Friday 31 December 2010

2010 Top 10 - No1 Froghall

2010 Top Ten Boating Moments
Number One - Froghall Tunnel

I'm not sure if it's true to say that this is the highlight of 2010 - maybe it's truer to say it was in a very literal way, the low point of the boating year. Either way it was one of the more memorable moments and one which was eagerly anticipated.

Ever since we bought Wand'ring Bark I was a little sad that she appeared to be too high to make it through the Caldon's diminutive tunnel. This impression was reinforced during a visit a few years ago when we gave the warning guide a hearty smack which seemingly proved our excessive height beyond all reasonable doubt.

Subsequent research gave a glimmer of hope and we set off on the autumn trip with a plan to ballast down as much as we could, and give it a try.

In the event we made a very tentative entry and eased our way through, all the time waiting for the boat to wedge but that moment never came. The roof crowded down lower and lower but we squeezed through with about 1cm of clearance, emerging into a dusky Froghall Wharf with a fast beating heart but less a few bits of paint.

This unexpected success was certainly the most scary moment of the boating season, but also one of the most pleasurable. A worthy holder of the cherished No1 spot for 2010.

Thursday 30 December 2010

2010 Top 10 - No 2 Leek Arm

2010 Top 10 Boating Moments
Leek Arm

The Leek Arm is a gem of a waterway, tucked away in the Staffordshire Moorlands and probably would feature in many boaters top ten.

Our autumn trip up the Caldon this year was particularly beautiful, with the trees displaying a glorious array of colour in a last gasp of an Indian summer just days before winter slammed its doors shut on the cruising season.

Not only were the colours magical, but this trip saw us mooring up in the pool just outside Leek tunnel. This was undoubtedly one of the loveliest moorings anywhere on the system.

Wednesday 29 December 2010

2010 Top 10 - No 3 Outing with Northern Pride

2010 Top 10 Boating Moments
Day out with Barry and Sandra from Northern Pride

I seem to have got my top ten boating moments out of chronological order. But never mind, they come in no particular order so it dosn't really matter that this one is out of sequence.

We had followed the travels of Sandra and Barry on their blog for over a year and were delighted when their itinerary brought them along the Staffs and Worcester Canal, mooring up opposite Calf Heath Marina all ready for a day out on Wand'ring Bark.

It was a wonderful day, Barry and I nattered about anything and everything at the stern whilst the girls sipped wine in the bows. I was so distracted I bumped just about every lock entrance but the day flashed by - a sure sign of a great day out.

Tuesday 28 December 2010

Counting the cost of the big freeze

Counting the cost of the big freeze
28th December 2010

I ventured down to Wand'ring Bark today, the first visit in the five weeks since Belle had her accident. I approached with some fear and trepidation, wondering what I would discover.

The marina remains a sea of ice, still five or six inches thick but it has retreated from the hull by a few millimetres, enough to let it float free but still tight enough for it to grind every time I moved around.

My main fear was for the calorifier, how could it have survived minus seventeen degrees or worse? But amazingly it has, there were no signs of water and I kicked the engine into life to put some heat into it and see if the lack of leaks was due to it being a solid block of ice. Slowly the little black vein pumped warmth into the cylinder and all remained well.

Sure the ice has forced a water pipe off a tap - but that has happened before. And the already leaky accumulator has given up the ghost but in all other respects the boat was fine. I think we have  got off lightly, and if she can cope with the travails of the last month I think she can cope with just about anything.

Others were not so lucky. Several chimneys were smoking away as the owners put some warmth back into their frozen craft but those wit Paloma water heaters seem to have had a tough time. Several has frozen up and ruptured their heat exchangers - an expensive fix.

Whilst WB has been left to freeze we have been all toasty at home, burning up lots of the logs purloined from the cuttings of the Shroppie at an alarming rate. But no matter, I have been watching a self sown silver birch grow up in the garden for the last 20 years and decided to view it as my reserve log pile. Today that reserve as transformed into two months of fuel, all cut up with the chainsaw and split into logs. With a bit of luck this will see us through the winter and maybe even offer a couple of bag fulls for the Easter 2011 cruise.

Its good to start dreaming of possible 2011 desitnations.

2010 Top 10 - No 4 Gloucester Docks

2010 Top 10 Boating Moments
Gloucester Docks

I'm always a sucker for films where victory is snatched out of the jaws of adversity.

Our late August trip down the Severn could fall within this category. After a season plagued with drought we ventured down the River Severn with the aim of making a passage up the Avon. In the  event the Avon went into flood and we hurriedly decided on a "plan b" - down to the Gloucester Sharpness Canal.

All didn't go according to plan and the Severn followed suit, flooding up and trapping us in Gloucester for several days.

This particular cloud had a silver lining. Gloucester proved to be a lovely city with a spectacular cathedral and docks to die for.

Of course, at this time Wand'ring Bark was nursing factured propshaft coupling and a trip against a flooded Severn was about the last thing we wanted. The return home was therefore a bit of a white knuckle ride but all was well that ended well - we made it!

Monday 27 December 2010

2010 Top 10 - No 5 Abingdon with Northern Pride

2010 Top 10 - Number 5
Abingdon with Northern Pride

Happy Christmas one and all.

Identifying the next highlight was an easy decision. We had been tracking the progress of Northern Pride for the last 18 months and maintained regular contact, meeting up wherever an opportunity presented itself.

It became apparent that out paths might cross on the Thames. As the days passed a rendevous in Abingdon became a real possibility. We hurried down from Thrupp, passing through Abingdon Lock just as the keeper was going off duty to find Barry and Sandra waving wildly. They had saved us a mooring and planned an evening of "fun games". Fun was in as plentiful supply that evening, as was Barry's home brew. Glasses were filled and refilled as we learned 6 Handed Rummy - with the golden rule of never buy in the last round. Guess who forgot and blew his chances of a victory!

A hilarious evening was had when the river echoed to the sounds of our laughter and Jeff (fill it up) got quietly Brahms and List for the first time in his life!

Sandra and Barry - no canals but at least its warm in New Zealand! Happy Christmas.

Sunday 26 December 2010

2010 Top 10 - No 6 Thrupp

2010 Top 10 - Number 6
24th December 2010

Our continuing watery travel bring us to the summer and our trip to London. More specifically, they bring us to Thrupp at the end of our first week and to Bones mooring.

Maffi and Bones (She denies the arm is hers!)

 Brian and Diana

This particular evening was a bit special, being shared with Bones and Maffi (plus Boots and Molly) together with Brian and Diana from nb Harnser in the The Boat. A live band were playing in the small bar and we, the audience, crowded in wherever we could. The atmosphere was great, the ale excellent and the company second to none. Taken together with the mad dash to get to Kate Staffin' production and my own journey down with Maffi it is right up there among the very best evenings of 2010.

Saturday 25 December 2010

2010 Top 10 - No7 Gas St Basin

2010 Top 10 - Number 7
Gas St Basin Birmingham

First and foremost, happy Christmas one and all. Especially those of you that are locked in the ice or are feeling thwarted by the weather, which probably captures just about all of you!

Continuing my series of 2010 boating reflections:

Gas St is a haunt I return to time and time again, the spiritual heart of the entire canal network

Memory No 7 was another nocturnal expedition, again at 11.00pm on a Saturday night.

During my late night wandering I was offered a veritable smorgasbord of unsavoury carnal pleasures, enough to raise even my worldly wise eyebrows. But I wasn't after salacious titillation, I was on the hunt for photos for my Open University course. All strictly above board and innocent.

Have a great day everyone. I dont suppose I need to caution against too much alchohol and the risks of falling in. At the moment the worst you would suffer are a few bruises!

Friday 24 December 2010

2010 Top 10 - No 8 Marple Aqueduct

2010 Top 10 - Number 8
Marple Aqueduct
Peak Forest Canal
22nd December 2010

My memory number eight is of scrabbling round the foundations of the Marple Aqueduct.

The morning happened to be my 49th birthday, but I had completely forgotten about it till is was half way down the valley side and my mobile rang - three times. My family all seemed to decide simultaneously to call and sing happy birthday to me in this precarious position.

It was fine still spring morning and  had a whale of a time out there on my lonesome, with Jeff still asleep in the boat. Getting a decent photograph is nigh on impossible, but this structure is best viewed from below.

Thursday 23 December 2010

2010 Top 10 - No 9 Castlefields

2010 Top Ten Boating Moments - Number 9
Castlefields Manchester
Bridgewater Canal

In at number nine is Castlefields, Manchester. This was another stop on our Easter cruise and the particular memory is of a nocturnal turn round the waterfront, looking for atmospheric night time photos.

This tranquil sight deceives to flatter. Far form a peaceful scene I struggled to get a shot which didn't contain a drunk or a vagrant. That said, it was a memorable photography excursion at about 11.00pm on a Saturday evening, which delived a whole clutch of interesting images.

Wednesday 22 December 2010

2010 Top 10 - No 10 Vale Royal

2010 Top Ten Boating Moments
Number ten - Vale Royal
Weaver Navigation

My Easter trip to Manchester with Jeff included four days on the Weaver Navigation, and what a hidden gem.

First light at Vale Royal Weir

The highlight of the trip was the last morning. We had moored up above Vale Royal Lock (they close at 4.00pm) opposite the wier.

Having spent a night lulled by the tinkle of water running over the wier I awoke at first light to find the boat crusted with frost and ventured out armed with my camera. This was the view  which greeted me from the stern of Wand'ring Bark, mist rising from mirror calm waters and the first shafts of sunlight bathing the distant trees with a warming glow.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

2010's Top Ten Boating Moments

2010's Top Ten Boating Moments
19th December 2010

With 2010 rapidly drawing to  close I found myself idly leafing through the year's boating memories.

I think I can say with utter certainty that 2010 was the most difficult and troubled year of my life, and those of you that know us personally will have some idea of the issues we have been facing as a family. That said, 2010 was also a bumper year for boating and as I reflect I realise that my cumulative time afloat this year neared eight weeks, if you count the weekends. Thats a lot of aquatic therapy to sooth my ruffled feathers.

Those weeks aboard have been tracked in this blog and etched onto the hull of Wand'ting Bark in a myriad of stratches, but most of all they represent a huge reservoir of happy memories.

So, I thought, what better way to finish the year than to identify my top ten boating moments of 2010. 

I will publish this top ten over the remaining days of 2010, but because the moments are so different they will come, as they say on the X Factor results, in no particular order.

I guess that the whole Blog tells of my passion for the inland waterways, but I hope you enjoy these final cameos of the year just gone. Thank you all for you support and concern - it has been appreciated.

2011 is a New Year, filled with the promise of more happy times, both on the water and off. 

God bless you all.

As a taster, here is a moment which didnt' make it into the top ten, but was one of sublime beauty right at the end of the season in November on the Shroppie. 

The sight of the shafts of sunlight breaking through the mist caused me to stop and get off the boat. I know it's my own picture but I really think it's stunning.

Monday 20 December 2010

Fairy Lights

Fairy Lights
20 December 2010

Its' that time of year when the fairy lights are hauled out of the attic, the summer tangles unravelled and the obligatory failed bulbs replaced. In short, it's the start of the Christmas illumination season.

Having decorated the indoor tree I turned my attention to the outdoor decorations. Now as you can imagine, I'm not one to create a pulsating festive grotto, but I do like a bit of sparkle to liven up the dark winter nights.

Last year we bought some rather dinky illuminated Christmas Trees which are staked into the ground. Attempts to press them into the ground this year were utterly unsuccessful so the spikes were dispensed with and instead they were strung up in our long suffering Mangnolia Tree.

Not content with a bit of sparkle out in the front, I also dug up some strings of twinkly lights which were were draped in and round the Bay Tree out at the back.

Its not exactly Blackpool but it does add a certain something to the Christmas season.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Tardebigge Boat Lift

Tardebigge Boat Lift
December 2010

Every time I travel along the Worcester Birmingham Canal and pass through the Tardebigge Top Lock, I have note its depth and the guide book's comments that it replaced an earlier boat lift.

Tardebigge boat lift

I found this frustrating as I could see no trace of its location, nor could I find any indication of how it looked. 

All that changed when I read The Lock Keepers Daughter by Pat Warner. Pat lived at Reservoir Cottage and her account included an image of this unusual structure, plus a detailed account of its construction and history.

The vertical lift was invented by John Woodhouse and built between 1806 and 1808, comprising a counterbalanced 72 ft x 8ft cassion which weighed 64 tons when full of water. It was suspended on 8 sets of rods on chains which were looped over 12 ft diameter cast iron wheels connected to a single axle. Access and exit was via four guillotine gates - very similar to those seen on the Weaver Boat Lift.

This rather unusual structure was short lived but in truth was something of an engineering success. It could be operated by two men with a passage time of just 2.5 minutes. At its peak it moved an impressive 110 boats in a 12 hour period.

Whilst technically successful, the canal owners were sceptical and called in John Rennie for an expert opinion. He concluded that there were too many moving parts and high maintenance costs could be expected. In the event nature intervened and the lift was damaged on a cloudburst and was promptly replaced with the deepest narrow lock on the UK system.

A curious footnote in the annals of the UK's Inland Waterways. Surely this deserves an information board at Tardebigge Top Lock?

Saturday 18 December 2010

Gospel Oak Branch (BCN)- the upper reaches with the Dumaresq Branch

Gospel Oak Branch (BCN) featuring the Dumaresq Branch
The upper reaches
December 2010

Yesterday I made a start on this branch canal, but never really commented on it's history.

Gospel Oak Branch Canal, BCN 2010

This branch was opened in 1800, nine years after Parliamentary approval in 1791 and 15 years after the canal arrived from Ryders Green. The link to Walsall had not been completed so wasn't called the Walsall Canal as it is today. 

Map of the canal network around Wednesbury 1812 - before the connections were completed.

The branch extended for 3 furlongs, or just under half a mile in today's money - no, if it were today's money it would be kilometres, but K's have no place on our canals, any more than metres and centimetres. The plan was to connect it to The Wednesbury Oak Loop through a series of locks but the later (1849) Bradley Locks extension rendered this unnecessary.

Gospel Oak Branch Canal - Terminus Basin 2010

In truth, the terminus of the canal in the basin at Gospel Oak is a mere stones throw from the colliery basin which for a time formed the summit of the 1798 Bradley Hall Arm (later the Bradley Locks Branch).

This dead end was abandoned in 1954 but remained as a feeder for a few years before being filled in and converted into a winding grassy corridor.

This is a classic abandoned BCN line. Most structures have been lost save the junction itself, but the route has been incorporated into the local leisure landscape as public open space and continues to serve a useful, if somewhat different, purpose. Easy to follow but with limited interest from an industrial heritage perspective.

Update 30.11.12 My thanks go to Ray Shill who advised me that there was a further short lived extension to this canal: "One of the more obscure BCN private branches was the Dumaresq Branch that linked with the end of the Gospel Oak Branch and ascended through two locks to Gospel Oak Ironworks. It appears to have had a short period of existence, and I have only found it on one map at Birmingham Library Archives".

Friday 17 December 2010

Gospel Oak Branch - Wiggins Mill Pool Junction

Gospel Oak Branch
Wiggins Mill Pool Junction
December 2010

The Gospel Oak Branch Canal lies a few hundred hundred yards south of Moorcroft Junction, site of the Bradley Locks Line. This area was a hive of industry with branches and arms sprouting off in great profusion.

Wiggins Mill Pool - Gospel Oak Branch Canal

The Junction with the Gospel Oak Branch still looks like a proper junction, with a wide open pool of water and the arm still in water as it strikes off to the west alongside a stand of trees. The scene is enhanced by the presence of Leabrook Railway Basins, reed filled but still unmistakable with their hard edgings just waiting for a freight train to roll in and accept another transhipment before being hauled away on the Great Western Railway.

Leabrook Railway Basin - Opposite the Gospel Oak Branch Canal

This was an area where rail and canal worked in harmony for many years, each transport route having its own part to play in the hustle and bustle of the Black Country industry. As ever, the old maps from 1903 indicate a moon like landscape of abandoned pits, blast furnaces and brick works, each served by its canal inlet or basin. All this industry has gone and its hard to find even the foundations in the wilderness that remains.

Gospel Oak Branch Canal 1903

The Gospel Oak Branch stays in water for several hundred yards till Coppice Bridge, site of the Willkingsworth Furnaces, after which it is infilled.

The reedy remains of the Gospel Oak Branch canal at Coppice Bridge

More of the history and upper section tomorrow.

Thursday 16 December 2010

Shakespeare's Avon - book review

Shakespeare's Avon
by Charles Showell

This book is most certainly the most unusual in my collection of old waterways books. We found it in a bookshop in Upton on Severn and paid a princely sum of £15 for what was an old but little used library book, and its worth every penny.

It's a tale of the River Avon, tracing its sinuous course from Naesby to its confluence with the Severn at Tewkesbury. The twist is that it was first published on 1901, only to be resurrected and republished by his grandson in 1984. This second edition is a facisimilie copy of the original faithfully reproducing the original in all its glory.

Charles Showell was a Birmingham businessman and artist who developed a passion for the river, seeking to trace every twist bend and capturing the sights in 200 beautiful pen and ink drawings. His passion pours out of every page, the book flowing without chapters in the same way as the river flowed unimpeded through the gateless locks of an abandoned navigation.

The age it describes is almost as unrecognisable as the villages it passes through. It was an age of agriculture and village life, an age without cars and an age when life was slower. But even then he found the world in a state of flux, recognising that he was witnessing the world on the cusp of great change.

This is truly a slice in time and space, tracing a classic river which bisects the heart of England and whose waters inspired the greatest of our playwrights.

I am inspired to get on my bike and follow his trail, digitally recording what remains of the sights he saw.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Discovering the Bradley Locks - Lower

Discovering the Bradley Locks
Lower Section
December 2010

At first glance you could be forgiven for assuming that the Bradley Locks line was built in a single push, but this was far from the truth. In reality the lower end was built soon after the Walsall Canal had reached Wednesbury in 1785. Initially this line extended for about half a mile, rising through three locks to various coal mines to the west of Gospel Oak Road. Its hard to see where the water supply came from, presumably from the mines themselves.

Gospel Oak Road Bridge

The interesting thing is that whilst this is the oldest section it is also the only bit which remains really  visible. This is probably attributable to the continuing role the line plays in offering a drainage channel. The old canal bridge under Gospel Oak Road remains, although bricked up with the classic arched water pipe standing to the east.

Bradley Locks

But that's not the best of it. The bottom two locks on the line have been carefully restored with lottery money, giving a good idea of how things used to look. All these remains get us very excited, clambering into the channel to get a better look and examining the chambers in some detail. All this proved a but much for Mr Truth who went one step beyond and was only saved from disaster by an outstretched hand.

Mr Truth in the mud

The final few hundred yard beneath the bottom lock are full of water and canalish, an enticing channel to Moorfield Junction with the adjacent site of Moorfield Colliery covered in a nature wetlands.

 The two restored Bradley Locks

Moorcroft Junction

This was physically the far point of this trip and also the moment my bike decided to get a puncture - on the very day I forgot to pack a pump. Looks like it will be shank's pony for the return trip.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Discovering the Bradley Locks - Upper

Discovering the Bradley Locks
Upper Section
December 2010

We left the Bradley Line with a look at the Wednesbury Oak Loop and its straightening known as the Rotten Brunt Line. This late change to the BCN was accompanied by the 1849 construction of a further eastward link down to the Walsall Canal.

The 1849 extension to the older Bradley Hall Branch

This line was die straight dropping down through a flight of locks to meet up with an earlier arm to Bradley Hall Colliery, which comprised the lower three locks of this route.

View down the terraces of the Bradley Locks - October 2010

And the same scene in the 1950's

The remains on the ground are still very visible. The junction stand out in an area of open space, jutting out at right angle from the canal embankment and then stepping down the hill in a series of unmistakable sequence of slopes and plateaus. The lock chambers would appear to be buried, easily reinstatable if one ever had the urge to do so.

Rolling terraces of Bradley Locks

Monday 13 December 2010

Discovering the Bradley Loop - Bradley

Discovering the Bradley Loop
December 2010

Bradley, at last we have reached the far end of this expedition.

BW's Bradley works

But before we get there we have a lot of interest around us. Originally, the canal curved round to Bradley in the huge Wednesbury Oak Loop, slavishly following the westerly contour and this represented the main line of communication from Birmingham to Wolverhampton for 65 years. This all changed in 1838 when a new shorter route via Coseley which was dug by Telford, consigning this whole section to loop status. The area was a myriad of basins and arms in 1912, many abandoned but still bearing silent testimony to lost heavy industry.

But that didn't mean it was quiet in any shape or form. Furnaces and potteries lined the canal and ensured plenty of local trade. Shortenings continued, firstly the one to the north of Bradley which is now completely lost bar the roving bridges and then the big Wednesbury Oak one to the south bypassed by The Rotten Brunt Line, which crossed a shallow valley on an embankment built in 1848 and from which the Bradley Locks led off to the Walsall Canal at Moorcroft Junction.

Buried line at Bradley

A look at the 1912 map reveals an area of utter ruin and devastation. Worked out coal mines abound, sunk to access the various measures which comprised the 30 yard seam with the ground settling to fill the flooded voids. The area was also rich in ironstone and together with the coal serviced a huge iron industry. The area was hit by the recession on the 1870's and 1880's (nothing new there!) and trade finally slumped off with the growth of the steel industry in the early part of the 20th century. Steel called for large integrated works so the region moved on to metal bashing, a role it still enjoys to a greater or lesser extent today - 100 years later.

This specific area has retreated to nature sinse it was abandoned in 1950. The canal path is now an open amenity area and all those old mines, quarries and works lie beneath an unsuspecting population whose homes cover much of the site.

The northern end of the Wednesbury Oak Loop at Bradley

At the time of our visit the Bradley Works were a hive of activity, with new locks gates all assembled and stacked up, annotated with their destination locks such as Tardebigge.

Abandoned Rotten Brunt Line at Bradley

A very similar perspective from the Ian Smallshire collection with Bradley line to the right

The area does continue to supply one essential ingredient of the BCN - water. The local mines were continually pumped by the Mines Drainage Board using huge beam engines but when the coal was gone the pumps were stilled. Today the beam engines have been replaced with electric pumps, sucking water from 600ft below and supplying the Wolverhampton Level via the Bradley Arm. With Chasewater reservoir empty this now forms the main supply to the entire BCN network.

Sunday 12 December 2010

Discovering the Bradley Loop - Summer Hill

The Badley Loop
Summer Hill area
December 2010

Upper Church Street represents something of a watershed when tracing the line of the old Brabley Loop canal. From the air a probable line is apparent but on the ground it's a different matter altogether.

Summer Hill maze

Immediately to the east of Upper Church Street is all clear enough, but then the open ground falls away down a steep bank and on a lockless canal this is a no no.

Approaching Upper Church St

Contouring round Summer Hill

The canal must have been carved round the side of the hill on a high contour, dodging between brickworks and mines, with the situation made worse by open cast mining on the site of Moat Colliery.

The lost zone

The canal then skirted round beyond Moat Colliery, now modern housing with all trace of the line lost. It's a similar tale on the upper Ocker Hill branch. Utterly built over and all trace of the line lost -- not even worth exploring.

The canal route can be picked up again as it crosses an abandoned railway line behind ASDA, but only after a mile an a half of bewildered wandering round featureless estates. From Asda onwards the line enters the relatively canal artifact rich area at the top of the Bradley Locks - but more of that tomorrow.