Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Oldbury Loop rediscovered - BCN

Oldbury Loop Walk
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.

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