Wednesday 29 February 2012

Yarwood on show

Yarwood on Show
February 2012

I have to admit that I was just a teensy weensy bit jealous when I realised that Adam Porter had visited Lesley and Joe aboard their new boat Yarwood before me!

I have spent the last six months watching Yarwood coming together, right from the initial pots of paint, through the metal fabrication and finally the long weeks of the internal fit out, and I have been really looking forward to seeing the finished article. 

Well, Leslie and Joe arrived in Birmingham yesterday aboard their shiny new craft and I wasted no time taking a long lunch hour to go and pay homage myself. Let me tell you - she is a cracker. Based on a Yarwood style hull its a liveaboard tug with every inch planned and executed to perfection. At first glance the long tug deck appeared to be a concede a huge amount of living space but a full tour revealed just how ingeniously it has all been planned. No space is wasted and somehow they have combined a boat which is drop bead gorgeous in the water but still 100% functional inside. A neat trick indeed.

But don't think I am merely bedazzled by the boat, Leslie and Joe are a great couple and deserve every inch of this floating work of art. If you are out on the Fens this summer and you see the low lines of a purposeful looking tug coming towards you, give them a wave.

Monday 27 February 2012

Donnington Wood Canal - Lilleshall Hall (Pt 9)

Donnington Wood Canal
Lillishall Incline to Lilleshall Hall Drive (Part 9)
February 2012

The Donnington Wood Canal had two ends, the Lilleshall / Pitchcroft section I looked at recently and the one at Pave Lane. The real terminus was at Pave Lane, this being the northern most extremity of the original 5.5 mile lockless waterway.

2012 map of the Donnington Wood Canal at Pave Lane

Lilleshall Drive section

Littlehales Bridge to Lilleshall Incline

We will therefore conclude this series with two posts covering the stretch from the top of the Lilleshall Inclined Plane and Pave Lane - a major road outlet for coal.

Looking along the course of the canal from Littlehales Bridge towards Lilleshall Incline

Soon after the Plane the route becomes indistinct, with large sections surrendered to the farmer's plough. Whilst no trace remains on the ground, the old maps conform to the modern topography and the 100m contour faithfully reflects the twists and turns of the old canal. Today all we can do is gaze across the fields and imagine.

Donnington Wood Canal withing grounds of Lilleshall Hall

Things take a major turn for the better at the remains on Littlehales Bridge, or is it Little Hales - the maps are inconsistent. This is where we enter the edge of Lilleshall Hall's grounds, a home originally built by George Granville Leveson-Gower in 1750 (the same chap who owned the Granville Mine and Lodge furnaces, and the builder of the canal. The house was later rebuilt in its present format in 1829 and is now home the the National Athletics Centre.

Cotes Pool - an old reservoir

Littlehales bridge is no more but immediately beyond its site the line of the canal remains in water as an ornemental pond, gradually drying out as it approached the hall drive. Now here is an unusual twist - as part of some improvements at the hall in 1896, a new driveway was built utilising the redundant line of the canal, passing the attractive Cotes Pool which stated out as a canal reservoir before starting to dip away beneath an attractive bridge.

 Bridge No2 astride the drive to Lilleshall Hall

Line of the Canal - exits to the left  of where I am standing

This fall in the road is unexpected in a lockless canal but the truth is soon established by a close examination of the bridge. To provide the headroom needed about 6ft has deen excavated leafing the ends resting on exposed sandstone. And to emphasis this a hunt in the eastern margins of the drive  reveals a distinct bank - one of the canal sides before it takes off again into the open fields.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Donnington Wood Canal - Pitchcroft Arms (Pt 8)

Donnington Wood Canal
Pitchcroft Arms (Part 8)
February 2012

Having explored the source of the limestone at the end of the Lilleshall arm, we now turn to the Pitchcroft Arms which extended out to the north to collect the coal from the Pitchcroft and Blackberry Collieries.

Site of four locks from Wilmoor Lane Junction

This whole area is something of a geographic fluke, mapped out in amazing detail by David Adams in his self published study of the area. This small zone bounded by the canals represents an area of intense fracturing which provided a source of accessible coal and limestone.

Line of first arm to quarry just visible to the left heading to the white house

To access the four distinct arms we have to return to Willmoor Bridge which was also the site of the Pitchcroft Junction. From here the canal dipped down through a total of seven locks, and approx 65 feet, to cross the book at the valley bottom. Whilst all trace of the canal has gone, the old maps reveal a series of pounds and even today the hedgerow echoes this wavering line. 

Junction with the first Pitchcroft Arm

The first arm bore off to the left after the first four locks in a straight line to a point just north of New House Farm. This channel was cut to remove the overburden from the limestone quarry but was soon abandoned. Whilst the trench has been filled in, a careful inspection of the meadow reveals a slight linear depression, and the junction is marked by a low retaining wall. 

Line of Pitchcroft Arm descending to to the brook

The track continues on, marking the course of the canal for a little bit longer. Eventually it curves to the left as it follows the line of the field boundary and approaches the stream en route for Pitchcroft mine. There was another temporary arm heading towards the limestone quarry to the west but no contemporary fingerprints were found. There is no trace of the main Pitchcroft Arm on the ground beyond this point so we picked up the trail from the other side.

Looking back to Lilleshall - the line went between the two big trees - I think!

The remainder of the Pitchcroft Arm is one for the imagination only and has to be viewed with the eye of faith. The old maps tell us that the line contoured round at about 78 metres, grazing Pitchcroft Lane and then continuing on to the site of the Blackberry Bank Colliery. This colliery sat beyond what became a railway line and has since been converted to the A518 Wellington Road. The Pitchcroft mine flooded in 1860 with large quantities of limestone remaining and activity moved to the Blackberry Bank and Wilmoor sites till these became played out and were abandoned in 1882. No mine, no water, no canal.

... and curved round from the tree to the right to the depression in the distance

Considering the size of the Pitchcroft mine, its amazing how little remains to be seen on the ground. All the waste tips have been graded out and the area returned to agricultural use. The only telltale remnant is the pithead which stands in a wooded area at the very centre of the site. In spite of the changes on ground, the contour to the road is just about discernible.

 Arm to Pitchcroft Quarry and bricked up bridge

End of the line in Pitchcroft Quarry

This little sub network has one final gem to offer. Way out on the northern extremity there was a 200 yard arm into the Pitchcroft Quarry, but when I say "was" I should really say "is". We consulted the map and followed a footpath to the side of some houses and there, nestling in their gardens was a canal, complete with a dribble of water! We followed this ditch to Pitchcroft Lane and found a bricked up bridge, the canal hole edge still visible under the ivy.

A  narrowboat at the end of the canal.....

So that should have been that, but we peered over the north parapet and lo and behold, what should we find but the bows of a modern narrowboat, its front end sitting squarely on the course of a canal abandoned 150 years ago. Its strange to think that this remote point was once connected to the main canal system at Norbury Junction by no less than seven abandoned waterways. (Pitchcroft Arm, Lilleshall Arm, Donnington Wood Canal, Wombridge Canal, Shrewsbury Canal -Trench Arm, Shrewsbury Canal and the Newport Canal).

Thursday 23 February 2012

Donnington Wood Canal - Lilleshall Arm (Pt 7)

Donnington Wood Canal
Lilleshall Arm (part 7)
February 2012

The  canal bed at the foot of the inclined plane remains pleasingly in water, not a lot of it but enough to provide a superficial impression of the navigation it used to be.

This section, abandoned 150 years ago, remains incredibly intact, the watered section gradually drying out and passing through a brick narrows which may have been a point for stop planks or possibly a small lift bridge. Some ironworks remain embedded in the brickwork but their exact purpose is unclear.

Lilleshall Arm near the Incline Plane

Then the fields encroach, temporarily obliterating the trench but leaving the towpath which leads to The crumbling remains of Willmoor Lane bridge. This structure comes as something of a surprise, buried as it is in ivy and with its northern portal embedded up to its arch in rubble.

Bridge Hinge?

Then the canal gets back into the groove, its channel clearly visible to the west of a well used towpath. It runs straight and true, about 20ft wide and about 3ft deep but mind the badger holes - I was so busy looking at all around me when I stepped in one right up to my thigh! The line comes to an end beneath the slurry piles of New House Farm but Google Earth and the old maps suggest it kinked round to the north and has since been converted into a decorative pond on the farm garden.

Willmoor Lane Bridge

In 2012 the idea of building a canal to such an rural area seems bizarre at best but this area has a strong industrial pedigree. 

Lilleshall Arm terminus

Walk round the farm and the footpath takes you through a "little Switzerland", a large area of deep valleys, plunging down 50 or 60 feet with narrow walkways converging on the farm. This was the site of a huge Limestone quarry, an essential ingredient in the manufacture of iron. 100's of thousands of tons of the stuff have been excavated and shipped out in strings of 5 ton tub boats drawing about 18 inches of water. It was this heady mix of accessible limestone and coal which sparked the industrial revolution in this area, transforming it from agriculture to industry and leaving the legacy we see today.

A good explanation of the limestone industry in Lilleshall can be found here.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Donnington Wood Canal - Lilleshall Inclined Plane

Donnington Wood Canal (Pt 6)
Lilleshall Inclined Plane
February 2012

The Lilleshall Inclined Plane site is well worth a visit if you are ever in the area. Its junction with the Donnington Wood "mainline" canal sits at the top of the plane and is surrounded by a cluster of vernacular buildings which are contemporary to the canal, but whose purposes are not immediately apparent. 

First there is the stabling seen in my last post  on the waters edge, its mossy eaves dipping low to the ground and then there are the shaky remains of what was probably  the old winding house, now a garden shed.

Looking down Lilleshall Inclined Plane

There is a good  view of the plane from between the house and its garage, but remember this is private land so take care not to intrude.

Lilleshall Inclined plane in profile

The public footpath is to the left of the plane as you descend to the Lilleshall level, 72 ft below. This path offers good views of the plane which has retained its evenly profiled slope. It would be a great spot for sledging, providing you remember to jump off before you take a chilly dip in the pond at the bottom.

Pond at the foot of the plane

This pond is remarkably well preserved, with a small island in the middle but its unclear if this configuration is original or the result of some domestic remodeling in the subsequent years. Its from the bottom the site reveals its little secret:

The extra channel

That's right, a second channel which leads to a small tunnel. The inclined plane is the second iteration of this lifting point. Its its first incarnation of 1790 the boats were floated into the tunnel and then hoisted vertically up a shaft to the upper level. This did not prove very effective so the plane was built to offer a better alternative.

Lilleshall's lift tunnel

And the same scenes in 1958, 1960 and 1961

Monday 20 February 2012

Bradley Workshop - a prowl around the outside

Bradley Workshop - the outside
February 2012

My visit to the Bradley lock gate workshop offered an opportunity to have a good poke round the outside.

Bradley basin

Starting as the very end of the canal, near the site of the old Bradley Lane bridge, there is an excellent view from the gate storage compound down the canal itself. Its probably four years since Mr Truth and I made an agonising two hours to battle our way through thick weed,  but not so today - the channel appears fairly clear.

Bradley Works

Behind the works there is a basin, with and entrance into two decommissioned dry docks which have been dry for over 50 years.


Working boat Scorpio was in residence together with a number of BW staff and volunteers who were keen to share their knowledge of the area. This basin was home to a strange aroma which had one visitor sniffing and looking as me suspiciously, but no - I hadn't been eating eggs! This smell was coming from the back of the squat outbuilding which forms the northern boundary to the site. There is more to this structure than meets the eye - its the old pumping house which used to house a big steam engine but today serves the same purpose via three huge electric pumps which have been keeping the Wolverhampton level in water for the last two years since the Chasewater Reservoir was emptied.

Bradley pumphouse

The pumphouse outfall

All this water comes from the flooded mines  650 feet beneath our feet. This relationship between the mines and the canals goes right back to the time when the canals were first built. The mines needed to pump their workings dry and the canals needed water. I bet they didn't expect to see the pumping continuing to serve an essential service 250 years later.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Steel Wheels - Bradley

Steel Wheels - BW Bradley
February 2012

It would be wrong of me to leave my review of BW's Bradley open day without making mention of the metalwork side of things. 

Brand new gate paddle

Sure, my eye was caught by the woodworking side of the operation but there was a lot to be seen in the metalshop. Its just like my school workshop, but on steroids to cater for the size of projects undertaken. Same oily film, same smell, same chunky machines.

Box of cogs

We are all very familiar with the cogs which are used on paddlegear but take a couple of hundred and pile them in a storage bin and you have something which would not look out of place in the Tate Modern.

Heel post socket

Sometimes its the smallest things which catch my eye. In this case it was the heel post sockets which are set into the wooden cill and support the hinge post. This small cup, along with the sprung straps at the top is all that keeps the huge wooden gates in place. 

And then, at the far end of the workshop is the hidden gem of the site. This hasn't always been a lock gate factory  - it used to be a working boatyard complete with two dry docks and, get this, a rotating boat holder which allowed boats to be rolled over and have their bottoms worked on from above! I had completely forgotten about this contraption which was featured in the BCNS Boundary Post a couple of years ago - it even had a photo of it being used with an inverted boat but I cant find a copy anywhere. Can someone send me a copy please?

The canal end of the circular boat holder remains but the inside disc has been dismantled to provide more factory floor space. Lets hope the the dismantled sections were stored away in the dry dock as this must surely be the only one of its kind in existence?

Given my love of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal you will forgive me a final photo which links this site to the trans Penning route. As a rule the HNC gates are built at Northwich, but for some reason a pair of gates were made at Bradley and have remained stored next to the workshop, mellowing away to a mature gray / green. 

The public open day was a resounding success. Whilst I was there there must have been 150 people wandering around, with cars coming and going all the time showing that there is real interest in the backroom aspects of the Canals & River Trust. The enthusiasm for this sort of event depicting the "living" aspect of the inland waterways has its parallels in the dynamic events put on by the National Trust and English Heritage, which really fire up the imagination and pull in the crowds. Lets have more of this sort of thing.