Saturday 31 July 2010

Paused at Thrupp

31st July 2010

It's perverse that my only blog post is when I am temporarily back on dry land, mid way on our trip to London via the Oxford Canal and the Thames.

What with a fairly challenging cruising schedule and teenagers wanting DVD's in the evenings there isn't much time for anything apart from keeping on top of my photos. Something has to give and in this case it's the blog. But that's OK, I enjoy writing up the trip records after the event and the process is all part of the experience, so you can expect some proper posts when we get back in a week or so.

Boots watching from the towpath

Bones very kindly offered us the use of her mooring in Thrupp whilst we do a "teenager shuffle" swapping them over between their different summer holiday activities. Today it was Tilly back to the Midlands and returning to Thrupp with Jeff tomorrow - at least we get some washing done overnight.

Maffi at The Boat

Without stealing my own thunder, I would mention a particularly enjoyable evening with Bones, Maffi and Boots. Our schedule went all to pot as we followed some new crews on Oxfordshire Narrowboats, so Bones wisked Belle and Tilly away to a thespian experience leaving  Maffi, Boots and myself to bring Wand'ring Bark down to Thrupp.

Crew of nb Harnser

After an 8.30pm arrival we made for The Boat, where live entertainment was in progress. We meet up with Bones, Maffi and Boots (who slept under the table) and also Brian and Diana, the crew of nb Harnser

Wednesday 28 July 2010

Update from Captain Ahab

Just to let you know that Captain Ahab has not been sucked into a watery vortex or anything like that!

We are away on Wand'ring Bark on our way to Oxford, seeing Bones and Maffi along the way. I have got the Dongle to work but only on Belle's computer but all my photos are on mine. Technical solutions are available but not the time!

In the imortal words of Arnold Schwartzenegger - I'll be back.

Saturday 24 July 2010

Aylsham (River Bure) Centenary

Centenary celebration of the closure of the River Bure     
July 2010
Given my interest in the Aylsham Navigation which follows the course of the upper Bure from my childhood home in Coltishall to Aylsham in North Norfolk, a forthcoming celebration ro rival the Olympic Games in 2012 has been brought to my attention.

Stu Wilson is the catalyst for some form of comemorative event to mark the closure of the navigation on 26th August 1912, the day of the great flood. I think every village has a record of "a great flood" but this one was very real and washed away all the locks leaving one wherry stranded half way up.

They are looking for enthusiasts to get involved and make this happen.

This waterway is ripe for restoration with few blockages, loads of water,  just some missing locks. So if you fancy raising the profile of this navigation drop Stu Wilson a line as detailed below.

I have written to you all before about my idea of commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Aylsham Navigations closure which is on August 26th 2012. For a succesful event we need to start planning very soon. I'm very pleased to say that Aylsham Town Council at their meeting last evening backed this proposal in principle and so it is now time to move to the next step.
At some point in September of this year I will call a meeting to discuss this idea to be held at Aylsham Town Hall. I have already had a lot of positive feedback and some good ideas of ways in which we can commemorate this important event in our local history. There is no reason why we have to limit ourselves to one event, indeed we can undetake research and also have fun in some way. It's all up for discussion. The hope is that at the September meeting we can form a working party to drive this forward. However I am keen, as I'm sure you are, that this proposal gets as wider a base of support and participation as possible. For this reason, before setting up the meeting, I invite you to consider any organisations or individuals in your communities and sphere who may wish to be involved. Feel free to forward this email to them but please ask if they wish to be involved they should email me with their details so i can include them in the meeting invite.
Once again, thank you.
Stu Wilson

01603 279510
07867 527682

Thursday 22 July 2010

Fens Branch Canal - eastern section

Fens Branch Canal
Eastern section
July 2010

My trip to Stourbridge to clear Pennywort from the Fens Branch offered an opportunity to take a look at this previously unexplored bit of the BCN.

Himley Colliery wharf

Anticipating a trip or two to the area I had already bought a copy of The Godfrey Edition of the 1901 OS Map covering Brockmoor, which provides some great historical perspective.

My last post covered the section from Brockmoor Junction with the Stourbridge Extension Canal to the now demolished Brockmoor Bridge, but there is more to look at on the other side of the Pensnett Road, a lot more.

Fens Branch terminus basin

The thing to remember about this canal is that it was built to serve the coal industry and there are no less than 14 pits within a one mile radius. A look at the 1902 map reveals a myriad of tailings criss crossed by a network of disused tramways - all leading down to a huge canal basin. This is like a narrow canal on anabolic steroids, it's really broad with an extra wide section at the very start pressing into the pithead of Himley Colliery.

Grove pool

This big basin remains in water, connected to the rest of the canal by a narrow pipe and frequented by fishermen. It's the presence of water that takes me to the final interesting feature of this abandoned waterway. The Fens Branch leads to Grove Pool, a big reservoir built as a canal feeder. The canal ends beneath the high earthen ramparts of the dam holding back the waters of this lake. Sure, its not as deep as it once was, the overflow runs out about 15 feet below its old top, but its still a big expanse of water and provides a steady trickle of water into the Fens Branch, which is what keeps it in water and nearly weed free.

If you look at a  contemporary map you will see two more lakes above Grove Pool, but these are modern affectations created out of the sunken remains of Himley Colliery,  so have no place in this post!

So that brings us to the end of the diminutive Fens Branch Canal, short but satisfyingly in water. More importantly, this serves as a bridgehead to a whole new area for exploration, so maybe I will give Tipton a break for a while and take a closer looks at the lost waterways  to the west of the Dudley / Netherton tunnels.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Fens Branch Canal - Stourbridge

Fens Branch Canal
Western end
July 2010

The Fens Branch is a short arm just above the Stourbridge 16 locks, connecting into the much longer but later Stourbridge Extension Canal (yes, Stourbridge had one just like Cannock, which is a bit confusing!)

Brockmoor Junction

The first half of the Fens branch in not only in water but completely navigable, with some semi secure moorings on the stub arm of the Stourbridge Extension, not that I have ever seen any boats in the area. In fact, weeks can go by without a boat making its way up to Brockmoor Junction so the place is left in peace to the anglers and the American Crayfish who abound above and below the surface.

These posts are devoted to the lost waterways so I will skip over the navigable bit (explore it for yourself next time you are passing) and cut to the abandoned section.

Old Railway Bridge to Haywoods Bridge

Narrowboats are stopped at the Old Railway Bridge, whose rotting timbers have collapsed into the canal bed and rendered it too shallow for navigation. This is a shame because the next 300 yards are deep and obstruction free, right to to Haywoods Bridge on Crescett Lane which is a reconstructed footpath bridge built on top of the original curved abutments. This reach is infested with Floating Pennywort, scourge of the canals. It's an invasive plant which creates a dense floating mattress of weed, obscuring light and killing off all the indigenous plants - a bit like the American Crayfish are doing beneath the surface.

Haywoods Bridge is blocked with rushes, probably growing out of generations of rubbish chucked over its balustrades. This is nothing new as Richard Chester Brown records the same situation in his survey 30 years ago.

Fens Arm next to Bromley Ironworks

This section runs through what were once rich coal seams and hundreds of old mine shafts are noted on the old maps, mines which have all gone and in the main been built over. Beyond Haywoods Bridge this changes and to the north you had the huge Bromley Iron Works, consumers of coal and a major user of the Fens Branch Canal, built in 1779. To the south of the iron works there was a big wharf with a couple if inlets for boats serving yet more collieries - all gone by 1900. If you were to restore this stretch to navigation  this would make an obvious winding hole, where one of the inlets could be cleared and 70ft of width achieved.

Fens Arm at Bromley Ironworks Basin

The reason I suggest a winding hole at this point is that just round the corner the canal passes under the wide Pensnett Road, which runs over the site of the old hump backed bridge, with the water ducted underneath.

Fens Branch 1901 from The Godfrey Edition 71.02

In summer the length from Brockmoor Junction is peaceful and tree lined, with suburbia taking over from industry. If you fancy a visit the towpath is well maintained and well used by walkers and cyclists, with parking available in Crescett Avenue, which Sat Nav fails to recognise.

Second post in this series

Sunday 18 July 2010

Floating Pennywort

Clearing the Fens Branch, HSBC and BW
July 2010

 A notice appeared at work advertising a spot of voluntary canal clearing, pulling Pennywort out of the Fens Branch in Stourbridge. Would I like to take part? Is the Pope Catholic? A day out of the office working with BW on an obscure bit of the BCN - sounds like heaven. I got so enthusiastic I persuaded the whole team from work to join in and so we made it into a bit of a team bonding event.

 Workers fron HSBC

BW were there in force, volunteer co-ordinator, ecologist, work experience and all sorts - it all turned into something of a bun fight. First of all we were shown some Crayfish traps which had been set in the Stourport Extension Canal arm. There had been set to test for American Crayfish (mini lobsters) and see what the balance was like with their smaller English cousins. There were hundreds of the little critters (American) and because they tend to dominate and carry disease they had to be destroyed. It looks like Stourbridge has surrendered to the Yanks.

Grappling wit a knotty problem

Then it was the Pennywort, another invasive non native species. This stuff has come in from fishponds  and creates a thick floating mat of vegetation which rapidly covers a canal.

Group planning

We started off with grappling irons which we lobbed into the water on the towpath side and then hauled these great floating mats onto the bank. Of course, there were the near obligatory shopping trolleys and children's buggies to add to the pile of rubbish but a couple of hours of effort and a couple of hundred yards were clear, on one side.

Mr K arrived with lunch at 1.30, providing an impromptu street party in Cressett Avenue, and much needed refreshment for the troops. It turned out to be Mr M's birthday on Saturday so he was fitted out with hat and a cake. 

The team - and birthday boy

Then the BW heavy artillery arrived, armed with long handled forks and a man in a dry suit who cut huge chunks off with a saw and propelled them in our general direction. 

Getting down and dirty

Finally we figured out a technique for the stuff on the far side of the canal. Hurl three grappling irons into it and then all pull at the same time. Slowly, huge pontoons of Pennywort came adrift and we could haul it back, saving as many Newts as we could from the roots.

The end result

This stuff is deceptive. It looks light but it is incredibly dense and heavy - no wonder BW want rid of it.

As for the canal itself, it was the length to the east of the Old Railway Bridge which has largely collapsed into the cut, thereby rendering it too shallow for navigation. So in spite of our efforts there is no way to get boats into this section just yet.

Jeff - in all his glory

All in all an excellent day. We (Jeff came with me) were soaked and utterly filthy but had a great time. This is the future for BW. With budget cuts just around the corner they will enlist more and more local help  to keep the canals clean. There may be no boat traffic in the area but the towpath is used by hundreds of people every day and as a water park the canal lives on.

Friday 16 July 2010

Return from the Roaches

Basic Expedition leadership expedition
Day two
July 2010

Aaaarhh! Someone has put super glue into my calf muscles. Or that's what it felt like as I extricated myself from my sleeping bag at 6.30am on Sunday. Oh, the pain - and the blisters on my feet, and my knees, and my hips - why or why had I agreed to do this?

The team
I have started so I will finish, there was no way I was going to lose face by caving in. Breakfast was quickly demolished and the tents collapsed making our group the first off the camp site, with the testosterone boys hard on our heels (I envy them their youth).

We had another sharp ascent from the outset - about 800 ft to the Mermaid Inn up on the ridge way which connects Leek with Buxton. We had planned a slightly more scenic route but in the end opted for a direct line to Warslow, again using a ridge way but this time walking the five miles on paved roads. My hips, knees and feet were a bit fragile before we started and this just about finished them off. The road stretched of interminably into the distance and progress seemed non existent. I just put my head down and placed one foot in front of the other, waiting for it all to stop.

Mermaid Beacon with Roaches in the background

The mermaid herself

It passed, as all things do, and we finally found ourselves in Wetton. We were supposed to meet the supervisors here for a checkpoint but we were an hour and a half ahead of schedule. So, after availing ourselves of the facilities (which are beautifully maintained) we descended into the Manifold Valley. The good news was that this offered a bit more shade, but the bad news was that all trace of the wind was lost. Swings and roundabouts.

Chapel in Warslow

Cecilia knew the area well and has an encylopedic knowledge of tea rooms. She knew of Wetton Mill which serves tea in big half pint mugs - more nectar to de-hydrated walkers. The loos at Wetton Mill happened to have a mirror and I was horrified at the sight of myself, unwashed and unshaven for three days. I will be 50 next year and I am starting to think I am getting a  bit old for Rucksacks.

Thors Cave and the Manifold Valley

The Manifold valley is quite beautiful but held one last ascent back into Wetton, offering a fine view over to Grindon and Thor's cave. That last climb into the village was a killer, and my standby challenge was resurrected to take everyone's minds off the effort : Give me 40 bands with "and the" in the title - you know Derek and the Dominos, Martha and the Muffins etc.

And so we emerged back to the original camp site, still together as a group and amazingly the first to return, closely followed by "testosterone infusion".

So that is for the formal part of the training. I still have to do 30 hours of on the job volunteering which I will attend to in the autumn but as far as this group is concerned, its goodbye.  Its been a bitter sweet experience. The leaders and pparticipants have all been great, and the activities have been enjoyable, but all those weekends away for the family have been difficult.

As for backpacking and sleeping out, I would like to say that all that is in the past. But I remember saying that after my time as an assistant Outward Bound Leader and still I found myself swinging a heavy rucksack onto my shoulders.

However, Jeff did spot me sizing up the back of the Mondeo and noting it was big enough to sleep full length on an air bed and perceptively guessed my intentions when I start my D of E supervisory duties!

Thursday 15 July 2010

White Peaks expedition

Basic Expedition Leadership
White Peaks expedition
July 2010

The Duke of Edinburgh expedition leadership training came to an end last weekend, and what a weekend it was.

The programme covers all aspects of expedition leadership and supervision, and that includes going through everything the young people are asked to do, and then some. So, we spent the weekend doing a Dof E Bronze expedition in the Peak District.

I knew this was coming at the outset and didn't give it too much thought. Two days and two 15/17 km hikes - it cant be too difficult can it? The reality proved to be surprisingly challenging, and most of us felt tested in one way or another.

All Saints Church Grindon

We spent Friday night at Wetton in the Peak District, a few miles to the north if Ilam on the edge of the Manifold Valley. The plan was to eat at the village pub, but they stopped serving 15 mins before I got there so my three course meal consisted of a bag of crisps, a Picnic bar and a packet of dry roast peanuts all washed down with a pint of Old Speckled Hen. Not a very balanced meal but I guess that the calories were there.

Cecilia's audience was not amoosed

The camp site is an open farm field and after a broken night's sleep on a roll mat we were up and on the move by seven thirty am. Our small group had decided to take a direct approach to the walk, dropping down into the Manifold valley and then straight up the other side into Grindon with its pretty church. Then it was west over rolling farmland to Onecote and then on to Leek.

We spotted a pub just off the route in Leek and decided to make this a lunchtime destination. I had forgotten my sandwiches so was much relieved to see meals advertised. I ordered my pint only to discover that they only do food on Sundays - great. More chocolate, peanuts and some cereal bars I had brought along.

Dog stiles in the Peak District National Park

It had become hotter and hotter all morning and the heavy backpacks were playing havoc with my hips and calf muscles. The break at the pub merely served to see everything tighten up and with the thermometer pushing the high 20's the afternoon fast became an endurance test. We picked up the Staffordshire Moorlands Way as it ran to the east of Tittesworth Reservoir, trying to find some respite from the sun and the horse flies which give a terrible bite if they manage to sink their proboscis into you.

Staffordshire Moorland near Leek

Finally, at about 4.30pm we made a final weary ascent to the camp site in Upper Hulme. This turned out to be another spartan affair used by the climbers on the Roaches. Not even a tap - let alone a toilet or shower. There was a tap and loo at the farm 300 metres down the hill, but not what you wanted after a day drenched in sweat.

Journey's end - and the only tap!

Hey ho. There was a tea room nearby which offered five slimy hikers a genteel cream tea experience just before closing time - nectar!

I guess we could have gone to the village pub in the evening but we couldn't face the walk back up the hill. Instead I ate my savoury rice with sardines (an unlikely but nourishing combination) and nattered away till the daylight failed and we all gratefully turned in ready to repeat the whole thing again the next day. Strange, but carry mats are no more comfortable on the second night that the first. The good thing was that I was so dehydrated that the usual nocturnal walk to a convenient wall was avoided.

Mre of the return trip tomorrow.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Waterways Journal - Volume 1

Waterways Journal
Volume 1 - 1999
July 2010

I stumbled across this little gem about six weeks ago, as I was perusing the stock of Gailey Lock bookshop.

This is the first of 12 editions lovingly researched and published by The Boat Museum Society of Ellesmere Port, one each year.

Its quite a scholarly work and very far removed from the sort of "history lite" you get in my blog, but there are times when detailed and academic works are good - very good.

I thought I would start at the beginning and, if the publication was any good, work my way through the editions. So what did I think?

This first edition, with the 1999 date subsequently covered up with a "Voolume 1" sticker carries four works:

Steam and Diesel on the Bridgewater Canal. Ever wondered why the Bridgewater is so deep, given it was the first one built? Its because they introduced steam tugs to pull deep drafted boats, and dredged the canal to take them at the turn of the century. The story of the evolution of engines on the canal is told in great detail, and is full of fascinating facts.

British Canal History in Perspective. Thought that the UK's canals were are the cutting edge (excuse the pun) of waterway development? Not a bit of it - all the essentials like locks, aqueducts and tunnels had been built on the continent long before. Its just that in England all the components for the industrial revolution were close together and our weeny little canals stitched them together in a  short space of time. This item will boarden your England centric perspective.

Cruising the Llangollen and Shrewsbury Canals 1939. Want to read a first hand diary account of just about the last boat to make it (nearly) to Shrewsbury? The item tells of a Mt T Wheeldon and his journey from Chester. He covered most of the last few miles bow hauling the skiff though dense weed only to be halted at Berwick Tunnel. Read this account and maybe I wont be the only person captivated by this long lost waterway of Shropshire.

The Canals of England and Wales - the Future They Never Had. An insightful study into what the canals could have become, given a bit more investment at the right time. We so nearly had a lockless contour canal sat 310 feet above sea level joining London, Southampton, Bristol, Birmingham, Chester, Manchester and even Newcastle. If the second world war hadn't happened it might have come to pass. I think that maybe I like our twisting historic relics, but the insight into the many abortive attempts to reinvigorate the network gives plenty of food for thought.

So, If you fancy a "meaty read" this is the publication for you. £5.95 for a 72 page booklet may seem a bit steep, but at £1.50 for each detailed research article it is well worth the money.
Will I buy more? - you bet I will!

Tuesday 13 July 2010

A wander down the Worcester Birmingham

Towpath walk from Tardebigge to Alvechurch
July 2010

This Duke of Edinburgh malarkey has been keeping me away from the canals (and my family).

Cottages at Tardebigge Wharf

But its not all doom and gloom. On a recent navigation exercise from Bromsgrove I looked at the map and spied an inviting ribbon of blue along the eastern edge, and figured it would make a very satisfactory leg of the journey. My comrades in arms required little encouragement so off we went.

Shortwood Tunnel steps and old horse track

First stop was Tardebigge wharf where they were treated to a potted history of the IWA and then it was north towards Alvechurch. I knew that there were two tunnels to pass through so I decided to pack my torch stupidly forgetting that these are towpathless tunnels and short of walking on water our passage would have to be over the hill on the old horse tracks.

Anglo Welsh base at Tardebigge

This diversion "up and over" was interesting as one rarely gets to appreciate the size of hills the canals burrow through. That long walk made me realise the effort that went into digging the things out over 200 years ago.

It was also interesting to find great heaps of spoil here and there, remnants of the shafts dug to provide additional faces to work from.

One crane at ABC, and its reflection

This walk ended up at Alvechurch Marina. Sadly we were too early to tea but the ice creams and cold drinks went down a treat.