Tuesday 22 May 2007

BCN North - Tipton to Autherley

Tipton to Autherley Junction Day 3
The last day and a late start at 8.30 (I have a crew that cant sleep). The trip via the Coseley tunnel passes through a post industrial wasteland made good by covering of mature trees. It is getting hard to remember what this area looked like in the 1960’s when I started travelling through it. But the trip had one last surprise in store for the arm baggers: The Wednesbury Oak Loop.
This is a two mile arm which is maintained to provide access to the BW works at Bradley and couldn’t be missed. It won’t win any beauty prizes but you should get an award if you manage to reach the winding hole at the end. The main historical interest is the abandoned works half way along. There aren’t many of these sites left and this one looks like it isn’t long for this world. Don’t go this way unless you are happy to get up close and personal with your weedhatch. This stretch gets progressively more silted, bag infested and weedy as you go. Even in May, weed covered the entire width of the canal and forced prop cleaning trips every 400 yards. Our arrival at the Bradley works resulted in a mass welcome from the staff, who emerged from their workshops to witness the rare arrival of two weed spattered but happy boaters.

After all the excitement of the remaindered canals the final run back to Wolverhampton was very straightforward and uneventful. Our ambition to beat our previous time through the Wolverhampton 21 was foiled by the number of other boats going our way. Well actually there were two but that seemed like a lot after the previous days of isolation.
The final tally:

3 days
76 locks
70 miles
14 arms
2 mattresses
10 trips down the weedhatch
2 instances of minor “inbound”
42 hours of glorious sunshine
3 happy boaters

Monday 21 May 2007

BCN North - Brownhills to Tipton

Brownhills to the Black Country Museum Day 2
Another big day so up with the larks and through an interesting mix of industry and suburbia on the Daw (pronounced Doe) End Branch Canal, through Walsall Wood to Aldridge. The canal around Walsall Wood has subsided over the years due to mining and been progressively raised on embankments resulting in a water depth of about 10 feet!
Longwood branch offered another short stub for the collection, but the following water free pound was our first big obstacle. The 40 minutes it took to fill the pound to a navigable depth gave an opportunity to cook up another blowout breakfast.
The Daw End seamlessly morphs into the Rushall Canal passing through parks, wild woodland and golf courses, tumbling down 11 little used locks. We came across another empty pound and amazingly an Australian BW lengthsman who provided an assisted passage all the way to the M6 and Rushall Junction. He told us that less than two boats pass this way in a typical week seemed genuinely saddened that we were not going down the Perry Barr flight, which are his favourite. Instead we turned right onto the Tame Valley Canal, a windswept and wild “cut and fill” waterway which was built as a bypass for the overcrowded Birmingham Mainline.
There was no pressure of traffic during our passage, just another mattress round the prop but that’s par for the course in these backwaters.

A lovely surprise awaits as you turn onto the Walsall Canal and arrive at Ryders Green locks. A dead straight flight 8 of well spaces and well maintained locks making a triumphal entry up to the Main Line. But I am jumping ahead. As dedicated arm baggers we couldn’t miss Swan Arm, obscure by even BCN standards – and shallow too. It’s barely navigable with reeds reducing the channel to 7 feet in places and so shallow we made less that 1 mph. If you do venture here expect shouts of warning from local factory workers assuming you have lost your way. But don’t stop, there’s an all day pub opposite the final winding hole and whilst it lacks character, its beer is cold and refreshing.

It was as we joined the Main Line at Spon Lane that we finally met another moving boat – our first in two days travelling. Our sudden appearance from the Wednesbury Old Canal took them by surprise and, when apologising for being on the wrong side of the canal, they explained that they hadn’t seen any other boats for the last 24 hours.

At this point you could make a mad dash down the new main line, reaching the Black Country Museum moorings in an hour or so. But that would result in a missed opportunity to “bag” the Titford Canal, which rises a further 38 feet from Brindley’s winding Old main Line to the highest point on the BCN. This is usually the preserve if the enthusiastic die-hards and the Birmingham Canal Navigation Society have their headquarters in the beautifully restored Pumphouse, adjacent to the top lock. By all means go to the end of the canal but no matter how enticing the pools look, don’t be tempted to go into them. Whilst they once played host to an IWA National Festival, silt from the M6 has reduced them to shallow lagoons which regularly trap unwary boaters.
One of the snags of the BCN is a lack of safe moorings. If you find yourself in this area the stub of the Union Arm remains in water and secure moorings can be found alongside the pumphouse, and another arm to add to the list.

Our final run of the day was along the tree lined Old Main Line into Tipton and the secure Black Country Museum moorings. This is, without question, my favourite place to stop on the BCN. If you have time to spare take a trip round the living museum – it’s fascinating and provides a great insight into life in the Black Country when the canals were in their heyday. There is the added bonus of a trip through the Dudley Tunnel. Height restrictions mean that this probably wont be in your own boat (which would have to be towed by a tug in any case) but the Dudley Canal Trust run guided tours into the tunnel and caves, which well worth a look.
A full range of BW facilities are available here, including toilet, shower and even a DIY pumpout.
For food you have the option of a range of take-aways nearby, but my vote goes to Mad O’Rourkes Pie Factory. It’s a 10 minute walk into Tipton but is well worth the effort. My tip – try the Cow Pie!

Sunday 20 May 2007

BCN North - Autherley to Angelsey Basin

Index to this series of posts:
1. - Autherley to Angelsey Basin (Brownhills) - this post
2. - Brownhills to Tipton
3. - Tipton to Autherley

Before I start, I had better come clean - I am a fan of the Birmingham Canal Navigations, which is a bit of a mouthful so I will refer to them as the BCN.

I have to acknowledge that the tangle of canals that weave their way in and out of my adopted city are something of an acquired taste. Like Marmite, they elicit strong views – you are either passionate about them or you avoid them like the plague.

However, you only seem to hear of horror stories involving excessive weed, mud, clogged propellers and an ever-present undercurrent of physical danger from the local youth. One rarely hears about the unexpected beauty and unique sites of historical interest that can be found on the 110 miles of waterway that make up a virtually self-contained canal system.

As I live in the midst of this labyrinth of remaindered waterways, and catch fleeting glimpses of remote canals as I drive around the city every day, I felt compelled to bring my newly acquired narrowboat, Wand'ring Bark into the system and find out how all the bits join together. I mentioned my plans for a whistle-stop cruise round the North Birmingham section to fellow boaters and even the most enthusiastic sucked in his teeth and said “rather you then me mate – I wouldn’t risk it”.

Well, not being one to avoid a challenge I organised a crew (weight in numbers seemed wise) set a date (late spring when the weed is down), avoided school holidays (sound advice) and packed a toolkit with everything I could think of to clear a fouled prop and off we went.

The following is an account of our May 2007 watery odyssey around our own back yard. I don’t expect to convert everyone into a card-carrying member of the BCN fan club, but I would like to think a few readers may be inspired to venture off the Main Line and explore the area themselves.

Day one: Aldersley Junction to Anglesey Basin
The trip really started with our arrival at Aldersley Junction late on a Saturday evening.
We moored up immediately below the last of the Wolverhampton 21 and were just settling down for the night when world war three started around us. Thankfully, what appeared to be an intensive house to house gunfight actually turned out to be a firework finale for an event at the adjacent racecourse and, having enjoyed the spectacle overhead, the quiet mooring had the tranquillity of a rural site.

As our trip was ambitions we set off at six thirty, making light of the well maintained 21 locks in a very respectable 2.5 hours. We turned into the Wyrley and Essington Canal at Horseley Fields Junction and fortified ourselves with a full English breakfast in the remaining stub of the Bentley Canal at Wednesfield. The pub looked good but it was way to early…

We decided to do as much of the BCN as we could and this was to include the navigation of every possible side arm so, having passed the backs of endless dreary suburbs, and removed the first mattress from the prop, we put Wand’ring Bark’s nose into the Holly Bank Colliery Basin at New invention, bagging our second arm. The canal carries the apt nickname “Curly Wyrley”, which pre dates the Cadburys chocolate / toffee bar of the same name by about 150 years! You could say that this is an “extreme” contour canal which gives even the North Oxford a run for its money.

Finally, after the Adam and Eve pub you pass through the beautifully green Rough Wood Nature Reserve and the canal maintains a remote and semi rural feel to it as it passes under the M6 and on to Sneyd Junction. Sadly, there is nothing left of the Wyrley branch canal save an infilled lock chamber, so no arm bagging here but it does offer a good safe overnight mooring should you need it.
At Sneyd it’s a 360 degree turn back towards Walsall and this unquestionably marks the start of the trip’s “danger zone”. Lock your hatches, put on your tin hat, rev up the engine and don’t stop for anything.
The scene gets grimmer and grimmer as you plough through a squalid section of canal in Leamore and, having turned left at Birchills Junction, just north of Walsall, a poor situation gets even worse as you pass Harden and Goscote. We had the misfortune of making the passage in early afternoon on a sunny Sunday and the local youth were out in force. I always recon that when you see teenage lads careering around on unsilenced motorbikes with no helmets on trouble is sure to follow – and it did. Sorry, that was my Victor Meldrew moment.

We did all the right things, slowed for fishermen, smiled, said hello to all and sundry but we still encountered a couple of cases of “inbound” missile activity. I am not sure that there really is an answer to this problem and certainly trying to retaliate by chucking stuff back only serves to escalate the situation, and a narrowboat is poorly suited to making a quick getaway. That said, we knew it was the flash point, were prepared for it, kept our eyes open, heads down and emerged without material damage.

But then, what a contrast. From the hassles of Harden you bust out of the city into beautiful Staffordshire countryside with trees lining the route, birds singing, deep clear water under the keel, Swans on their nests and a canal teeming with fish swimming in shoals in and out of the lillypads which line the margins. Sites of old collieries and foundries line the route but they have all been swept away and replaced with green parkland. This really should be fertile ground for dead arm baggers like ourselves, but sadly most are silted up and impenetrable even for a canoe. However, the two “Big Daddies” can be conquered here on the northern fringe of the BCN. First there is the dead straight mile and a half remnant of the Cannock Extension Canal. This rural cruise is abruptly halted by the A5, but if you are lucky you will find some examples of {whoi}’s new narrowboats tied up outside his yard. To my mind these are the finest craft on the system, well worth a look even if the price tag is beyond you – dreaming is free. This may not always be the quiet backwater we now see. There are long term plans to link this arm to the remains of the Hatherton Canal at Calf Heath, but don’t hold your breath, the Lichfield Canal needs to be finished first which will join the BCN Ogley on the Anglesey Branch.
With evening approaching we passed Brownhills and much enthusiastic waving from local boaters moored in the secure interchange basin, giving us the impression that the sight of moving craft must be something of a novelty. Before reaching Anglesey Basin at the foot of Chasewater Reservior we moored alongside the Anchor Inn and were given mountainous helpings of tasty and very reasonably priced mixed grill. The tranquillity of Anglesey basin is probably not what it was before the M6 Toll was built, but it provided a very quiet and safe mooring.