Sunday 25 May 2008

BCN West - Stourton to Black Country Museum

Index to this series of posts:
1. - Stourton to Tipton - this post
2. - Tipton to Walsall
3. - Sneyd Junction to Calf Heath

Stourton to Black Country Museum (Tipton) Day 1
This was always going to be a big day and so it turned out. Early starts have become a feature of our sorties into the BCN we therefore made a start on the four Stourton locks at 7.00am fortified by mugs of tea to ward off the chills of the morning. Whilst this flight of four locks may technically be part of the BCN, they are set in a very rural location and have dispensed with the need for anti vandal water preservation keys, which are prevalent elsewhere. This short flight is accompanied by a series of picturesque side pounds, some of which have been converted into tranquil moorings with improbably narrow access points.

The lower end of the Stourbridge Canal in enchantingly rural with the diminutive River Stour weaving is way alongside to our left and Primrose Hill living up to its attractive name on the right. When it is not burrowing through dark woods, the canal runs through lush meadowland occupied by horses and covered in wild flowers, all set against a background of towering trees and rhododendron. Whilst boats are few and far between, the canal is well used by land based locals who throng the well maintained towpath. Even at 8.00 am we passed countless joggers, dog walkers, cyclists and fishermen enjoying the beauty of the area.

This rural section continues for about 2 miles coming to an abrupt end when the Stour is crossed by an Aqueduct and boaters emerge at Wordsley Junction and are faced with the bottom lock of the Strourbridge flight. The Town Arm turns sharply to the right at this point and makes its way through a mile and a half miles of industrial wasteland, finishing at the winding hole below the lovingly restored Bonded Warehouse.

The warehouse is now operated by the Stourbridge Navigation Trust, who provide some secure moorings and services to visiting boaters. There is a waterpoint underneath the overhanging canopy of the Bonded Warehouse where we paused and topped up our tanks whilst eating a mammoth cooked breakfast to incongruous strains of Led Zepplin No 4. Our chef has eclectic tastes in music and felt it an appropriate tribute to Mr Plant, who lives in the area.

Fortified with bacon, eggs and beans we attacked the 16 Stourbridge Locks with enthusiasm. No one had worked the locks that day and fortunately, they were all set in out favour. We made swift progress up the hill, past the restored Red House Cone with its inverted wineglass shaped kiln similar to those found around Stoke on Trent.

This is followed by “Dadford’s Shed”, an old transhipment basin and now a boatyard and then the roofless shell of a disused warehouse, held together by some form of giant Meccano set. This site looks earmarked for redevelopment and hopefully will include the remaining facades thus retaining the industrial atmosphere that still pervades the area. As you continue to rise look out for locks 9 and 10. At first glance they appear to be a staircase pair but in fact these are two separate locks with a tiny 10ft pound between them, which begged the question: What happens when I try to fill the lock? By a miracle of hydraulics and culverts, water is fed into and out of a pound located somewhere beyond the adjacent cottages, in an arrangement similar to that seen at Bratch.

The top of the Stourbridge 16 offered our first opportunity to venture “off piste”. We continued straight up the Fens Branch from Leys Junction, to the dismay of the towpath walkers who kept reminding us that we had taken a wrong turn. Fens Branch was built as a feeder and navigation is halted by silt under a railway bridge just beyond Brockmoor Junction but further scope for exploration was offered by the remains of the Stourbridge Extension Canal which leads off to the left for a further half a mile. This section had enjoyed some attention over recent years, having been dredged to a decent depth and a secure mooring site built on the offside, which was formerly occupied by a number of foundries, collieries and rolling mills. Whilst the moorings are in an attractive area of parkland, its remoteness would be off-putting for an overnight stop for a solo craft. The sudden appearance of a solitary narrowboat was clearly something of an event for the locals who rolled up in force to witness the spectacle. What they knew, as we didn’t, was that the arm improvements failed to include a winding hole. This omission necessitated a fairly protracted reverse out which involved extensive poling and the churning of an immense amount of black silt. However, 15 minutes saw us return to Leys Junction, at which point we snagged a pair of trousers round the prop, triggering our first trip down the weed hatch. One has to wonder exactly how the unlucky owner came to lose them, but maybe there is a connection with the fact that Stourbridge has more pubs licensed for lap-dancing than anywhere else in the country…. Hmm I’ll leave that thought with you.

From here all vestiges of countryside are lost and the canal hugs the backs of endless rows of housing. Oddly, few homes have adopted the canal into their gardens, which you often find elsewhere. Most have elected to turn their backs on the water, boarding their gardens in or simply using the canal edge as an impromptu landfill. However, the canal soon balances its ying with its yang in the form of the glorious Delph Locks, rising from Black Delph Junction.

This flight appears like a mirage climbing up the hill with tumbling waterfalls cascading over the adjacent weirs into to deep side ponds, which are popular with local fishermen. The flight itself is a magnificent example of BCN industrial engineering, with its angular piers, straight lines and a plethora of bull nosed engineering bricks. This flight is a “must visit” for all true canal enthusiasts as its spectacle rivals Foxton or Devises. Don’t be put off by the urban location, the locals were all friendly and we never felt threatened. Alongside the current Delph flight you can see the remains of the earlier nine locks line (hence the “Nine Locks Bridge”), which were abandoned in the mid nineteenth century due to mining subsidence.

No sooner have you left the history of Delph behind than you encounter into the ultra modern Merry Hill Shopping Centre, a Meadowhall or Bluewater for the Black Country. The canal was rerouted to accommodate this development on the site of the Round Oak Steelworks and widened to incorporate the Waterfront with its broad pool and extensive moorings. Sadly, the area always feels rather bleak and impersonal and fails to tempt many boaters to stop.

Beyond Merry Hill the canal soon shows a more urban face, passing the course of the long gone Two Locks Line link canal, which cut off a long elbow to Blowers Green and Park Head. Park Head Junction with its huge pumping station offers a great opportunity to bag another quality arm, this time up the three Park Head locks and into a grass fringed basin complete with three stub arms each leading off for a few hundred yards.

Again, our deviation from the normal route elicited comment from those on the towpath, who assured us that the Park Head route was closed and were sufficiently convinced that they followed us all the way to the top. Only the far end of the basin offered any real chance of progress, this being the western portal of the Dudley Tunnel. Whilst the tunnel itself remains clear, headroom is very restricted and only boats with the lowest of air draft can make a passage, even then only with the assistance of one of the electrically powered Dudley Tunnel Trust tug boats. Sadly, Wand’ring Bark can’t be ballasted deep enough for this route so any future exploration of the tunnel and its cave system will have to be on a trip boat from the Black Country Museum, which occupies the site immediately outside the eastern portal.

Beyond Park Head the Stourbridge Canal gives way to the prosaically named Dudley No. 2, built to serve the heavy industry which has gone and been replaced by meadows and parkland. Infilled arms and backwaters abound, built to serve the long forgotten collieries and foundries of the area and making Windmill End a surprising oasis of green in the middle of the Black Country. This section offers a number of interesting arms and basins but sadly the intriguingly named Bumble Hole Arm was closed off with a boom, preventing access. The Bumblehole Arm used to curl around and rejoin at Windmill End Junction, where a short stretch remains accessible in the form of Boshboil Arm.
Rather than head straight into the western portal of the Netherton Tunnel, a further 2¼ mile stretch of the Dudley No2 remains, wandering off to the south in the direction of the Birmingham and Worcester Canal at Selly Oak. The collapse of the Lapal Tunnel in 1917 blocks this as a through route but a trip down the length that remains will be rewarded by the 557 yard Gosty Hill Tunnel. This tunnel may be short but, for my money, it out punches the mighty Netherton, its close neighbour. The little tunnel has no towpath and the channel is so narrow that steering is rendered virtually pointless. For some reason the roof profile varies between a double height arch one minute and a roof scraping minimum the next which, in our case called for an emergency chimney removal 200 yards in. Beyond the southern portal the canal opens out into a brick lined canyon, the site of Stewart and Allen’s huge tubeworks till 1967. Whilst the workshops are long gone, the atmosphere remains and the silence is almost oppressive. Just a few hundred yards remain to the current terminus, the large Hawne transhipment basin now occupied by the Coombeswood Canal Trust and who’s open weekend was drawing to a close just as we approached. Whilst we didn’t moor here on this occasion, visitors are welcomed by the Trust and the site offers a quiet and safe location for an overnight stopover. Having maintained navigation along this intriguing stretch of canal for the last 40 years, the Lapal Canal Trust has been formed to campaign for the restoration of a link to the Birmingham and Worcester so, who knows, this sleepy backwater may once again become the busy through route it once was.

Whilst it was nearly six pm, we had promised the crew a trip to Mad O’Rourkes Pie Factory in Tipton so we retraced our steps to Windmill End and hurried through the Netherton Tunnel. As this is the third longest navigable tunnel on the system (eclipsed only by Standedge and Braunston) I feel I should wax lyrical about it. Sadly, this late addition to the network (completed 150 years ago this year) is spectacular only for its functionality. It is all you could ask of a tunnel really: a double width channel, towpath on each side, deep water and excellent ventilation but somehow this perfect functionality results in a lack of form and character, which are found in greater measure in many shorter bores. I guess that it is a bit like the M6, it doesn’t set my pulse racing but if it wasn’t there is would miss it no end. From the end of the Netherton Branch it is a short trip along the New Main Line to the three Factory Locks at Tipton and the entrance to the Black Country Museum. This site offers secluded moorings, good facilities, bygone atmosphere and excellent food options to satisfy a hunger built up over 13 hours and 41 locks.

No comments: