Saturday 31 October 2009

Herons on the towpath


I am no avid birdwatcher, but the sight of a Heron standing poised on the canal bank never fails to fascinate me.

I know that they are two a penny on our waterways, but there is something captivating about how thay stand, completely motionless waiting for a fish to move in the face of an approaching boat. Most times their endeavours are in vain, but just now and then they throw themselves into the water, emerging with a silvery fish clamped in their long beak.

Other times they will give up  before you reach them, soaring into the air on their huge grey wings, folding their heads down onto an s shaped neck, only to land and repeat the exercise again and again down miles and miles of canal.

These are a few of the many Heron photos I have taken this summer.

Friday 30 October 2009

Ridgacre Branch Canal - Birmingham Canal Navigations

Ridgacre Branch Canal - BCN
Cycling Expedition
25th October 2009

I recently took a look at the Swan Arm, a still navigable section of the Wednesbury Old Canal which stops at the recently installed Black Country Spine Road.

A 3/4 mile branch canal was added in 1826 to reach some new coal mines in the area, known as the Ridgeacre Branch Canal, a name which has since been reused by the pub which sits on the junction.

Reedy start of the Ridgacre Branch Canal

This arm starts off all clogged with weed but soon opens out onto a clear wide waterway, all ready for boats were it not for the culverted section under the roads! The quality of this stretch puzzled me till I cycled along it and realised that it is maintained by a local fishing club, offering a good measure of water from which the fish cannot escape.

Open water on Ridgacre Branch

The towpath is well maintained and forms part of the Sandwell cycle trails network, taking riders along a surprisingly pretty tree lined stretch of water.

Fishing near the terminus

As usual, all traces of the mines it served have gone, and the area is now surrounded by housing who's residents use the canal area as a linear waterpark. Given a choice between what I see here and the slow death of the Swan Arm, I would opt for the Ridgacre Branch canal option anyday.

Thursday 29 October 2009

Norbury Junction - Shropshire Union Canal

Norbury Junction
Shropshire Union Canal

Norbury is a strange sort of place. Mention it to any canal enthusiast and they will know exactly where you mean, a bit like knowing the whereabouts of Peterborough to anyone else. But mention Norbury to a non canal person and all you will get are blank stares.

Autumn at Norbury Junction

I suppose that this reaction isn't surprising. Norbury may be a very significant point on the Shropshire Union canal, but in reality even it's claim to be a junction is somewhat tenuous. The Newport Branch canal, which struck off west from this point, was abandoned a good 70 years ago and the flight of locks which carried the cut down to the level of the surrounding fields long since gone.

An original wharf crane in the BW yard at Norbury

Plans are afoot to restore this canal, connecting it to the Shropshire Union level with some form of amazing lift, like that seen at Falkirk. I don't know if the idea will ever see the light if day, but I suspect that given the number of visitors that already flock to what currently exists, the presence of a massive lift would probably be a huge tourist draw.

So what we are left with is a small hamlet, but one which owed and continues to owe its existance to the canal which runs through it. There isn't a lot to the place, The Junction Inn, a chandlery and boat hire business, a working boatyard in the stub of the Newport Branch,  A BW office and yard  and long line of residential / non residential moorings.

Boatyard using the first lock of the Newport Branch as a dry dock.

As I said, the place owes its continued existence to the canal, which is both unusual and pleasant. I had a wander round the hamlet on a recent visit and was strck be the timeless feel of the place, the autumnal trees casting glorious reflections in the still waters.

It's a case of quality triumphing over quantity in my opinion, and well worth a stop at the visitor moorings if you have the time.

Wednesday 28 October 2009

Swan Arm (Wednesbury Old Canal) - BCN

Swan Arm (part of the Wednesbury Old Canal) - BCN
Cycling Expedition
25th October 2009

The Swan Arm is seen by many as the least of the BCN's canals, a mere 3/4 mile stump branching off just above the Ryders Green locks.

Entrance to the Swan Arm

This view is rather sad, as few will realise that it is actually one of the oldest canals in the country, and formed an essential element of Brindley's original canal plans. Technically, the Wednesbury Old Canal started at the Spon Lane locks, descending off Brindley's main line and largely followed the route of what is now the New Main Line from Bromford Junction to Pudding Green Junction. It then progressed to the top of the newer Ryders Green Locks, before joining the short stretch we see today.

Spon Lane Locks - the oldest in the country

Every year the state of this waterway gets worse and worse, clogged with weed, rubbish and shopping trollies, before terminating abruptly at the new Black Country Spine Road. I last navigated this stretch in May 2007 and barely made it through the narrow section half way along, also struggling over the shopping trolly reef under Swan Bridge.

Yes, this is navigable... just

At the time of my latest cycling expedition (October 2009), the navigable gap had decreased to maybe three feet. However, the floating weed must be movable as it was clear from the trolleys on the bank that at least some of the BCN Marathoners made it to the winding hole at the end.

Swan Arm terminus and winding hole

I would encourage any boaters with a pioneering spirit about them to give this arm a crack. Whilst the narrow bit is scary, and it's end isn't apparent when you start, the canal does open out again and a decent pint can be bought from the Ridgacre Inn just over the main road.

This arm may not have much of a future, but it does have a very illustrious past. If you don't use it you can expect to lose it. Personally, I give it five years before even the most committed boater is unable to make a passage to the end.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Fox and Anchor pub review, Coven on Staffs and Worcester Canal

Fox and Anchor pub at Coven
Staffs and Worcester Canal
18th October 2009

I regard the Fox and Anchor as my local pub, which is strange because it lies a good 18 miles from my home. The thing is, it is the closest pub to Calf Heath where Wand'ring Bark lives, and is about 40 mins cruising away which is just about right for a short trip out.

I never feel the Fox and Anchor presents its best face to the canal, with a lot of whitewashed outbuilding walls and a couple of huge steel chimneys which billow smoke from the grills beneath. But venture round the corner it presents a very different face.

If you can gauge a pub's welcome by the size of its logpile, the Fox and Anchor is welcoming indeed.

However, the real attraction lies within. This is a foodie pub which draws in punters from miles around. In the summertime they throng the decking which overlooks the canal, and in the winter they huddle round the numerous log fires, with each table in its secluded little nook or crannie. The menu isn't all that extensive but the food they serve is all of an excellent standard. My personal favourite is the beefburgers made out of scottish beef - hmmm.

The drinks arn't bad either. A good selection of wines and beers, plus two or three guest ales for those who fancy something a little different.

Get in early if you want a table, but once a spot has been bagged you can be assured of quick and polite service, and a final bill which won't break the bank. Take last night : two pints each, a three course meal and we still had change from £40.

Perhaps the best way to see the pub from the water is at night.

Monday 26 October 2009

Fitting the kitchen sink in narrowboat Wand'ring Bark

Everything including the kitchen sink

I have noticed the edge of Wand'ring Bark's sink getting a bit 'crunchy' of late, and some rust coloured water seeping out. This is not good and it isn't getting any better.

With Belle away being intellectual in Stratford, Tilly at school and Jeff winging his way to Bulgaria to renovate an orphanage (long story) I found myself with a day to myself - in fact a very long day as I has to drop Jeff off at 4.00am!

After a quick measure up, I was off to Midland Chandlers in Penkridge returning £80 worse off but the proud owner of a new stainless sink and drainer. The only snag was a  total absence of fitting instructions. Well, so what - instructions are for wimps anyway is my standard cry, I'll make it up as I go along.

Getting the old sink out was pretty easy, just four screws and unclip the waste water pipe underneath. The problem came when I realised that the new unit needed a bigger hole to accommodate the drainer as well. This involved the introduction of my trusty jigsaw but also meant removing the taps, which is always a job I hate. Every time I do any plumbing I end up with flood, and today was no exception.

After much huffing and puffing the taps were extracted and the new hole cut, and then recut because the first one was too small. Then it was time for the magic silicone - amazing stuff. First I gave the cut surfaces a liberal annointing to repel moisture, and then applied a generous bead round the edge of the hole and also the lip of the sink. With all this glorious goo in place, I dropped the sink into its hole and pressed down - the silicone is all that holds it in place.

With the taps cleaned up and replaced the end result is a nice clean stainless steek sink, which is at least two inches deeper than the old one, and should make a better job of containing the washing up.

Not bad for a couple of hours work.

Sunday 25 October 2009

Waterways Bloggers unite

Waterways Bloggers unite

The problem with us happy band of waterways bloggers is that we exist mainly in cyberspace and its rare that we ever meet up, but when we do its a moment of great excitement.

During my recent autumn trip I would like to say that I met three prolific bloggers, but that wouldn't be exactly true. What actually happened was that I saw three boats which bear the name of the owners blogsites.

nb Harnser

True, I did see nb Harnser moored up outside the Fox and Anchor at Coven, but I has passed before I realised it was them, so didn't have an opportinity to stop. (I have subsequently been advised that the blogger Harnser is blue - so this was the wrong boat - sorry!)

nb Debdale

Next up it was nb Debdale moored in its Norbury Junction home. I cant claim that this came as a surprise to me, as Adam had mentioned it in the the Debdale blog.

nb Starcross

Finally there was nb Starcross, (the boat at the back) hunkered down just north of Norbury Bridge. Again, this is her home mooring with her master known to be gallivanting around on a "not boating" holiday in France.

So, my big meeting with fellow bloggers was a very private affair comprising just me, Wand'ring Bark the three other boats. Not very dynamic but worthy of note.

Saturday 24 October 2009

Bloxwich thieves use Wyrley and Essington canal for quick getaway

Thieves use Wyrley and Essington Canal to make a quick getaway

We have something of a standing joke in our family about how it would be impossible to use a canal boat to make a quick getaway from a crime scene. How wrong one can be!

Only this week an article appeared in the Express and Star reporting that thieves had both used a boat and constructed an improvised jetty to steal several tons of scrap metal from a factory in Bloxwich, near Walsall.

According to the reports it must have taken the thieves literally hours to complete this task, and presumably a similar time to unload it again at their destination.

There must be easier ways to make a dishonest buck. Hey, we shouldnt complain - it's good to see freight back on the Wyrley and Essington (but I bet they didn't pay their license fee!)

Friday 23 October 2009

Autherley Junction

Autherley Junction

I have a stong affection for Autherley Junction.

For me it represents something of a gateway to my dreams, giving access to the northern canals from our Calf Heath base.

A busy Autherley Junction

Sure, I can go east and take my choice of routes from Great Haywood Junction or Fradley Junction. Or, if I am feeling particularly energetic and brave I can go past Autherley and enter the BCN at Aldersley.  But If I want to dream of long days of lazy cruising, they tend to start at Autherley. We are really blessed to have the best of the Shropshire Union all within two days cruising of our home base.

As for the junction itself, it's a rather unremarkable affair with a crossover bridge, a stop lock, a collection of old canal buildings, plus a modest outpost of the Napton Narrowboats empire. Given the proximity of Wolverhampton and the lack of a pub, there are realtively few long term liveaboards at the junction, so a passage through tends to be someting of a solitary affair.

The presence of Napton Narrowboard (previously Water Travel) is a big plus as the staff are always cheeful and happy to provide diesel and a pumpout. They also work sensible hours which means that they tend to be there when you need them! Their collection of hire boats can get in the way at times but they are completely relaxed about you tying up alongside and clambering across.

The above view was taken on a sparkling October afternoon, when the hire fleet was being prepared for the final rush of the season. Its good to see such busyness on the canals.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

Norbury Icebreaker - Shropshire Union Canal

Norbury Icebreaker
21st October 2009

During my recent travels along the Shropshire Union I paused and spent some time in Norbury.

As I was wandering along the towpath capturing the autumn colours, and the obligatory Aqueduct, I noticed an old icebreaker sitting full of water on the offside, near the residential moorings.

Icebreaker at Norbury

This unpowered craft is something of a rarity, with its sharp reinforced bows and stern designed to ride over and split apart the ice, aided and abetted by a gang of burly blokes rocking it to and fro, whilst hanging onto the central pole for dear life. Maybe this was a primative version of pole dancing?

It's a shame to see a craft like this wallowing on the mud, filled to the gunnels with rainwater. Having said that, exactly what else can it be used for apart from a floating shed?

Monday 19 October 2009

The Anchor Inn pub review, High Offley on Shropshire Union Canal

The Anchor Inn at High Offley
20th October 2009

I have often pased the Anchor Inn at High Offley, but never ventured in through its hallowed portal, that is until last weekend.

My leisurely sojourn to Norbury and back brought me neatly to the moorings near this pub on Saturday night. I was out and about with the new camera, photographing some of the many residential boats, and the pub itself as darkness fell when I was invited in by the locals. It seemed rude to turn them down.

The Anchor Inn at High Offley

This is a truly amazing pub, even by canal standards as it is one of the few true boatmans pubs which has retained its character with the passing of the working trade. If you fancy a quiet pint and relish anonymity, this isn't the pub for you. Essentially, it's a double breasted house with both front rooms serving as a public bar. In fact, it feels very much like drinking in someone's dining room. This homespun feel was reinforced by the sight of Olive's (the landlandy) ironing piled up awaiting attention in the back room. Beer is served from jugs and, like the TV show 'Cheers', it's a place where everyone knows your name. Sadly, my name appeared to be 'the nutter with the camera'.

NB Allen - for sale at the time of my visit

The clientele was as quaint as the fabric of the place. The customers were mostly residents of the many liveaborad craft in the vicinity, and tales abounded of bans from other pubs, characters of note and above all, skirmishes with the dreaded BW. The strange thing that dawned on me after half an hour or so, was that somewhere between Brewood and Norbury I had passed from the Black Country into rural Shropshire. This is obvious from the scenery, but the fact that the local accents change so completely over a distance of just 10 miles or so was quite striking.

Given the intimacy of the place it was impossible not to be thrown into the local community, and I spent a very pleasant hour or so soaking up the atmosphere. All in all a most unusual pub and one not to be missed.  

Sunday 18 October 2009

Picture Messaging by British waterways

Picture Messaging by British Waterways

It's good to see that BW understand both the curiosity of boaters and the power of photos.

The recent closure of the Shropshire Union was publicised using bright yellow information leaflets, like this one I spotted at the Gnosall waterpoint.

Not only do they explain what is going on, but the also provide photo. This goes a long way towards satisfying my curiosity and significantly reduced the temptation I felt to hop round the barricades at Shebdon and have a good look at the repair site myself.

Whilst this is good news from a health and safety perspective, it spoils my fun!

Seriously - good idea BW. 

 Hey, I have just realised that BW is the inverse of WB (Wand'ring Bark) spooky or what?

Saturday 17 October 2009

Darth Vadar spotted at Stretton Boatyard

Stretton Aqueduct Boatyard
17th October 2009

The boatyard near Stretton Aqueduct is a mysterious and wonderful place. I pass it two or three times a year and on each occasion it is full of activity and really interesting craft.

I remember my first trip past it about five years ago when it was little more than a bit of waste ground, and I have since watched its evolution into a bustling yard specialising in the repair of ancient and unusual craft.

On my latest trip I was particularly impressed by two boats, a biggish sea going affair which would  find no place on the restricted Shropshire Union, and something which looks like a cross between an inspection launch and a Lake District steamer such as Teal. This rusted narrowbeam steamer has been there for a long time, and I cant see that any progress has been made since last year. Does anyone know anything about this strange craft?

As I approached the yard a huge cloud of spray and dust drifted over the canal, caused by the shotblasting of an old working boat. I always wondered what came of Darth Vader when his plans for intergalatic domination slipped through his grasp!

Thursday 15 October 2009

Autumn image on the Shropshire Union Canal

Autumn on the Shroppie
16th October 2009

I have recently returned from a delightful four days on the Shropshire Union, a relaxing solo cruise up to the breach at Shebdon Embankment and back. On this occasion the Shroppie had become a 16 mile culdesac with virtually no traffic, an opportunity not to be missed.

As luck would have it, the weather was brilliant, especially on the way back. As I made my way through the Lapley Wood Cutting, just south of Wheaton Aston, I saw a spectacular shaft of sunlight striking down on the canal through the autumn canopy of leaves. This was such a beautiful sight that I slowed the boat to tickover and scampered along the room to try and capture the image on film, much to the amusement of some walkers on the towpath. 

The trip was full of interest and incident which I will write up in the near future, but as a taster I thought you might like the above photo.

Steve Haywood and the 'hard' canals

Steve Haywood and the 'hard' canals
15th October 2009

Steve Haywood wrote a thought-provoking item in this month’s Canal Boat magazine concerning the lack of use of the less popular “hard” canals. In his inimitable style, he takes a swipe at “soft” boaters who, hearing rumours of feral youths and an undercurrent of danger, promptly strike the waterway from their list of possible options.

Specifically he was rueing the absence of boaters from this years IWA festival venturing up the adjacent Erewash Canal, and exhorting them to put at least one “hard to do” canal on their annual boating calendar to ensure that these hard fought for waterways are not lost.

I completely share his sentiment but have to admit that my motivation is not to travel the less frequented routes because I have to, but more because I want to. Whilst some may be a bit deficient in the beauty stakes, they tend to make up for it in historical interest and incident. A review of my blog entries for the far flung corners of the BCN, or the Manchester / Rochdale area, or the Erewash itself reveals that there is much to see and comment on.

Pushing up these backwaters engenders something of a pioneering spirit, accompanied by a wonderful sense of isolation.

But let’s not pretend that “doing” these canals will be a walk in the park, that one will arrive at the time expected, or that your progress will be as serene and stately as you would expect on say, the Shropshire Union. To enjoy these canals one needs to approach them in the right frame of mind, and with an acceptance that setbacks will occur, and come equipped with the tools needed to overcome them.

My personal approach is to do a bit of homework and preparation which includes:

  • Taking the right crew. I wouldn’t dream of taking Belle into the BCN backwaters around Walsall, but I have some beefy boaty friends who relish the opportunity of urban backwater bashing, even in darkest Harden.

  • Go at the right time. By this I mean avoid weekends and school holidays wherever possible. If groups of 14 year old boys are the problem, travel through their territories when they are least likely to be out and about.

  • If you do see groups of youths rush out of sight when your boat approaches, get a crew member ashore armed with a camera and phone, who can escort the boat through the area. The presence of someone on the towpath is usually enough to make them stop and find softer targets. Avoid catapults or other retaliatory measures as this just ups the ante and what were pebbles soon become life threatening half bricks!

  •  Pick the right season. Don’t venture onto the Wyrley and Essington or the Witham Navigable Drains after the end of June to avoid excessive weed.

  • Come prepared to clear the prop. Accept hourly visits to the weed hatch as inevitable and one completely stalled engine per day.

  • Tools for the job. I could right a book called “ nasty things I have pulled off my prop” and each calls for a particular tool / approach.

· Weed – probably best removed by hand.<!--[endif]-->

· Polythene bags – rip off the loose ones by hand and use a Stanley knife for those twisted to the consistency of string round the propshaft.

· Sheet polythene and road cones – Stanley knife / hacksaw (careful of fingers)

· Football nets and clothing – sharp serrated kitchen knife

· Rope and mattress covers – hacksaw
  • Mattress and chair springs – wire cutters

  • Talk to the locals. Their accents may be different to the point of being virtually impossible to understand, but if you can get close enough to interact with them, about the sate of the fishing of what is wrong with their motorbike, they tend to see you as a person and not a target.
  • Work out the possible safe moorings in advance, and have fallback plans in case you get delayed.

Top Tips:

  • Top Tip 1: Tie a length of string onto any tool you use underwater – it’s really annoying to drop your only hacksaw half way through a job.

  •  Top Tip 2: Canals and stuff in them are filthy. Use protective gloves and barrier cream if you can and make sure you wash thoroughly when you are finished.

  • Top Tip 3: Take a dustbin bag with you to put all the debris in. There is no point leaving the rubbish in the cut for the next boater to pick up again.

  • Top Tip 4: Use a lookout up front. In particularly bad areas, have someone watching out for submerged mattresses and chairs, giving you time to cut the engine and glide over the obstruction.

I have gained great enjoyment from my passages through the badlands and tough going sections, and have always made it to my destination in the end without any material damage beyond the odd chip or two in the paintwork.

I guarantee that these off piste adventures provide a rich seam of material for boating stories in the pub during those long winter evenings. Ask me about the Rochdale canal and I could talk about the beauty of the Yorkshire side for hours, but the bit you will want to know about was my passage back down into Lancashire through the likes of Rochdale, Failsworth and Ashton.

And in answer to your question? Yes, the Erewash is a canal worth doing. It is hard work and a bit dirty but the mills it passes are truly spectacular, reeking of an industry now long gone. And then there is the top end when the canal breaks free of urbanity. The last couple of miles into Langley Mills are beatiful and provide a slight hint at the wonders that will one day lie ove the next 16 miles to the north, when the Cromford Canal (a personal favourite of mine) is restored.

Go forth and discover.