Wednesday, 28 May 2008

BCN West - Sneyd to Aldersley

Sneyd to Aldersley Day 3
Another day dawned clear and bright with summer sun shining into the back cabin through the hatch, which had been ajar all night. We made a start at 8.15 am, initially passing under the M6 and then on through the Rough Wood Nature Reserve with its bountiful wildlife masking the industrial foundations that lie beneath.

This stretch of parkland soon gives way to housing of variable quality. There appears to be a direct correlation between the quantity of rubbish and the quality of housing and, as we pressed on the rubbish grew worse, particularly at the bridge holes which we came to approach with a sense of trepidation. Hardy a bridge went by without some kind of knock or bang from an underwater obstruction and each one was left with a blast of reverse gear to try and clear the permanently fouled prop.

The first 3 miles from Sneyd demanded three visits down the weed hatch to remove a jumper, assorted bags and half a chair! Possibly the worst obstacle was a wheelie bin which we managed to carry into a bridge hole under the boat and then proved extremely difficult to remove. After twenty minutes of rocking back and forth like a beached whale (Capt Ahab is familiar with this situation) we resorted to a spot of bow hauling over some shallows, finally dragging the boat free. The water quality improved as we passed the stub of the Bentley Canal and we made good progress into Wolverhampton, passing under a fantastic mirrored arch in which provides boaters with a fleeting glimpse of their craft like a jockey passing a photo-finish post at the nearby racecourse.

Final Tally
3 days
78 locks
57 miles
11 arms
2 items of clothing
1 carpet
1 bollard
1 inbound incident

8 trips down the weed hatch

Would we recommend a trip around the extremities of the BCN? Absolutely yes, but:

1. Take more time than we did.
2. Avoid weekends and school holidays at all costs
3. Lock your front doors
4. Plan your overnight moorings in advance and work out a contingency plan
5. Expect to make frequent trips down the weedhatch including one full blown clogged prop each day.
Take a hacksaw, wire cutters, sharp knife and protective gloves
7. Expect some activity from hostile natives at some point, and be pleasantly surprised if it does not materialise

The Canals of the BCN more “interesting” than stunningly beautiful. There are very few boat movements, particularly when you stray off the main line and it is likely that you will travel for days at a time before you pass another moving craft. There are the inevitable areas of heavy industry deprived and urban deprivation but these are balanced by long tracts of reclaimed land which have reverted to a very attractive natural state.
This obscure 100 mile network is well worth a visit but planning is essential. Take a good range of tools with you and accept that a few scrapes on the paintwork and trips down the weed hatch are all part of the experience.

Monday, 26 May 2008

BCN West - Tipton to Walsall

Tipton to Walsall Day 2
The day dawned clear and bright, but with an unseasonable nip in the northerly wind. From the shelter of the museum moorings we made our way down the winding Old Main Line past tracts of urban redevelopment and over seas of lily pads growing out of crystal clear waters. An hours’ travel took us through Oldbury and under the crumbling supports of the M5 motorway.

This structure is only 40 years old, ago but already it is on intensive life support, with its crumbling concrete splinted up with steel frameworks and studded with sensors to monitor its remorseless decay. By contrast, the virtually unused 250 year old canal snakes its way under the bustle of the major artery with an air of quiet confidence that it will outlast this brash newcomer which has quite literally, sought to overshadow it.

On this occasion we decided to continue on the Old Main Line to Smethwick, passing through the Summit Tunnel, a modern concrete tube, and then right over the gothic iron aqueduct to reach the Engine Arm, an old feeder from Rotton Park Reservoir. Having crossed over the New Main Line boaters are obliged to make an impossibly tight 90 degree turn to the left. The guide books will tell you that this half mile arm is a one way trip necessitating a reverse out. In fact the end of this end of the arm has been developed into a residential mooring area, complete with a winding hole and a full range of services (even a DIY pump out!) This obscure arm turned out to be the gem of the trip.

The route is lined with factories and is a real slice of the “old BCN” with its pungent smells of grinding accompanied by the screech of metal cutting. The residential moorers are justly proud of this spot and encourage use of the one visitor mooring within the winding hole. Our return to the Old Main Line resulted on the worst weed hatch visit of the trip – a sheet of carpet attached itself firmly to the prop, stopping the engine dead and took about 30 minutes to clear. When we were finally free of the intractable Axminster we dropped down the badly worn Smethwick Locks to the New Main line, doubling back under the Engine Arm. Telford’s New Main Line strikes out in it’s deep cutting, taking a no nonsense approach to Tipton. After a short tunnel, a twin of that seen up on the Old Main Line, the spectacular Galton Bridge rises magnificently above your head before you pass beneath the understated Stewart Aqueduct and onto Pudding Green Junction.

At this point we entered the remnant of the Wednesbury Old Canal and made a return to the remaindered canals we left last year. The difference was apparent with progress slowed to a crawl and the of bottom rising sharply leaving only a couple of feet of sludgy water, which held hundreds of poly bags in suspension. Noxious bubbles of methane rose around us and we hade gone barely half a mile when the engine shuddered to a halt. This time the prop has snagged a plastic road cone, which managed to lock itself firmly onto two blades. Thick plastic was new territory but after trying the various cutting implements at my disposal, a sharp Stanley Knife did the trick. 15 minutes of wrestling in black water were rewarded initially with the top 10 inches of the cone and then, piece by piece, the rest of the offending article emerged. The Wednesbury Old Canal appears very short, so short that some maps make no mention of it at all and suggest that the Walsall Canal starts at Pudding Green. In fact, the canal continued up what is now known as the Swan Arm and then beyond the busy road into the abandoned Ridgacre Branch. A labyrinth of side arms and basins existed beyond the current head of navigation, some of which can still be seen complete with roving bridges in the ground of the pub opposite.

Ryders Green Junction marks the start of the Walsall Canal and is the gateway to the northern canal network. You immediately encounter the Ryders Green locks, which are a particular favourite of Wand’ring Bark. This well maintained flight of eight with their, massive single bottom gates, were all freshly painted and greased, but with less vegetation than last year.

Our enthusiasm for the Walsall Canal does however have its limitations and that limit is Tame Valley Junction. Up till this point the remains of several heavily locked routes up to Tipton and Bradley sprouted off the main canal, waterways with names like Toll End, Gospel Oak and Ocker Hill. Spotting the likely exit points make good sport. However, these distractions are soon forgotten as the surroundings take a turn for the worse. Some efforts have been made to improve the waterfront at Wednesbury, but the regeneration works are steadily reverting to their earlier state of decay, with anything flammable being reduced to ashes and boaters being offered the opportunity to play a new game of “guess the make of the burnt out car”! It is sad to see the decline of a waterfront complete with strategically placed bollards, which are unlikely to feel the touch of a boaters mooring rope.

Beyond this point the canal seems to have given up all hope, creeping through Darlaston and Pleck, all the time narrowing to the status of a week fringed ditch as it rubs shoulders with the Black Country Spine Road, remaining just about navigable as it passes the southern end of the Bentley Canal and on under the M6. Weeds are once again replaced by the urban detritus of until finally, Walsall Town Arm appears as something of a relief with its renovated basin complete with art gallery and pubs. This short arm has a tendency to be covered with floating duckweed, which has been known to lure unsuspecting drivers into its murky depths, thinking it a short cut across a patch of grass.
Walsall Locks, like Ryders Green, are well maintained and although you can’t see the entire flight at a glance, the scarcity of traffic means you can safely walk on ahead and set all the locks in your favour with minimal risk of inconveniencing other boaters. Beyond Walsall Top Lock lies Burchill Junction with the Wyrley and Essington Canal. With Harden and Goscote to the right and Leamore to the left it is hardly an inspiring choice. Both areas hold dangers for passing boaters and are best navigated during school hours. Our schedule dictated a passage at 5.00pm but we were fortunate, whilst we were spied by a group of children who made chase, we managed to round the next bend before they reached us! Our self-congratulations were short lived as we struck the remains of a collapsed wall and knocked the rudder clear out of the skeg. Try as we might, we couldn’t relocate it so we limped on for the last mile or so to Sneyd Wharf where brute force and luck combined to successfully reseat it.

Sneyd Wharf offers one of the few safe moorings in the area and, although essentially a residential site, the boaters who live there were very welcoming suggested that we stay on the water point overnight. Although you can see lorries scurrying up and down the M6 from this location, the noise is modest and is drowned out by the cooing of the many pigeons, which live in the roof of the BW buildings. We fell asleep to the sounds of the birds and reflected on the quality of this oasis in the midst of a troubled area. Night fell and we slept peacefully.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

BCN West - Stourton to Black Country Museum

Index to this series of posts:
1. - Stourton to Tipton - this post
2. - Tipton to Walsall
3. - Sneyd Junction to Calf Heath

Stourton to Black Country Museum (Tipton) Day 1
This was always going to be a big day and so it turned out. Early starts have become a feature of our sorties into the BCN we therefore made a start on the four Stourton locks at 7.00am fortified by mugs of tea to ward off the chills of the morning. Whilst this flight of four locks may technically be part of the BCN, they are set in a very rural location and have dispensed with the need for anti vandal water preservation keys, which are prevalent elsewhere. This short flight is accompanied by a series of picturesque side pounds, some of which have been converted into tranquil moorings with improbably narrow access points.

The lower end of the Stourbridge Canal in enchantingly rural with the diminutive River Stour weaving is way alongside to our left and Primrose Hill living up to its attractive name on the right. When it is not burrowing through dark woods, the canal runs through lush meadowland occupied by horses and covered in wild flowers, all set against a background of towering trees and rhododendron. Whilst boats are few and far between, the canal is well used by land based locals who throng the well maintained towpath. Even at 8.00 am we passed countless joggers, dog walkers, cyclists and fishermen enjoying the beauty of the area.

This rural section continues for about 2 miles coming to an abrupt end when the Stour is crossed by an Aqueduct and boaters emerge at Wordsley Junction and are faced with the bottom lock of the Strourbridge flight. The Town Arm turns sharply to the right at this point and makes its way through a mile and a half miles of industrial wasteland, finishing at the winding hole below the lovingly restored Bonded Warehouse.

The warehouse is now operated by the Stourbridge Navigation Trust, who provide some secure moorings and services to visiting boaters. There is a waterpoint underneath the overhanging canopy of the Bonded Warehouse where we paused and topped up our tanks whilst eating a mammoth cooked breakfast to incongruous strains of Led Zepplin No 4. Our chef has eclectic tastes in music and felt it an appropriate tribute to Mr Plant, who lives in the area.

Fortified with bacon, eggs and beans we attacked the 16 Stourbridge Locks with enthusiasm. No one had worked the locks that day and fortunately, they were all set in out favour. We made swift progress up the hill, past the restored Red House Cone with its inverted wineglass shaped kiln similar to those found around Stoke on Trent.

This is followed by “Dadford’s Shed”, an old transhipment basin and now a boatyard and then the roofless shell of a disused warehouse, held together by some form of giant Meccano set. This site looks earmarked for redevelopment and hopefully will include the remaining facades thus retaining the industrial atmosphere that still pervades the area. As you continue to rise look out for locks 9 and 10. At first glance they appear to be a staircase pair but in fact these are two separate locks with a tiny 10ft pound between them, which begged the question: What happens when I try to fill the lock? By a miracle of hydraulics and culverts, water is fed into and out of a pound located somewhere beyond the adjacent cottages, in an arrangement similar to that seen at Bratch.

The top of the Stourbridge 16 offered our first opportunity to venture “off piste”. We continued straight up the Fens Branch from Leys Junction, to the dismay of the towpath walkers who kept reminding us that we had taken a wrong turn. Fens Branch was built as a feeder and navigation is halted by silt under a railway bridge just beyond Brockmoor Junction but further scope for exploration was offered by the remains of the Stourbridge Extension Canal which leads off to the left for a further half a mile. This section had enjoyed some attention over recent years, having been dredged to a decent depth and a secure mooring site built on the offside, which was formerly occupied by a number of foundries, collieries and rolling mills. Whilst the moorings are in an attractive area of parkland, its remoteness would be off-putting for an overnight stop for a solo craft. The sudden appearance of a solitary narrowboat was clearly something of an event for the locals who rolled up in force to witness the spectacle. What they knew, as we didn’t, was that the arm improvements failed to include a winding hole. This omission necessitated a fairly protracted reverse out which involved extensive poling and the churning of an immense amount of black silt. However, 15 minutes saw us return to Leys Junction, at which point we snagged a pair of trousers round the prop, triggering our first trip down the weed hatch. One has to wonder exactly how the unlucky owner came to lose them, but maybe there is a connection with the fact that Stourbridge has more pubs licensed for lap-dancing than anywhere else in the country…. Hmm I’ll leave that thought with you.

From here all vestiges of countryside are lost and the canal hugs the backs of endless rows of housing. Oddly, few homes have adopted the canal into their gardens, which you often find elsewhere. Most have elected to turn their backs on the water, boarding their gardens in or simply using the canal edge as an impromptu landfill. However, the canal soon balances its ying with its yang in the form of the glorious Delph Locks, rising from Black Delph Junction.

This flight appears like a mirage climbing up the hill with tumbling waterfalls cascading over the adjacent weirs into to deep side ponds, which are popular with local fishermen. The flight itself is a magnificent example of BCN industrial engineering, with its angular piers, straight lines and a plethora of bull nosed engineering bricks. This flight is a “must visit” for all true canal enthusiasts as its spectacle rivals Foxton or Devises. Don’t be put off by the urban location, the locals were all friendly and we never felt threatened. Alongside the current Delph flight you can see the remains of the earlier nine locks line (hence the “Nine Locks Bridge”), which were abandoned in the mid nineteenth century due to mining subsidence.

No sooner have you left the history of Delph behind than you encounter into the ultra modern Merry Hill Shopping Centre, a Meadowhall or Bluewater for the Black Country. The canal was rerouted to accommodate this development on the site of the Round Oak Steelworks and widened to incorporate the Waterfront with its broad pool and extensive moorings. Sadly, the area always feels rather bleak and impersonal and fails to tempt many boaters to stop.

Beyond Merry Hill the canal soon shows a more urban face, passing the course of the long gone Two Locks Line link canal, which cut off a long elbow to Blowers Green and Park Head. Park Head Junction with its huge pumping station offers a great opportunity to bag another quality arm, this time up the three Park Head locks and into a grass fringed basin complete with three stub arms each leading off for a few hundred yards.

Again, our deviation from the normal route elicited comment from those on the towpath, who assured us that the Park Head route was closed and were sufficiently convinced that they followed us all the way to the top. Only the far end of the basin offered any real chance of progress, this being the western portal of the Dudley Tunnel. Whilst the tunnel itself remains clear, headroom is very restricted and only boats with the lowest of air draft can make a passage, even then only with the assistance of one of the electrically powered Dudley Tunnel Trust tug boats. Sadly, Wand’ring Bark can’t be ballasted deep enough for this route so any future exploration of the tunnel and its cave system will have to be on a trip boat from the Black Country Museum, which occupies the site immediately outside the eastern portal.

Beyond Park Head the Stourbridge Canal gives way to the prosaically named Dudley No. 2, built to serve the heavy industry which has gone and been replaced by meadows and parkland. Infilled arms and backwaters abound, built to serve the long forgotten collieries and foundries of the area and making Windmill End a surprising oasis of green in the middle of the Black Country. This section offers a number of interesting arms and basins but sadly the intriguingly named Bumble Hole Arm was closed off with a boom, preventing access. The Bumblehole Arm used to curl around and rejoin at Windmill End Junction, where a short stretch remains accessible in the form of Boshboil Arm.
Rather than head straight into the western portal of the Netherton Tunnel, a further 2¼ mile stretch of the Dudley No2 remains, wandering off to the south in the direction of the Birmingham and Worcester Canal at Selly Oak. The collapse of the Lapal Tunnel in 1917 blocks this as a through route but a trip down the length that remains will be rewarded by the 557 yard Gosty Hill Tunnel. This tunnel may be short but, for my money, it out punches the mighty Netherton, its close neighbour. The little tunnel has no towpath and the channel is so narrow that steering is rendered virtually pointless. For some reason the roof profile varies between a double height arch one minute and a roof scraping minimum the next which, in our case called for an emergency chimney removal 200 yards in. Beyond the southern portal the canal opens out into a brick lined canyon, the site of Stewart and Allen’s huge tubeworks till 1967. Whilst the workshops are long gone, the atmosphere remains and the silence is almost oppressive. Just a few hundred yards remain to the current terminus, the large Hawne transhipment basin now occupied by the Coombeswood Canal Trust and who’s open weekend was drawing to a close just as we approached. Whilst we didn’t moor here on this occasion, visitors are welcomed by the Trust and the site offers a quiet and safe location for an overnight stopover. Having maintained navigation along this intriguing stretch of canal for the last 40 years, the Lapal Canal Trust has been formed to campaign for the restoration of a link to the Birmingham and Worcester so, who knows, this sleepy backwater may once again become the busy through route it once was.

Whilst it was nearly six pm, we had promised the crew a trip to Mad O’Rourkes Pie Factory in Tipton so we retraced our steps to Windmill End and hurried through the Netherton Tunnel. As this is the third longest navigable tunnel on the system (eclipsed only by Standedge and Braunston) I feel I should wax lyrical about it. Sadly, this late addition to the network (completed 150 years ago this year) is spectacular only for its functionality. It is all you could ask of a tunnel really: a double width channel, towpath on each side, deep water and excellent ventilation but somehow this perfect functionality results in a lack of form and character, which are found in greater measure in many shorter bores. I guess that it is a bit like the M6, it doesn’t set my pulse racing but if it wasn’t there is would miss it no end. From the end of the Netherton Branch it is a short trip along the New Main Line to the three Factory Locks at Tipton and the entrance to the Black Country Museum. This site offers secluded moorings, good facilities, bygone atmosphere and excellent food options to satisfy a hunger built up over 13 hours and 41 locks.