Monday 31 October 2011

Foraging to Brewood

Foraging to Brewood
29th and 30th October 2011

30 miles - 2 locks - 10 hours

Boating on the weekend the clocks change has become something of a standard fixture in our calendar. Some years this involves a trip down the Shroppie to Market Drayton, taking in the glorious autumn colours of the cuttings along the way.

Autherley Junction

This year, with Belle recovering from the fourth lot of surgery, there was no scope for a four day trip. However, Jeff was home from college so there was time for a short trip to Brewood and back, a four hour cruise from Calf Heath.

Pendeford Narrows

The weather obliged with unseasonably warm southerly winds of about 16 degrees, and the rain confined itself to the hours of darkness. We were treated to the dying embers of autumn, the colour holding on in the sheltered cuttings but in the more exposed places the trees have already adopted their winter skeletal form. Good days this late in the season feel like a special gift from God. 


Belle is still very keen on foraging and she came armed with a list of must find items: Sloes, Haws, Rosehips and Elderberries. No mean feat with the season so far gone. The strange thing is that I find myself sailing along with one eye on the hedgerows, actually enjoying the hunt.

Chillington Bridge

Sloes were spotted at the mouth of the narrows at the southern end of the Shropshire Union, and then loads more just by the M54 bridge. One down, three to go. Every now and again we saw rose hips but they were usually in the most inconvenient place.

Jeff buying us his first pint

Thats my boy!

We pulled into Brewood just as the light was failing and a promised the troops a meal at the Bridge pub. We walked up to the pub and horror of horrors, it was closed for refurbishment. We walked into the village to try and find an alternative but sadly, whilst the Swan is a great pub, it dosn't serve food. The Bistro closes at 6.00pm which left a rather posh restaurant opposite - but it was far too pricey for our cash strapped wallet. With plan A out of the window, Jeff fulfilled his promise of buying us his first pint and we resorted to the local Co-Op which furnished us with the ingredients for an excellent DIY meal back on the boat.

Good Rosehip country

The rain fell continually through the night, but stopped at 9.00am, letting us set off in warm sunshine in search of those other three foraging fruit. Elder was found in the cuttings of Chillington, Rosehips further on near the M54 and the Haws were sourced near Wolverhampton Boat Club. Job done - simples!

The flighty Kingfisher

The trip did offer a few more bonus's. I spied a kingfisher which I managed to capture on film at Autherley Junction and then I managed to source a huge pile of logs back on the Staffs and Worcester. 

All in all a short but lovely cruise, whetting our appetite for next weekend's forray into the BCN.

Sunday 30 October 2011

The Christmas Cider press

Forget Magners - try the Captain's Cider Press
October 2011

I have been having a bit of a dispute with Belle. We have several apple trees in the garden and having pruned and tended one particular specimen it now bears a heavy crop. However, eat them early and they are really bitter but leave them to sweeten up and their texture turns to flour. As a result they are left to rot on the ground year after year.

Bowl full of apples

Belle tried to convince me that these apples were worth eating but after a couple of attempts herself she had to accepted that they were a dead loss. And then foraging inspiration struck her - turn them into cider! The small issue of an absence of a mill, a press and demijohns passed her by and suddenly pages of instructions were pouring off the printer.

 The Captian's press in action

Actually, it wasn't a bad idea so a deal was struck. Belle figures out how to mill the apples and I work out how to extract the juice. 

Belle's blended mush

Belle's plans centred on her Moulinex blender, whilst I started to mull over ways of harnessing the considerable squeezing power of my two ton car jack. Add in a visit to Wilkinsons for sterilising powder, Campden tablets, yeast and demijohns and we were in business. Belle chopped, Jeff pumped the jack and I loaded the press which, just to bring in a boating link, was made from the old cupboard doors..

Pressed pulp - or is it pizza!

End result - 12 kilo's of apples converted into six litres of apple juice. Now it's a mere three months of fermentation and settling and it will be ready to drink, a little something special for Christmas. 

The end result - proto cider

Saturday 29 October 2011

FMC Digbeth

Fellows Morton Clayton - Digbeth
October 2011

In yesterday's post I mentioned that I had an opportunity to have a look at the back of the FMC buildings in Digbeth.

I have had a look at this site from the street and the canal, but with the land being both private and locked I have never got 'round the back'.  

Back of Canal House

My visit to Edible Eastside provided an opportunity so whilst the rest of the troupe were heading back for a cup of nettle tea, I sneaked off and grabbed a few backlot images of these very familiar structures.

Warehouse nr Typhoo Basin

Not a lot to say about them beyond the fact that far more exists than I expected and hopefully not at risk of demolition.

 Banana Warehouse at Warwick Bar

FMC's iconic 1935 warehouse

Friday 28 October 2011

Incredible Edible Eastside

The Incredible Edible Eastside of Birmingham
A forging walk along the Digbeth Branch Canal
22nd October 2011

Want some fresh fruit and veg? Forget Tesco's - head down to your local towpath and reap the harvest which surrounds you - even if that's in the post industrial Eastside of Bimingham, under the shadow of the Bull Ring shopping centre.

Foraging on the Ashted flight

Well that's the rallying cry of Edible Eastside which was launched this weekend as an initiative to encourage urban gardening and the production of plants and food in an ecologically sustainable manner. Its a big dream founded in the ruined remains of the old FMC head office in Digbeth.

Proofing House in Digbeth

The project is the brainchild of Jayne Bradley who has been busy clearing the site ready for the first raised planters in the spring of 2012. She is supported by Pam Smith who brings a wealth of horticultural expertise and spearheads the foraging aspect of this enterprise.

Pam 'it tastes like hay'

Ours was the very first foraging course to be run be Edible Eastside, which was fully subscribed with 20 participants and another 10 on the waiting list - not a bad start. After some brief introductions we were off to the towpath, entering next to Typhoo Basin which we last visited at 11.00pm during the BCN Marathon Challenge back in May. We were immediately introduced to edible options, plants and berries we would never have thought to eat. 

Sure there were brambles and apples but then there were nettles and plantain, wormwood and chickweed - odd plants but ones which can be consumed if they are prepared and used in the right way. Pam's horticultural knowledge was matched by her history, which she used to good effect as she explained how plants were used and viewed in years gone by. All good interesting stuff.

The many uses of the Silver Birch

We made our way through Curzon Tunnel and up past the first few locks of the Ashted flight, stopping and looking at the huge variety of edible plants which thrive in this inner city location. Mind you, Pam was honest enough to point out that whilst a plant may be edible, that dosn't necessarily mean you would actually want to eat it. It appears that many of the salad substitutes taste like hay! When questioned about fungus she observed that it has been said that you can eat all mushrooms, but with some of them you can only eat them once! My mushrooms come from Tesco in a blue plastic box - just like God intended.

Hmm, those nettles look tasty....

After an hour on the towpath it was back to to Edible Eastside gardens which offered a rare backlot glimpse of some of the old FMC buildings - but I will save that for a future post. The rest of the afternoon was to be spent sampling Sloe Gin (very good), Elderflower cordial and nettle tea.  The event also also included a cooking demonstration but sadly Belle's energy levels were running low so we took took our leave.

 Edible Eastside in the future (if all the girls dress like this its a sure fire success!)

And the site today

The bottom line is that if you can successfully forage on the depths of inner city Digbeth, you can forage anywhere.

For Edible Eastside this is only the start. The next foraging walk is in the spring by which time the concrete wilderness will be well on the way to becoming the urban oasis envisaged by Jayne when she first had the idea in 2008.

Thursday 27 October 2011

Mapping out Telford's Tub Boat Canals

The Tub Boat Canals of Telford
October 2011

My decision to follow the lines of Telford's tub boat canals was never going to be easy. In fact I think its going to be my toughest lost canal challenge yet.

It has been said that there is coal at the heel of ever successful canal, and nowhere is this more true than among the tub boat canal network of what has since become Telford. This is the site of the Coalbrookdale coalfield, a small geographic site about eight miles long and three miles wide through which a fault line travels with shallow coal to the west and deep coal to the east. The area was also blessed with Ironstone, limestone and clay - a perfect mix for iron and pottery works.

This hilly site was largely devoid of surface water so the early canal builders had to use inclined planes to lift and lower boats in a mainly lockless and self contained system, whose primary outlet was the river Severn to the south. This little network flourished for about 50 years after its construction in the late 1700's but the effects of mining, a chronic shortage of water and unreliable planes resulted the area enthusiastically embracing railways as a cheaper and more flexible alternative. 

The majority of the canal network was therefore lost by 1850, buried beneath spoil tips and railway lines. To add to the canal hunters misery, the area continued to be deep mined and industrialised well into the 20th century, before falling into something of a post industrial wilderness till the 1960's. Then, as icing on the cake, the entire coalfield area was designated a newtown site and the waste tips graded over, industry leveled and redundant railways turned unto roads along the lines of Milton Keynes. All this change over a period of 150 years scrubbed out most evidence of the little network of waterways, especially in the central section. But look a little further afield and telltale traces can still be found.

The place to start is with maps of the area as it used to be - working out the evolution and decline of each section. This can then be plotted on a contemporary OS map using known landmarks and core road layouts, which have survived even the reconstruction of Telford. As in decorating, 80% of the effort should be spent on research with the time in the field being very focused and targeted. Its a good job that the desktop research is an interesting task in istelf!

So before I forget what I have learned, here is the sequence of development of the tub boat canals of what is more properly referred to as the Coalbrookdale Coalfield.

Stage one:
Donnington Wood Canal (or Marquis of Stafford's Canal)
The initial section was five miles long built in 1768 from Donnington Wood to Pave Lane, the Wolverhampton Turnpike. A later branch canal was created at Lillishall featuring a 70ft inclined plane and seven locks which operated till 1878/9 at which time both the branch and mainline beyond this point were abandoned. A further section was lost near Lillishall Hall in 1890 when a driveway was laid across its path with the rest becoming disused by 1904 when the mineral line look over the trade. The watercourse dried out in 1928 when the the mine pumping engines were turned off. This was always a shallow canal, even by tub boat standards, carrying a mere three tons per boat.

Stage two:
Wombridge Canal 1788 
One and a half lockless miles long, built by William Reynolds to move surface coal from Wombridge to his furnaces at Donnington Wood and its junction with the Donnington Wood Canal. Having exhausted most of the minerals at Wombridge he sold a mile of the canal to The Shrewsbury Canal Company in 1793. The Shrewsbury Canal Company built the Trench Inclined Plane and so created a connection through to Shrewsbury. The remnant continued as a branch canal for nearly a century to Bullocks Mill and closed completely in 1921.

Ketley Canal
At the same time Reynolds was working on the Wombridge Canal, he also started to think about transporting coal and ironstone from Oakengates to his works at Ketley, a couple of miles to the south of Wombridge. This canal was also begun in 1788 but incorporated the UK's first Inclined plane at Ketley Hall, dropping the tub boats down 73 feet to Ketley Ironworks.
The plane was found to be disused by 1818 and it is likely that by then the entire canal had ceased to function by 1816.

Stage three:
The Shropshire Canal
This was the final element of the local canal system, linking the Donnington Wood Canal to the north with the River Severn in the south.

The terrain dictated three inclined planes:
Wrockwardine Wood - 120 feet high and 320 yards in length.
Windmill - 600 yards long
Hay - 3/4 mile long

This line also featured a branch at Dawley to Coalbrookdale which was dry by 1825 with the main line converted to a railway in 1860. The final stretch at Blist Hill remained in use till 1912.

The above photos have been assembled from various sources, including those freely found on the internet. My thanks go to the many photographers alive and dead who have contributed to this collection and in so doing, are keeping the memory of these  canals alive. These images are reproduced for ease of research are are not necessarily the property of this blog and some may still be subject to copyright, and as such they should not be used for commercial gain without the explicit permission of the owner (whoever that may be). 

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Caldon 2011 - Tixall to Calf Heath

Caldon 2011
Tixall to Calf Heath
15th September 2011

12 miles - 12 locks - 7 hours

Sandwiched between the winds of one weekend and the forecast rains of the next this last day of our holiday was the perfect autumn day - air so bright and crisp it was like biting into a juicy apple straight out of the fridge.

It was one of those days which begged to be spent on the water, a point which wasn't lost on my shore bound friends. By 10.00am I had received a series of texts expressing a desire to be with us rather than cooped up in offices. It was a perfect end to a trip, far from being boringly familiar, the Staffs and Worcester was at its finest - every corner presented a new vista and every bridge was perfectly framed by its shimmering reflection.

Tom -

Boats were few and far between but it could be said that we saw the back of Tom and!

We also passed Erik Bloodaxe, but its a boat you feel long before you see it. She has the most magnificent vintage engine which thumps away, its vibration reaching right into the hulls of passing boats. 

As we passed through Penkridge we picked up an oddball in front of us. He certainly looked the part with his smoky vintage engine and his boiler suit but he started by bumbling along and tripping us up at ever lock, which I accepted and killed time, but then he speeded up. The trouble was that in doing so he left every top gate hanging open, gates which I had to close before I could turn the lock in our favour. After four locks I was getting really hacked off, and then I saw him moored among a bunch of travellers below Gailey Top Lock, just hanging round chatting to his mates without a care in the world. I was seething and ready to tell him exactly what I thought of him but Belle's advice prevailed. I hastily reconsidered and took a more measured approach - getting it off my chest without being offensive.

A lasting image of this trip - trees laden with crab apples

We arrived back at base with the blood red sun setting beneath the horizon, a glorious end to a glorious trip. Sadly, that's the last significant trip of the year. But no matter, there are still several weekend trips to look forward to and then there is a big agenda of lost canal hunting to anticipate. Captain Ahab never seems to run short of water tales!

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Caldon 2011 - Meaford to Tixall

Caldon 2011
Meaford to Tixall
14th September 2011

12 miles - 12 locks - 7 hours

Last night's 30 minutes indulgence in sledgehammer engineering paid dividends. Not only is the hatch fixed - its better than before. One of the wheels was bent and jamming and the other three axles were rusted. With the bent one straightened and some engine oil dripped into the bearings it is running as smoothly as silk. Every cloud has its silver lining.

Canal loving Stone

With no pressure to move far today we mooched around, not starting till 11.30am, which is an unheard of hour for us. There were lots of boats moving up and down the locks which made for an easy and sociable descent into Stone, reaching the centre at 2.00pm. 

Star Inn - Stone

Just above Star Lock we saw Shropshire Lass 2 moored up at the boatyard making ready for  a pump out so, with our tank nearing capacity, we slipped in alongside and were relieved of £15 and a full load.

Crew of Shropshire Lass 2

Ashton Lock presented another rich Damson harvest, a middle sized tree with its upper branches laden with dark red fruit of which we collected 3kg in a matter of minutes. Sloes proved a little more elusive but eventually our persistence paid off and some excellent bushes were found on the offside of the canal. We moored the boat to the boat pole sunk in the mud and gathered a huge bowlful - lots of sloe gin for the winter.

 Sloe Picking

The afternoon cooled and cooled and soon boaters started to sport coats, hats and even gloves. Then the boats started to sprout plumes of smoke from their chimneys, the first of the season and proof that autumn is really upon us. But its not all bad, the chill provided several hours of excellent solitary boating before we turned west at Haywood Junction and onto the Staffs and Worcester for another night moored up in the winding section just below Tixall Lock.

Monday 24 October 2011

Caldon 2011 - Lady Hatherton

Caldon 2011 
Lady Hatherton
September 2011

The best things always seem to come as a surprise, chance encounters when you are least expecting them.

I have cruised past Teddesley Marina literally dozens of times and cast admiring glances at Lady Hatherton, a venerable old inspection launch which spends most of her time hunkered down under a permanent corrugated iron shed. In all the time I have been out and about I have never seen her on the move, till today.

As I descended the locks at Etruria a guy came puffing up and was busy setting the locks ready for an uphill boat. I looked at the chap working his boat up and politely asked "is he with you"? "No, came the reply, he is from the boat behind who is in a tearing hurry and seems desperate to get through the tunnel (Harecastle) tonight."

I therefore was curious about the boat in a hurry. Imagine my surprise when I spied the distinctive bows of the antique wooden inspection launch approaching in the distance. Lady Hatherton was built in 1898 for the committee of the Staffs and Worcester Canal Co, and till the 1930's was horse drawn. She is now diesel powered by a Lister SR3 having had her hull replaced by the late Les Allen of Oldbury in the 1960's and her superstructure replaced in 1985. I am assured that a lot of the original remains, but it does beg the question "when does a wooden boat cease to be an original". Its a bit like Trigger (Only Fools and Horses) and his 2O year old broom - complete with its five new heads and four handles!

The boat is in the hands of Hal and Suzi Bagot these days but as with most wooden boats, she is in need of major work again and her future is uncertain.

It was certainly a joy to see her out and about.

Sunday 23 October 2011

Caldon 2011 - Endon to Meaford

Caldon 2011
Endon to Meaford
13th September 2011

The storm blew itself out overnight, the last ragged clouds parting to reveal a haunting full moon which hovered just over the hills to the south.

Bad moon rising

This is a remote area and by the time we got moving at 10.30am we had only seen one boat. We picked our way along the lonely summit pound to the five locks at Stockton Brook but Belle was feeling poorly so I was single handing my way along. I was very relieved to find most of the flight set in our favour and Belle emerged again just in time to steer the boat through the to lift bridges at Norton Green.

Pivot of old swing bridge at Endon

We soon found ourselves at Milton after which the rural landscape gives way to urban sprawl and the final lift bridge at Ivy House. We had a bit of an incident here which just shows  how even well rehearsed manouvers can go wrong. I was on the bank manning the bridge controls and Belle brought Wand'ring Bark through planning to rope up on the Stoke side whilst I closed the bridge. The snag was she got off and she had left the boat in reverse, realising her mistake too late as the boat was powering away from the bank and back towards the bridge. I decided the car drivers could wait, so I legged it down the towpath and managed to jump on the receeding bows at the very last moment. No harm was done but its scary how this sort of thing can happen at any time.

Caldon Canal summit pound

This wasn't the end of the drama. Just ahead a hire boat was tied to the bank and its crew of four were staring solemnly down the weedhatch, as if into a grave. With Wand'ring Bark secured I walked down to see if  could help. They had caught a bladeful of something unknown and after an hour of ineffectual prodding wit the boathook they were calling the hire base for assistance. "Whats down there?" I asked - "Dunno" came the reply. "Have you had a look?" - "We don't fancy the look of the water". It seems a bit unreasonable to get the engineer out without a proper DIY attempt so I laid down into the hatch and soon emerged with a huge pile of polythene. They have clearly never boated on the BCN!

Site of the fire near the gas pumping station at Stockton Green

Planet Lock is the place to meet mad people. Most times I pass through I seem to encounter a mad / drunk / high person. I don't know if its the combined proximity of the big medical centre and the further education college, or what - but the place really attracts them.

Our passage through the rest of Stoke was uneventful, with a steady string of boats rising up and so speeding our passage through the locks.

The traffic ceased as we passed through Hem Heath and thunder clouds gathered above us. Eventually the heavens opened as we entered Trentham Lock, soaking us and the wheelchair bound skipper of nb Shropshire Lass 2 who was loitering in the area whilst his wife has having a broken leg set in the nearby hospital. We were planning to get into Stone for the night and sample the real ale at a recommended pub, but fate decreed otherwise. Just as we were approaching the top of Meaford Locks the bodged repair to the hatch cover (broken in Froghall Tunnel) decided to fail and we were left with an unlockable boat. We therefore stopped and by raiding various bits of the internal fit out were able to effect a decent fix, completing it just as the sun set.