Barr locks

Striking footbridge

Striking footbridge

Jones Bridge!

Jones Bridge!

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The Odyssey – Summer 2008 Day 21

Posted by indigodream on 18 July, 2008

It’s all euphoria here – we’re back on board, I’m back on the blog and I got the results of two exams that I sat in May – passed with Merit. Hooray

We didn’t cruise last weekend – we were both knackered and couldn’t face the drive up to Birmingham in the Friday traffic. We rang the local BW office and then had a chat with the local moorings officer – we had been out and back and then with our lapse last weekend we’d arguably be overstaying our welcome at Cambrian Wharf. It is hard to know how to interpret the 14 day rule – if you go away for 2 days then come back does the 14 day timer re-start? However they were very relaxed about it and, in our experience, BW have always been very helpful when we’ve had problems moving the boat (for whatever reason). We think that the trick is to ASK them rather than just taking the p***!

So, we’ve got one more night in Cambrian Wharf and then we’ll carry on exploring. Alas, it doesn’t look as if my cousin will be able to take the boat out so we’re taking advantage and spending this weekend exploring a bit more of the BCN. We’re planning a trip down Farmer’s Bridge, along the Digbeth then along the Tame Valley Canal, ending up at Merryhill (where we’ve booked a week’s secure mooring). Tonight, though, we’ll take advantage of the big city to have a celebratory meal and possibly a few glasses of wine!

Note: There is a really convenient multi-storey car park on the left as you approach Brindley Drive. It’s not an NCP so it’s considerably cheaper (Β£7.30 per 24 hours) and you can pay by phone. This is extremely convenient – if our cunning plan works then we can ring and pay tomorrow without having to come back to the car.

Rudeness on canals

I was disappointed to hear that Bendigedig had been given a dose of the F-word by another boater in Rickmansworth. However there’s a boat moored near here with the following sign in BIG letters on it’s bow doors “Crap is only left by arseholes – pick up after your dog”. Now, dog mess is unpleasant which is why we religiously pick up after Blue and Lou, but is that really the first impression you want to make? We saw the owners coming back, with a very well-behaved dog, but do we want to make their acquaintance? The sign is very off putting.

Doggie Update

Blue was appalled to find himself back on board – even the lure of Marks and Spencer luxury dog food couldn’t stop him whining. He’s an all action dog and I have to admit that the centre of Birmingham is pretty barren for dogs (though Cambrian Wharf does have easy access to a small bit of greenery). Things have picked up now though as we’ve moored on a pontoon and there are at least 3 cats living here – game on! (from Blue’s perspective). Don’t worry, cat lovers, we will keep him under strict control.

It was Lou’s turn for a vet visit and she excelled herself last Monday by managing to impale her foot on a stick. Β£360 worth of vets bills and many stitches later I’m pleased to report that she’s recovering well, but banned from exercise for another week. Blue is not impressed to have lost his running mate…..

Moorings

Unfortunately, we ran into a bit of gratuitous bureaucracy when we came to renewing our plush moorings at Engineers Wharf and saw red! We’ve therefore decided to become rootless vagabonds, sorry, continuous cruisers for the next year or so. Oh rats that means that we are going to have to keep moving the boat. Life is so tough!

Blog withdrawal Syndrome

Is there such a thing as ‘blog withdrawal syndrome’? I have really missed the blog but my daily life at home really is too boring to write about. Ah, there’s another great excuse for doing more cruising…..

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The Odyssey – Summer 2008 Day 20

Posted by indigodream on 7 July, 2008

Winson Green Loop - Nature Trail

Winson Green Loop - Nature Trail

If you’ve read Day 19 then you’ll know what we did today – that’s right – Birmingham, again!

We were joined today by some old friends from university. They live just south of Birmingham and as Pal has roots in the city and Liz hails from Dudley they were looking forward to seeing their home turf from the water. Their 9-year old son has gone canal mad recently so he had a good time as well. His little sister was very well-behaved but she kept telling us to “go faster” so I’m not sure that narrowboating will be her destiny!

We almost had too many options – go back on the BCN to Cambrian Wharf, go back as far as Windmill End Junction and explore the Halesowen Branch or head South towards Kinver. In the end, because Richard had been seduced by cheap first class tickets home on Sunday evening, we opted to go back to the town centre with its easy access to the station – hurrah!

Telford\'s arraow-straight mainline
Telford’s arrow-straight mainline

We didn’t do quite as many loops on our way back (time constraints) so we spent a bit more time on the mainline – what a canal – wide and almost unnaturally straight – it’s a great sight.

As I described our trip in some detail yesterday I’ll let the photos do the talking today (most of these are from Saturday so going the other way!).

It’s worth noting that we scraped across more submerged objects today (though we didn’t hit anything yesterday). We joked that the local yobs had been busy pushing cars into the canal overnight πŸ™‚ It’s more likely that there’s a cleaner passage on the right (going west out of Birmingham). This means that coming back into Birmingham (east) you may want to cruise further to the left (i.e. on the wrong side!) if you have the canal to yourself.

The M5 IN the mainline

The M5 IN the mainline

We were also interested by the water by the Spon Lane locks – it’s full of oil or maybe tar. As the prop cut through it there was a powerful smell of thick oil. We lost steerage in the bottom lock and when Richard opened the weedhatch he couldn’t see the prop through the opaque black water. There was the usual mulch of plastic bags round the prop along with some actual weed! We had to clear the prop again at the top lock so under the oily sludge that passes for water here there’s a splendid sediment of garbage.

My plans for buying cheap derelict factories and making my millions as a property developer hit a snag here! Not much point buying land here for Β£1 if I then need to find Β£10 million just to decontaminate it. There’s always some trivia to scupper my cunning plans……

Other than that we had an uninterrupted day’s cruising – no bandits and we weren’t hit by anything more sinister than the torrential rain as a storm caught up with us. This time we sheltered under a wide bridge for a while – we wouldn’t normally block the waterways but the BCN is so quiet – I don’t remember meeting ANY boats today.

Doggie Update:

The dogs have had a very exhausting weekend – two long train journeys, being on the boat, lack of space to run and dealing with a curious 5-year old. Ok, I have pointed out to them that this honestly doesn’t amount to abuse; but they didn’t rest as much as they normally do and, like toddlers, they get fed up if they haven’t had enough sleep! So, today (Monday) they didn’t get up until noon, ran outside, then 5 minutes later ran back upstairs to bed. I didn’t hear from them again until 3pm. They seemed awake so I took them to the park. Lou walked with us for 5 minutes before running back to the car at full pace…….

And finally…..

To the narrowboat that was kind enough to wave at the train not far from Banbury at 6.10pm – we did wave back – hope you saw us. Have a great cruise!

Photoblog:

Some more of our favourite views from days 19 and 20….

Icknield Port Loop

Icknield Port Loop

Icknield Port Loop: Fine factories ripe for development with the reservoir looming overhead.

Looks like Winson Green Prison used to have it’s own branch. Just round the corner is Asylum Bridge – a sign of the times when the “mad and the bad” were all lumped together

We were tickled by this train depot over looking the canal – don’t forget to apply the hand brake!

Smethwick Pumping Station Chimney
Neat canalside access
Brades Bottom Lock - Mind your head!

Brades Bottom Lock - Mind your head!

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The Odyssey – Summer 2008 Day 19

Posted by indigodream on 7 July, 2008

Birmingham Birmingham – so good they cruised it twice!

Yes, we’ve fallen in love with the BCN – unlikely though it sounds, we’re hooked….

We took over 100 photos so we’ll be peppering them randomly through the day 19 and 20 posts.

When we cruised down from Macclesfield a few years ago we came up the Farmer’s Bridge flight and were impressed – from the barren wastelands under Spaghetti Junction right up to the ultra-swanky Brindley Place. We enjoyed the ‘rural’ ride down (and this time, up!) past the University and the enticing chocolate aroma of Bournville. By reputation the BCN sounds fearsome but our previous experiences suggested that we’d be ok. So, which side of Birmingham would we see on the mainline……..

Oozells Street Loop

Oozells Street Loop

I’d been a bit sad about the lack of birds in Cambrian Wharf but I needn’t have worried – the ducks were back at 5am banging their beaks on the side of the boat. They weren’t the only thing – heavy rain added to the drumming so we just stayed in bed until it had all gone away – bliss! We eventually motivated ourselves to get going – we’ve enjoyed mooring here but it was time to go. As we were pulling out of Cambrian Wharf we enjoyed a last carillion of bells chiming the hour in Brindley Place’s – so continental (especially with us swigging our Costa coffees on the back deck).

Note: the water point at Cambrian Wharf has very low water pressure – we ran out of patience long before our tank was filled!

We decided to eschew Telford’s main line in favour of Brindley old contour canal so we spent the day looping round, across and above the main line. We enjoyed this immensely. It seems to me that the BCN is a canal of the mind. You can look at it and think ‘Ugh – derelict, dirty, scrappy’ or you can think ‘wow, look at the layers of history going on here and it’s still being written’. Needless to say, the latter is us!

Junction of the mainline and Oozells Street Loop

Junction of the mainline and Oozells Street Loop

Our first meander was round the Oozells Loop – home of Sherbourne Wharf and many moored boats – bit tight in places but the ‘Mailbox’ waterbus was very courteous and shuffled out of our way on a tight turn – much appreciated.

The next loop was Icknield Port – interesting mix of dead and alive industrial buildings. I could just see this lot being developed into canalside housing – it was peaceful here and backed on to the reservoir – very desirable. How I wish you could still buy old buildings for Β£1 and make millions on them!

Icknield Part Loop

Icknield Part Loop

There was also a BW yard here full of working boats – good to see this as it hinted at their commitment to maintaining the waterways around here. On the other hand, maybe they’re needed just to maintain all the locks around the plateau!

We then crossed the mainline to the Winson Green loop. Now this was different again – more ‘rural’ and less derelict – there were herons here and Blue enjoyed a rummage along the towpath. Lou had a rummage as well, but two minutes after getting off the boat she was ready to get back on again – she was still tired after her train journey! We’d love to know whether it’s safe to moor in this loop – not far from Asylum Bridge there was an offside mooring (bollards) leading to a nature trail.

Winson Green Loop

Winson Green Loop

It looked so inviting, especially for the dogs, but would it be ok overnight – who knows? The canal was deserted – we only met four boat in our entire day’s cruising so there wasn’t anyone to ask….

The straight mainline

The straight mainline

Telford’s mainline is so straight you’d think he was Roman! We soon got fed up with that so the next loop took us up the three Smethwick locks to the Wolverhampton Level. This was a revelation – so many interesting features here.

The first was a domestic drama – a tiny duckling was trapped in the top lock chamber – Richard had to chivvy it out before I could take the boat in. It was cheeping pitifully and there was no sign of it’s mum. It seemed to think the boat was its mum and kept cuddling up to the side – it took some time to persuade it to move away so it wouldn’t be minced in the prop. We were very tempted to try a ‘999 duck rescue’ with the handy fishing net that we keep on board. We finally lured it into the pound with some bread and left it there, still cheeping sadly. We found the mum and another three ducklings a little way beyond the top of the lock. We looked for them today but they’d all gone so who knows whether this drama ended in delight or disaster?

Aqueduct to the Engine Branch
Aqueduct to the Engine Branch

At the top of the Smethwick locks we saw what looked like a bridge to nowhere – we were musing on how sad it was to see an abandoned canal structure when we realised it was a working aqueduct carrying the old canal over the mainline into the engine branch! We didn’t explore this one but we realised that cruising every inch of the BCN would take forever! There are odd open branches all over the place and even more obviously blocked branches that would have served every factory and foundry here.

We stopped for lunch at the magnificent Smethwick pumping station – it’s a good place to stop – there are mooring rings and although it’s just up from the main road it felt safe enough to let the dogs off for a rummage.

Smethwick Pump House

Smethwick Pump House

The old canal is parallel to the mainline here and there are steep steps down to the mainline towpath. The information boards are worth a read- we found out that in the old days the pumping station was used to pump water from the lower mainline to the Wolverhampton Level (20 feet above) in order to service the amazing number of lock movements – the pumps lifted up 200 lock fulls of water a day!

\'Rural\' Birmingham

‘Rural’ Birmingham

Over the winter, I must prod Richard ( I didn’t write that – bricks are interesting but not that interesting!) to write a post about the different bricks you see along the industrial canals. As with many buildings around here, the pumping station is built of alternate layers of red and blue bricks, expertly laid. The old bricks are bigger than modern bricks and it was easy to spot later extensions.

This level is surprisingly rural again – there is ample vegetation and wildlife. It was also nice to see that the canalside houses above us had good access to the canal and had paid attention to maintaining their gardens and paths. As we cruised on we were untroubled by debris either in the water or being thrown off bridges.

Under the M5

Under the M5

We soon came to the next interesting bit – the M5. I was very confused by our Nicholson’s guide as it just showed a tiny section of motorway and I couldn’t understand where it had gone to. Of course, Nicholson’s just shows the canal which runs directly underneath the M5. We loved it – for one thing it was sheltered, for another, how often do you get to see the underside of a motorway!

For engineers only - motorway strengthening!

For engineers only – motorway strengthening!

There is variety of heavy duty strengthening work to the chloride affected crossheads and even what looks like some cathodic protection in some places. It was surprisingly quiet. We’d enjoyed this branch so much that when we got to the Spon Lane locks we decided not to drop back to the mainline – We wanted to stay with the old canal a bit longer.

We’re glad we did because just left of the lock is a great transport layer-cake – the M5 towered over all, then

Transport layer cake!

the trainline barely cleared the aqueduct carrying the old canal over the mainline. What a great sight.

The next bit of canal from here to Brades Locks was less enticing – more trash around and we didn’t even think about whether it would be good to moor here. Though, again, we didn’t experience any trouble. Having said that, there were some welcoming touches- clusters of long-term moorings with cheerily waving boaters, a boatyard and the Valencia Wharf Coffee Shop with a friendly sign “open to boaters” and pontoon moorings for at least 4 x 60 footers.

Stretch up to Brades Village

Stretch up to Brades Village

We were tempted to stop but our aimless loops round the BCN were eating into the day and we weren’t sure how long the dry weather would last. We got the answer to that when we turned into the Gower Branch! We’d just got into the top Brades lock (staircase) when the heavens opened. The first minute made us run for the waterproofs and close all the hatches, the next minute made us run for the umbrellas, the third minute made us cower inside the boat – ‘torrential’ doesn’t start to describe it; it was ‘torrential’ in the first minute! If rainfall has gears then this was a sixth gear high velocity downpour with an overdrive of hailstones – for heaven’s sake – it’s JULY. Mind you, we then realised our folly – we’d decided to cruise on the weekend of the Wimbledon finals so we were only getting our due…..

Note: the bottom lock gate of the staircase stuck badly – not sure if it was something blocking it or just a faulty mechanism. It need a lot of persuasion (using all of Richard’s great weight) to get it shifted. We’ll report it to BW but if you’re going that way then be prepared for it.

The Gower Branch was the most rural yet and the water was crystal clear with abundant wild waterlilies and shoals of baby fish.

Approach to the Netherton Tunnel below the old canal
Approach to the Netherton Tunnel below the old canal

We had a short trip along the mainline to Dudley Port junction where we turned into the Netherton Tunnel Branch. We met the Black Country Museum trip boat here – it was full of what must be enthusiasts – why else would they be so cheerful in an open-topped boat on such a rainy day! The Netherton Tunnel is an imposing structure – it’s a 2-way tunnel AND it has two towpaths. No problem with clanging and banging here – it’s wide, high and very long. As usual we enjoyed looking up the ventilation shafts to see the sky above and, as usual, we got thoroughly dripped on (though it’s a very dry tunnel by canal standards). It was very cold and dark in the tunnel (as you’d expect) so we were surprised to see a young couple making out on the towpath – who says romance is dead! I think they were dismayed that they’d been disturbed firstly by the trip boat and then by us – I’m sure that’s more traffic than the tunnel normally sees in a week.


We emerged from the Netherton Tunnel into a really rural bit of canal – it’s so hard to believe that we were now on the fringes of Dudley. Just past the windmill End Junction we found a park with useful mooring bollards. This was a great place to let the dogs have a run and for us to explore (on foot) the comically named ‘bumblehole branch’. It was peacful here and once again we wondered whether it would be safe here overnight. We got our answer when we passed though here the next day. We stopped off at the visitor centre and coffee shop manned by a delightful group of volunteers. They assured us that it was very safe to moor there but to tie up on the bollards opposite the visitor centre (on the right going west) – the bollards directly outside the visitor centre are near to a path to the local pub so that side is sometimes colonised by the local drunks, though they don’t generally cross over to the park. This was just the local information we needed. They also produce a great set of information leaflets about this stretch. If you get a chance to drop in and chat to these good people then please do – it’s well worth it.

Watchful Geese

Watchful Goose

And so we went on – past Bishton’s Bridge where the canal is level with the rooftops of the houses below; past High Bridge Road Bridge which is just improbably high – where on earth does it lead to?? We stopped to read the information board – apparently this bit of canal is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) because of the unique geology. There was an explanation – didn’t understand a word of it, but it was exciting to be in an SSSI which DIDN’T involve newts or similar!

By the time we got to the last stage of the journey we were getting weary – we’d had a thoroughly stimulating day’s cruise – possible the best we’ve ever had. But by now the rain had settled in and I was getting cold and grumpy. Then we arrived at Merryhill! OK, we need to give you some direction here so you don’t do what we did and get even wetter, colder and, unbelievably, even more grumpy!

Note: If you want to moor at the ‘Merryhill’ pontoons then:

  • Going south, the mooring pontoons are on your right well before you get to the Merryhill Shopping Centre itself. The pontoons are signed ‘waterfront moorings’. Moor up on the bollards immediately after the pontoons on the right (just before the Copthorne Hotel on the slope above you).
  • To arrange for a pontoon mooring, cross over the canal and walk to your right along the towpath until you see the Merryhill Shopping Centre below you. There are steps down from the canal here. (DO NOT cruise your boat here – there’s nowhere to turn and it’s a pig of a reverse back to the moorings, especially in a stormy wind, as we found out!).
  • Once you’re in the shopping centre then find your way to the ‘tourist information’ office – just keep walking to your right from Marks and Spencer on the upper level – the office is at the end by the next exit. The signs to the information office get smaller the nearer you get to it – specsavers would make a fortune if they set up next door!
  • The moorings cost Β£8.50 per night – good value given that the moorings are secure and the fee seems to include shore power. You will need your boat index number at the very least; they’d also like your insurance certificate number and licence type/number. Just take everything!
  • DO NOT rely on the directions that they give you. They give you a plan of the pontoons (even though they’re clearly numbered) but they have only the vaguest idea of where the pontoons actually are. If we’d followed our well-meaning guide’s directions we’d have run into the Stourbridge Locks without any means of getting back to where we needed to be. Richard fortunately did a heroic recce on his bike in the rain to find out where we needed to go.
  • There is a gate code to get in to the moorings from the shore – check this is working before you put all your crew on the shore side. The code worked once for us but then failed to open the gate thereafter! Others on the pontoon had the same problem! Our neighbours were going to report it to the office today so hopefully that’ll be fixed soon.
  • Our Nicholson’s said that Merryhill is noisy until midnight – WRONG! The club opposite the moorings turns its music up at 11pm and it is noisy until 2.30am. It was a safe mooring but by this stage I’d reached saturation grumpiness and don’t care if I never moor here again!

We did have a good, cheap pub meal at the Brewer’s Wharf. There is a BIG choice of bars/clubs/restaurants across the canal from the moorings so if have youth aboard then there’s plenty going on here to keep them amused. I’m afraid it just exposed my hidden ‘Victor Meldrew’ πŸ™‚

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The Odyssey – Summer 2008 Day 18

Posted by indigodream on 4 July, 2008

Blue and Lou on \'Holliday\'

Blue and Lou on ‘holliday’

We’re on holiday in Birmingham and it’s great! What a city (well, this bit anyway) – it’s tremendous. I could imagine spending a week here exploring (though we’d have find somewhere for the greyhounds to run or they’d go insane!). Among the other unlikely places we’d put in our holiday brochure are Macclesfield and Huddersfield……
I can recommend Cambrian Wharf as a mooring. Richard recalls reading that the late Mike Stevens had moored there last winter which sounded like a good recommendation. Although the pub opposite is loud, at least it doesn’t stay open that late. By 11.30 last night it was totally quiet here – not even the sound of trains or traffic. There was a curious disturbance at 12.30am when two helicopters whizzed around but other than that it was totally peaceful. There weren’t even any birds so I was spared the usual dawn chorus of ducks banging on the side of the boat! I felt very safe here by myself, though I did leave a small LED battery light on overnight to let any potential vandals know that the boat was occupied and not an easy target. I don’t think I need have bothered – I’m not convinced that anyone passed by.
Birmingham New Street train station is within easy walking distance (though it’s uphill from the station to the wharf!). The Cross-country trains convenient to us seem generally busy so I’d advise pre-booking a seat if you can. If you’re getting a taxi from the station to Cambrian wharf then ask for Brindley Drive – it’s the quiet cul-de-sac at the back of the basin. But it’s worth walking just to see the square by the ICC (not sure what that stands for, International Convention Centre? – it’s by the REP restaurant and bar). The paving here is so attractive – a modern block mosaic with lovely geometric patterns of red, blue and yellow brick – stunning. There is also a golden sculpture of some of the town’s notables – we didn’t get close enough to see the inscription but it was an impressive sight.
Blue on the train

Blue on the train

The dogs survived the long train journey up from Croydon – Richard very sensibly bought a first class ticket which meant they had enough floor space to lie down and stretch out on their ‘travel’ beds – two thick sheepskins. Just as well, for half the journey the standard class hadn’t an inch of floor space that wasn’t occupied by a commuter. The dogs were very good and the guard on the train was extremely helpful. Blue took it all in his stride but Lou was a bit stressed – all very odd because at home, Lou is completely fearless and Blue is a big wuss….
We explored Brindley Place tonight. This is a great place – there’s no end of different eateries and bars all well-frequented with totally tarted-up young ladies and young men with their a**** hanging out of their baggy jeans. Women of Birmingham – demand more from your men!!!! Mind you, we did see one young lady in a flouncy fairy ballgown, smoking, chucking the butt onto the pavement then ripping open a pack of gum with her teeth and spitting the paper on to the floor – classy….

Oozells Square

We strolled around for ages just enjoying the ambience. There are several squares with lovely fountains, water features and modern sculptures. The buildings, mainly new, have been built with care and attention using the best materials (polished granite, staffordshire blues interspersed with red hand made bricks – look for the smile in the clay assuming the brickie has laid the bricks the right way round); all the trees were lit with an array of tiny blue-white fairy lights and the canal bridges and parapets are swathed with fresh flowers in tubs and hanging baskets.

After much aimless wandering we decided to eat in an up-market Italian-ish restaurant called Cielo. We’ve not heard of them before – are they part of a chain? Anyway, all very tasteful and understated inside and the food was delicious. If you’re a meat-eater then we can recommend the belly pork – it was so succulent – the sort of main course we’ll remember for a long time. I wasn’t so sure about my starter – I opted for the bruschetta and I gave up halfway through with 10 large cherry tomatoes still on my plate. I’m quite convinced that no-one can eat that many tomatoes in one go without stripping all the enamel off their teeth. Chef – change the recipe – add another slice of french bread and take out three quarters of the tomatoes! We tried a new wine – Inzolia – not a wine to quaff by itself (bit sour) but very mellow with the intensely savoury food. It wasn’t a cheap meal but I’d say that you get quality for your cash.

For those that like statistics: Miles traveled today: 0 Locks done today: 0 Bottles of wine drunk: Ah now that is getting interesting.

Brindley Place by night

Brindley Place by night

The junction by night

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What the workers have to do

Posted by indigodream on 4 July, 2008

Whilst Sue is swanning off being famous in Manchester, the poor dogs have had to do a full day’s work

Hard at work in Richard's office

Hard at work in Richard’s office

Such hard work

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