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Archive for July 21st, 2008

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 ๐Ÿ™‚

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 ยฃ15 – 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 ๐Ÿ™‚

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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