Saturday 30 March 2013


Malta Magic
March 2013

My blog postings have been a bit infrequent lately, on account of a rather busy home and business life.

However, my business schedule had its compensations in the shape of a couple of days in Malta. I make it my practice to get out and about during the evenings and a balmy 18C made a refreshing change after all the snowdrifts at home.

The guys at work took me to Mdina (the old capital city built by the Knights Templar) but frustratingly I hadn't taken my camera to work with me. 

The area of St Juliens around my hotel was not outstandingly beautiful, but in the setting sun it had its charms:

 Hotel Le Meridien

 St Juliens Bay

Testimony to a British past

Thursday 28 March 2013

Slow Boat Through Pennine Waters - book review

Slow Boat through Pennine Waters
by Frederic Doerflinger
March 2013

I picked this book up on spec, part of a private collection being sold to members of the BCN Society.

I was kind of attracted by the title, echoing the Roger Pilkington books but covering the northern waterways of England. However, I am not a fan of wannabe publications so I feared the worst.

I shouldn't have worried - the book turned out to be an absolute cracker. And as for being a copycat Pilkington, Doerflinger was a regular member of the Commodore's crew on its European travels and the Pilkingtons were frequent guests on the Doerflingers travels.

I guess it's therefore not surprising that there was more than a touch of the Pilkington format about this book, a mix of travel, history and bankside anecdote. In fact it is a considerably more  readable book than its continental cousin and whilst he comments on the surroundings he stops short of medieval flights of fantasy on which Pilkington can overdose.

Then there is the subject matter. Doerflinger is covering the Northern waterways in the late 1960's and published in 1971. It covers a lesser known part of the canals at a time when there was still significant commercial traffic plying these chunky waters, supplying a vibrant industry.
This is an area I particularly love, and one we are planning to revisit this summer.

If you have a yen for the northern canals in a recent historical context, this is a book for you.

Friday 22 March 2013

Lost locks of the BCN?

Lost locks of the BCN
March 2013

A question was posed recently:

How many locks are there on the BCN (fairly easy) and how many locks have been lost (not so easy).

You cant pass up on that sort of question, but neither can you hope to find the answer on your own. So, I enrolled the help of my friends on the CWDF and slowly a list started to emerge.

The problem of definitions soon emerged (as they usually do) with scenarios being ruled in and out of scope. By the time we finished we had a provisional tally of 115. It seemed a shame to lose this bit of information so here is the list as it currently stands - unless, as often quoted by Esther Rantzen, you know better...

Bentley Canal                       10
Sneyd Locks                           5
Essington Locks                     5
Ogley Locks (W&E)     30
Toll End Communication       7
Bradley Locks Branch           9
Old Delph Locks                    9 (its actually 7 - the original top and bottom locks remain)
Two Locks Line                     2
Gibsons  Branch                    1
Smethwick Summit               6
Smethwick duplicates           3
Gospel Oak (Dumaresq)      2
Churchbridge Locks            13
Tipton Green                           3
Blowers extra                          1
Foxyards                                 4
Bradley Marr                           2
Robinsons Tar                        1
Bromford Ironworks                1
Slough Arm                             1

Total                                     115

Those we discounted:

  • Then there are the ones we have discounted, the moved or rebuilt locks like the one at the M42 on the Birmingham and Fazeley or the lost deep lock at the bottom of the Wolverhampton 21 when it was the Wolverhampton 20. 
  • The bottom 4 of the original arm at the bottom the the Bradley Flight became 3 of the current flight.
  • The other ones ignored are the stop locks such as those and Worcester and Warwick Bars plus the one at the start of the Wyrley and Essington at Horsleyfields Junction.

So thats the lost as it stands - are there any more out there which we should add to the list?

Bentley 10, Sneyd 5, Essington Locks 5, Slough 1, Ogley 30, Toll End 9, Bradley 9, Old Delph 9, Two Locks 2, Gibsons 1, Smethwich old summit 6, Smethwick duplicates 3, Gospel Oak (Dumaresq) 2

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Ogley Locks - Into Lichfield

Ogley Locks - Locks 18 to 20
March 2013

I know, I know - I said I was calling it a day at lock 18 but the lure of the Ogley flight called me on and with an hour to spare I took a walk across the field to follow this abandoned canal a little further into Lichfield.

Dry channel below lock 18

Lock 18 is partially restored and beyond the line is in open countryside, initially filled with rubble but then it opens out and reveals a wide and dry saucer shaped canal bed leading ever closer to a modern housing development. At times the towpath side is edged with a blue brick wall, still standing proud 60 years after seeing its last boat.

Embankment above Lock 19

Then we came to Lock 19, or at least we came to its remains. The lock has been dug out to make way for a new road and the new restored line will branch off at this point to a new route  taking it to the south of the modern Lichfield. But whilst the lock may have been removed, its elements remain is a heap beside the canal like a giant game of Jenga. Closer inspection revealed the unmistakable markings of canal masonry, including gate recesses and hinge joints.

Masonry from Lock 19

Then it was a case of foillowing the public open space, initially to a water pumping station  and then the canal bears round to the left as it crosses the Chesterfield Road.

Site of Lock 19 and the Pumping Station

For us that was the end of the walk. The rain set in and after sheltering under a railway bridge we made a dash for it and home for tea. The section round Birmingham Road will have to wait.

Monday 18 March 2013

Small Boat on the Thames - book review

Small Boat on the Thames
by Roger Pilkington
March 2013

In the grand scheme of Roger Pilkington's travelogues this one is a bit of an anomaly.

We left the old Commodore in Bordeaux, bowing out of her starring role in this watery series and this book marks the birth of Thames Commodore, a bigger, faster steel hulled boat built to the Pilkingtons specifications. So, one would expect this book to be all about the rekindling of a love affair with the River Thames, taking their boat up river and down memory lane. But that would be wrong.

Instead we start with a chapter about the construction of the new hull and we conclude with a chapter about the initial trip from Teddington to Limehouse, but for the bit in the middle it is by and large it is a reworking of Thames Waters, his very first book which was itself a collection of recollections of watery incidents during their first few years afloat.

In some ways it is a disappointment that the trip from tideway to source was virtual, capturing many of the tales already told. But I suspect that by the time this book was published in 1966 he had developed quite a following of readers who were unaware of the delights of our own River Thames, and this book was something of a filler before they took the new craft over the channel to begin a further series of adventures on the continental waterways.

Whereas the first book was mostly a record of travels, the return to home waters was embellished with Pilkington's trademark historical stamp. Many historical facts fantasies were shared as the Thames was tracked down to its source near the Sapperton Tunnel but it lost a certain edge by not being grounded in a specific journey.

The elements I liked the most were the beginning and the and, the bits which were boat based. It was interesting to learn that in boats power delivered is a matter of diminishing returns. Thames Commodore was fitted with twin 130hp diesels and if one was run at half speed the craft managed a respectable 6 knots. Open them both up to maximum power and the speed increased to 10 knots (probably increasing fuel consumption by a factor of 4).

So, In conclusion - not one of Pilkington's finest but it does serve to transition between the two craft. 

Saturday 16 March 2013

Small Boat in Southern France - book review

Small Boat in Southern France
by Roger Pilkington
March 2013

This book represents the final chapter in the travels of the Commodore, the ex Navy craft which the Pilkingtons rescued from the mudflats of the Medway soon after the war. This craft, bought to potter around on the Thames took them safely across to the continent, up to Scandanavia, through Germany and Bavaria and finally down to the south of France. But in spite if three replacement engines time was taking its toll and this journey across to the west of France was to be its last.

This book, more than any other so far, highlights Roger Pilkingtons trinity of interests: Boating, Medieval history and Reformation / non conformist Christianity. The trip along the Canal du Midi is a walk through the formation of the early free church and the accounts of the canal's construction are intertwined with the building of the foundations of the modern church scene.

Sometimes I find Pilkington's obsession with history irritating, getting in the way of the story of the waterway and cause for paragraph skipping. But here the sub plot was fascinating - the fearful tales of persecution started in Lyon and continued all the way to journey's end in Bordeaux. All along the route there were accounts of free minded individuals speaking out for a simpler faith, based on the teachings of Christ but at every turn they were resisted by the orthodox church of its day. Whole communities were slaughtered and towns levelled in acts of genocide by tyrants who saw it as their God given duty to rid the world of heretics (and to grab their assets along the way). All in all it paints a scary picture and makes me appreciate the freedoms and security we enjoy today.

Against this bloody backdrop Pilkington tells a tale of a beautiful journey to the west, the Pyrenees rising in the background as the Commodore progresses to her ultimate conclusion. We were also treated to a detailed historical account of how this dramatic waterway was built, resting its builders to the full with water supply problems, aqueducts, tunnels and a lot of locks thrown into the mix.

All in all a particularly engaging installment from Mr Pilkington, thought provoking on several levels and ultimately the bittersweet moment when Commodore was left tied to a foreign wharf and the crew return to the UK and the construction of the new Thames Commodore. 

Thursday 14 March 2013

Wyrley Bank Branch - Sneyd

Wyrley Bank Branch Canal
March 2013

If you have persevered through the deprivations of the last mile or so you will be rewarded by a gem - the Sneyd area. To save embarrassment its  pronounced Sneed as in feed.

Link to original 2009 series on this canal.

So far our journey south has been on the level with the canal clinging to is 503 ft contour. But now the moment of reckoning. The canal had to drop down to reach the 473 ft Wolverhampton Level which it achieved via a flight of five locks at Sneyd.

In 2013 just the top and bottom locks are visible.

 Sneyd top lock

North from Sneyd top

Outline of Sneyd top lock

The entrance to the top lock stands proud in the canal channel, its wings clear of the debris but with its chamber infilled. Over the years the infill has settled to the point that the site of the chamber is very visible and the coping stones are poking through here and there. Click here for a view of how this chamber looked before being filled in.

Vernons Way with reservoir to the right

The site of the second lock down is also visible as a terrace, just before the relatively new Vernons Way access road obliterates the course of the flight down to Sneyd Junction.

I am standing on lock no 4 which looked like this (click)

Sneyd Reservoir

Alongside the flight the earth ramparts of the mighty Sneyd Reservoir tower up originally containing a cast volume of water to supply the Wolverhampton level, one of the primary reservoirs of its day.

 Sneyd navigable feeder

Pump House outfall

Today the level has been lowered drastically and the residual lake is popular with fishermen, bordered with trees. A veritable oasis. A closer inspection of the eastern side of the reservoir made me stop and ponder what I had taken as the feeder channel. Why was it there and why its chunky dimensions? The conclusion is that this was a navigable channel which allowed boats to reach the highest part of the reservoir and the point where the pump house stood. Basically it was a canal for the delivery of coal to fire the pump engine. A search among the undergrowth reveals substantial oblong edging stones fallen into the channel plus the remains is the inlet channel sloping down through the embankment, large enough for a boy to crawl through but far too small for a 50 years old canal enthusiast who knows better...

Sneyd Bottom Lock

And so to the bottom lock, its cracked bottom end standing proud to the Wyrley and Essington. 
The cracking gave me reason to ponder, and the two big flash ponds either side. Closer inspection of the lock revealed massive subsidence at the top end. The top is a good three or four feet lower than the bottom and I conclude that there was a mine directly beneath the top end which has settled taking the canal with it - all this in the last 60 years.

Here is how the bottom lock used to look.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Wyrley Bank Branch Canal Pt3

Wyrley Bank Branch Canal
Cannock Colliery to Bloxwich
March 2013

The canal now continues at the extreme northern end of the old Wryley and Essington Canal with its terminus veering off to the east beneath what is now a stand of trees. The area was the Cannock Colliery but it has all been open cast mined in the 1980's and is now a levelled open area with poor fertility.

South towards Bloxwich

I explored the basin site on my previous visit and failed to find anything tangible to we will carry on south along a well made and popular footpath with a water filled channel to my right. This loop of canal tracks the railway embankment and about 0.25 of a mile along these is an old transhipment basin where cargoes were transferred between the two modes of transport.

Southern railway crossing

Then cones the second railway crossing via a much more modern concrete structure with a box culvert passage to give access to the canal.

This marks a temporary end to the canal as a water filled channel and we enter the outskirts on a pathway, mart of the Forest of Mercia Way, which suffers serious misuse. If its pretty you want stop here.

This area of Bloxwich is somewhat deprived and the locals still use the canal as a dump, either chucking their rubbish over their back fences or setting light to it on the pathway. The tarmac bears the scars of many fires.

But to stop now misses a lot of interest. The canal line continues, eventually spluttering back into a mud filled ditch as it loops round the Bloxwich Football Club ground and past the old junction to the long abandoned Essington Locks Branch which stets off westwards for half a mile through five locks to serve Essington Colliery.

The canal runs through a working scrapyard complete with what I assume is a lock keepers or lengthsmans cottage. Its still occupied but offers accommodation but at a pretty basic level.

Sunday 10 March 2013

Wyrley Bank Branch Pt 2

Wyrley Bank Branch
Gilpins to Cannock Colliery
March 2013

And so we continue south out of the area of opencast mining which obliterated Gilpins Basin. The area isnt huge, less than half a mile across with a couple of pools (called north and south) with a ditch joining them approximately following the lost line of the canal. The path through this area has been upgraded over the winter and is now in tip top condition.

Link to original 2009 series on this canal

Then its back to business as we cross Landywood Bridge, now a raised embankment with the old side wharf clearly visible via the footpath.

 Baker Bridge - Wyrley Bank Branch Canal

                                               Looking north from site of long Lane Bridge

Then its Baker Bridge - a perfectly preserved hump backed bridge which sits astride a water filled channel but Long Lane bridge hasn't been as fortunate. This carries the busy road into Bloxwich and has been turned into a piped embankment over the canal. However, it does offer good views north and south along the abandoned cut.

The canal remains in water and the next significant structure is the first railway crossing, still in use and linking Walsall to Cannock. The canal turn sharply to pass beneath the railway to reach what was the original terminus of the Wyrley and Essington Canal as originally built serving Cannock Colliery which also had access to the Lord Hays branch a few hundred yards to the east, but at a level five locks lower.

 Rope roller beneath railway bridge

Railway Bridge at Cannock Colliery site, Wyrley Bank Branch Canal 2013

Thursday 7 March 2013

Wyrley Bank Branch Canal - BCN

Wyrley Bank Branch
Wyrley and Essington Canal - BCN
March 2013

Of all the lost sections of the BCN I have explored, this is perhaps the finest, it certainly offers a bit of everything all facilitated by a first class footpath. I therefore make no apologies for a repeat visit which was mainly to get some decent photo's as my earlier attempts were a bit rough. 

My trip was undertaken by bicycle on a glorious Sunday morning in early spring when the sun was making a reasonable job of battling off the frost and the skylarks were singing to their hearts content in the sky above.

I wont trawl through the history too much - that can all be found in my November 2009 series of posts. By and large I will let the photos tell the strory, working south from Cheslyn Hay to its junction with the Wyrley and Essington Canal at Sneyd.

So we start at Wyrley Bank Wharf, now the site of a local nature reserve and is quite a challenge to find from the land. To find it by car look up Dundalk Road on Google Earth and head for Campians Wood at the far end.

As you can see, the area is peppered with collieries and associated tramways all which led to the branch canal and on to the energy hungry industries of the black country. This dependence on coal has huge significance for the waterway, as we will see as we progress south.

There is nothing left of the basin itself but the towpath is now a well made route and you soon find yourself walking beside a water filled channel.

Wyrley Bank Wharf 2013

The path soon leads out onto an embankment and the site of Wyrley Bank Bridge, one of the very few lift bridges on the BCN, a structure which still existed in the 1970's. The narrows and the stop plank grooves remain intact.

 Wyrley Bank Bridge

Just south of the bridge the reason for the stop plank facility become plain to see. The end of this canal was swift and sudden as the ground subsided and a catastrophic breach occurred. The gap in the canal bed remains, now surrounded in fencing and a "feature" on the nature walk.

The breach site holds a final built curiosity - a sagging brick lined culvert which continued to drain water under the canal bed:

But dont get too excited, all good things come to an end. Suddenly the well preserved canal bed is swept away at the site of Gilpins Basin and in its place a huge area of reconstituted open cast mine workings. 

The area has been well reclaimed with two ponds and a drainage channel which more or less tracks he course of the old channel but of the surrounding collieries, industry and railways no traces remain.

Opencast mine area on the gite of Gilpins Basin

Tuesday 5 March 2013

Fear Factor - book review

Fear Factor
by Robert Harris
March 2013

Picking up a paperback is a bit of a rarity and this one travelled unread in my rucsac for several weeks before battle commenced. Then I had a run of trips away and lots of time to get stuck in.

The plot revolves round a quantum physicist and a hedge fund manager who team up to apply the the technology of CERN and a means to make money. Roll on eight years and you have a money making machine which automatically exploits market opportunities and is out performing all its rivals. Investors are queuing up to to take a slice of the action.

Then things take a turn for the strange. The MD acquires a stalker who seems to know his every move and is intent on messing with his mind. But it dosn't stop with a bit of mind messing - the stalker has access to his money and the implications start to grow. Maybe the stalker is a figment of a damaged imagination....

And so the tale unfolds in Switzerland over a 24 hour period at an ever increasing rate, making compelling reading. Issues from his past appear to be repeating themselves with terrifying potential consequences.

As plots go its not that strong. The cast of characters is small and the breadcrumb clues are all there to see, some of them a bit to clearly. Rather annoyingly I saw where it was heading half way through but that didn't detract from my enjoyment of the tale. 

In the final analysis there was a twist in the tale but it was rather predictable.

I guess that this is classic pulp fiction - lightweight, two dimensional but an easy to read time filler.