Black Country Boating Festival 2016
The Black Country seems to specialise in great place names : Lower Gornal, New Invention or Black Delph. But there is one which is especially lovely: Bumblehole.
Leaving Pelsall Common at first light
Now I do appreciate that there is a Bumblehole on the Staffs and Worcester, but the one I am thinking of is at Windmill End (another place name to savour) which is in a country park near Netherton at the western end of the Netherton Tunnel. Bumblehole inspires images of bees buzzing to and from heads of honeysuckle of a balmy summers day. In truth its a huge local nature reserve which has grown up over an industrial site which was of epic proportions.
The decades have softened the shattered landscape and even the brutally named Dudley Number Two Canal has mellowed as it weaves its way through the site, along with its numerous canal arms and loading basins. The end result is something a bit special, with the eastern horizon framed by Portway Hill and the gaunt remains of Cobbs Mill, with its leaning chimney.
OK, so that's enough of me going all misty eyed about the site! It also hosts the amazing annual Black Counter Boating Festival on the first weekend in September, this time celebrating 31 consecutive years. We are relative newcomers but this September was our fifth as a trade boat, always occupying the same spot just outside the visitor centre. Over that time our offering has grown from a tentative table on the back of Wand'ring Bark to the more extensive Jam Butty, but this year was a bit different. Whilst the boats and the produce were the same, this year I traded without Helen who was at home cared for by her mother as the comes to an end of a course of chemotherapy. Instead, I was accompanied and supported by my friend Dave, who whilst he has Helen's height, lacks her legs!
The limitations of the Chemo has meant that our travels have been much curtailed and we limited our trading to the few events we could reach from our Aldridge base, and which also fitted in with her relatively "good" weeks in the treatment cycle. This limited schedule has seen the boats limited to the BCN and have been just enough to turn the stock over and replenish it ready for next year when we will have another bash at reaching London.
Attending the festival meant nearly a week out on the boats and the outward journey was achieved in a serene manner, spending the first night at Pelsall Commen which we left at first light on the Thursday. Towing the butty does slow us down a bit but we reached Horsleyfields Junction six hours later and then arrived at the festival site after another four hours cruising, including a detour via The Brades as Factory Locks were being repaired.
The festival saw persistent drizzle on the Saturday which dampened attendance, but such is our loyal clientele our takings were average for a festival day, even if they were only 50% of last years record breaking tally, which was achieved with a full spread of stock in glorious sunshine.
Saturday night is usually spent in the Beer Tent and this year the main band were The Reflections, a hugely engaging cover band which we (the Roving Traders) have met elsewhere and love. They play an up tempo set of material from the 1960's to the 1990's with bags of enthusiasm and great skill. Their material begs to be danced to and it was great to see just about all the traders up and bopping for the second set.
Sunday was clear and bright, making up for the dull Saturday. The crowds flocked in and trade was brisk, keeping Dave and myself busy replenishing the stall and swapping jars of preserves for tenners! The day was a blur of familiar faces but being without Helen meant I had very little time to chat - sorry if I didn't give you a lot of time!
The Roving Traders strut their stuff
And so dawn broke on Monday morning to see us winding the boats in the Bumblehole Arm and setting out for the Wyrley and Essington Canal, with the Cheese Boat hard on our heels through Netherton Tunnel. Our objective was to reach Pelsall but along the way we paused in Wednesbury where we had seen some Damson trees on the offside which gave us 9 kilos in about 20 minutes - enough for several batches of Damson Chutney and the ever popular Damson, Ginger and Tea Jam.
Dave helps with the foraging
Our only hiccup along the way was the acquisition of a nylon carpet on the prop in Harden. Its a situation we dread but I am glad to say its becoming much rarer. In the event it wasn't too badly wound on and a serrated knife saw it released within 15 minutes. The muddy fabric was hauled onto the bows of the butty and duly deposited in the skip at Sneyd.
As usual, we had the 30 miles of the W&E to ourselves and we navigated that final fours hours home from Pelsall under a roasting sun, spotting fish flitting in and out of the weeds beneath us.
I guess my thanks go to my mother in law for looking after Helen and Dave for offering help, support and endless cups of tea. Without the pair of them the trip would never have been possible.