Thursday 30 July 2009

Recycling lorry in the Staffs and Worcester Canal

Recycling lorry in the Staffs and Worcester Canal
30th July 2009

I have just returned from a rather damp two weeks afloat (loads of blog material) but felt compelled to do a quick post tonight containing a couple of photos of a current obstruction on the Staffs and Worcs Canal at Acton Trussell.

I rounded a bend and was amazed to see the back end of a lorry sticking out of the canal.

The towpath was all a twitter with news of the event. It seems that it happened on Monday 27th but the driver of said vehicle remains something of a mystery man, who appears to have done a runner! Speculation is that either he was on the phone and wasnt paying attention, or that an unqualified driver was "having a go" on the private land.

Whatever the truth is, someone is going to face a very large recovery bill. Today (Thursday 30th) they were busy laying a temporary track in the adjoining field and tomorrow a huge crane will be brought into to position to lift it out over the hedge.

Sounds expensive to me!

Wednesday 29 July 2009

Great Haywood to Calf Heath

Great Haywood to Calf Heath
Thursday 29th July 2009
Staffs and Worcester

16 Miles
12 Locks
7 Hours

This was last day of our holiday and some of the dark clouds which yesterday crowded my mind had lifted somewhat and been replaced by dark clouds of a more meteorological variety. It started off fine and sunny as we refilled with water, but our subsequent visit to Anglo Welsh for a pump out, diesel top up and new gas cylinder was met with a wall of water from above. The rain was so severe that both we and the Anglo Welsh team abandoned the pump out gear and sought shelter, whilst their workshop slowly filled with floodwater.

The storm was as brief as it was heavy, clearing into a lovely sunlit day. The journey back was familiar but not uneventful. As we approached Acton Trussell we were amazed to come face to face with the back end of a rubbish truck, lying on its side in the middle of the canal. This huge truck had clearly come too close to the soft edge of the towpath, which crumbled beneath its weight and left the poor vehicle stranded in the water like a toy discarded by a careless child. It must have made one heck of a splash!

The rest of the journey was serene, helping smooth some jangled nerves. We arivied at Calf Heath at about 6.00pm, with the boat all clean and ready for use by some members of our family the following week. The great thing about lending the boat to relatives is that it forces us to give it a really good clean, a task which we don't necessarily perform with the same degree of enthusiasm when it's just us using it. A sort of win win situation.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

A dark day

A dark day
Moored at Great Haywood
Wednesday 28th July 2009

A very dark day, best scrubbed from the history books.

It rained, continually, without let up or relief from dawn to dusk.

We travelled to Derby and watched Harry Potter - The Half Blood Prince in which the Dark Lord did lots of dark deeds but failed to either conquer or be conquered. All under the brooding gaze of the Goon Squad.

Like Mog The Forgetful Cat, I sat in the dark and thought dark, dark thoughts.

Thank God all days are not like this.

Monday 27 July 2009

Shugborough Hall - a circular walk

Shugborough Hall - a circular walk
Monday 27th July 2009
Moored at Great Haywood

It's a quiet spot, moored between Great Haywood Junction and Great Haywood Lock, away from roads and railways with just the ducks and a few other boaters to keep us company.

With the morning free we decided to take a stroll around the Shugborough Estate. By around I mean right round it, as opposed to moseying around inside it. We donned our walking boots, packed our waterproofs, purchased an OS map from Anglo Welsh and off we went over the lovely packhorse bridge, which spans the Trent at its confluence with the Sow. The water was high after all the recent rain, a churning brown stream which covered the weir above the bridge as well as the single banks which are normally playgrounds for local children. Undaunted by the conditions, a family group were busy launching their canoes for a trip down to Rugeley.

Our route led us across the front of Shugborough Hall, home of the late Lord Lichfield and then past the vernacular buildings of the Model Farm, which houses the living museum complete with bonnet'd "servants" making cheese in the dairy. Then it was on past the folly which doubled up as a gambling den before crossing the railway, sunken to appease the aesthetic demands of the Lord of the Manor.

The route then took us out of the car park entrance and right along the main road, before striking out right again up a small and little used bridleway. This route leads up the the reservoirs which drew water off Cannock Chase for use by the hall before it was connected to the mains in the 1960's. The bridleway was surprisingly firm underfoot and a close examination revealed a sea of water washed pebbles. Strange to imagine Cannock Chase as a pebbly beach of a land over goodness knows what roamed. Its a bit humbling when you look at it like that.

As we made our way down to Midford the heavens opened amid great rolls of thunder and even the thickest chestnut tree could offer little in the way of shelter. We pulled on outrwaterproofs and hung around in the woods for five minutes or so before slithering our way into the village and over the railway bridge, offering a distant view of the Sow Aqueduct. From there it was a short stroll to the Staffs and Worcester towpath by which time the sun was out in all its glory.

There is an impressive house at this point, just above Tixall Lock. It is quite modern and not particularly beautiful, but it's gardens could easily grace the cover of House and Home. Its extensive lawns are manicured to perfection and, depending on the season, various bits of sporting equipment can be sen strategically positioned. Sometimes a carefully collapsed tennis net, or maybe some golf flags and occasionally a football 'casually' left in the same spot beside the swing beneath the spreading oak tree. I can't say I go to the placed accessories but the overall garden is something to behold. Shame about the hump backed bridge at which every driver toots his horn - it must drive them mad.

At Tixall Lock we met an ardent canoeist who, being unable to sleep, had set off on a trip down the Sow at 4.30am, reaching the footbridge at Armitage before returning to the Trent and Mersey via the pedestrian tunnel under the railway.

Tixall wide was serene but garlanded with the ever present rim of moored narrowboats. This is a popular spot which only attains a degree of solitude in the winter months.

All in all a varied walk taking about an hour and a half, covering five or six miles, spoiled slightly by rain.

Shugborough Hall

Shugborough Hall
Tuesday 27th July 2009
Moored at Great Haywood

After 19 years in the Midlands we finally grasped the opportunity and paid a visit to Shugborough Hall, which was less than half a mile from our mooring.

The estate is reached across the medieval packhorse bridge, barely wide enough for a couple to stroll across arm in arm. With time on our hands we figured we may as well take in the entire Shugborough 'experience' which includes the gardens, house and Model Farm, all for the princely sum of £12 each (reduced by £6 for National Trust members).

With rain threatening (again) we opted for the garden first, wandering around the Lady Walk as it meandered through woodland to the banks of the lakeified section of the Sow. The garden contains numerous follies which, whilst completely without purpose, add something of a magical charm to the place. There is no theme to the follies which range from Roman ruins to a Chinese Pergola and a Doric Temple. If you dont have time to see the house, the gardens are well worth the £3 entrance fee.

Next it was lunch at the Lady Walk Tea Rooms before a visit to the house itself. This is the ancestral seat of the late Lord Lichfield, which is impressive but on a relatively modest scale. I can take or leave stately homes but I was captivated by the 'family' end of the house which was and is actually used by the family. Within the ballroom where was a scale model of the Centurion, a ship which seems to have circumnavigated the globe and served as a platform to raid and pillage its owner to a great fortune. Behind every fortune there is normally something a bit murky!

Upstairs we were particularly taken by the Royal Guest Room, which had been completely refurbished by the profits from the National Trust shop. Unusually, this wasn't in a state of 'faded glory' but instead had been reinstated very much as it would have been when it was actually used. Suddenly, instead of something unpleasant and musty it was vibrant and appealing, a better representation of the opulence the aristocracy aspired to achieve.

At a more accessible level, there was a fascinating collection of Lord Lichfield's photographs taken in the 1960's and 1970's, plus a doorway within with each family member has had their height recorded each term. We have something very similar in our kitchen at home grounding this rather remote family of the aristocracy into a reality I can relate to.

We then wandered over to the Model Farm where I realised I have a direct link with the Shugborough Estate - maybe I am a retrospective millionaire!

The Model Farm was spawned by the agricultural revolution and whilst its creation was hailed as a great in farm productivity, the reality was that a few of the rich got richer and the peasants were thrown off the land. The architect behind the farm also worked for Coke of Holkham (Norfolk), founding father of the three course rotation, and a distant relative on my mothers side. Old photos of the Coke clan reveal an uncanny similarity to yours truly and I even carry an altered version of the Coke name as one of my christian names. But that's not all. My family were all millers and, lo and behold, who should have made the milling machine on display in the museum? None other than Cooke and Son of Lincoln.

Somehow I feel sure I have been cheated out of my birthright, be it Holkham Hall in Norfolk or here in Satffordshire!

Belle and I completed the visit with a ride on the back seat of the estate road train - returning to the boat as the first drops of rain fell from a leaden sky.

Dodging between showers I ventured out on the trusty bike in search of maggots. I failed to find the fishing tackle shop but did manage to capture two more aqueducts and blag a handful of maggots off some lads fishing on the bank.

Sunday 26 July 2009

Gailey to Great Haywood

Gailey to Great Haywood
Sunday 26th July 2009
Staffs and Worcester Canal

12 Miles
10 Locks
6 Hours

Rain was forecast and rain it did. Sometimes hard, sometimes softly, sometimes with wind and sometimes without, but at all times, oh boy, did it rain!

Belle has a policy, which verges on a legal agreement, which obviates her from all lock duties in times of, what she deems, unacceptable rain. Suddenly on days such as this Wand'ring Bark's ownership mysteriously, and quite temporarily, ceases to be "our boat" and becomes "your boat".
As a result I sometimes find myself adopting the role of a single handed boater, with the benefit of a provider of "tea and a little something". Better than no crew at all I guess.

I adopted wet weather, single handed mode which basically entails taking my time. At first it was like paddy's market, with boats milling around all over the place but it soon quietened off and after Penkridge I had the canal pretty much to myself (note thew absence of we).

An amazing thing about canal travel is how a familiar journey can offer up new and unexpected events every time. After umpteen trips along the eastern end of the Staffs and Worcester you would think I had seen it all, but no. Today's journey co-incided with one of the largest fishing matches in the angling calendar. I heard mumblings about "the great fishing match" from the few boaters I passed and the first long carp rod was spied just below Otherton Lock, its owner surrounded by a huge pile of kit. His hook was, as ever, carefully placed six inches from the offside bank. Why to fishermen suppose that all the fish on the canal live in that one foot corridor of shallow water at the far side from the towpath?

From this point on the fishermen were stationed like stoic sentinels every 50 yards as far as the eye could see, all shrouded in camouflaged waterproofs. In fact, they went far beyond where the eye could see. All the way to Acton Trussell, four miles distant.

But I am jumping ahead. As I passed Otherton Boat Haven a narrowboat was attempting to come alongside the pump out tractor and I witnesses, in painful slow motion, the lady at the front dither about her next move - jump ashore or climb back aboard. In the end she never did reach a decision and her fate was placed in the hands of mother gravity who decreed, as is her habit, that this hapless individual should have an early bath. The nearby fishermen creased up in rather unkind laughter, but quickly recovered a visage of dour hostility as my blast of reverse gear churned up their swims and my hull threatened their preposterous rods. The poor lady couldn't climb out and found herself stuck between her boat and the bank. After quite a bit of calling from yours truly some boaters from the marina emerged and bodily hauled her out, flapping like a giant seal on the towpath. Maybe a fisherman should have stuck a hook in her and claimed the catch of the day prize. I know it was a funny scene, and I did have my camera to hand. But I couldn't, in good conscience, take advantage of this poor ladies plight. Sorry.

Next up it was Deptmore Lock, infamous for its tumbledown cottage and occupied by an old lady and her disabled husband. This house has no running water, no electricity and no vehicular access and now, alas, no old lady and her husband. They have gone and have been replaced by a small army of builders who are stripping the place out for a full refurb. Progress I guess.

And so on the Great Haywood, collecting a photo of Brindley's Sow Aqueduct as we passed.

I called into the new marina at Great Haywood, in the hope of procuring some diesel and establishing an approved tenure for our car, which I had fly parked on the site the night before. However, by 4.30pm everyone had gone so we moored just south of Great Haywood junction and recce'd possible parking sites on the folding bike. During this excursion I discovered the rather excellent farm shop next to the bridge who, as well as offering a broad range of unusual foods, also offer parking at £2 per night. This seemed very convenient and a whole lot better than dicing with the traffic wardens, who maintain a vigilant watch over the many double yellow lines in the area.

During my final 400 yard dash back to the boat the heavens let lose a final and incredibly heavy downpour, soaking me to the skin in spite of my waterproof outfit.

Saturday 25 July 2009

Calf Heath to Gailey

Calf Heath to Gailey
Sat 25th July 2009
Staffs and Worcester

4 miles
2 Locks
2 Hours

Family issues to attend to today, so we spent the day in Derbyshire attending Tilly's school fair in the company of the Goon Squad. She sang like an angel but sadly a recent turn of events has prevented her from joining us for our second week afloat, a sadness for all of us.

Undaunted, we came up with a plan B, which would allow us to remain afloat but also be in a position to visit Tilly every other day. We therefore left one car at Gt Haywood and carried on in the other back to Calf Heath, returning in early evening. With the sun shining we made an immediate start towards Gialey, smoothing our ruffled emotions with a couple of Gin and Tonics.

It was one of those perfect summer evenings when we pottered along slowly, sipping our drinks and leaving a trail of monkey nut shells in our wake. We moored up just below the second lock of the Gailey flight, a popular stretch which, on this occasion, we had to share with a number of other crews. Their animated laughter mixed with the smoke of their barbecues, drifted down the towpath as the sun curtsied to a spectacular exit.

As a counterpoint to the beauty outside, we watched "The Boy in Striped Pajamas". The film views a German concentration camp through the eyes of the Commandant's young son, who tragically ends up in a gas chamber himself. All very poignant and very tragic.

Friday 24 July 2009

Beauty - is in the eye of the beholder

Beauty - is in the eye of the beholder
24th July 2009

I love this scene. It's charms are not immediately apparent and I accept that the Wolverhampton Incinerator chimney isn't everyone's cup of tea - but it does it for me!

BCN officianado's will instantly recognise this as part of the Wolverhampton 21, and not just any part, a very special spot - which is exactly half way up, or down, depending on your direction of travel.

This huge concrete chimney serves as a totem pole against which I measure my progress and under whose shadow exists the possibility of refreshment and succour. You see, the incinerator stands just above lock 10 and Foxes Land Bridge beside which is, if you are lucky, a fantastic refreshment van known as Crown Cafe. From this van the Cox Clan (mum, dad, brother and sister) have been sustaining the workers of Wolverhampton for years.

Paying homage to their mobile cafe has become an essential element of our passages up and down the Wolverhampton 21 and I can thoroughly recommend a doorstop bacon butty with brown sauce washed down with a styrofoam cup of strong tea - all for the princely sum of £2.00.

I have mentioned this spot in a previous blog entry and subsequently been berated for its absence so, just to be clear, this Crown Cafe is open:
Monday to Friday - 7.30 am till 2.00pm
Saturday - 7.30 am till 12.30am
Sunday - closed all day

So it's a case of the early boater catching the worm. If you start the flight much after noon don't expect to find it there!

On the plus side, they have a phone and if you call them on 07866 042880 when you are a couple of locks away you will have your refreshment piping hot and waiting for you.
Oh - and yes, it's as clean inside as it is on the outside - this is no greasy spoon operation!

Tipton to Calf Heath

Tipton to Calf Heath
Friday 24th July 2009
BCN and Staffs & Worcester

13 Miles
21 Locks
6 Hours

Another peaceful night at the Black Country Museum, but slightly unsettled by the king sized Donner Kebab consumed last night!

I was up and about by 7.00am and, with nothing stopping me, slipped the moorings at 8.00am and was out on the Old Main Line as it wanders through the back end of Tipton in a series of Lilly fringed lagoons. Boating in these conditions is a delight. I had the canal completely to myself, the sun was shining, I had a big mug of tea at my elbow and deep clear water flowed smoothly beneath my baseplate. This area teems with fish and feels more like a river than the industrial canal it once was.

Tipton Riveriera

I spied two hire boats who had braved the "outer world" last night, an ABC boat just south of the BCM, and a Shakespere Classic Line boat north of the Coseley Tunnel. I would never dream of mooring overnight in such an exposed spot on my own, but I guess my caution is borne of long experience. Ignorance is sometimes bliss.

The canal continued deep and clear all the way to Wolverhampton, picked clean of litter by the young offender community action hit squad. Jeff finally made an appearance just before the junction with the Wyrley and Essington to attend to his promised lock duties.

For once, the locks were all set in our favour and Jeff used the folding bike to wheel ahead six at a time and, within an hour, we found ourselves at the incinerator and munching on bacon butties from the Crown Cafe, now a regular feature of our morning ascents and descents on the Wolverhampton 21.

Lockwheelers leap

Along the way I met Jeff Anderson, canal enthusiast and part time lock assistant / boat mover. If you ever find yourself in Wolverhampton or the Black Country and in need of some help on the locks, Jeff's your man.
We made no attempt to rush, but amazingly we found ourselves emerging from Aldersley Junction a mere 2 hours 10 mins after we started down.The sun didn't last, no sooner had we reached Autherley Junction than the heavens opened and it poured solidly for the next two hours, all the way back to Calf Heath.

Aldersley Junction
Packing was, for once, a joy. This stop was only temporary, just long enough to send Jeff off on his way to camp on Saturday morning, see Tilly perform in her end of year concert, and then return for a few days on the Staffs and Worcester. We didn't even have to empty or turn off the fridge!

Thursday 23 July 2009

Hopwood to Tipton

Hopwood to Tipton
Thursday 23rd July 2009
Worcester Birmingham Canal and BCN
15 Miles
3 Locks
6 Hours

Mooring just before bridge 69 was a good move. That extra half a mile and an earth bank deflected the noise from the M42, a road which drones on all night.

We had a late start at 10.00am and were straight into the 2726 yard Wast Hill Tunnel, a wide brick lined bore which is very wet in places. Whilst the tunnel features in the top five for length, it ranks nowhere near as highly in my list of favourite tunnels. Like the nearby Netherton, it is very wide and straight but frankly somewhat boring. The most interesting thing about out passage was that we got about a hundred feet in before I realised that far from my eyes taking a long while to adjust to the gloom, the tunnel light wasn't working! After a few moments of panic I realised that in his enthusiasm to suck the marrow from the moment, Jeff's arrival has included a heavy bump against the switch panel!

Wast Hill is a watershed in more ways than one. Not only does one cross from the Bittell headwaters to those of the Rea, one also makes a dramatic transition from rural to urban. From the moment you leave the northern portal of Wast Hill, the industry is incessant.

Along the way we picked up another bonus aqueduct as the River Rea flows under the canal near Kings Norton Junction. The juvenile river ripples through a brick lined arch, which lies at the foot of a lofty embankment, all shrouded in trees. Access is very difficult and my enthusiasm for my task very nearly landed me in the drink!

It was then a steady six miles into Birmingham, passing the extensive grounds of Birmingham University, complete with its unique hydrogen narrowboat. Once in Gas Street Basin we moored under the glittering tower of the Hyatt Hotel, where Belle found a taxi to take her home. Whilst there I took the opportunity to tap on the roof of Mr David, purveyor of rather splendid hand made cards. Brenda was out and about, but David was in, serving me a mug of tea and allowing me to rest my posterior in a chair which recently graced the derriere on none other than Nigel Kennedy.

With out 21st wedding anniversary upon me I selected one particularly fine card which, given its boating provenance, was a big hit with Belle. Thanks David and Brenda - I owe you one.

David is also something of a wizz with cameras and, with my 30th anniversary gift from my employer literally weeks away, I was very thankful for the advice offered. Olympus city here I come.

With the worst of the showers over, we struck out for Tipton but, in spite of my promises to Jeff, I couldn't resist taking in at least one backwater. This time it was the Soho Loop which earned me a prop full of poly bags. Then it was the New Main Line all the way to Factory Locks. Travelling the BCN in school holidays always makes me nervous but, in spite the the place crawling kids, they were all ok and gave us no bother at all. Jeff sniffed and accused me of being a suspicious and cynical old man.

Travelling with Jeff isn't all fun. With all the teenagers around he was insistent that I mustn't stop at the three aqueducts which run beneath the canal at Dudley Port - spoilsport. Never mind, they will still be there another day.

We made it to the Black Country Museum only to find it a bit full and out favourite makeshift mooring on the bridge wall taken. We didn't fancy a night outside so we committed the heinous crime of lingering on the water point overnight. Sorry etiquette police - needs must and we were off again at 8.00am the next morning so no harm done.

We held another fishing competition in which age again triumphed over youth in the form of three nice roach. Jeff was most distressed by this turn of events and kept creeping into my swim, much to the amusement of the crew of nb Tiger Princess as they loked on. Fishermen are not supposed to pursue their sport in a state of raucous high spirits.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

Tardebigge Bottom Lock to Hopwood

Tardebigge Bottom Lock to Hopwood
Wednesday 22nd July
Worcester Birmingham Canal

8 Miles
30 Locks
6 Hours

With a deadline to meet and a disturbed night we were awake at 6.30am, entering the first chamber of the Tardebigge flight at 6.50am. Our sudden departure surprised the crew of a hire boat, who were also showing signs life and an aspiration to take advantage of the locks, which had been set in our favour by a descending boat the night before.

Tardebigge bottom lock at first light

The first half dozen locks were negotiated by the Captain and Belle, with a bleary eyed Jeff emerging at 7.30am. We settled down to a steady pattern, Belle wheeling ahead, Jeff steering and the Captain working the locks, soon finding ourselves at lock 43. This would be the Duke of York's favourite lock, being half way up the hill! It was at this point we met an oncoming boat who also made a 7.00am start from the top. The canal builders must have realised how easy it is to lose track of where you are, so they very kindly carved the lock numbers into sandstone blocks, which they set into the lock tail walls.

Lock number detailing on the Tardebigge flight

At lock 49, beneath the towering earth ramparts of Tardebigge Reservoir, we spied the battered bows of Tysley being bow hauled out by a disconsolate looking cast of the Mikron Theatre Company. Tysley's engine had failed 10 minutes before and this unwelcome development threatened their timetable of shows, which were due to start in two days time in Tewkesbury.

NB Tysley - Mikron Theatre Company (minus a working engine)

The Tardebigge flight may be the longest in the UK, but apart from lovely views of the Malvern Hills, its meandering course provides little opportunity for a vista of endless locks marching up the incline, as seen at Hatton or Caan Hill. Instead, one has to focus on the micro, which is interesting in its own way.

Did you know that all the blue bull nosed engineering bricks used to top off the lock walls were formed and fired in a variety of works in Tipton. Well neither did I, but a close inspection revealed an occasional imprint of their origin, a feature also used by BW in their more recent renovations.

Between locks 54 and 55 you can see a pair of rotting hulks in the shallows, a rare sight in today's sanitised canal network.

We completed our ascent in a very creditable two hours fifty minutes, a time which this crew are unlikely to better. Everything was set in our favour.

Entering Tardebigge top lock
One note of caution: Boaters beware. Don't get too excited by the prospect of a refreshing pint at Tylers Lock Pub, which stands like a beacon at the top of this long hill. The pub is a mirage, long since closed down and offering little hope of succour to weary boaters.

Tardebigge Tunnel is, for 2/3rds of its 580 yards, hewn out of solid sandstone with just its northern third being brick lined. I like rough rock tunnels - but dont get me started about the glories of the Standedge Tunnel again.

On retiring to bed last night we discovered the terrible truth that the toilet holding tank was full. Not nearly full "be careful not to flush" sort of full, but full full, right to the top - cup runneth over sort of full. We therefore approached the Anglo Welsh pump out station with legs crossed, having already drawn lots to first access to the said facility. Jeff was all for using the loo whilst the pump was running, but was dissuaded on the ground that the resulting vacuum could suck him down the toilet a la Monty Python's Flying Circus!

The tunnels get longer as you progress along the Worcester Birmingham Canal, with the 613 yard Shortwood Tunnel being preceded by a canyon of overhanging trees which enhance its length and make for a spectacular approach.

The stretch through Alvechurch offered lots of scope for aqueduct hunting, first a brick lined arch containing a footpath just south of the town and then Aqueduct Lane Aqueduct to the north.

Finally, it was on to Hopwood and an impromptu meeting with representatives of the Goon Squad, who tottered uncomfortably down the towpath in delightfully inappropriate dress. With the meeting over we shook the dust of Hopwood from out sandals and moved the boat as far from the drone of the M42 as we could, without actually entering the southern portal of the Wast Hill Tunnel. We managed to find a mooring under an oak tree which was just within the cutting and therefore away from the noise, but due the the limited depth the stern had to lie a couple of feet from the bank. A night on the mud felt quite like old times.

The Goon Squad bore bad tidings which scupper next weeks plans for a return via Braunston. Instead we will make for Birmingham tomorrow, drop Belle off and Jeff and the Captian will take two days to return Wand'ring Bark to Calf Heath via the Black Country Museum and Wolverhampton.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Tibberton to Tardebigge Bottom Lock

Tibberton to Tardebigge Bottom Lock
Tuesday 21st July 2009
Worcester Birmingham Canal

8 Miles
12 Locks
4 Hours

The forecast was bad and in the event the weather lived down to our expectations.

The rain arrived overnight, drumming on the cabin roof and only easing as we departed from Tibberton at 9.00am. The BBC forecast said light rain till three, turning heavy so the planned ascent of the Tardebigge flight in the afternoon looked unlikely.

The reach from Tibberton to Hanbury Wharf is typified by reedy margins, with their green stalks waving in the breeze a full two metres above the water line. The scenery is one of rolling fields with the open aspect interrupted by the 236 yard Dunhampstead Tunnel. Next up it was the bustling Hanbury Wharf, one of the homes of the New and Used Boat Co. The most notable thing about the approach to Hanbury is the quality of the residential boats. Whilst by no means new, they are all well looked after and maintainedto a high standard. What is more, most hasve well ordered sheds on the bank and lovingly tended garden / patio areas. I am puzzled as to how this uniform commitment to quality has been achieved. If I were to live on a boat, I would choose somewhere like this as a base.

Hanbury is also the site of the other end of the Droitwich Junction Canal restoration project ,and from there it's a short hop to the six Astwood Locks, by which time the drizzle had developed into a steady downpour. No amount of rain could dampen my enthusiasm for the lock keepers garden, which occupies every square inch of soil in the vicinity of the lock, and was truly a sight to behold.

The bridges in this area are in a curious mix of repair. Some have been carefully restored to their former glory, whilst others , encased in concrete, are swathed in netting in an attempt to hold them together.

The rain stepped up another gear as we filled with water by bridge 42, just below Black Prince's Stoke Prior base, and continued to soak us through till we gave up in disgust at 1.30pm, moored opposite the Queens Head just below Tardebigge Bottom Lock.

The afternoon was spent drying off and playing a new version of Risk, the board game. I dominated the world at my first attempt, but was wiped from the face of the planet in the second game - would be dictators take note.

A short fishing competition was held with Jeff in the evening, which proved to be a victory of age over enthusiasm, both in terms of numbers caught and the largest fish of the day - a good sized, but very slimy, bream.

Monday 20 July 2009

Stourport to Tibberton

Stourport to Tibberton
Monday 20th July 2009
Staffs and Worcester Canal, River Severn and Worcester Birmingham Canal
19 miles
24 locks
9 hours

Dawn broke with clear blue skies, heralding a much better day.
Given yesterday's rumours, we approached Stourport with some trepidation, noting that all the boats that descended to the basins promptly returned, suggesting that the Severn remained impassible.
Notable among these vessels was nb Hadar, an immaculate replica of a Woolwich Short (or is a Northwich Short - I never can remember the difference!) which looked right at home alongside Scorpio and Apollo moored just above York St Lock. Hadar is a work of love on the part of her owner, who worked on an identical boat as a boy and had this craft built to the same spec in 2007, complete with a 1942 engine. It's only flaw is in its perfection. It caries too few scars to be a restoration project!

We motored through the various basins and round the back of the clock tower, mooring up on the floating pontoons and figured we may as well walk down to the rive and see just how bad the levels were. Much to our surprise and delight we saw that the water, although brown with silt, was down in the green zone. Some BW workmen were clearing the weeds from the lockside and informed us that it had been up 18 inches overnight but had, for the time being, fallen back down again. If we wanted to make the short trip down to Worcester there was no reason not to.

We hastily assembled our anchor bracket on the stern and dropped down the two staircases, negotiating the awkward twist between them. Whilst the Severn was flowing fast, with a good deal of fresh on, it was nowhere near as bad as our experiences on the Trent eighteen months ago. The upper Severn is remarkably pretty, rubbing up against high sandstone cliffs and surrounded by lofty trees. As we passed Lenchford we were buzzed by a Hawk aircraft and then we spied three Buzzards lazily spiraling up on the updrafts created by the cliffs.

With all the gazing up we very nearly missed the work going on on the final lock of the Droitwich Barge Canal. To see the lock being reinstated complete with balance beams and separated from the river by a thin earth bank was rather exciting. This time next year.... Just above Bevere Lock we encountered a very strange Dutch registered suction dredger. There was much noise and diesel smoke but, for the life of me, I couldn't see what is was actually doing, or where the dredgings were going. All very odd.

Then it was the final approach to Worcester, passing the racecourse and rowing clubs before sweeping under Worcester's ancient bridge. On the way down we passed nb Maid of Steel, which was pootling along. She seemed rather familiar and it transpired that she is normally moored at Chillington Wharf, a location I have passed many times!

The two big locks up to Diglis Basin were undergoing something of a facelift, as part of the adjacent redevelopment project. It was one of the very few active building sites we saw on the whole journey. These locks are very, very sloooooow fillers.

We had made good time and moored above Sidbury Lock to spend a couple of hours wandering around Worcester. Whilst the city has its fair share of modern shopping centres, it has retained many of its more interesting nooks and crannies which reward exploration, particularly the magnificent Mansion House.

As you exit Worcester the canal is remarkably clean, with none of the urban detritus one usually associated with city waterways. Reeds line the margins and thick bands of trees mask the industrial sprawl which extends out as far as Tolladine and the infamous Worcester Rugby ground.

With the weather set so fair we pressed on, sipping our traditional Gin and Tonics and letting the evening sun warm our backs. We made light of the six locks at Offerton but at the top lock the canal passes so close to the M5 that the road noise is incredible. The local farm has resorted to the erection of a huge earth bank to try and deflect the sound, but even so the decibels are terrific.

In an attempt to get away form the road noise we moved on through the cutting to Tiberton, where the sound is masked by a low hill and a stand of trees. We dined at The Bridge all washed down with a very agreeable pint of Marston Old Orient IPA.

All in all an exceptional day covering a lot of new ground.

Sunday 19 July 2009

Greensforge to Stourport

Greensforge to Stourport
Staffs and Worcester Canal
Sunday 19th July 2009

13 Miles
12 Locks
6 Hours

Greensforge is a lovely mooring, but if you are a visitor you should expect to stop below the lock. Above the lock there are a couple of spaces for the water point, but then nothing else except loads of long term moorings.

We made another lazy 10.00 am start, and soon came across nb Lilbeth of Tamworth at Rocky Lock. The crew had come up the River Severn a couple of days earlier than planned due to rain in Wales a fears of rising water levels - a rumour which escalated as we progressed towards Stourport.

Just belong Gothersley Lock we spied the reconstructed foundations of a traditional Staffs and Worcester Roundhouse, which used to be a pair to the one at the top of the Gailey flight. It's a shame it's gone.

Shortly after passing the crags of Devils Den we made a brief stop at the aqueduct over the upper reaches of the River Stour which was flowing strongly beneath its two low arches, just time for a quick photo for the collection. Beyond Stewpony Lock comes the diminutive Dunsley Tunnel - all 25 yards of it, complete with a full BW warning sign at each end: extinguish all cigarettes, naked flames etc. Its a bit of overkill for a tunnel which, as Jeff pointed out, was so short that the bows of a full length boat would just about be emerging before the stern went in! Hey Ho - rules is rules.

I forgot to photograph Dunsley, so here is an image of Cookley for good measure!

Next up it was Hyde Lock with is lovely cottage. I was particularly taken with the front gates which were fashioned as minature mitre lock gates - very cute and worth imitating at home maybe
Thinking of lock side houses, I saw a couple of interesting ones for sale, one lovely and probably very expensive example at Whittington Lock, and another much smaller one at Debdale Lock which is currently being restored - Mr Denny take note.
There is a huge cave alongside Debdale Lock. It must have have some specific purpose at one time, but with no windows I think it is too dark for a cave house.

The stretch through Wolverley is very beautiful, with the canal sometimes notched into the overhanging red sandstone cliffs, perched precariously above the River Stour which laps at its foundations. Wolverley Court offered another aqueduct for the collection, but with all the rain we have been having it was more of a submarine tunnel verging on a culvert. As we entered Kidderminster the heavens opened yet again and I was physically pummelled by the rain, so strong that it forced its way through my umbrella in the form of a fine mist. The shower was so localised I could see the wall of water up ahead, had time to slow the boat, don my waterproofs and set up the brolly before motoring into the maelstrom - it was like stepping into a very cold shower! We made it to Sainsbury's at 3.45pm - 15 mins before closing time, which was just long enough for Belle and Jeff to perform a re-enactment of "supermarket sweep" before they closed the doors to the public.

My enthusiasm for boating was draining away as fast as the rainwater was dribbling from the scuppers, and my resolve to reach Stourport melted away. However, the rain eased at 4.15pm and within minutes the Captian was spied charging off into the undergrowth to try and photograph the Kidderminster Aqueduct! Will he never tire of this most perverse of obsessions?

Kidderminster carries few legacies of its proud industrial past. The factories which lined the canal have all gone and been replaced by the bland faces of the usual redevelopment suspects; Tescos, Sainsbury's, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, M&S etc. Franchised businesses may pay my salary, but they do little to maintain the individual heritage of a town. That said, One mill building remains, cunningly incorporated into a Debenhams outlet, with the old pumping house converted into a Frankie and Benny's. Conversion is far better that total destruction.

We are never too keen on town centre moorings so rather than press on into Stourport Basin, we moored between Oldington and Bullocks Lane Bridges which offered a quiet spot for the night.

With two days travel under our belts I took a look at the repacked stern tube, which had delivered only the merest dribble of water into the bilge. The shaft may be a bit worn but the repacking remedy seems to be doing the trick. As to the River Severn, the rumours are not good. The boats coming up the canal report a river in flood, well up into the red zone.
Bother, this will be the third aborted attempt to cruise the Stourport Ring which has repeatedly been thwarted by inclement water levels. As a plan B, I guess we can always retrace our steps and reach Kingswood Junction via the Stourport Canal and the BCN. Not an ideal alternative, but at least the schools haven't broken up yet.

Saturday 18 July 2009

Calf Heath to Greensforge

Calf Heath to Greensforge
Saturday 18th July 2009
Staffs and Worcester Canal

16 Miles
16 Locks
8 Hours

The wind and rain howled across the marina all night, feeling more like November than summery July! However, morning heralded in a more broken sky but unusually I was unmotivated to make a start. I have had so much on my mind just lately that family issues just wont release their grip on me. I know things are bad by the tightness that has returned to my chest.

I finally stirred at 9.00am and, after a hearty breakfast, was on the move by 10.00am. Still blustery and fresh but at least no rain.
There was very little boat traffic today and we made good time along the summit pound, reaching Compton lock at 1.00pm. We paused at Limekiln Chandlers just below the lock, filling with diesel (67p per litre based on a 60/40 split) and finally decided to buy a lie flat hose which, I am assured, won't taint the water with the horrible plastic taste caused by the length of garden hose I have used for the last few years.

The assistant was really helpful but both I and Jeff found it almost impossible not to stare at his amazing ear rings. They were huge - maybe 3cm across around which his ear lobes had been stretched. But that wasn't all - the disc in the centre of this lobes was in the form of a convex lens which magnified the skin beneath. Very unusual - I hope he dosn't get a burned neck if the sun ever makes an appearance.

Whilst we were tending to the boats needs at the Chandler's, Belle went off in search of the shop marked on the map. It turned out that it was a really great little independent supermarket called "Daisy" which is well worth a visit, and stocked an exceptional range of quality meat, but only one line of rather inferior ground coffee - an essential element of any breakfast afloat.

The weather brightened as the afternoon wore on, even justifying the donning of my new prescription sunglasses (two for the price of one at Specsavers) as we were assisted through Bratch by a very informative BW lock keeper, who even looked up the latest cricket score at Lords.

We finally moored up just below Greensforge Lock, settling down to a pile of pizza and three episodes of 24 - series 2. The new flyscreens were pressed into service for the first time and proved to be 100% effective against the little creatures of the night.

Friday 17 July 2009

Calf Heath Marina - the start

Calf Heath Marina - the start
Friday 17th July 2009

Index of posts in this series:
1. - Calf Heath - the start - this post
2. - Calf Heath to Greensforge
3. - Greensforge to Stourport
4. - Stourport to Tibberton
5. - Tibberton to Tardebigge Bottom
6. - Tardebigge Bottom to Hopwood
7. -  Hopwood to Tipton
8. - Tipton to Calf Heath

The end of a truly terrible week - ducking for cover every time the phone rang and breathing a huge sigh of relief when the clock struck 5.00pm and my work answerphone was turned on.

Given the other issues which have overwhelmed us in recent weeks, I have done precious little planning for this trip beyond checking the practicality of the proposed route. Packing was left till the day before we set off, so its a good job we are familiar with the essentials.

With Belle and Jeff at the Globe Theatre in London on Friday, I loaded the car before work and dropped them off at New St at 8.00am. To get me in the mood for the boat trip I made a slight detour to get some photos of the rather excellent Holliday Street Aqueduct, which carries the extreme northern end of the Worcester Birmingham Canal into Worcester Bar and Gas St Basin.

As I left work the heavens opened making the crawl up the M6 to Junction 12 particularly hellish. I just had time to load everything on board before a storm of Biblical proportions descended so I made the best of it and unpacked, scoffing a tin of Pringles and a Kit Kat by way of an evening meal.

I finally made it back home to pack Jeff's stuff, only to learn that they were returning on an earlier than expected train so back into New Street before another trip up the M6! Oh such joy...

Forward Planning

Forward Planning
17th July 2009
I can't believe that the summer holidays are nearly upon us, and that means the next boat trip. Whoop Whoop Whoop! (that's a cry of excitement, not the klaxon of a submerging submarine!).
Due to inconsistent school holidays we have some complicated chopping and changing to accommodate the comings and goings of the various crew members.
In a nutshell we will be doing most of the Stourport Ring, following the Staffs and Worcester down to the River Severn and then on to Worcester before working back up Tardebigge and onto Kingswood Junction for a couple of days layover. This leg will include Belle, Jeff & myself and is scheduled to take six days, an itinerary confirmed by Canalplanac without resorting to the accelerated cruising speed I used for the South Pennine Ring at Easter.
Jim of Starcross will be proud of my plans to use public transport back from Lapworth for the middle weekend.
For the second leg Jeff, having been dispatched to Boys Brigade camp, will be replaced by Tilly. We will then retrace our route from last year through Hatton, hopefully having time to pause in Braunston before completing the trip via Fazeley, Fradley and Gt Haywood.
All we need is for the summer sun to return...

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Boating and The Bard

Boating and The Bard
15th July 2009

It's been a weekend of contrasts.

Friday saw Wand'ring Bark recovered from Calf Heath Boatyard resplendent with a shiny black hull and new annodes glinting in the watery depths. It's two and a half years since she was last out of the water and long overdue for some TLC. The few annodes which survived the rigours of the winter's ice were completely shot and they have been replaced by four chunky 2.8kg blocks, two to the bows and two on the swim. The stern gland was also starting to weep so fresh packing was added for good measure.

Stowe Pool Lichfield

Saturday was a day to myself, with Jeff doing Duke of Edinburgh Award stuff and Belle off to the theatre in Stratford with her God daughter. This provided a window of opportunity for uninterrupted boat tinkering which included:

Replacement of the puny hatch bolts with some more substantial versions to repel would be invaders.

A good wash down of the topsides with turtle wax shampoo.

Finally, I purchased a slightly used stern button fender from my neighbour for £20 and replaced the old one, which had sagged and become riddled with some form of aquatic fungus (yuk).

Sunday contained yet more culture for the Ahabs. Tilly was home for the day and the three of us set off to watch an amateur production of Much Ado About Nothing in the grounds of Stowe House, part of the Lichfield Festival. The picnic lunch on the lawn was very pleasant but sadly the play was as far from a rib tickling laugh as it was possible to get. I stood in awe that the actors were able to recall those endless lines, but humour was notable by its absence.

With Tilly getting restless we decamped to Cafe Nero and a good Mocca - a wise move.

But not all was lost. The expedition gave me an opportunity to walk Round Stowe Pool, one of Lichfield's three fishery lakes (there used to be four) before returning to collect a very weary and smelly adolescent boy. Stowe Pool is interesting in that it was constructed in the eighteenth century but with the demise of the fishery it was passed onto the Stouth Staffs Water Company in the mid 1800's whereupon the banks were raised and strengthened, rising up to six metres above the original ground level.

Humpy the carp

Today the lake is enjoyed by walkers who can wander round atop the levee and fishermen who patiently stalk Old Humpy, a 50 year old 25lb carp who lurks in the depths. Humpy's comrade in arms, Two-Tone, died a few years ago. I guess that a fish can only take so many landings!

Monday 13 July 2009

A need for speed

A need for speed
5th July 2009

Another first in my life, my first ever motor racing event.

One of my boating buddies had some spare tickets to the Silverstone stage of the Renault World Series and, knowing of Jeff's fascination with cars, offered them to me.

The start - the only time I knew which car was on the lead...

Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth I agreed and a plan was made to attend on Saturday 4th July. Sadly, events conspired against us when the clutch in Belle's car failed - on the way to pick up my Mondeo which had just had a new clutch fitted (bad luck or what!). I also had to get Wand'ring Bark to the boatyard for blacking, so the whole timetable went to pot.

However, it was a two day event and as we needed to be on the south coast on Monday morning a plan B was hatched. Actually this was a much more interesting schedule which allowed Jeff and I to go to Silverstone, Belle to indulge in some retail therapy at Bicester Village and then to move on to Oxford to pick up a new basin for Wand'ring Bark from Mortimer Bones.

Jeff the racing driver
So what did I make of the motor racing? Well, to be honest I didn't really get it as a spectator sport. You plonk yourself down on a stand near one of the bends redolent with famous names like Stowe, Maggots, The Vale and Club and watch a gaggle of cars (is that the collective?) hurtle past you in a wall of sound and exhaust - and then they are gone, for about two minutes till they streak past again, sometimes in a slightly different order. With all the pit stops it is hard to work out who is winning, but the huge crowd seemed to enjoy it. I was impressed by the bigger racing cars, sort of Formula 2 size, whose passing was unbelievably LOUD. You don't so much hear them as feel them as your innards are pummelled.

An experience which was interesting, but not one which captured my imagination. I guess it served to get the nation's boy racers off the roads for a day or two - which has to be a good thing.

Tranquility at Shipton on Cherwell

Then on to Thrupp to meet Bones for the first time. Way back in February she mentioned that she had a spare basin going begging and it looked just right for the new shower room project. We promised to meet up whenever either of us was near the other, and this was the first time out paths crossed. We got to meet Bones, Maffi and the hugely entertaining Boots (Greyhound) - what lovely people. We shared some mugs of tea, replenished our book supply from the Cruising Club "library" and generally chewed the cud on a warm summers evening beside the cut.

You get a better class of towpath decoration in Thrupp!

I guess that this represents the starting gun for the much delayed shower room remodelling. I have promised to have it finished in time for our passage down the Oxford Canal next summer which, on past form, may be a bit of a challenge.