Monday 24 February 2014

Walking the Bradley Loop - BCN

The Bradley Loop - BCN
A walking guide
Feb 2014

The following appeared in the Winter edition of The Boundary Post - the BCN Society's quarterly magazine.

This circular walk explores one of the most intriguing lost sections of the 1771 Old Main Line Canal from Birmingham to Wolverhampton, one which loops around Summer Hill and was cut off by the construction of the Coseley Tunnel in 1837 and finally abandoned in 1961. This hard won short cut took seven miles off the old route to Wolverhampton and created Bloomfield and Deepfields Junctions, but for a variety of reasons took 39 years to complete. My suggested walk includes both the still navigable Bradley Arm and the “new” Coseley cutting. This covers seven miles, but can be reduced to five if you take an overland route from Canal and River’s Bradley Works to Bloomfield Junction.

Bloomfield to Summer Hill
Bloomfield Junction is a good place to start, just north of Tipton where Hurst Lane crosses the canal. There is little to be seen at the site of the junction, or the web of old basins which lay beyond the railway line, which were filled in and redeveloped many years ago. The canal bed is now below about 50 feet of overburden thrown up by mining at Tibbington Colliery but the first tangible signs of the old loop lie in open ground behind Oval Road, where a curve of the channel and the outline of a basin can be found in public open space.

The line of the canal now becomes very apparent, its channel filled in but its winding course used as a popular tree lined pathway, snaking along and staying true to the 473ft Wolverhampton Level contour as it crosses Central Avenue, site of a demolished aqueduct. The pathway carries on over Upper Church Street and into the sprawling site of the old Moat Colliery, the canal clinging precariously to the side of Summer Hill as it twists and turns adding all those extra miles before it disappears under a 1970’s housing estate.

This area also contained the junction with the Ocker Hill Branch, its location still discernible as a widening at the end of Dryden Close. Sadly there is nothing to be found of the Ocker Hill Branch itself, which led to the old BCN works and pumping station above the Lower Ocker Branch. Its course lay between what is now St Marks Road and Highfield Road, terminating just before the roundabout on Ocker Hill Road.

Whilst invisible on the ground, the line ran close to Upper Church Street and High Street but its curving course emerges again as it crosses the Wednesbury Oak Road next to Asda. The route then sashays round to the north of Turton Road into a horseshoe shaped area of open ground. This next section offers a choice of routes to explore, but of course you will want to look at them both! The most direct route is to head due north following the evocatively named Rotten Brunt Line, an embankment built in 1848 to carry the canal when the Bradley Locks were built down to the Walsall canal to the east. This embankment is today topped by a path but the route is clearly visible although the sites of the many basins in the area have vanished.

The Bradley Locks line is well worth a look, but this is bit off the itinerary for this walk. I suggest that you take the detour around the perimeter of the Wednesbury Oak Loop, its course defined by Turton Road, Batmans Hill Road and Weddell Wynd. The old canal wound round this huge loop serving mines and furnaces which were attracted by the rich 30ft coal seam which existed approx 600ft below. Having rejoined the old canal course at the end of the Rotten Brunt Embankment, the canal continues under the car park of a factory, beneath Bradley Lane and joins the far end of the current Bradley Arm, just outside the Trust’s lock gate factory.

Bradley Arm and Deepfields
At this point you could strike out back to Bloomfield and reduce the walk to 5 miles. However, that would miss out the Bradley Arm which may be in water but is rarely navigated and if you can’t face a couple of hours of playing jack in the box with your weedhatch, it is well worth an extra couple of miles on the towpath.

This section is immediately rewarded with the entrance to yet another lost loop which started from the basin outside the Trust’s works. This loop ran vaguely under Princess Anne Road, curving round to rejoin the canal at Loxdale Sidings at near Pothouse Bridge.

I like circular walks so my suggestion is to follow the towpath along as it makes its way west to Deepfields Junction. Then turn left / south into the broad Deepfields Cutting continuing through the 360 yard Coseley Tunnel. It’s a broad tunnel with a towpath railing which can be managed quite easily without a torch. Then it’s just half a mile or so back to Bloomfield Junction.

Saturday 22 February 2014

Bedsit Disco Queen - book review

Bedsit Disco Queen
by Tracey Thorn
February 2014

This is a real left field book for me - one of Helens which I picked up in the absence of anything else to read but found myself strangely engaged by Tracey's life with Everything But The Girl (EBTG). Tracey could well be described as an atypical pop star, one who found fame gradually and by the time it came she was mature enough to see it for the fickle and shallow thing it really is. 

Whilst EBTG has never really been my cup of tea, reading the story of her emergence from the indie music scene on the early 1980's really engaged with my early adulthood, her contemporaries providing the soundtrack to the start of my independent life. What was more, I have a early few EBTG albums on my i-pod so I listened to the evolution of their music as I read along tracking the changes from their bedsit start in Hull through to the international acclaim for their surprise hit "Missing" in 1994.

Its also great to see someone so level headed that they can appreciate the musical phase of life and then to settle in domesticity of home family and a whole new era with equal enthusiasm.

If you cant remember Missing search on You Tube and it will all come flooding back to you!

End result - I have belatedly gained an appreciation for the EBTG body of work and their albums are now regularly played as I drive to and from work.

A change is as good as  a rest!

Thursday 20 February 2014

Small Boat Down the Years - book review

Small Boat Down the Years
by Roger Pilkington
February 2014

I am usually a stickler for reading books on strict chronological order but Roger Pilkington's Small Boat series has become more than a bit repetitive so I jumped to the last book in date order as it was thinner and seemed to have moved from the formula which has become something of a straight jacket.

When I say straight jacket I mean that the series started as mostly narrative about his inland waterways travels, where he went, who he met and the escapades they got up to - which was great. But as time progressed the travels became more convoluted and kept covering old ground so the focus shifted to the history of the surrounding areas. This was OK but the absence of maps to ground the description left it all a bit up in the air and unsatisfactory and my thirst to read on has waned.

So, faces with a "last book" written in 1987 (remembering that he started his cruising in the last 1940's) this had scope to be a neat retrospective summary. And so it turned out to be.

The book was written when Roger was over 70 and had decided to hang up his windlass, using the book to cameo some of the highlights of a long and varied boating history. In some ways this condensed version delivered all the best of the previous books - all the boating with none of the history.

Its a good sampler book with the short accounts whetting the appetite to delve deeper into his extensive back catalogue. Its more like a series of disconnected short stories shared on from of a roaring log fire than a travelogue but well worth a read, particularly of you have never read any of his previous works.

Tuesday 18 February 2014

BSC Looms

Electrical switchgear
February 2014

I had a most helpful letter from the Trust this week - a reminder that my BSC will be due for review in a couple of months. This is a really helpful service and not one I remember from BW - I knew it was due this summer but wasn't sure exactly when.

With an inspection booked I have set about fixing all those things which are non compliant following the recent rule changes.

The bits

As well as the little niggling jobs like blacking the gas locker I also had a significant electrical fix to attend to. The new rules say we have to have a switch which selects the 240 volt power source but prevents two sources being live at the same time and crucially prevents the exterior power inlet being live when the inverter is on.

The new hole 

When I fitted the inverter a couple of years ago my electrical coupling was a bit Heath Robinson with a split supply into the domestic consumer unit, but this carried the exact risks the BSC seeks to avoid. So now its time for a proper fix.

I called in at Midland Chandlers are was shown a big black box with a couple of pretty green lights but an unimpressive £70 price tag. I looked along the shelf and there was a much more discrete barrel alternative from Sterling Power for a price tag of £19. Sterling make great kit even if their instructions tend to lapse into techno babble and fly right over my head. But with a good look at the instructions and some help from the staff it was clear how it works. Apparently loads have been sold since the rule change - and at £19 this is really excellent value.

Fixing the consumer unit

Of course, I hadn't taken my hole cutter with me, but managed a decent job with a drill and a jig saw so I was soon onto the electrical installation phase.

Armed with a  couple of metres of blue multi core cable The links were made to the inputs from the inverter (option 1) and the shore line (option 2) and then the output to the consumer unit. Of course this was all undertaken in the gloom of the wardrobe but a couple of hours of cutting and crimping had it all secured into place.

 Finished switch front and back

I was surprised at the relative simplicity of the process and a test showed that it was all systems go - all nice and safe ready for the test in March.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Jam Butty - the latest

Jam Butty
February 2014

I dropped into Stretton Wharf recently to have a quick look at Montgomery, and see how things are progressing.

Delivery is planned for May and work is progressing slowly but steadily. In the last few weeks they have been fabricating the bows. Whilst progress has not been rapid the quality of their work is great - always exceeding my expectations.

The front counter is coming on really well and instead of a simple flat deck it is being crafted with some lovely curving lines.

On the sides the areas of rust under the subbing strakes has been removed, filled and the strakes all welded back on again. All in all it looks very smooth and even - the strakes have retained their worn edges, ground away on countless BCN bridge holes and wharfs.

Friday 14 February 2014

Dundas Junction Somerset Coal Canal

Dundas Junction
Somerset Coal Canal
February 2014

I have to admit that I skipped the section from Tucking Mill through Monkton Combe to the A36. The route was not readily accessible from the road and being short of time I moved on the the watered arm at the junction with the Kennet and Avon Canal at Dundas.

Entrance to the Somerset Coal Canal

This short half mile section has been restored to navigation and is used as moorings right up to the A36 beyond which the canal bed is overgrown and dry.

At the other end there is the remains of a stop lock, which was originally created to wide beam dimensions but was later reduced to narrow - no one seems to know why.

End of the line at A36

And so this final post serves as a conclusion to the tale, which has run for over 10 miles from the basins at Poulton. The lower half from Combe Hay has a good footpath but the upper section is much more hit and miss, bits of footpath here and there but in other areas you gain access where you can.

All in all a very interesting country canal and well worth a visit.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Midford to Tucking Mill Somerset Coal Canal

Somerset Coal canal
Midford to Tucking Mill
February 2014

The Somerset Coal Canal takes a sharp turn to the north at Midford, cutting under the railway arches in what is now the garden of a house and then under the B3110.

At first glance there is no trace of the bridge and I assumed that it had been lost in a road widening scheme during the last century but then I took a second look at the parapet next to the Hope and Anchor Inn. And there it was, a distinct arch so I squeezed past the pub's bins and there on the northern side is the crown peeping out of the undergrowth, the distinctive keystone having survived all this time.

B3110 Bridge

This was the site of a distinctive Weigh House, sadly long gone but its image lives on as the logo of the Somersetshire Coal Canal Society. And so we have to move on, skirting round the house built on its foundations and pick up the trail beyond where the trench reappears cloaked in prehistoric looking ferns.

A footpath follows the old towpath but in the wet it is slick with clay making progress a bit perilous. The channel remains clear and rubbish free for about half a mile, rope swings looped over the trees for the amusement of the local children.

Canal behind Hope and Anchor

And then it all changes with the channel filled with rubble and waste and the footpath switching sides but the going underfoot was no easier.

A drainage culvert still in use

 This would be a lovely walk in drier conditions but on this occasion I opted for a return journey along the nearby road and then the railway / cycle way which is parallel but about 40 feet above.

William Smith's house

This section concludes at Tucking Mill and William Smiths House, father of English geology. William Smith has interesting connections with the canal as he served as a consulting surveyor till he was let go due to some questions about his purchase of the cottage. I can see why he liked the area as the local limestone is riddled with fossils, the imprints of ancient plants and animals visible in lust about any bit of newly exposed rock.


Monday 10 February 2014

Midford - Somerset Coal Canal

Midford Area
Somerset Coal Canal
February 2014

The Midford area is bristling with interesting canal remains and for the sake of continuity I will cover then from the upstream end, starting with the canal as it emerges from beneath the railway embankment.

Canal bed emerging from embankment at Midford

The canal bed is spanned by a complete stone bridge, just beside a working farm. To the best of my knowledge this is the only complete stand alone hump backed bridge on the canal and whilst bridges are hardy exceptional items on most canals, its rarity on on this line means it deserves a few photos.

Hump Backed Bridge at Midford

The canal bed is clear as it crosses the meadows and you soon reach the aqueduct to the old Radstock Arm - a route which was never fully completed, had little regular business and was quickly replaced a railway on the towpath.

All you can see of the Midford Aqueduct from the towpath

But for all that the aqueduct is an impressive structure, with a bulky grace which has more in common with the Dundas Aqueduct a couple of miles to the north than its spiritual brother at Dunkerton, which is a much more clunky utilitarian affair.

Across the aqueduct to the basins.

In the end the aqueduct merely led to some transhipment basin where loads were hauled up a tramway to the canal above. All in all something of a white elephant but one which has been lovingly restored in recent years.

Now here is the thing. Its a great aqueduct and had loads of money spent on it, but the only people who can get close for a good look is the farm. The surrounding meadows and tightly lined with barbed wire topped with crackling electric fences. The whole thing was as tight as a drum and with the farm overlooking the fields I wasn't about to risk my manhood in my quest for a decent photo.

The canal track then continues along the edge of the meadow and under the railway bridge in a space now occupied by a garden. 

Map of Midford section as shown on the SCC Society website.

Saturday 8 February 2014

Combe Hay to Midford - Somerset Coal Canal

Somerset Coal Canal
Combe Hay to Midford
February 2014

This post marks the second day of my exploration of the Somerset Coal Canal and I parked under the railway bridge in Midford and used this as a staging post to explore the canal in both directions.

For the sake of continuity I will pick up from the bottom of the Combe Hay Locks and follow the canal through to the railway embankment which marched straight across the canal bed.

At any other time of the year this is just a groove in the field and the dog walkers advised me that they have never seen it in water before. It was therefore an unexpected pleasure to see it looking so canal like.

The actual course for this half mile in unremarkable but with water in it was quite dramatic, with the surplus water draining out through a culvert near the embankment. The anarchist in me had a burning desire to block the outflow pipe with a turf sod and  see that it looked like as it filled up some more, but rest assured I suppressed this urge!

Thursday 6 February 2014

Combe Hay Locks lower end

Somerset Coal Canal
Lower end of Combe Hay Locks
February 2014

When I refer to the lower end of the Combe Hay site I an really talking about the elements below the road, the three buried locks to the incline junction, the incline arm and finally the bottom three locks which are the oldest of the flight, having been built before the incline was operational.

At the time of my visit the path immediately below the road was an absolute quagmire, soggy with rain and slick with clay.

Lock 19 - junction with the incline arm

Incline channel and end wharf

Alongside this path the path of the canal fell in distinct terraces so its reasonable to assume that the chambers lie buried beneath the grass.

 Chambers 21 and 22 of the Combe Hay flight

Then, below the third lock with its filled chamber you find the old junction to the incline, a dry saucer like depression which snakes along the side a meadow and with a stone quay which probably marks the start of the incline.

Continuing on the locks space out a bit, but the chambers are clear of rubbish and easy to explore.