Tuesday 25 September 2018

Doing the mainline old skool

Tipton to Birmingham
September 2018

You may remember that I had wanted to use the Old Main Line to get to Tipton last week, but was thwarted by the high winds.


Well, after a weekend of rain Monday dawned with with a clear blue sky. So, with another trip into Birmingham ahead of me there was absolutely no reason not to follow the twisty Brindley route beck to town. 

Brades Hall Junction

We started with a quick trip to the service point at the Black Country Living Museum before heading south towards Tividale. One snag with the Old Main Line at this time of year is the weed. The water is amazingly clear but it does grow a lot of water lillies, and come September all their leaves fall off and contrive to wrap themselves around your propeller. Its never anything very serious and can be cleared with a blip of reverse, but you never quite manage to dislodge it all.

Start of the Oldbury Loop

The weed abated as we reached Tividale and crossed the tunnel arm on the aqueduct. Then is was Brades Hall Junction and on to the Oldbury Loop by pass, built long before the New main Line was constructed. 

Chemical Arm

I do find this route so much interesting that the newer canal below is, with twists and turns carrying you along and in no time we were at the Chemical Arm which is a lazy backwater populated by Mike Anson's two Joey Boats. 

Welcome to the M5

The M5 Oldbury Viaduct is undergoing major renovation and for the next couple of miles the concrete deck above our heads was covered in scaffolding, with whistles being blown to warn workers of our approach.

M5 reconstruction

The old canal twists and turns beneath the motorway, passing junctions to the Titford Canal and to the old locks of Spon Lane, which branch to the south and the north. Then the canal finally breaks free of the M5 and picks up the line of Smeaton's summit, a line which runs three locks lower than Brindleys original route over the hill at Smethwick. The canal narrows as it passes the old colliery coal chutes and then burrow through the relatively new Summit Tunnel, a concrete tube which mirrors the Galton Tunnel on the NML below.

Urban boating

Then it is on past the imposing Smethwick Pumping station and the narrow opening to the Engine Arm to the top of the three Smethwick locks. The top of the locks is marked by a replica Toll House, but sadly it is a favoured target for local arsonists, and once again it is standing a forlorn and a burnt out shell. The locks at Smethwick used to be duplicated to come with demand, with the original northerly chambers being buried long ago. I had, until recently, assumed that the paired locks all fed into common pounds as seen on the Trent and Mersey, but I recently saw some old photos which show two separate sets of pounds. The bottom exit can still be seen in the shape of a twin bricked up archway in the road bridge.

We were followed down the locks by two local boats and they seemed very chilled to let us progress at our pace and made no attempt to catch us up. We later learned that this was due to a snag with a submerged fender in the bottom lock. For our part we picked up a sheet of polythene in the Summit Tunnel which proved a hindrance till we did a weed hatch visit in the bottom lock.

Having arrived at Smethwick Junction it was simply a matter of ticking off the loops as we passed them: Avery, Cape, Soho, Icknield Port and Oozells St, letting our friends on Mugs Afloat pass mid way down the final straight. Whilst we may be a bit slow it always surprises me how slowly other boats pull away ahead, which probably explains why so few boats need to pass!

We arrived in central Birmingham to find about four moorings, but within 30 minutes they had all been filled and the rest of the afternoon saw several boats chugging to and fro looking for somewhere to stop. Perhaps part of the reason for all this busyness is CRT's Annual Public Meeting which is taking place in Austin Court in Wednesday, followed by the National Council meeting in the afternoon. There certainly seem to be a huge number of familiar faces round here at the moment.

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