Sunday, 25 January 2015

Walking the lost sections of the Ridgeacre Branch Canal (BCN)

The following guided walk around the lost sections of the Ridgeacre Arm appeared in the spring 2014 edition of The Boundary Post, the quarterly magazine of the BCNS:

Andy Tidy returns to the Ridgeacre Branch in West Bromwich, an area he started to explore 18 months ago. At that time he re-traced the line of the Balls Hill Arm of the Wednesbury Old Canal, following a path from the Ridgeacre Pub to the end of Bridley’s first canal at Golds Green, built in 1769.


This time we head east and explore a further three miles of canal built in 1828 which threaded around Hill Top, assessing the extensive coal measures in the area and supplying the industries built up using the copious fuel available.
Irritatingly, not all canals offer convenient circular walks, and this set are sprawling and their exploration requires a bit of ferreting around, jumping here and there to find the remains on the ground.

Ridgeacre Branch
It’s not many years ago that the Ridgeacre Branch was fully navigable, with boats able to follow the Wednesbury Old Canal from the top of the Ryders Green Locks to the site of the interchange basins and Gas Works and then right into the Ridgeacre Branch. This option was lost in 1995 when the Black Country New Road was built at a low level which cut off half a mile of canal, with no hope of future restoration.
Whilst this arm may be terminally disconnected, it remains in water and is well stocked with fish and is used by a local angling club as a linear fishing pond. Better this end than a stagnant rubbish filled ditch.

You can pick up this canal from the Ridgeacre Pub, following a well made towpath under the railway bridge which now carries the Wolverhampton to Birmingham tram line. Between the railway bridge and the next road bridge which carries Hill Top Road, there was a string of basins to the south serving the West Bromwich Gas Works and the Blacklake Colliery, which was linked by one of many tramways in the area.

The end of the watered section is perhaps a couple of hundred yards short of its final basin at the Coppice Colliery and the Ridgeacre Oil Works. The area is now a Local Nature Reserve, once well developed but now looking sadly run down.

Dartmouth Branch
Just before the end of the watered canal the Dartmouth Branch left heading due north, a line which can be picked up as it tracks Salop Close and along the top of an escarpment which borders Hateley Heath College grounds. The canal track is reflected in a long stand of trees which extends all the way to Coles Lane where a substantial colliery basin exited to the east beneath what is now Monmouth Drive.
A further quarter mile of canal continued beyond Coles Lane and Witton Lane to Cookhay Iron Works. The area has been completely redeveloped in the years since its abandonment in 1954 and sadly there are no remain in the area today, unless you can tell me differently!

Halford and Jesson Branches
Having explored to the north we now turn south from the end of the Ridgeacre Branch. The junction is still very apparent with a stretch of canal sized woodland squeezed between an industrial estate and a new housing estate, all built on the sites of Waterloo Iron Works, the Cyclops Iron Works and the Ridgeacre Oil Works. But then progress is halted by a big embankment where the ground has been heavily re-profiled.

The walk then has to be interrupted as you skirt round to Church Lane where the line can be picked up beneath Whites Road. Its passing can still be seen by a hump in the road and the bridge itself exited into the car park of the works alongside Gladstone Street.
Just south of Church Lane the significant Jesson Branch continued due south serving the Ridgeacre Tube Works. All trace of the channel itself has disappeared but its line lives on in a stand of trees which terminate at Greswold Street.

The Halford Branch continued under the current car park which surrounds the industrial works. Developers are really reluctant to build on old canal beds. Eventually the branch completes a 180 degree turn and loops back under Church Lane identifiable by another rise in the road to terminate in another basin beneath today’s Tiverton Drive, which was linked to the Hall End Collieries by a series of tramways. Whilst the Church Lane bridges may have been removed it is clear that both humps are on the same contour with the canal hugging the hillside.

Of all my lost canal walks this one is perhaps the hardest to follow. The Ridgeacre Arm offers a good starting point, but the rest have been filled in, re profiled and re built to the extent that the old canal tracks are only just discernible, leaving just the lightest of traces on the ground today.


Having completed this section, make your way back to the Ridgeacre Pub for a well earned drink.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Bradley Locks and Gospel Oak Canals walk (BCN)

The following walk was included in the summer edition of The Boundary Post, the quarterly magazine of the BCNS.

Andy Tidy returns to the Bradley Works and uses the C&RT workshop as a base for his exploration of the Bradley Locks and the nearby Gospel Oak Branches. This is a five mile circular walk, exploring what was once one of the tightest tangles of canals in the Black Country.


Leaving the rarely cruised Bradley Arm behind us we head south across Bradley Lane and into public open space, following 1848 Rotten Brunt Line. When built Brindley’s original 1772 Wolverhampton Canal followed the contour in a big loop to the west, and we will take a look at the on our return.
So for now we cross the shallow valley and soon arrive at the top of the Bradley Locks Branch, built in 1849 to link the Wolverhampton Level to the existing1783 Scott and Foley three lock branch from what is now the Walsall Canal. Surrounded by all the greenery and open space it’s hard to imagine the pioneering industry which proliferated in the area, the blast furnaces above ground and the coal workings several hundred feet beneath our feet. The mines closed over 100 years ago but they still play a vital role in the wellbeing of the BCN, as the Bradley pumps still pull water from the flooded workings and so provides one of the main sources of supply.

Bradley Locks Branch
This linking canal was closed in 1961, but its path down the hill remains clear and fresh. The canal and its margins are now a public open space, with the sites of the locks forming short flat terraces linked by a well made footpath. The area is popular with the locals and if you happen upon one of the older dog walkers you are likely to be tales of how it all looked as boats worked up and down the slope.
A walk further down the hill brings you to the bricked up Gospel Oak Road with its cranked pipe bridge, after which the piped canal returns to water and the last two locks which have been semi restored. These locks, either side of the railway bridge, give a good idea of how the flight used to look, followed by several hundreds of yards of canal in water which takes you to Moorcroft Junction and the still navigable Walsall Canal.

Monway Branch
At Moorcroft Junction a convenient footbridge doubles as a pipe bridge and carries you to the Walsall Canal towpath, whereupon you turn right / south for about 1/3rd of a mile, or 30 chains according to my map (80 chains per mile).
One can be tempted to zip along the towpath to Wiggins Mill Pool, but before we do we need to pause half way along where there is an almost imperceptible widening of the canal south of Moorcroft Drive Bridge. This is the entrance to the lost Monway Branch, which extended for over half a mile to service a number of heavy industrial sites, which have all been swept away by redevelopment. The one tantalising link to this arm is Monway Terrace, a modern road which lies a hundred yards or so from the end of the branch.

Gospel Oak Branch
Walk under the railway bridge and you arrive at the junction with the Gospel Oak Branch built in 1800, which heads west for half a mile parallel to the Bradley Locks Branch. The junction retains one of its two railway interchange basins and some very attractive cast iron roving bridges.
The start of the canal is in water but this soon peters out and is replaced by a linear open space which exactly tracks the lockless old canal bed as its wound its way between collieries and furnaces to terminate beside Gospel Oak Road. For a brief period the Dumaresq Branch continued on beyond the garage and up through two locks to the Gospel Oak Ironworks, generally following the line of today’s Coronation Road. This arm is squeezed in between the Old Main Line at Asda to the north, and the Upper Ocker Hill Branch a couple of hundred yards to the south. The Gospel Oak Branch closed in 1954.

A mere 300 yards separates the end of the Gospel Oak Branch from the terminal basin of the original bottom section of the Bradley Locks Branch. The line of Gospel Oak Road has not changed and suggests that this branch lies buried between Elizabeth Walk and Myrtle Terrace, but no traces remain on the ground today.
And so we return to the foot of the 1849 section of the Bradley Locks Branch. To complete our circular trip to the Bradley Works we will return to the top lock where we turn left through the trees and then sharp right before Turton Road, following the original half mile loop bounded by Batmans Hill Road and Weddell Wynd.


Before we leave the lock gate works, pause and look at the grassy area where the gates are seasoned. It’s the site of another old basin which has been filled in and the basin outside the works building was the start of another lost loop lost when the canal was straightened to Loxdale Street. Just on the other side of the road is the line of the long lost the Bradley Marr Canal heading east with its staircase pair. Lot’s to see in a very small area.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Bentley Canal walking guide (BCN)

The following walking guide appeared in the Autumn 2013 edition of The Boundary Post - the BCNS quarterly society magazine:

In this edition Andy Tidy explores the course of the 1843 Bentley Canal, a route which connected the Wolverhampton Level via the Wyrley and Essington Canal at Wednesfield Junction to the Anson Arm on the Walsall Canal, before it was progressively abandoned in the 1960’s.


This is quite an extensive route at 3.5 miles long and therefore represents a significant walk. I completed the route by bicycle one frosty morning when the ground was hard, but an alternative would be to use two cars and position one at the far end.

A good place to start is at Wednesfield Junction which retains its neat iron roving bridge and a small basin next to the Nickleodeon Pub which ends with the entrance to the top lock.  Looking at it today it’s hard to believe that this was the entrance to a bustling canal which descended through 10 locks to reach the Walsall Canal.

Only 20 years ago a walk on the route would have revealed crumbling lock chambers and a reedy channel, but a massive retail regeneration scheme in the 1990’s swept the top four locks away, locks which were navigable into the 1960’s. With a bit of searching the Neachells Road Bridge can still be found, still carrying the road over a dry canal channel.  Press on a bit further, crossing the sites two more infilled locks, and you arrive at Neachells Branch Junction, built to serve the Neachells and Merrils Hall Collieries. The half mile line of the Neachells Arm can be traced as a winding band of open space, and half way along the channel is apparent with a drainage stream cut into its base.

The site of the junction is close to the Tata Steel plant and if you ask the security guard nicely they will let you look into the grounds where you will find a perfectly restored classic hump backed canal bridge. The Bentley Canal was almost dead straight and this very tangible remains provides a pointer to the canal bed which can be found continuing in the undergrowth of Fibbersley Nature Reserve to the site of Fly Bridge.

Generally the line of the Bentley Canal remains visible and is easy to follow on well made cycle tracks, but you have to be careful not to be misled by the abandoned railways which cross the area. These can easily be mistaken for canals and you find yourself on an incline or an impossibly narrow embankment trying hard to convince yourself that it is a plausible canal route. Built remains are few and far between, but with linear open public areas to follow and humps in the roads where the road bridges used to be there is plenty to see. Sometimes, you are even rewarded by an isolated road bridge or a pipe bridge lurking furtively at the side of a car park.

The route can be identified by a linear strip of open grassland as it crosses the sites of Dingle Lane Bridge and Monmer Bridge. The canal is then lost beneath lorry parks and industry for three quarters of a mile and a diversion through Ashmore Lake Industrial Park is needed before the line is reacquired at Springbank Bridge, which still carries Sharesacre Street over the infilled channel.

From now on the channel plays hide and seek, mostly hidden but emerging at the road crossings at Sandbeds Bridge which carried Charles St and Clarke’s Lane Bridge, a stretch which used to contain two locks. The next three quarters of a mile is open land but runs through cuttings and can be a bit boggy. The section includes collapsed bridges at Farm Bridge, Wolverhampton Road Bridge and finally the still standing parapet of Hopyard Bridge. The line of the canal is then buried beneath the grounds of County Bridge Primary School before it is completely severed by the  new cutting containing the Black Country Spine Road.


The tail end of the Bentley Canal ends with more a whimper than a flourish. The canal bed had been turned into allotments behind Wrexham Avenue, at the end of which is a path leading to the Rea Aqueduct. This provides access to the Anson Arm and so to the reeded up junction of the Bentley Canal, still spanned by a lonely pipe bridge behind the Walsall Showcase Cinema at J10 of the M6.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Oldbury Loop rediscovered - BCN

Oldbury Loop Walk
BCN
January 2015

The following walk appeared in the winter edition of BCNS Boundary Post Magazine.

Andy Tidy seeks out the lost route of the Oldbury Loop, a 3.5 mile walk which circles the town.

I have something of a passion for the lost loops of the Old Main Line. For the most part the loops were created as a by product when the New Main Line was built, but the Oldbury Loop is different, established in 1820 / 1821 as part of an early shortening exercise which left the loop in place servicing local industry along its banks. The loop itself was about 2.5 miles long and continued to carry traffic until well into the 1950's.

 Bromford Road Bridge - Oldbury

It had its southern entrance opposite what was Allens Boatyard near Whimsy Bridge, now a mere shadow of its earlier self with just one short stub remaining of several fingers of water which used to exist. Not that there is a lot to see of the junction with the original roving bridge first dropped to a platform a few inches over the water and now only just discernible as an indentation in the towpath.
The canal was in water as far as what is now the Oldbury Ringway till the 1980's, at which time the old railway and its bridge was replaced by the new road. Today the route is covered by an access road to the rear of a Mecca Bingo Hall. From here the canal crossed The Ringway skirting by Judge Close where a road sign reassuring proclaims "Canal Street". 
The Birmingham Street crossing represents something of a challenge. As far as I can tell the old canal bridge still exists but I would need an excavator to prove the point. Reference to Richard Chester-Browne's The Other 60 Miles indicates that the bridge and the buildings it carried were visible in the 1970's. The canal went under the road at the point the buildings are at their thinnest and when viewed from Judge Close, a canal width gap exists to the rear of the buildings.
When explored on foot there is a very distinct hump in the road, suggesting a canal bridge, and opposite a footpath descends behind some newish sheltered housing, tracking the old towpath. The northern portal must now exist behind the garage of the housing with the canal track continuing north beneath the new Health Centre and adjoining Primary School.
Undertaking this sort of field work does carry its risks. Fortunately my wanderings were conducted at 9.00am on a Saturday morning, but mooching around a school with a camera isn't generally very advisable and I was glad that I wasn't picked up for some sort of illicit or undesirable activity. That said, a delivery driver saw me marching round in purposeful but erratic circles and asked me if I was lost. He seemed genuinely interested in my quest for a canal which was filled in 60 years ago, and suggested that I may find some remains neat Sandwell Council's offices to the north of the town.
I skirted round the school playing fields and managed to pick up the line of the canal just beyond New Meeting Street, an area occupied by modern housing. The line of the canal has been left as public open space and I laughed out loud when I approached Bromford Road. The canal may have gone but the bricked up arch stands clear and proud, probably the best built remains on the 2.5 mile waterway.

Beyond Bromford Road the canal bed can be found in an overgrown stand of trees (behind the fence marked "Dangerous - no access"). It's course then either tracks beside or lies under the Oldbury Ringway, but the wide bit of open ground to the north of the road and the off-set location of the foot bridge support (probably on the site of Cockscroft Bridge) gives credence to the canal route being to one side of the road. Certainly the 92 year old gentleman and long time local resident I stopped seemed to think that is where it used to lie.
For the remainder the course is a matter of conjecture. The line appears to track just to the north Newfield Road, running behind an electricity pylon, behind the loading bays of the new retail outlets, and in the grounds of a now abandoned factory. The site was closed at the time of my visit but reference to Google Earth reveals a very short length of canal as it approaches the New Main Line, and still in water being used as a cooling pond.
The northern exit to the Old Main Line is even more obscure that it’s fellow to the south. There is no trace of a roving bridge and the only clue as to its whereabouts is a gap in the bull nose engineering bricks which edge the towpath, replaced by a rather crude stretch of concrete.


To be honest, I never expected to find a lot of remains here but in the end the route more than justified two hours of my time and a soaking when the heavens opened on an ill prepared canal historian.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Slow Boats to China

Slow Boats to China - book review
by Gavin Young
January 2015

I have always had an interest in travel books, particularly ones with a watery dimension.

I was therefore tempted by a 35 year old paperback called Slow Boats to China which charts a journey from Greece to China using whatever boats were available to hand at the time in the late 50's.



Young was a journalist and familiar with the middle and far east in the post war years spending much of his life either reporting or writing from the region. Rumour has it that he spent some time working for MI6 but in the main he was a travel writer, one who travelled lightly and comes across as a man well able to relate and empathisise with all those he came into contact with. Sadly Young died in 2001 but leaves behind a legacy of well written travel books and in particular his Slow Boats to China and Slows Boats Home.

Even in the 1950's when this trip took place, the journey was a challenge with few boats able or willing to carry him from port to port but only twice did he have to take to the air to link sections of the journey. I very much doubt that such a journey could be completed today and instead I suspect you would need to take your own boat.

One thing which hasn't changed is piracy. He fell foul of pirates in the Philippines ajust as surely as you would at the Horn of Africa today. With some fast talking and skilfull bonding he escaped with his life, just. 

Its a fascinating read as he explores people and places in distant locations, but always respecting those he met and taking a genuine interest in their lives.

All in all an absorbing read which was as informative as it was entertaining..