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BCN Challenge 2017: Day 1 in detail

Posted by indigodream on 17 June, 2017

Saturday 27th May

No sneaky peeking! This year’s rules stated that we could open the envelopes with the cruising log and all-important bonus questions at 7.55am πŸ™‚

With the crew assembled on Friday night, we were well-placed for an early start on Saturday morning, which was just as well as we had a little bit of juggling around to get to our official starting point at Parkhead Junction on the Dudley Canal.

We’d had endless debates about where best to start the challenge, and although we strongly fancied starting at the bottom of the Delph flight, we simply couldn’t fit an extra 8 locks into our day so we decided on Parkhead Junction (high points!). But we’d taken the advice of the BCN Society, who recommended mooring overnight at Merryhill as the youth around Parkhead were known to be troublesome. This gave us around half an hour’s cruise (including one lock) before we got to the starting line. Inevitably, great minds think alike and we were second to our start line with two boats locking up behind us!

Our first challenge was shutting the bottom gates of Parkhead bottom lock – there was a considerable something blocking the bottom gates and no amount of shoving with poles and gates would shift it. Luckily for us, Indigo Dream’s powerful engine made short work of flushing the object away and we’d hoped that would be that! We proceeded up the locks, a bit more slowly than if we’d been first in the queue, but were soon at the tunnel portal where we divided our labours – crew with the boat for the points photo at the Dudley Tunnel portal and shore-base crew to look for the first of the treasure hunt clues (it was cunning!).

We were up the first three locks so quickly we didn’t have time to take photos! Here we are at Parkhead Top – during the day it looks like an idyllic place to moor with wonderful dog-walking, Shame it has a bad reputation for overnight stays, not sure if that is still the case.

Then we hot-footed it down the locks, except we couldn’t – the boat that had entered the bottom lock behind us was stuck – whatever object we dislodged had made its way back and was blocking the bottom gates again – no amount of work would shift it until the heroic crew got in the water. I was surprised at the depth of the water – I ‘d always thought of the Dudley No 2 Canal as being shallow, but there are obviously deep pools (the area is surrounded by disused mines and subsidence often leads to hidden depths in the canals). We came down top lock and waited in the pound below – the canal here is really pleasant, surrounded by lush parkland, hard to imagine “unquiet slumbers” here as it would otherwise be a perfect overnight mooring for hounds. We took advantage of the delay to walk the dogs, who luckily don’t really do mornings and failed to spot the cat hunting on the fringes of the woodland nearby!

It took a good half an hour to clear the bottom gates – the chaps in the water managed to shift whatever it was – hard, heavy, L-shaped but otherwise unidentified. They must have done a good job because we didn’t have any more problems with it and were soon on our way.

The BCN is extraordinary on many levels, but I’m always amazed at its vastness – although we started in the company of three other boats, they soon vanished and for the next several hours we hardly saw another boat – yet we knew there were 48 others on the Challenge – we’d been subsumed by the city’s marvellous maze!

Dudley Tunnel (South Portal)…

Now we had a long lock-free section so it must be time for breakfast! I got busy in the kitchen – the downside of cooking with bottled gas is that it seems very slow compared to mains gas, so while I was there I laid the foundations for lunch and dinner as well. Although our crew had been very worried about whether they’d be physically fit enough for the challenge, in truth, we select crew based on their ability to get along in a confined space for 30 hours straight and not throw a hissy fit when they get tired! As we all know, such goodwill is based on good nutrition and hydration – that’s my role on board, oh, and driving into locks at insane speeds!

There were points to be gained at the Bumblehole winding hole, but there we had a technical hitch – Indigo Dream, with the bikes on the roof, wouldn’t fit under the bridge at the entrance to the arm. We did a quick strategic calculation – would the points we’d gain by the photo outweigh the time we’d lose taking the bikes off? Answer – no! So on we went, having also made the calculation that the points/time balance didn’t justify a trip to Hawne Basin, much as we love it down there.

Brrrr – the dauntless crew of nb Giddy going above and beyond (under and in!) to remove n obstruction from the lockgate at Parkhead Bottom Lock…

The Netherton Tunnel is a special place – the headroom of a cathedral, the width of a motorway and superbly resonant. Christine and I are both musicians, so we took advantage of the acoustics to pipe (Christine) and sing (me) our way through the tunnel – it was a magical experience! Three years ago, we sang our way through Ghosty Hill tunnel and had resolved to learn some songs that we could perform together – we never did get round to that, but nonetheless we found our music in Netherton..

We met one (non-challenge) boat near the far end, who apparently hugged the side as Indigo Dream steamed towards him,though there really is ample room to pass!

There is a short length of dead straight canal at the far end of the tunnel which joins the magnificent mainline – another Telford Canal, straight and deep. But watch out for the almost hidden narrows where the money men of the original commercial canal levied their tolls on passing boaters. With the Brades flight and Gower Branch closed by emergency works (National Grid), we needed to find an efficient route up to the old Mainline that wouldn’t mean retracing our steps later in the challenge. The only feasible option was the Factory Locks at Tipton – another hidden gem of the BCN. We met a non-challenge boat waiting below the locks and he, very gallantly, let us pass. My crew had gone ahead to set the locks, though they were amply manned by volunteers from the “Friends of the Tipton Canal” group, who were doing a great job of clearing rubbish from the water. My lock entry was delayed as Indigo Dream was soundly grounded on a hard shelf just shy of the lock moorings – it took a bit of jiggling to get her off, all the while being aware of my crew watching their watches above me!

Got to love the New Main line…

We were soon through the three locks and were now on an enormously long lock-free Wolverhampton Levels which lead to the equally lock-free Wyrley and Essington Canal.It was a great opportunity for the crew to relax (we took turns on the helm) and graze for lunch (my signature boat lunch – fajitas!)

We had a side-trip up and down the Wednesbury Oak Loop (no longer a loop!), to the CRT Bradley Workshop with its mountains of lock gates under construction for the winter maintenance period. There were points both ways on this leg, plus points for a photo at the end and a bonus for visiting the loop – it had to be done! We had some doubts about the time/points balance as, in 2009, it took us hours to get up and down the arm because the super-abundant weed meant that we needed to clear the prop every 10 minutes. The water is still clear and weedy, but we were less troubled by it, though we did pick up a rather colourful sari which held us up for a short while. Richard’s sisters were off in a few days time to the Wedding of the century II in Mauritius so he took a photo and zapped it across to them in case they wanted us to keep it for them . . . .

The mainline and Wolverhampton levels are deep, well-suited to Indigo Dream’s powerful engine/prop combination. We arrived at the Wyrley and Essington all too soon. We love the Curly Wyrly, but it is shallow and it was almost impossible for us to make any headway as it is all to easy to generate a breaking wash on the shallow edges. We might have been tempted into an afternoon torpor, but there were treasure hunt questions to be answered and we needed to find Hollybank Basin. It’s a stub of canal between Horsley Fields and Birchills Junction and clearly marked

Quick photo stop at Bradley Workshops…

on our BCN map, but the three BCN veterans on board had no recollection of it; when we checked with a local boater who moors nearby he had no knowledge of it either! I let three of the crew off with the hounds to scout ahead and I soon spotted their frantic gesticulations – there was the narrow but perfectly visible entrance to Hollybank Basin. Two fishermen at the junction seemed bemused – they’d seen more boats on the Curly Wurley that day than they’d normally see in any month, and their apparent fascination with the apparent disused stub of Hollybank was a mystery! We’d agreed that I would drive Indigo Dream into the stub and reverse out while the shore crew would take the points photo from the towpath. I cruised a few boat lengths into the stub, just enough to spot a chain/rope across the canal which presumably marks the limit of navigation. The stub was deserted but looked wonderfully green and tranquil – is it a potential mooring spot? Who knows!

By now it was late afternoon and we had some locking to do this year, there were points for a there AND back cruise of the Walsall canal. It had been our intention to cruise all the way to Ocker Hill and back before finding a place to moor overnight on the rural Curly Wyrly. Our plan was looking good as we met a stampede of boats coming up the Walsall flight, meaning that all the locks were set our way and we had the benefit of help from the upcoming crews – sweet! We flew down the flight, but as we did so we started to get some disturbing reports from BCN Challenge Central. Groups of stone-throwing youths were gathering along the Tame Valley canal from Ocker Hill to Salfords Junction – two boats had broken windows and one crew member had been injured.Β  I know that some boats kept going with bulldog spirit of the undefeated; I favour “discretion as the better part of valour” so we visited Walsall Town Basin and turned back up the locks. It’s a risk assessment – we take the BCN Challenge very seriously and by missing the stretch from Walsall Junction to Ocker Hill we probably scuppered any chance of being on the podium; but we didn’t want to risk our human and canine crew either. Loads of photos were taken the the Authorities all notified and apparently responding well to what is a really unusual incident, we have never had any nastiness on the BCN.

Nice sari – took some unwinding from the prop but it will be fine after a good wash πŸ˜€

We flew back up the Walsall flight in something silly under 20 minutes, though our hearts sank at the top lock as there was a group of youths throwing stones at the residential moorings on the offside. We took photographs of them and then, amazingly, Christine engaged them in conversation and had them helping her to open and close the lock gates! It was a brief accord, as we cruised away they’d started to mess around with the lock again, but at least Indigo Dream was unscathed and the boats opposite had a brief respite.

We were a bit chastened as we cruised on – the 7pm mark is tricky – on a normal cruising day we’d be moored up and in the pub, but we had at least three or four more hours to do. Aha, must be time for a bracing dinner to lift everyone’s spirits – my second signature boat dish – tagine – lamb for the carnivores and chick pea for the veggies. Needless to say, in between feasts the boat runs on doughnuts and cookies!

We encouraged everyone to try to relax as we took turns on the helm – we were lock free for the rest of the cruising day. But once again, we had questions to answer as we headed up the Cannock Extension Arm for a points photo at the Colliery Basins. It is a lovely stretch so a great opportunity to give the dogs a good walk before dark while we took the boat up to the turn. It was all going to plan when the prop stopped dead under a bridge! Of course, as Indigo Dream slewed across the canal, another challenge boat approached! We hastily pulled her out of the way while Richard got busy down the weedhatch. This time it is was a five foot length of sodden stair carpet – it would have matched the piece we “found” at during the last challenge. I had a wry thought that maybe we could furnish a house for impoverished boaters and clothe them entirely from lucky finds on the BCN! Actually, we could probably provide them with transport too – push bike, motorbike, car – it’s all been found in these waters!

Hollybank Basin – a hitherto unknown to us branch of the Curly Wyrley….

We can laugh, you have to, but it’s very strange that on one hand you have dedicated societies working hard to preserve the canals as a valuable asset for the city; then you have the “idiots”, who seem to be equally intent on filling them with rubbish.

It was a darkening dusk by the time we got back onto the main Curly Wyrly and we might have looked forward to a starlit cruise, but the clouds had gathered and a gloomy drizzle had started to fall. We pondered how far we could get that evening – we had decided in advance that we wouldn’t lock after dark so the plan was to stop at 11pm and tackle Rushall at dawn. In the end, we decided to moor up outside the giant Tesco store in Brownhills. We’d always heard it was a safe mooring, though we’d never stopped there before. It did give us the opportunity to run into the store and get some extra milk – we would definitely be needing coffee for Day 2!

Because we’d moored up at up 10am, we had the alarms set for 3.30am for a 4am start. This was essential – we were so behind on our schedule we knew we’d have to cut swathes from our cruising plan, but we weren’t ready to give up! We hastily made the beds and got settled, though we heard a few challenge boats singing their way along the canal and mooring up briefly. Alex puppy and Archie joined us on the bed -Alex sighed with contentment as he squiggled between us – he’d actually coped very well with the rigours of challenge boating, but he loves a quiet bed the best πŸ™‚


Winding at Walsall Town Basin – and a god shot of Indigo Dream’s new paintwork!


It was only a fleeting visit to Walsall – having decided not to cruise down to Ocker Hill, we had to hot foot it back up the flight in order to get round as much of the Curly Wyrley as possible before dark…


Our super-efficient crew in action…


Newlyweds Amy and James on Severner Willow – so lovely to see them on their way to their new life in Bollington πŸ™‚


The Curly Wyrley – a wonderful bit of Birmingham countryside πŸ™‚


When I was growing up in very rural Wales, I was taught that children living in big cities in England didn’t know what a cow looked like – but Birmingham has them πŸ™‚


Winding at Colliery Basin on the Cannock Extension of the Curly Wyrley – and a fine shot of our new “greyhound” themed artwork πŸ™‚


We were doing very well, but as we headed back down the Cannock extension this 6′ length of carpet stopped us dead! It took some time to extract from the prop :-p

New crew members, Alex and Freya, set up their command centre on a nest of six dog beds inside, in front of the fan – they’re not daft!





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