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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 £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 £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’ 🙂

4 Responses to “The Odyssey – Summer 2008 Day 19”

  1. Greygal said

    Hi guys

    In case you ever return to Merry Hill, you might like to know that we moored overnight further along on the towpath looking down on to the shopping centre. Absolutey no problems at all – some people had been there several days and reported it as a very decent spot. We avoided the pontoons because, as you discovered, that area can get very noisy. It is also a much shorter walk to Starbucks! I assume mooring provision is still available?

  2. Adam said

    What a great account of your day’s cruising; I enjoyed it a great dea. Being at work and so not having my Pearson’s to hand, I had to log on to the waterscape map to follow your journey!

  3. indigodream said

    Hi Greygal

    Moorings are still there but windswept, close to the road, cider drinkers under the next bridge etc so we did what we thought was the recommended option. Bad move. The kids on the dry Blackthorn were amiable, no trouble at all as I cycled past them, dog walking conditions were probably better by the shopping centre, walk to the pub was probably shorter … so next time …. Well actually next time is next weekend but we will probably moor by the Bumblehole visitor centre as the dogs just loved the park – we stopped there twice at the weekend and both times they had a mad greyhound moment, full pace runs in big wide circles, Lou even ignored a flock of canadian geese as she stretched out trying to keep up with Blue. They may be well past it in racing terms but ohhh they are still very very fast (when not sleeping).


    Richard

  4. indigodream said

    Hi Adam

    Sue will be chuffed when she sees your comment. Your photos are so much better than ours!

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