Monday 26 August 2013

Ghost Canals of the BCN - Pensnett and Fens Branches

Walks around the forgotten corners of the BCN
Pensnett and Fens Branches 
August 2013

I know, I know, The Fens Branch is no more the BCN than the Stourbridge Canal. But for my money it shares the same DNA, It looks like BCN, smells like BCN - so as it offers an interesting addition to the Pensnett walk it is carrying honorary membership, if only for the duration of this article.

Grab your boots, a copy of Richard Deans "Canals of Birmingham", a fistful of Godfrey Edition maps and a modern A-Z  and get out there. Don't forget tour camera as this walk offers some areas of surprising beauty.

This walk was first published in the June 2013 edition of the BCN Society's magazine "Boundary Post".

For those less familiar with the Pensnett canal, it continues on from the western end of the Dudley Tunnel at Parkhead.

This time we will be visiting the “back of the map”- the area to the west of the Dudley / Netherton tunnels.  The walk will take us from Parkhead along the line of the Pensnett Canal then down the hill to the Fens Branch before returning via Merry Hill, taking in the old line of the Delph Locks as we pass, a distance of about six miles but with scope for some short cuts to reduce the distance if so desired.

Irritatingly, a pesky new-fangled railway contraption gets in the way of a pure circular walk, cutting a path right across my preferred route! So I will assume that you are visiting by car and suggest a couple of short spot visits along the line of the Pensnett Canal before we get to the walk proper.

Park Head
Park Head Basin marks the start of the Earl of Dudley’s 1840 1.25 mile lockless Pensnett Canal, leaving in a southerly direction on the 473 ft Wolverhampton Level. Today it is limited to a short arm which goes under a bridge before coming to an abrupt end under the arches of an abandoned railway viaduct.

This is a fascinating area and will be familiar to many readers, with the stub of the Grazebrook Arm, the three little used Park Head Locks and the western portal of the Dudley Tunnel all readily available for exploration.

Beyond the viaduct the line of the canal has been lost but with a bit of imagination it’s easy to see that Crackley Way has been built along its contour.

A4036 Pedmore Road Area
Drive down Peartree Lane and take the second on the right after Crackley Way and you will find a short cul de sac with a footpath exiting to the left at the far end. This, believe it or not, it the old towpath which manages to squeeze between huge engineering works and finally emerges onto Pedmore Road, with the canal bed reused as a hugely polluted cooling pond, its water slimy and stinking with industrial oils.

Cross Pedmore Road and the line of the canal continues through the grounds of C Brown and Sons, Steel Stockholders. My suggestion would be to visit this area early on a Sunday morning when the place is deserted and you can follow the reeded up bed of the canal for a quarter of a mile, but at any other time you will be limited to the what you can see from the road.

Sadly, it’s here that the railway cuts across the area with no crossings and there is no alternative but to retrace your steps to your car and drive round to the main part of the walk.

Fens Pools
It is fitting to start this walk from Canal Street, off to the south of the A461 Dudley Road. This really is a road to nowhere, diving into a post-industrial wasteland fringed with barbed wire fencing, salvage yards and howling guard dogs. Again, it’s a place best visited on a Sunday, but at the far end the canal still exists filled with water, reflections of industrial decay reflected in its reed fringed margins.

And now it’s time for a change of pace. Leaving all the old industry behind, the Wallows Wharf terminus of the Pensnett Canal  lies beneath Fens Pool Avenue, a hive of wharves and railway sidings till its closure in 1940. But all that has gone and the next stage of this walk is to follow the line of Dudley’s mineral railway down Fens Pool Avenue and through a narrow path which exits 2/3rds of the way along on the right, taking you into the spectacular and under-appreciated Fens Pools Nature Reserve. These three pools were all old clay pits but nature has softened the scars and the railway embankment offers a superb vantage point to watch the birds wheel to and fro over the open expanses of water.

But all this nature is skin deep. Scout around in the undergrowth and you will find old railway wheels embedded in solidified pools of iron, but in contrast you will also find an incongruous area of ancient ridge and furrow field which somehow escaped the industrial turmoil of the last 250 years.

Follow the tramway between Fens Pool and Middle Pool and circle round the northern end of Middle Pool. Then it’s back across the dam at the western end of Middle Pool and you will find the tree fringed terminus basin of the Fens Branch, with Grove Pool immediately to the north.
From here there is a good walking along the towpath, with the canal bed in water and very attractive, crossing Pensnett Road and Cressett Avenue to reach the current limit of the navigable waterway and the junction with the Stourbridge Extension Canal.

From here you could simply retrace your steps back through the Fens Pools Nature Reserve, circling round the other side of the lakes or you can continue on for 2.5 miles along the Stourbridge Canal which will bring you to the foot of the eight locks of the Delph Flight. With water cascading down the waterfalls on a sunny day, this has to be one of the most impressive flight of locks anywhere. But there is more to this flight than meets the eye. The top and bottom chambers are the originals from 1770 but the intervening seven locks were reduced to six when they were realigned and rebuilt in 1858. The old course of the “nine locks” looped to the south, loosely following the road “The Goss” and up into the trees behind the stable block where the old line of the canal is in water as a short branch.

Then it’s just over a half mile walk along the towpath to the Merry Hill shopping centre, itself on a very modern canal diversion and then and on to the Waterfront, a short walk to the A461 Dudley Road and back to your car at Canal Street.

1 comment:

Halfie said...

Thanks Andy. I've just followed this using Bing Maps. It's handy being able to switch the labels, i.e. road names, off and on.