Saturday, 18 May 2019

Brownhills Canal Festival 2019

Brownhills Canal Festival
May 2019

Brownhills is an old ex mining town which sits on the A5 near Cannock and crucially, sits next the Wyrley and Essington Canal on the extreme northern edge of the Birmingham Canal Navigations. It also happens so be about three miles from our home in Aldridge, so its a place we know well.


The canal at Silver Street, Brownhills

Given its status of "capital of the Northern Reaches" it periodically hosts canal events, and this year the Birmingham Canal Navigations Society (BCNS) decided to hold a rally in the extensive moorings in the centre of town. Now this has to be one of the more tricky locations to reach, taking either one day through loads of locks of nearly two days on the flat via Wolverhampton, so no one was sure how many boats would make the long trek. 


Working Boats and Day Boats (Joeys)

Brownhills has historically held a one day canal side event each year, but the organisers ran out of steam a few years ago. One year the Historic Boat Club held an easter rally here, but last year was fallow and the broad expanse of water beside Silver Street saw few visitors.

Skippers polish their boats for the crowds

In the event nearly 40 visiting boats arrived plus a clutch of historic boats and unpowered day boats, plus four trade boats. Against this backdrop the land based pitches were sold out months ago and the organisers crossed their fingers that crowds would turn out to see the spectacle.

Visiting boats line all the towpath

The good people of Brownhills love their canal and there is nothing they like better than to see it jam packed with boats. As the visiting boats trickled in on Thursday and Friday more and more locals came to the waterfront with their cameras to stand and watch as boat after boat chugged up and found somewhere to moor. This trickle turned into something of a flood on Saturday with the towpath thronging with visitors, Phoenix, the BCNS work / trip boat full to the limit on each of its short runs up and down the waterfront and even the ever hungry armada of Canada Geese retired, sated by an onslaught of duck food offered by enthusiastic children.

  Governor looking splendid

And Morgana putting on her best face for the event

The site does have one disadvantage, a lack of space for a marquee and bar. But on the flip side, there is a large community centre a few hundred yards away, so entertainment and lubrication is offered just off site.

... and these guys are there selling their preserves

The event runs for two days so if you missed the Saturday jollifications there is still time to pop along on Sunday.


Saturday, 20 April 2019

Wrapping up series two of Canal Hunter

Wrapping up series two of Canal Hunter
April 2019

For the readers who don't subscribe to Canal Hunter on YouTube, but like to follow my exploration of lost canals, here are all the links to the second series.




The second series follows the extended Birmingham Canal out to Wolverhampton and the Staffs and Worcester Canal at Aldersley, exploring the lost sections which attach to it.

1. Titford branches including Tat Bank, Causeway Green and Portway Branches.

2. Oldbury Loop plus the Chemical Arm and Rattlechain Lagoon

3. Toll End Communication Canal and the Haines Branch

4. Wednesbury Oak Loop to Bradley

5. Bradley Locks and Gospel Oak Branches

6. Basins of Wolverhampton

7. Around the Wolverhampton 21 Locks\

Whilst not on the BCN, I also made a short video in Manchester looking for the Manchester and Salford Junction Canal

With the trees coming back into leaf and the undergrowth obscuring the remains on the ground, that brings my hunt for lost canals to an end for the season. However, I suspect that my enthusiasm for canal linked history will result in a few more videos over the summer! 

Happy Hunting.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

Chillington Wharf - a backstage pass

Chillington Interchange Basin Wolverhampton
April 2019


As part of my Canal Hunter video series I was given a supervised visit to Chillington Wharf by kind permission of the owners, DB Cargo (UK) Ltd. 





This is, to the best of my knowledge, the best preserved interchange basin on the BCN, It comes complete with its canopy and loading crane.







If you have ever passed on the Main Line Canal you will have probably glimpsed it and wondered what is behind the barbed wire. Well, here are some high resolution photos which you may find interesting.






The black and white image was taken in about 1990.



There used to be a second arm to the basin, but this was demolished and was replaced by the iconic crane structure and its overhead rails.







I picked up a lot of video footage as well which I will include in the next Canal Hunter episode, but given the significance of the site I thought you may like to linger over the photos at your leisure.







Please be aware that this site is part of a working rail / road interchange and is surrounded by barbed wire for good reason!



Friday, 22 March 2019

CRT Jottings - National Council March 2019

CRT Jottings - National Council March 2019
Manchester
20 March 2019

The reach of this blog is very variable, but a quick look at the stats suggest that about 2,000 people read my commentary from CRT's Annual Public Meeting in September - so it clearly has its place.

CRT National Council and Trustees inspect the Rochdale 9

Pre meeting field visit - Rochdale 9
CRT's National Council meets twice a year, once immediately after the September Annual Public Meeting and again in March in various locations around the country. This rotating approach allows the various Council members and Trustees to see a different dimension of the Trust's operations, and helps "ground" the subsequent discussions in reality.

This week we met in Manchester's Bridgewater Hall and this provided an opportunity to see the lower section of the Rochdale 9 (locks, not prisoners). The reason this section was selected is because it is a largely ignored length which CRT is planning to submit for a Green Flag award. Now CRT has obtained Green Flag status in several other areas, but to date these have tended to be in "pretty" locations - not gritty inner city.

So, this is a pretty ballsy move. The Green Flag team have seen what is there and whilst they say it is a challenging location, it's not impossible. CRT's desire is to prove that if they can breathe life into the urban canyon in Manchester, they can do it anywhere. Well, they are starting from a pretty low point with slippery towpaths, graffiti covered walls and piles of excrement (canine and human). But, they have bravely nailed their cleaner, greener, safer colours to the proverbial mast and I look forward to seeing this largely overlooked historical gem take a more central place in Manchester's city centre.

My place on the National Council - elections
As to the National Council - I am an elected member representing Boating Businesses and the four year term in office is coming to an end. I therefore have a decision to make - to stand for re-election or not. I have found that it takes 18 to 24 months to get a grip on how the Trust works and who does what, so I feel that I have been at my most effective in the last two years. It therefore seems a shame to dip out now and, with your support, I plan to stand for a further four years. 

I think that the elections will be held at the back end of this year preceded by nominations and canvassing, but I thought it would be helpful to let you know what my plans are and to let you button hole me when you see The Jam Butty out and about this summer. It has been both a pleasure and an honour to serve on the Council ensuring that boaters (business and pleasure) views are heard to ensure that my favourite playground continues to thrive and survive in the decades to come.

The National Council meeting
I can't pretend that these jottings represent comprehensive minutes, but they do try and capture my take on the more significant things discussed, and hopefully provide an insight into how your Trust operates.

The Appointments Committee provided a report of work undertaken reviewing the make up of the Council observing that from a start point of 32 members it grew to 34 and then largely due to the reduction on regional chairs, the number has now fallen to 29 (compared to a constitutional max of 50).

The plan is to expand the Council back to 34 for 2020 including representatives for Friends, an extra Boating representative (exact constituency to be decided), Wellbeing expert, an additional Youth representative and a second Volunteer.

These changes are subject to formal amendment of the Trust's rules. 

A general discussion took place highlighting possible stakeholders which are not currently represented, and which may benefit form inclusion in an expanded Council in the future.

Improved Trustee rotation periods discussed at the last Council were ratified.

Chief Executive's update
This is always a key element of the Council meeting when Richard Parry presents an update on the good, the bad and the ugly within the Trust. Facts come thick and fast but these were the key take aways from my perspective:

  • Income was down fractionally but costs were controlled and overall break even was achieved.
  • 4/5 Key performance indicators had been missed and in particular the reportable incidents (accidents) and unplanned navigation closures had exceeded plan.
Specific reference was made to two inquest outcomes for deaths in Manchester and at Pontcysylte, with the actions being considered to address the underlying risks.

Delays in the reopening the locks at Marple were highlighted with a scheduled end date in May with £1m committed to what has been a very difficult site. Burnley embankment and the blown cill at Gloucester were also flagged up.

Restoration activity was covered, in particular the work on the Grantham and Montgomery canals, helped by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Towpath enhancements have been underway in many locations including a significant bridge widening in Birmingham. The impact of these enhancements have been an almost instant increase in user numbers.

The Trust now has just 6 regions and all the regional chairs are in place. A filmed extract from the Regional AGM in Birmingham was shown to demonstrate the impact these regions can have on local stakeholders and political influencers.

The future Green Flag location aspirations were highlighted including Lower Peak Forest, Erewash, Sheffield /Tinsley and Lee/ Hanwell. As I said before - some challenging objectives in there!

Canals will feature strongly in this years Chelsea Flower Festival and Gardners World.

The strong growth in Volunteers was supported by the "Join the Daves" video. Did you know that 15% of Lock Keepers are called Dave......?

An expanded approach to Supporters was presented which includes Facebook and Twitter engagement. After the data protection changes the numbers on the e-mail list reduced to 49,000, but has since bounced back to 94,000 in Feb 2019.

Investment portfolio was covered briefly with photos of the new Investment and Joint Venture buildings in which the Trust has an interest.

Income generation activities underway include the re pricing of some London Moorings, the push to have more Hydro schemes agreed and a long running dispute with Thames water nearing resolution.

The plan for the next year is to see income rise to £218m, costs of £215m and an operating surplus of £3 as a buffer for the future.

The Key Performance Indicators are under review by the Board to ensure they focus on user satisfaction.

The transfer of EA navigations has been the subject of a further tender but the sticking point remains the major flood prevention structures. An outcome is awaited but any change at this stage is considered unlikely.

Complaints Process / Ombudsman - topical information feature


John Horsfall (HO Customer Service Support)  and Simon Woods walked the Council through the complaints process against the following context:

4m visits per fortnight
80k anglers of with 10k are regulars
34k leisure boats and 1k business boats delivering £13m of income.
Visitor satisfaction stands at 90%

The complaints process covers all the above and the numbers are:

Level 0 - solved a first contact .     1456
Level 1 - solved by senior manager .    645
Level 2 - solved independent senior manager   97

Ombudsman had 9 cases opened with 8 not upheld and 1 upheld.
The role of Ombudsman is to be an independent and impartial means of settling disputes outside the courts. The Ombudsman committee comprises 5 members of which the majority are independent and they review 14 to 17 cases per year.

Andrew Walker (current Ombudsman) is standing down and will be replaced by Sarah Daniel.

Sharing the Towpath discussion 

This was an interactive group discussion which forms part of the Council meeting. 
The action taken to date by CRT was covered by the Chief Operating Officer followed by short presentations from the perspective of residential boaters, Anglers and Ramblers. 
The various issues, conflicts and options in this contentious area were discussed in small groups and the key observations collated for future consideration within the Trust.

Please feel free to share these notes around.

Monday, 18 March 2019

Mega Tunnels 5 - Dudley


Mega Tunnels 5. Dudley Tunnel
March 2019

Staying with the Birmingham Canal Navigations we come to number five in the shape of the 3,172 yard Dudley Tunnel. This comprises three sections: Main tunnel (2,942 yards), Lord Wards (196 yards) and Castle Mill Basin (34 yards).


By 1778 the first section from Lord Wards Canal at the Tipton end had reached the thin bed limestone which was being loaded directly into boats at what is now Shirt Mills Basin. This was later extended to the thick bed limestone at Castle Mill Basin. The Tipton portal was rebuilt in the 1840’s but part of the original sandstone structure can still be seen to the left.
With the completion of the Dudley Canal to the west it was soon apparent that there would be great benefit in linking this to the Birmingham Canal and construction progressed in fits and starts for a period of seven years from 1786, its owners working through a succession of engineers and contractors.

The Birmingham Canal, was always paranoid about potential loss of its water, insisted on a stop lock in the tunnel at Castle Mill. The Dudley Canal was therefore held at a slightly higher level than the Wolverhampton Level till the canal companies were merged in 1846, after which the stop lock was removed. For the intervening years the Dudley Canal had to identify a water source to feed the tunnel pound. A reservoir was built about a mile away at Gadds Green, just above today’s Netherton Tunnel entrance, and the water fed in through the Grazebrook Arm.

In addition to the main tunnel a further 1,227 yard branch tunnel was dug to connect Castle Mill Basin to two further underground basins for limestone extraction.
The southern end of the tunnel has always suffered from subsidence, largely attributable to coal mining beneath its bed. Issues were reported in 1798 and this eventually resulted in a section being rebuilt in 1884.

Like the Lapal to the south, the narrow Dudley Tunnel became increasingly popular and resulted in severe congestion. By 1836 plans were being made to build an additional tunnel at Netherton.
The Dudley Tunnel closed in 1962 but was restored and reopened in 1973 following extensive work by the Dudley Canal Trust and Dudley Council. Two new tunnels were built in 1989 to offer a unique visitor attraction taking passengers on a circular trip back to the Jurassic period when the Oolitic limestone beds were laid down.

A through passage is still technically possible for craft with very low air draft, but with very poor ventilation no diesel engines are allowed. Effectively this involves a tow by an electric tug or a long spell of legging. Today most visits to the tunnel are on the Dudley Canal Trust’s electrically powered trip boats.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Mega canal tunnels 4 - Lapal


4. Lapal (or Lappal) Tunnel
The 3,795 yard Lapal Tunnel was built as part of Dudley No2 Canal in 1798, connecting the industrial area around Dudley with the Worcester Birmingham Canal without crossing the waters of the neighbouring Birmingham Canal Navigations.
Western Portal - now buried
This tunnel was built to minimalist proportions offering a very tight seven feet nine inches at the waterline and six feet of headroom. This confined channel resulted in slow passages and transit by legging or poling took up to three hours.
California Portal
During its construction its brick lining was supplied by the ill-fated Lapal Brick Tunnel Company of California, near the southern portal and owned by one John Garlick.  He installed various brick making machines, but none would work satisfactorily. Being a very impulsive and quick tempered man he became enraged at the constant failure to get good results and one Sunday morning he was found attacking a recently installed machine with a sledge hammer, breaking it to pieces. Shades of Basil Fawlty come to mind and unsurprisingly his limited company failed within a year and Garlick was declared bankrupt.

In an attempt to address the slow speed of passage caused by the narrow dimensions an innovative steam engine and scoop wheel was introduced in 1841 at the Halesowen end along with stop gates. This allowed the owners to alter water levels at either end and help flush boats through.
 Exploring the Lapal collapse

Following extensive mining subsidence a number of collapses occurred and the tunnel was finally closed in 1917. Whilst the Lapal is lost, its dimensions are mirrored in the much shorter 563 yard Gosty Hill Tunnel, also on the Dudley No2 Canal. Progress through its restricted channel is nothing short of glacial, especially when towing, and provides an interesting insight into the frustrations of passing the much longer Lapal Tunnel a few miles to the south.
Today the Lapal tunnel remains collapsed in several locations, its portals covered over and is bisected by an M5 cutting, with no prospect of reopening.  However, restoration plans are in hand for the Dudley No2, but this time using a flight of locks supported by back pumps.
All photos are sourced from the internet