Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Brownhills Becons

Brownhills Canal Festival
June 2016

Brownhills, or Brownshill as one of my dear friends calls it, plays host to an annual canal festival but as you can imagine, its not high on most boaters itineraries. As a result its a one day event which is more to celebrate the Wyrley and Essington Canal which runs through it than about the boats.

There will be some boats in attendance, including a historic and the BCNS workboat Phoenix to offer boat trips, plus the IKON boat for an artistic dimension, as well a full compliment of land based stalls (the pitched sold out weeks ago) plus canoe displays and live music near the canoe club. All in all a nice little community event.

I passed through the Brownhills waterfront today and the area was alive with bunting and a big banner had been erected on the roundabout. However, the advertising alteration squad is active in the area, subtly changing the message which has triggered masses of interest on social media - a bit of a bummer!

If all had gone according to plan we would have been somewhere around Tamworth and making for the Grand Union when the festival is on. Given our limitations of movement at present and the fact that Brownhills is just 2.5 hours cruising away, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. I contacted the organisers and asked for a trade boat slot, but we seem to be the first trade boat to make such an approach and we therefore made up policy on the fly. I guess I could have just arrived and set up the Jam Butty, but that seems wrong so we decided that paying the standard stallholder rate would be fair and I was delegated trade boat harbour master duty (for myself).

And so The Jam Butty will attend its very first Canal Festival this coming Sunday managed by just yours truly and any other friends who show up. 

If you are in the area its opposite the Brownhills Tesco's front door, and will run from 10.00am till 4.00pm on Sunday 26th June.

See you there!

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Passport to Pelsall

Passport to Pelsall
June 2016

Right now the stars seem to be in alignment. Its the day after the summer solstice, the sun is out and most crucially, Helen is feeling well - so we seized the day and grabbed a night afloat.

The Fingerpost on Pelsall Common

There is an ill founded misconception that its all a bit grim on the northern BCN but nothing could be further from the truth. Tucked out in the far reaches of the remaindered section lies the village of Pelsall and with it a rather wonderful canal side common. This semi rural location has to be one of the gems of the BCN which, if it was anywhere else, would be rammed with boats moored bumper to bumper (think Tixall Wide).

Cannock Extension Canal

But because its in one of the remotest sections of the BCN - a full days cruising from the Main Line - it attracts few visitors. And so here we sit, moored next to the rather good Fingerpost pub in glorious isolation having had the ten miles of cruising without meeting a single moving boat.

Not that it has always been this way. The common used to be home to a enormous ironworks with blast furnaces blazing away 24 hours a day, fed by dozens of Joey or Day Boats bringing coal, ironstone and limestone and taking finished product out. But those days of industry are long gone and the sounds of birdsong seem to have eradicated even the echoes.

Of course, others do know of this spot and periodically the common is the venue for canal festivals. BCNS tend to hold biannual events here but this year its the turn of the IWA's big festival which will attract over 150 boats over the August bank holiday weekend. Given our change of plan this summer it seemed daft not to take advantage of the IWA gathering so Wand'ring Bark and The Jam Butty will be attending and offering as fine a selection of preserves as you are likely to find.

As this spot is three hours cruising from Longwood (not towing the butty) it is a regular destination and one which photographs well through the season. I attach a selection of tonight's images to let you see what you are missing. 

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Rain does not stop play

Paying CRT's Bradley lock gate factory a visit
June 2016

When I spent time with Outward Bound there was a saying that "its not the wrong sort of weather, its the wrong sort of clothes".

Well, yesterday was a time when the maxim rang very true. Yesterday was the second of three BCNS Explorer Cruises of 2016, chaperoned tours of the lesser cruised parts of the BCN canal system hosted by Stuart and Marie Sherratt, who also happen to moor next to us.

The dreary Moorcroft moorings (opposite the site of the Monway Arm)

Each day the cruise moves on for four hours or so, and the organisers try to include a visit or activity relevant to the place. One very popular activity is a visit to CRT's Bradley lock gate factory, which fits very nicely with a guided walk along the lost Bradley Locks and Gospel Oak branches - which is where I come in.

There is nowhere else in the country where there is such a concentration of lost canals, with no less than six almost parallel routes in just a couple of miles (Bentley, Bradley, Gospel Oak, Ocker Hill, Toll End Communication and Haines). This is therefore fertile canal huynting territory and the Bradley Locks Branch offers a bit of everything, which makes for an interesting 45 minute ramble.

The land drain with more water than usual

I don't claim to be a great historian as my passion is to pull my boots on and get out into the field and see things first hand, so I am indebted to the research undertaken by Ray Shill and the cartography of Richard Dean which together form the basis of my interpretations. I must have done this walk seven or eight times and long suffering Stuart has patiently listened to them all. I did ask if he got bored and was told that they were different each time, but its unclear if this is due to me playing fast and loose with history or having a bad memory for my script!

On this occasion the morning was both misty and raining. It was so bad I even packed my waterproof trousers. I hate walking in waterproof trousers but on this occasion I gave in and pulled them on arriving at the Moorcroft moorings at 8.30am, and wondered just how many people would attend from the 19 boats. In the event about 80% ventured out, all adopting a different strategy to combat the rain - some in full waterproofs and some under umbrellas, others opted for the "skin dries" approach and sported shorts and sandals.

I usually start my talk with an assurance that the path is well made and dry but luckily I omitted the dry bit - the paths were awash and we spent more time on the grass than the cinders. We also adapted the stopping points to take advantage of the shelter offered by the bridges on the route, and the occasional breaks when the rain slowed to a hard drizzle.

In the event we had good walk up to Bradley and on this occasion the land drain, which runs through the old locks, was in full spate. It was quite impressive given the tiny catchment area it is drawing on. Also, I hadn't realised the concrete wall at the bottom of the lock chambers was shaped to replicate a wooden gate. How could I miss that during my previous visits?

The Gospel Oak Branch from the Walsall Canal

The Bradley works have just installed a new gantry crane and cross cut saw which meant that all the finished gates had been moved outside and there wasn't a lot of work in progress to see. What I did see were the gates ready for filling to Ryders Green and Smethwick during the July stoppage plus a large set destines for the Staffs and Worcester this winter. Usually they are busy spraying the gates with water to prevent shrinkage, but at present nature is addressing this issue admirably.

The rain continued as re walked back to the Gospel Oak pub for a leisurely pint and then back down the Gospel Oak Branch to the mooring from which the flotilla will set out for Walsall. 

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Pop up trading opportunities

Pop up trading opportunities
June 2016

I seem to have stumbled across a new format for impromptu trading opportunities.

We usually have three formats for preserve trading on the boats :

1. The full blown stall trading from the butty under a gazebo as seen at canal festivals

2. Using a hanging rack off the hard section of the cratch on the butty (to be replicated by hanging shelves on the motor when I get round to making them).

3. Ad hoc sales as we mooch along prompted by the display boards having over the sheeting of the butty.

In recent weeks I have met up with the BCNS Explorer Cruises twice and because they have all heard about The Jam Butty and the foraged dimension to our products - they want to try them.

For a small group the full stall would be overkill but the other options dont really hit the spot. So, when we joined the May group for the loop through Walsall I set up the tasting boards on the roof of the butty and offered a dozen flavours for tasting. I was rather bowled over by the enthusiasm for the pop up event and was rushed of my feet satisfying orders from the boxes stored in the cabin.

The June cruise comprising 20 boats called at Longwood Boat Club last night and whilst I cant travel with them on this occasion, I was asked to pull the butty over the canal and set up shop in the jaws of the lock. The butty was duly poled over in the morning as the guests were arriving and I left a sign advertising a tasting session at 4.30. 

I had no idea how this would go but come the hour I put out the tasters and settled on the back cabin roof. Silly move - everyone came along and I didnt sit down again for an hour. As usual, the preserves were a big hit and there was the satisfying sight of lots of "Another jammy treat from Wild Side" bags wandering down the towpath.

I will catch up with the cruise again on Wednesday morning for the now traditional historical walk up the Bradley Locks Branch to the Bradley Works, and hopefully a swift pint in the Gospel Oak on the way back.

Sorry, no photos - I was too busy selling jam!

Monday, 13 June 2016

Progress on the Lichfield Canal

Progress on the Lichfield Canal
June 2016

Having been a member of the Lichfield and Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust for many years its horrifying that I have never actually visited the main base of operations on Tamworth Road where they have been working tirelessly to reinstate the Ogley Sixth Flight including locks 24 - 26 and prepare the ground for the staircase pair in Darnford Park replacing locks 27, 28 and 29 within a new diversion.

Lock 25 

I guess I spend too much time exploring lost canals and the active restorations fall somewhere outside my remit. I have explored the route down from Ogley Junction all the way to Lichfield, but I have never ventured east of Birmingham Road. Of course, I have followed progress with great interest via the internet based monthly update and the quarterly Cut Both Ways magazine - but none of this is good as planting ones size 11's on the ground.

Pound between Locks 25 and 26

Well, today I was passing and I actually needed a photo of the canal so I stopped and spent 15 mins having a look, and very impressed I was too. The chambers of locks 24, 25 and 26 are all restored. The pound between locks 25 and 26 is full of water (and weed) and the long pound below lock 26 is nearly waterproofed in concrete now the "Big Pipe" has finally been removed. This opens the way to some serious slabbing as far as the narrows beyond the new winding hole and then the last of the Big Pipe can be removed, the pound filled and the residue flowing out via an overflow pending the creation of a navigable route under the A51.

 Detail at Lock 25

I guess attention will then revert to the pound between locks 24 and 25 which appears complete save the removal of another section of the Big Pipe.

Downstream from Lock 26 - nearly ready for water

Not content with simple reinstatement, the volunteers have added decorative bridges and by washes, which will ensure the end result has character and retains the feel of a BCN canal. Of course, there is lots of activity elsewhere in the line, particularly overcoming the significant obstacles in its course, but it is so encouraging to see a credible length of canal being brought back into service.

Pound between Locks 24 and 25 waiting for the removal of the Big Pipe