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.

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