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Virtual BCN Challenge 2020: Day 3

Posted by alexgrehyauthor on 15 May, 2020

The Virtual Adventures of Augmented Reality Indigo Dream (ARID)

Day 3 – Wednesday 6th May

1. Outline Crusing Log




Time in

Time out

Sneyd Junction to Essington branch junction





Essington locks Junc to Essington locks terminus





Essington locks terminus to Essington locks Junction





Essington branch junction to Wyrley Bank terminus





Wyrley Bank terminus to Sneyd Junction





Sneyd Junction to Wednesfield Junction





2. Detailed Cruising Log

Sneyd Junction proved to be a very sociable mooring, giving us the chance to share tall tales with regular resident boats and our fellow BCN Challengers. That is the advantage of a time machine, we can just pop to a time before Covid, enjoy a gathering, then pop back to the present for a good night’s sleep.

The day dawned fair and sunny, thought the air was distinctly chilly. We heard groans from the resident boaters as they found that their rooftops gardens had been touched by an overnight frost. Luckily the crew of ARID were toasty warm and raring to go. As well as the hearty porridge served for breakfast, Christine decided to eat the pink grapefruit that she’d brought aboard. I found one half of the rind resting on a warm radiator, filling the boat with its tangy fragrance. I squirrelled the other half-rind away for slicing into twists for tonight’s beverage.

Sneyd Junction – Gateway to the historic Sneyd Locks

Team Rebellion, also moored at Sneyd Junction, kindly let us start up the locks first, on the understanding that we opened the bottom paddles behind us. That was fine by us – Christine, Emily and Richard are both super-efficient lock-wheelers so they soon got into a rhythm, working three locks at a time, emptying the one behind us for the next boat, working Indigo Dream through the second, and preparing the next. I stayed on the helm – with Richard on heavy duties, I’m the only one who can cruise Indigo Dream cleanly into the locks at the speed we need to maintain the 5 minute per lock pace.

Simon, our resident mathematician, spent some time developing the concept of curlitude, which is defined as C = M/D -1. In this formula D is the direct distance (as the crow flies) between any two points that we have visited as part of our cruise, and M is the minimum distance (making use of time travel where necessary) by canal between the same two points. So, for example, for the Cannock Extension which we visited yesterday, this has a curlitude of zero (as M=D). By contrast over the last two days we have travelled from the end of the Lord’s Hayes branch to the wharf for Norton Cannock Colliery, on the Wyrley Bank branch – see below:


Simon Curlitude 2For these two points D = 0.25 miles, and M= 9.35 miles (via Birchills and Sneyd Junctions), giving a curlitude of just over 36.  I wonder if this is a record for the BCN, or indeed for the UK canal system? As a contrast the infamous meanderings on the Southern Oxford near Wormleighton only has a C-value of 2.6/0.6-1 = 3.3. 

Simon CurlitudeThe time machine was essential for today’s cruising as there is little left of the Essington Locks and Wyrley Bank Branch in modern times, though walkers and cyclist can still enjoy the footpath that follows the line of the old canal towpath.

Christine Wyrley Branch Canal

This is one of Andy Tidy’s photographs:

Several of today’s photographs are “creative commons” from

People using the paths today could never have imagined that this was a bustling canal surrounded by coal mines, both deep shafts and open cast.

But I’m ahead of myself, the day began with the Sneyd Locks…

Christine Sneyd Lock historic

Although we took a moment to take a look at the Sneyd Reservoir nearby. We didn’t spot the old pumping house that once kept the water flowing into the canal, but it was a lovely spot to visit.

B Sneyd Reservoir

Sneyd Reservoir

Christine spotted that the bridges on the Wyrley Bank are arched – this is apparently because the builders were not expecting any subsidence from the open cast coal mining. This in contrast with the bridged over the Cannock Extension Arm, which were ‘square’ and had structures that would allow builders to use bottle jacks to raise the bridges in case of subsidence caused by deep shaft mining in the Cannock Coalfields.

Sadly, the only bridge I spotted today was a simple footbridge which has replaced what used to be a swingbridge over the canal.

Wyrley Branch FootbridgeWe reached a significant milestone today. We paused at the top of the Essington Locks to enjoy what used to be the highest point of the Birmingham Canal network at 536′. We looked across into the hazy distance, towards the current summit at Titford (510′) – it felt as if we could have stepped across the Tame Valley to the BCNS’ current home, forgetting for a moment the miles of toil that actually lay between us.

It’s difficult to read, but the geological survey of the area, undertaken in 1860, gives a fascinating view of the land beneath the canal.

Back on the Wyrley and Essington, we enjoyed cruising past Hollybank Basin, another historic stub which, although it is in water, is too silted for navigation.

Hollybank BasinIt was a reminder of how difficult it must have been for laden, deep-drafted boats to navigate this shallow, narrow, winding canal, though it is a delight for us in a modern relatively shallow-drafted boat.

Fulbourne grounded by Wednesfield Junction

We moored up at Wednesfield Junction – a good place for a restful night’s sleep before more locking on historic canals tomorrow.

Bentley Canal Entrance

Although ARID is pretty luxurious by boating standards, the crew was still a little envious of the duck castles near our mooring!.

Duck House Wednesfield

3. Daily Challenge
The challenges became increasingly surreal as the week went on. Today’s was to create a prop-stopping bladeful of trash from oddments in our own homes. Photographs of our propeller finds were NOT allowed – we had to find suitable objects. Luckily, I haven’t got as far with my planned decluttering as I expected so we had plenty of material.
I added a little ditty to go with our entry…

12 Props a fouling

Over twelve days of boating, my propeller gave to me..

Twelve plastic carriers

Eleven yards of netting

Ten feet of carpet

Nine old foam cushions

Eight hats and jumpers

Seven belts and ties

Six pairs of trousers

Five bras and panties

Four rubber tyres

Three golfing brollies

Two balls of wool

And a beautiful silken sari.

4. From the galley

Christine got up at the crack of dawn to get the bread on so it was ready and cooled down before lunch. She used a small bread maker (530watt) on a low setting, which worked very well with ARID’s 2.5kw inverter and left plenty of power for phone charging and other devices. The bread too three hours – perfect timing for lunch.

Christine Bread MakerChristine Bread

Bread Recipe 

Water – 180ml

Oil – 1 tablespoon (15ml)

Salt – 1 teaspoon

Strong White Bread Flour – 200g

Six Seed Bread Flour – 120g

Caster Sugar – 1 Tablespoon

Skimmed Milk Powder – 1 Tablespoon

Easy blend yeast – 1 Teaspoon

The small loaf allowed us a couple of delicious slices each, but that wasn’t really enough to fuel a locking crew, so we supplemented our lunch with a traditional Birmingham treat – Shrewsbury Cakes. These date back to Elizabethan times (the first Elizabeth that is!) though recipes in those days tended to be a little imprecise:

To make Shrewsbury Cakes – Take two pound of floure dryed in the oven and weighed after it is dryed, then put to it one pound of butter that must be layd an hour or two in rose-water, so done poure the water from the butter, and put the butter to the flowre with the yolks and whites of five eggs, two races of ginger, and three quarters of a pound of sugar, a little salt, grate your spice, and it well be the better, knead all these together till you may rowle the past, then roule it forth with the top of a bowle, then prick them with a pin made of wood, or if you have a comb that hath not been used, that will do them quickly, and is best to that purpose, so bake them upon pye plates, but not too much in the oven, for the heat of the plates will dry them very much, after they come forth of the oven, you may cut them without the bowles of what bignesse or what fashion you please.

— The Compleat Cook of 1658

Of course, modern bakers have interpreted that in different ways, and there are many variants. To add extra energy, I threw some raisins into the mix!

  • 1 lb (450g) Plain flour

  • 8 oz (225 g) Butter

  • 8 oz (225g) Caster sugar

  • ½ tsp Mixed spice

  • 2oz Raisins

  • 1 Egg

  • Mix all the dry ingredients together in a bowl, and rub in the butter. Add in the raisins. Work in the egg with a knife or spatula and knead lightly to form a stiff dough.

  1. Divide the dough into 16 equal balls, and pat out into 5” (13cm) rounds.

  1. Bake at gas mark 4 -5 (depending on your oven, ARID’s is a bit hopeless) for 10-15 minutes (nearer the 15 I’d say).

Gin of the Day

Being in the heart of England it would only be appropriate to try a locally sourced gin and today Emily cycled to the Hearts Distillery to collect a freshly distilled bottle. It was quite a trip but well worth the effort.

The recommended serve would be lots of ice, one-part Hearts and two parts quality tonic, with a twist of orange peel, but we improvised with provisions on board and used some grapefruit peel from Christine’s breakfast.
Emily Wolverhampton Gin

5. Tales from the Geistersammler (Ghost Collector) 

Today we travelled through Essington’s coalfields so it was inevitable that the Geistersammler would pick up a miner…

“Howdo…” the miner’s voice was gruff.

“Welcome, friend, do you have a tale for us?”

“Aye, if you like tales of fortune, good and bad.”

We nodded, the beautiful countryside around us gave no clues as to the area’s mining heritage.

“Lucky Tom, they call me. I’m right pleased about that, because you could call me Unlucky Tom too, when bad luck befalls those behind me. Miners are a superstitious lot, do you know that they’ll never work on New Year’s Day because it’s unlucky? It’s as like they’d throw an unlucky man down a shaft and walk away.” He coughed nastily and wiped a faint hand over his dirty face.

“You weren’t murdered were you?” We were a bit shocked by his tale.

“Naw, I told you, I’m Lucky Tom. I’ve lived through every calamity that the deep mines can inflict on a man. See away there in the Black Country?” He pointed towards the far horizon to the South. “The masters would have their coal, so we picked our way through the seams, tunnelling like earthworms through the rock, the roof barely feet above our heads. Them tunnels collapsed often enough, but never on me, though I dug out my fair share of sad bodies from those narrow tombs.”

We were silent, it seemed too horrible to be true, but he carried on…

“Aye, I were just a young lad when the pit in Audley went up – I remember saying to the gaffer that the air was foul, but he said I’d not cleaned the stables right. I was walking home when I heard it go – the firedamp. The ponies dead, and eleven men and boys, but not me, Lucky Tom.” He laughed humourlessly.

“I moved then, to Cheadle. Ah, the mines almost got me, I was in a faint when the cage came up the shaft. I was revived in the clean, fresh air, but the gaffer and his mate were suffocated. They say that for every disaster there’s a miracle – that’s me, Lucky Tom.” He coughed painfully, his lungs sounding wet and awful. He hawked up some black phlegm, and I was relieved that it vanished before it hit the floor.

“Then just last year, 1872, Pelsall Hall Colliery. I was sat at the pithead, eating my breakfast, when the call came, Pull up! We dragged the cage up. A few poor souls were clung to it, soaked to the skin. We went down to look for more, in the darkness we heard men splashing about, shouting, scratching at the posts to stay afloat. We got some out but when the water fell, we found twenty-two broken bodies. I’ve seen a lot of things in my time, but that was the worst, so I moved here.”

“But you lived to tell the tale…”

“Aye, I vowed never to go down a shaft again, who knows when a man’s luck will run out? Ah’ve been looking after pit ponies for me whole life, figured I could look after these beasts too.”

He gestured out of the window, to our astonishment, half a dozen grand towing horses, bedecked in brasses, waited patiently for Tom. In the meadows behind them, hundreds of ghostly pit ponies blinked in the sunshine. I should have realised that the Geistersammler could draw their immense spirits too.

“Aye, treat them right and they’ll follow you in this life and the next. I’ve been a lucky man, but the coal killed me in the end.” Tom coughed deeply, his face turning blue under the grime.

I hastily closed to link to the Geisterstammler, unwilling to watch him suffer, and I vowed never to take a humble bag of coal for granted again.


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