Indigo Dreaming

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BCN Challenge 2017: Day 2 in detail

Posted by indigodream on 19 June, 2017

Sunday 28th May

4am start? No thanks!

Because we’d had an indulgent 10pm finish on Saturday, we needed to be up and cruising by 4am. We set the alarms for 3.45am and although the human crew got up willingly enough, the greyhound crew were deeply unimpressed and snuggled down in the duvets, hoping that we weren’t actually serious!

We had deliberately overnighted on a lock-free pound so that the first up could single-hand while the rest of the crew got organised. Richard took the helm and got us away at dead on 4am. Although we had calculated that sun wouldn’t rise until 4.55am-ish, I had thought a false dawn might give us some light for cruising but it was far darker than I expected. The weather was cool and a little overcast and we didn’t have the benefit of moon and starlight as we’d had on previous dawn excursions.

Sunrise ๐Ÿ™‚

Once we got moving, the hounds consented to get up – it was easy enough to drop the dog-walking crew off at one bridge and pick them up at the next without losing any time. No-one fancied any breakfast at 4am, but we topped up on warm danish pastries a little later so that the crew would have enough energy for the Rushall flight.

Although the Anglesey Arm had a fair few points attached, by the time we got to Catshill Junction we figured that we were managing less than 3mph and we’d be too pushed for time if we ventured up the arm so we turned, with some reluctance, towards the Rushall flight. By the time we got to top lock the sun had risen and it was promising to be a glorious day. There was a boat going down in front of us, which meant we had to turn every lock, but we still moved quickly and smoothly down the flight.

A magical dawn on the Curly Wyrly ๐Ÿ™‚

I looked out for the swallows that used to inhabit the shaded eaves of low bridges along the flight, but was disappointed not to see any – I wonder whether they just decided not to migrate back to Birmingham or were the nests removed – I hope it was the former.

We participated in a wildlife rescue at one lock – the lock was almost empty, with Indigo Dream getting ready to move out when the shore crew far above called out that there was a hedgehog in the water. We sadly assume it was dead, but then the crew saw it move! I reversed Indigo Dream to the back of the lock (we were well below the cill by then) and ran to the front of the boat with our little children’s toy fishing net. I crawled onto the bow and managed to get the hedgehog into the net and by doing so I learnt three things:

  • Hedgehogs are very strong swimmers
  • Hedgehogs are very heavy for their size
  • A child’s toy fishing net is only just strong enough to lift a sodden hedgehog from the water!

It took some effort to lift the little animal up to the shore crew, but we made it! The poor little thing seemed exhausted and shock – we put it in the shelter of a nearby hedgerow and moved on. Luckily the hounds weren’t around, though for the life of me I can’t remember where they were – the Rushall is good for dog-walking once you get past the road bridges so they might have been lock-wheeling with Richard.

The supremacy of canal over road ๐Ÿ™‚

We were soon at Newton Junction and turned right onto the Tame Valley canal. Because we are so efficient at locking we had wondered whether to change our strategy and go the other way – down the Perry Barr flight, up Aston and Farmer’s Bridge then on to the finish line. But we had calculated that was a high effort/low point route so we stuck to our plan.

I love the Tame Valley canal – in the bright sunshine it was hard to imagine that the overnight cruisers had been stoned by youths along this lush waterway. I was pleased that we hadn’t run the gauntlet, because by day the Tame Valley canal showed its best face to our BCN newbies, Kristel and Ian. The views from the Tame Valley are spectacular – from the aqueduct soaring above the M6 to the long view across to the centre of Birmingham, perched high on its plateau. With the awareness of just how many locks there are between the outside world and Birmingham, I think that boaters have a unique understanding of the city’s complex geography.

We soon caught up with another Challenge boat who were taking it easy – absolutely their prerogative, but we’re contenders! We sighed, then we gnashed our teeth when I realised, on turning the page of our cruising log, that we’d missed a quiz question at Newton Junction – aaargh! Christine volunteered to cycle back to find the answer, in the meantime Richard cycled ahead to find the answer to the question at Ocker Hill Junction. I took the helm and pootled along behind the boat in front – we had asked whether we could overtake but they declined – their prerogative also!

We picked Richard up at Ocker Hill junction and did a time check. Would we have time to turn right and do a there and back high value trip up to Walsall Junction or should we turn left ensuring that we could get the bonus for finishing early? Hmmm. We needed three hours for the trip to Walsall and we only had an hour and a half of slack with no hope of making up time as we know from experience that the Walsall Canal is slow, so we turned left to join an unexpected queue for the Ryder’s Green flight.

Rushall Top – 6.10am and we’ve already been cruising for a couple of hours!

We’re never going to cheer when we see a queue at a lock flight but on the other hand, it does mean that there are lots of crew around to set locks. There was a good atmosphere up the flight. With all the boats going the same way it was inevitable that every lock would be set against us, and every other boat behind us! But all the crews got into a rhythm and we worked up the flight efficiently enough. The sight of 10 or more boats filing the flight from end to end was quite extraordinary – local walkers expressed their astonishment at the sudden stampede of boats on an otherwise unregarded stretch of the BCN!

We’d gone up a few locks when Christine caught up with us – she’d got the quiz answer and was now in locking mode, helping us and other boats up the flight – her stamina is awesome and she knows everyone!

With plenty of crew around, Richard cycled ahead to the Wednesfield Old Canal (aka the Ridgeacre Stub) to get a points photo. Back in 2009, we recalled that the stub had just been closed because of a heavy pollution event. Sadly, it has never opened again and so another stretch of canal was lost. Cruising up the stub is forbidden (disqualifiable action on the Challenge!), but this year’s rules allowed crew on foot/wheels to go up the stub as far as the road bridge and get a points photo. I imagined that the stub would be a stinking midden, but the photos show a lovely canal that belies the rot beneath its surface.

Wildlife rescue ๐Ÿ™‚

There was a certain chaos at the top lock – one of the deep drafted historic boats was badly aground and no amount of effort seemed enough to shift her. The crew was busy with the pole, Christine tried to help from shore and I offered a bit of water from the prop as I took Indigo Dream past. I was going to offer a snatch but in trying to push some water back I realised that Indigo Dream was in danger of grounding herself on the offside so I had to move on. I felt awful leaving her there, but Christine reported that a tug coming up the flight behind us was primed to give them a snatch. We met both boats later at the finish line so all ended well.

The canal between Ryder’s Green top and Pudding green Junction was a bit of a shock – well, to me at least – I don’t recall it being so derelict. The channel was narrow with rubbish strewn reed beds encroaching on all sides. There was some impressive trash, including a gargantuan tractor tyre which was almost big enough to encircle the boat let alone the prop! It was dispiriting as I’ve always enjoyed our trips down Ryders Green. I mused again on the wisdom of the BCN Society whose clever points system meant that the best part of 50 boats would visit the stretch during the challenge and give it a boost.

Archie supervising at Ryders Green…

On previous challenges, we’ve had a plan at the start and stuck to it rigorously, but this challenge was full of choices. We hadn’t realised how critical these choices might be – but I’ll explain that when I publish the next post which reveals the results!

At Pudding Green Junction the choice was to cruise over to the Smethwick Locks and visit the Engine Arm on our way to the Oldbury Locks or go straight up the Spon Lane locks. We chose the latter – the boats that had travelled up Ryders Green before us had vanished, swallowed by the vastย  canal network and its myriad cruising options. This meant that we had Spon Lane to ourselves.

I like the Spon Lane locks – although the water is full of trash and the prop stirs up black tar and the smell of heavy hydrocarbons, the flight has a unique charm as it feels so removed from modern Birmingham. Despite being overshadowed by the M5, the flight has no road access so the dogs could come out for a bimble (they weren’t that interested) and although Spon Lane top lock is gateway to a concrete wasteland, the flight itself is surrounded by lavish wild hedgerows.

There is an acute turn at the top of Spon Lane locks – there are many ways to get around, but we’ve found that the fastest is to have a crew member on the point of the path by the top lock giving the boat a tug around while I’m busy on the tiller. The only tricky bit is picking the shore crew up after this manoeuvre!

The next stretch of the BCN is one of our favourites, not because of its beauty but because ofย  the sheer fascination of how this ancient canal survived the erection of the M5 above it. The waterway quietly passes beneath the motorway, giving an unparalleled view of its supporting structures. Very little grows in the shade, but here and there old brick bridges take the footpath across the canal, looking as incongruous as kittens at a heavy rock concert!

Wednesfield Old Canal – if we hadn’t been told you wouldn’t believe that this water was so polluted the BCN Society have declared it a no-go area ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

We soon arrived at Oldbury Turn and the last flight up to the finish line at Titford. By now it was around 11am and the queue that we’d feared simply wasn’t there! There was a boat going up the flight ahead of us but there was none of the frenetic activity we’d experienced at Ryder’s Green. We flew up the Oldbury flight and soon joined the colour and bustle at the BCN’s headquarters at the old pump house. There must have been 15 or so boats moored up already, as many had decided to cruise a continuous 24 hours and finish 6 hours early. We mooched up the canal and took the first mooring place adjacent to the towpath – bresting up doesn’t work for us with four hounds on board. We thought about doing the last four-point leg up to the Titford Pools, but because we were so convinced that we were out of the running we chose to moor up early and get a good houndie mooring- this had truly been the challenge of choices!

We’d moored up at 12.30am – 90 minutes early! This gave us time to check our cruising log and make a note of the photographs that we’d need to submit later. Half an hour later we pootled down to the Pump House to submit our cruising log and collect our BCN Challenge Plaque. The Pumphouse was a merry meeting ground – the BCN Society had laid on cake, beer and burgers. Crews and their dogs slumped on the sunlit grass and smiled with the slightly hysterical glaze of people who had worked hard on too little sleep!

I was weary and it was a bit too hot for the hounds, so we wended our way back to the boat – it took ages as we stopped to chat with boaters along the way and the hounds got a lot of attention! But back at the boat we turned the fans on and chilled. I was soon joined by Ian, who stretched out with Freya on the dog bed nearest to the most powerful fan, The rest of the crew joined us an hour later. Christine needed to travel back to London, but she’d managed to get a lift to the station with another boater – she was still full of beans! The rest of us slumped, had supper, and by 8pm everyone was in bed apart from me (I’m a night owl).

And another of the Wednesfield Old Canal – slowly going back to nature…

Obviously there’s no time to fill the water tank on the Challenge, but we have a huge water tank so it wasn’t a worry. But when we got to the end of the day we realised that the tank was nigh on empty – oops! We didn’t have the energy to move the boat to the water point at the pumphouse so we made an agreement not to shower, ignore the smell and fill up in the morning!

However, we’d also gone through our drinking water, and that couldn’t be ignored. While everyone went to bed, I walked back to the Pumphouse to fill a 5l water bottle. The canal was very mellow, with tired boat crews now sitting on deck contemplating their reflections in pints of ale. I chatted to a few and fretted over the gang of youngsters who had congregated on the canal bridge and the derelict warehouse across the canal from our mooring. But apart from gradually dismantling the warehouse wall and mindlessly throwing bricks into the canal, they bore us no malice and left the boats alone.

I got back to a boat full of snoozing crew – apart from Henry and Freya hounds who’d heard fireworks in the distance and were cuddled up in a trembling heap in the close, but safe, confines of the front cabin. Archie and Alex were already on the bed with Richard, leaving me a human origami challenge to find some space for myself. If course, this all meant that we now had two humans and four greyhounds squashed into the front cabin in the in the heat and humidity of an English summer, with no water for showers – no wonder we pick crew for their tolerance rather than their stamina!

We had a peaceful night’s sleep, though I woke up in the wee small hours to close the side-hatch, which we often leave open on hot night if it’s on the waterside. I’d been woken by a torrential rain storm which was giving the kitchen floor a good wash!

Apart from that brief awakening the crew slept the sleep of the righteous having cruised just shy of 100 lock miles in 22 hours!


A bit of help on the acute turn at Spon Lane Junction…


This aqueduct has it all – the new main line canal below, the train line just above and the M5 puts the concrete lid on the whole lot!


It’s not pretty but it is fascinating – it would have been so easy to lose these canals when the motorway was built – their very existence here is a miracle ๐Ÿ™‚


The official finish – although boats were moored for a mile along the canal, BCNS central was where we handed in our challenge logs and picked up a well-earned beer!


Graffiti written for tarty Archie ๐Ÿ˜€


That “end of challenge” feeling ๐Ÿ™‚




Archie and Henry wanted to spend the evening on deck watching the world go by but it was too much effort ๐Ÿ™‚


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