Tuesday, 9 October 2018

The last trip of the season

Hockley Port to Longwood
October 2018

It's a bitter sweet moment when you pick  up your boats knowing that the forthcoming trip will be the last of the season.

Hockley Port towards the site of the Soho Works

You will have gathered that this spring's blacking turned out to be something of a disaster so we reluctantly booked the motor in for some more treatment, this time at the dry dock in Hockley Port which happened to be free for the week following Parkhead.

One of the Hockley Port interchange basins

The motor was left high and dry on Monday and, with the water drained away, the extent of the damage was apparent. Huge swathes of blacking has come off and the decision to return it to dry dock was absolutely the right one. The butty was also left at Hockley Port, locked up on the visitor moorings. To be honest, I was more concerned about the butty than the motor but we returned to find it just as we had left it.

The dry dock was refilled on Friday morning and we took it in turns to winch up the guillotine gate, which was incredibly stiff. I settled my dues with Sherborne Wharf and took comfort from the positive comments made about the condition of the hull, which is nearing 20 years old. I was accompanied by Mr Whateley, my ever supportive relief crew member and having hooked the butty on the back we set off.

Entrance to Hockley Port

Hockley Port is one of those secretive little pockets of the BCN which I have only ever visited once before. Its off the little used Soho Loop and was originally the entrance to Matthew Bolton's Soho Works, manufacturers of many steam engines. The extension to the works at the end of the basin is long gone but the two broad railway transhipment arms have been cleaned out and now support a thriving residential boating community. Its the presence of the community that gives me pause for thought before entering through the low arch as it feels like an unnecessary intrusion unless visiting the dry dock. (£10 a foot for pressure washing and 3 coats of blacking).

Ryders Green Locks

We were soon back on the New Mainline and, with company on the back of the boat the miles flew past, we were soon at Pudding Green Junction, gateway to the northern reaches of the BCN. The canal immediately becomes narrow and weedy with offside vegitation nearly covering the channel. Then there is the murky entrance to the Wednesbury Old Canal (not a place to venture) before setting too on the eight locks of the Ryders Green Flight. Ray and Lesley on Morgana had been through just before us so it was no surprise to find them all empty. What we did notice was the large amount of debris which had been hauled from behind the lock gates. I later discovered that Raleigh has been through the day before and as an original BCN day boat with a beam of 7ft plus they had struggled, taking 2.5 hours over the last couple of locks. Their efforts were to our advantage and we were down by 4.00pm. 

The plan was to stop for the night at Ocker Hill, but as the evening was lovely and the forecast foul we decided to press on, eventually reaching the bottom of the Rushall Flight (aka The Ganzies) where we ran out of both light and water.

A rather dry bottom pound on the Rushall Flight

We know from long experience that the bottom pound is problematic and, as usual, it was completely empty with grass growing from the bed. The problem here is that all the pounds are short and getting enough water to make it up the next seven locks can be a long and tedious business of running water down. But we had a cunning plan which involved friends in high places. Martin was on his boat at Longwood Boat Club so he happily agreed to lift half a paddle in the evening and by first light at 7.00am I peered out of the window and sure enough, there was a flow on the canal and the by wash was bubbling away.

Loads of wet stuff after running half a paddle all night!

The temperature had also fallen to 6.5c and a steady rain has set in driven by a northerly wind, so we wrapped up well and set to work on the nine locks and three miles which separated us from home. With water running over all the weirs the canal was at maximum depth and we fairly flew up the hill, making light of the usually challenging mile pound. To be honest, the depth was so far up I was a bit worried about overtopping in places. 

And so we passed through Rushall Top Lock (aka The Moshes) and emptied the boats, shutting them down for the winter.

The boats may not be moving again before next April but that is far from the end of our canal interest. I have big plans to revisit the lost 60 miles as soon as the vegetation dies down, but more of that another time.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

High tailing it to Hockley

Back to Hockley Port
October 2018

You may remember that back in March we had the motor boat out of the water for its periodic underwater repaint (known as blacking). Well, on that occasion the Beast from the East Mk 2 hit us and after applying the first coat in a balmy 13 degrees the temperature plummeted to minus 7 overnight. The upshot of this was that the blacking  didn't cure or adhere to the metal, and by the time we got to Liverpool it was apparent that it was flaking off in sheets exposing the bare steel beneath.

Setting off at dawn

Bridge at Dudley Port Junction

I tried to persuade myself that it was all right really, but by the time we reached Leeds it was blatantly obvious that all was not well. We cant leave the steelwork exposed like that and I have neither this time nor the inclination to go through the process again, assuming I could find somewhere to get the boat out at  such short notice. I gave Sherborne Wharf a call to see if their dry dock at Hockley Port would be free in October and as luck would have it they had a slot free the week after Parkhead. Its not DIY, but at £10 a foot for three coats of bitumen its not a large premium, and it gets the job done before winter.

 Misty Island Line at dawn

Sunrise at Albion Junction

And so, having reached Tividale on the Birmingham side of the Netherton Tunnel it was just a matter of getting up at dawn and pressing on to Hockley Port in the Soho Loop. I was up by 6.00am and moving before the sun was over the horizon. 

 Misty past Chance's Glassworks

And looking back...

It was a blissful three hour trip during which I saw just two other boats, both people I knew making tracks from Parkhead. I have never travelled in this direction in the light of an early morning and I took the opportunity to get some unusually lit images of familiar structures.

Mirror calm at Smethwick Junction

Our travels will resume on Friday when Martin and I pick the boats up and bring than back to Longwood for the winter.

Twin arches at The Cape Arm

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Onwards to Parkhead

Parkhead Historic Boat Gathering 2018
September 2018


Whilst I was at the CRT meetings on Wednesday Helen was attending a routine hospital appointment and returned home for a couple of nights, leaving me to move the boats to Parkhead, ready for our last trading event of the season on The Jam Butty.

Parkhead 2018


I took the direct route down the New Main Line and soon passed a large group of volunteers clearing the toll island at the end of the Soho Loop, and was also overtaken by Bob on Bimble whohad been moored outside the Birmingham Arena for a few days.

Clearing the toll island

My approach to Smethwick Junction presented me with something of a first - I overtook another narrowboat! No, it wasn't moored, broken down or indeed moving in reverse. It was a bona fide boat which was travelling extremely slowly. Now its true I have overtaken boats whilst I have been towing before, but one was a narrowboat pulling a broken down 70 footer and the other was a pair of fully loaded coal boats. As most of you will know, my pace on the water will never trouble the speed limits, but at normal towing speed (probably 2.5 mph in this case) I inexorably caught up with this craft and in the end signaled I would pass. Of course, it turned out he was following the old line and I the new, so I could have bided my time had I known. Well, reports of the manouver gave the guys in the beer tent something to laugh about that evening!

Last outing for The Jam Butty this season

I made it through the Netherton Tunnel without a scrape but was thwarted in my efforts to refill with water at Bumblehole because someone has nicked the tap fitting. I pressed on down the Dudley No2 Canal and was caught by the Phillips on Aquarius as I passed the southern end of the Two Locks Line. With just under a mile to go to Blowers Green it was touch and go if I should try and let them past, but the canal in this area is very narrow and shallow and the likely end result would be us both stemming up (aground). They didn't press me so be crawled along and they finally overtook at the Pumphouse where I stopped to use a still serviceable tap. 

 Emu arrives passing Joey Boat No65

The three locks up to Parkhead Basin were well manned by volunteers and I simply managed the boats as the locks were worked around me. The harbour master was operating from the office at the bottom lock and I was advised that I would be mooring on the northern side of the Pensnett Arm.  Armed with this knowledge we decided to pull the boats back into the arm on ropes, later shuffling them about with the motor on the outside of the butty to maximise the bankside for the other trading boats.


Boats in every nook and cranny

It was great to catch up with Barry and Sandra on the Homebrew Boat and Friday night was spent at Ma Pardo's in Netherton to celebrate Sandra's birthday. 

Birthday celebrations with Barry and Sandra

The festival itself is a lovely affair, comprising a retro collection of historic boats, vintage cars / motorbikes, stationary engines and even  three local steam engines, plus of course a wide range of stalls, trade boats and the obligatory bar stocked with Ma Pardo's finest. The festival also showcases horse boating with demonstrations of a Joey Boat being hauled up the locks using all the pulleys and posts which adorned the lock flights in the area. All this against the backdrop of the splendid wooded basin which was restored in the 1990's.



Steam engines taking centre stage

On Saturday the sun shone and offered a warm and still day, but on Sunday a chill wind blew in and we were left in no doubt that autumn is upon us. Sadly, in spite of all it had to offer, the crowds didn't really materialise and the site lacked the bustle of previous years (it takes place every 2 years). One face in the crown I should have recognised was Fuzz from Car SOS. I met him on the bridge, recognised his face, exchanged greeting and figured he was a customer.... Dur.



Horse boating on the locks

Helen had arrived by car and we look the opportunity to get the first load of our stuff home on Sunday morning. I had a chilly afternoon on the stall with few customers and managed to have it all down and packed away by 5.00pm. The harbour master had a schedule of boats leaving and I was the last out at 5.30pm, following Kew which moored up at Bumblehole.

Steve Bingham's wheels

I needed to get to Hockley Port on Monday morning so pressed on in the gathering gloom, negotiating my way across Bumblehole using my tunnel light and then into the two mile Netherton Tunnel. There is something a bit spooky about using these long tunnels at night, probably because you cant see the end and you don't really know where you are till you emerge. I timed my passage and Neterton seems to take a very consistent 45 mins when towing, which isn't too bad as the motor boat alone would still take 35 minutes.

I moored on the bollards just beyond Tividale Aqueduct, a regular stopping point and had an uninterrupted night.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

CRT Jottings - Annual Public Meeting in Birmingham

CRT Jottings
Annual Public Meeting in Birmingham
September 2018

CRT held its 6th Annual Public Meeting on the Austin Court theater on Wednesday 26th September , a stones throw from Old Turn Junction in central Birmingham. 

This public meeting, which would be referred to as an AGM is most other settings, is open to any and all interested parties and was led by Allan Leighton, the Chair of the Trust with Richard Parry (CEO) and his senior team providing a series of presentations to highlight the achievements and challenges over the last year. They also outlined the key elements in the plan for the year ahead. These presentations were followed by a Q&A session from the floor.

I can't hope to capture everything which was said, but here are the stand outs as I saw them:

Allan Leighton (Chair)
  • Income stands at £204.9m, an increase of 5% after allowing for exceptional  one off grant income received last year.
  • Volunteer activity grew to 600,000 hours 
  • Aim is to develop CRT from a National Asset to a National Treasure
  • Wider use of the waterways can make a real difference to national well being.
  • The heat of activities remains and will always remain navigation
  • The regions have been trimmed to 6, each with a director
  • A new brand identity has been delivered in line with new objectives
  • Asset quality continues to improve
  • Investment values have grown from £480m when the Trust began to £750m today
  • 225 Local adoptions are now operating 
Richard Parry (CEO) / Stuart Mills (Chief Investment Officer)
  • The Defra Grant represents 25% of income - assured for nearly 10 years
  • Investment income now generates £50m
  • The trust has been following a strategy to diversify investment away from its property bias.
  • Investment income has increased 40% in 6 years - beating market averages
  • Non property investment values were adversely impacted by exchange rates last year
  • Bond issue for £150m  concluded, releasing an extra £100m for investment and locking into a low 3% interest rate for 30 years.
  • Additional investment will generate a net £2m to £3m income pa.
  • BWML sale nearly complete.
  • Inclusion in Peoples Postcode Lottery as a preferred beneficiary has seen grant income increase from £3m to £6m.
  • There are now 27,000 active friends
  • Boat numbers are up 2%
John Horsfall (Head of Boating)
  • License review included 11,000 responses
  • London Boating strategy included 2,000 responses
  • Business licensing was automated
  • Evasion down to 3.1% - the lowest yet. Attributed to a focus to help people stay on the water rather than harder tactics.
  • 70% of boaters satisfied - below 72% target and slightly down from last year.
  • The licensing changes were explained
  • Caveat to look at high usage areas was flagged up, given the rapid growth of boat numbers in some locations.
Richard Parry

  • Key aim is to broaden the appeal of inland waterways
  • 250 miles have been awarded Green Flag status (K&A, Lancaster and Chesterfield)
  • Plans is to move this achievement to the urban areas where the benefits are greatest
  • CRT spends £150m pa on the network
  • Stoppage update: Middlewich  should open in December 18 and Marple in March 19.
  • Progress being made on the historic boat collection in Ellesmere
Julie Sharman (Chief Operating Officer)


  • Health and Safety has high priority with incidents monitored daily
  • Among staff there is typically one reportable incident per month which results in a 7 day absence.
  • 313 public incidents (not all are brought to CRT attention)
  • 9% relate to CRT asset deficiencies.
  • Fatalities are, sadly, fairly common but have declined from an average of 60 ish pa to 40 pa today.
  • Common reasons for public deaths are misadventure, alcohol and substance abuse.
Adam Comerford (National Hydrology Manager)
  • Illustrated the impacts of the recent low rainfall and the high temperatures
  • 10% of network impacted by closures or restrictions
  • 2018 will probably set a new benchmark for water shortages
Nicky Wakefield (Marketing)
  • Rebranding undertaken to reposition the Trust as a Waterways and Well being charity
  • New brand works better on digital platforms
  • Total cost was 0.1% of total income or about £200,000
  • £60k on logo, £50k on digital templates, £20k on signage, £30k on uniforms and £50k on launch events.
  • Initial results after 3 months - Awareness of CRT for those within 1km of waterway increased 47% to 55%, recall of message from signage up from 6% to 9%, website visits up by over 10%, propensity to pledge tangible support up from 2.1m to 2.8m.
  • These are very positive outcomes and will continue to be monitored closely.
Questions and Answers

These came thick and fast and the best I can do is summarise the key questions as I understood them, to give you a flavour of the subject matters:
  • Future funding plans / sources
  • Protection for vulnerable boat dwellers
  • Best practice sharing among regional boards
  • Cyclists and pace issues
  • Wide Boat licensing fee increases (including a petition)
  • Opportunities for CRT to influence beyond the canal corridor
  • Need to safeguard the  built canalside heritage
  • Facility issues including refuse collections
  • Leaving space for fishermen between moored boats
  • Pressures on shared  water space re non boaters (eg rowing)
  • Limitations in growth of residential moorings
  • Anticipated inclusions / exclusions in review of high usage areas
  • Tone of solicitor correspondence to vulnerable boaters
  • CRT involvement in Icknield Port Loop development (Birmingham)
I think that's about all I can remember - any errors or omissions are entirely my fault and can be attributed to advancing age and very bad handwriting.....

Braunston beckons

Braunston beckons
August 2018

We always knew that progress would slow when we reached the Grand Union and so it has turned out. We are dawdling along in the knowledge we have a whole month ahead of us before the Black Country Boating Festival so there is really no need to press ahead, covering in a week what could normally be covered in a couple of days.

 Junction cottage at Braunston


This means that for the first time this trip we are having to be mindful of the mooring restrictions.

Our first destination after Blisworth wasn't exactly challenging. The plan was to moor at Gayton Junction and both see the family, and offer a convenient point for Helen to get to London. In reality the plans changed and we moved on through Weedon, pausing to pick some plums along the way. We consulted the map and realised that the top of Long Buckby Locks was close to a railway which leads to Northampton, so we stopped there instead.

With Long Buckby Station being a couple of miles away we called a taxi (£10) and both went into Northampton. Helen prowled the charity shops in search of more material for her new Canal Boat column before heading off to London. I did the banking and legged it to get some jamming ingredients not readily available on the towpath. She went south and I went back north.

Lock keepers hovel

Instead of getting a taxi to the boat I thought I would walk, dragging the loaded trolley behind me. There was a bus stop but what are the chances of a rural bus arriving when you need it? Of course, I was hot and sweaty a mile down the road when a bus rolled past....

With Helen away I was left with some time on my hands. With jam stocks running low it seemed a good opportunity to do some making and ended up cooking some Sunshine Plum Jam (Yellow plums with orange), Mirabelle Plum Jam and Blueberry, Raspberry & Lavender.

Much as I like jam making I do like a bit of external diversion and spotted a couple dithering around off the water point. They were new to boating and couldn't work out how to get back to the junction. It had been suggested that they reverse back but with a short boat that was going to be difficult. So I eyed up the boat, and the canal, and figured it would probably wind. They eagerly accepted an offer of help and started the manouver - with me holding the bows. Now I always knew the turn would be tight and as the boat swung round my optimist drained away like a leaky lock. They got all the way round to 88 degrees when it stuck - at which point all the male boaters came out to have a laugh at my expense. After all, it was obvious from the start that the canal was not wide enough! But I had the last laugh. The boat was fitted with one of those lift up fenders at the stern and when I pulled it up it shortened the boat by 18 inches, and round it went. The mockers shuffled off without a sound.

The line of the old canal through the fields at Braunston

By the time Helen returned the jam was made, the boat was cleaned and we were ready to go to Braunston, just a few miles and a few locks to the west. With the locks completed we needed a mooring for the bank holiday weekend. Not always easy in this popular spot. We pulled up onto the disabled mooring and I walked ahead to suss out the options. It happened that a boater I had met previously was leaving the mooring just beyond the Gongoozlers Rest, so he waited in situ and obligingly moved off just as I arrived. That was us set for the weekend.

The weekend was rather wet which dampened the trading opportunities, but we left the sign out and the bell rang every now and again and we sold a surprising amount of preserve over the three days. The trading paid for a visit to Midland Chandlers to restock new filters for the engine and more crucially for the water filter, which was reduced to a mere dribble. The General Ecology filter is really effective but wow, the replacement cartridges are dear - £120 a pop and they last a season if you are lucky.

With the weekend over we moved the boats to just beyond the junction and picked up an Enterprise Van for a home visit, jam making extravaganza and chutney restocking exercise.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Doing the mainline old skool

Tipton to Birmingham
September 2018

You may remember that I had wanted to use the Old Main Line to get to Tipton last week, but was thwarted by the high winds.

Tividale

Well, after a weekend of rain Monday dawned with with a clear blue sky. So, with another trip into Birmingham ahead of me there was absolutely no reason not to follow the twisty Brindley route beck to town. 

Brades Hall Junction

We started with a quick trip to the service point at the Black Country Living Museum before heading south towards Tividale. One snag with the Old Main Line at this time of year is the weed. The water is amazingly clear but it does grow a lot of water lillies, and come September all their leaves fall off and contrive to wrap themselves around your propeller. Its never anything very serious and can be cleared with a blip of reverse, but you never quite manage to dislodge it all.

Start of the Oldbury Loop

The weed abated as we reached Tividale and crossed the tunnel arm on the aqueduct. Then is was Brades Hall Junction and on to the Oldbury Loop by pass, built long before the New main Line was constructed. 

Chemical Arm

I do find this route so much interesting that the newer canal below is, with twists and turns carrying you along and in no time we were at the Chemical Arm which is a lazy backwater populated by Mike Anson's two Joey Boats. 

Welcome to the M5

The M5 Oldbury Viaduct is undergoing major renovation and for the next couple of miles the concrete deck above our heads was covered in scaffolding, with whistles being blown to warn workers of our approach.


M5 reconstruction

The old canal twists and turns beneath the motorway, passing junctions to the Titford Canal and to the old locks of Spon Lane, which branch to the south and the north. Then the canal finally breaks free of the M5 and picks up the line of Smeaton's summit, a line which runs three locks lower than Brindleys original route over the hill at Smethwick. The canal narrows as it passes the old colliery coal chutes and then burrow through the relatively new Summit Tunnel, a concrete tube which mirrors the Galton Tunnel on the NML below.


Urban boating

Then it is on past the imposing Smethwick Pumping station and the narrow opening to the Engine Arm to the top of the three Smethwick locks. The top of the locks is marked by a replica Toll House, but sadly it is a favoured target for local arsonists, and once again it is standing a forlorn and a burnt out shell. The locks at Smethwick used to be duplicated to come with demand, with the original northerly chambers being buried long ago. I had, until recently, assumed that the paired locks all fed into common pounds as seen on the Trent and Mersey, but I recently saw some old photos which show two separate sets of pounds. The bottom exit can still be seen in the shape of a twin bricked up archway in the road bridge.





We were followed down the locks by two local boats and they seemed very chilled to let us progress at our pace and made no attempt to catch us up. We later learned that this was due to a snag with a submerged fender in the bottom lock. For our part we picked up a sheet of polythene in the Summit Tunnel which proved a hindrance till we did a weed hatch visit in the bottom lock.



Having arrived at Smethwick Junction it was simply a matter of ticking off the loops as we passed them: Avery, Cape, Soho, Icknield Port and Oozells St, letting our friends on Mugs Afloat pass mid way down the final straight. Whilst we may be a bit slow it always surprises me how slowly other boats pull away ahead, which probably explains why so few boats need to pass!



We arrived in central Birmingham to find about four moorings, but within 30 minutes they had all been filled and the rest of the afternoon saw several boats chugging to and fro looking for somewhere to stop. Perhaps part of the reason for all this busyness is CRT's Annual Public Meeting which is taking place in Austin Court in Wednesday, followed by the National Council meeting in the afternoon. There certainly seem to be a huge number of familiar faces round here at the moment.

Monday, 24 September 2018

Tipton Canal Festival 2018

Tipton Canal Festival 2018
September 2018

If you ask people to name the canal centre of England they are likely to reply Birmingham. Not a bad reply, but as it happens, quite wrong. Tipton is, without doubt, the epicentre of the canal network. A rain drop falling into the canal in Tipton can find its way to the sea by travelling north, south east or west and truth be told there were plenty of drops available this weekend to test the theory.


Tardebigge and Bittel

Tipton's festival falls conveniently between the Black Country Boating Festival last weekend and the end of season Historic Boat Gathering at Parkhead next weekend, so a number of traders are covering all three and becoming very familiar with the Netherton Tunnel in the process.





Trading in the rain

Tipton lies at the heart of the Black Country and I think its fair to say that it is something of an urban village, with a strong sense of its identity. They welcome strangers with a surprising openness, but I suspect you have to live there a lifetime to be considered a true Tiptonian (or is that a Tiptonite?).




We arrived in the wind on Wednesday and hunkered down to see out the rain on Thursday, at the same time taking the opportunity to catch up with some friends who moved to the village a year ago as Curate.We emerged with the sun on Friday afternoon to get the stall set up ready for the weekend, the forecast suggesting a fair day on Saturday and non stop rain on Sunday. 

Better weather on Sunday

As it turned out the Met Office got it completely wrong and no sooner had we erected the gazebo on Saturday morning than the rain blew in and before we knew it we had three sides around us and the rain was lashing down. We don't like putting the sides on the gazebo because it wrecks the look of the butty and cuts us off from the crowds, but without them we would not have been able to trade at all. We were surprised how many people braved the elements and whilst the day set no records in terms of sales, we had 2/3 of an average day. Some of the other stallholders hung in there to the end, but by 3.00pm there was a queue of cards trying to get out of Coronation Gardens.



A clutch of Black Country regulars

Sunday, which was supposed to be wall to wall rain, turned out to be mostly dry, but with a sharp northerly wind which prevented the temperatures rising out of single figures. The long hot summer is just a distant memory and the sad reality is that with the autumn equinox upon us we have started the relentless slide into winter. 

We were slightly surprised to see Santa's sleigh wheeled out for the occasion, but then its presence was supplemented by the rocking pirate ship and swing roundabout both of which dispensed large amounts of bubble snow to enhance the festive feel.


Christmas comes early in Tipton


As is so often the case, Sunday brought larger crowds but they were here to look and browse rather than buy.

Smiling in the rain

But we don't simply judge and event of sales. We also take into account the ambiance and whilst the organisation of the event was a bit here and there, the village carnival feel was positively lovely and is one we would like to include in future years plans.