Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Heading home

Tug talking with Tebay at Tixall
We are on familiar territory now, heading down the Trent & Mersey towards Fradley and then off to Streethay Wharf to say hello to old mates.
Streethay was where we refitted Harry and turned it from fire ravaged wreck to handsome tug, and before that where we based our first boat, Star, for refitting. It's our boating home, I guess.
We paid a brief visit to Stafford; brief because it's such a dismal place: a variety of edge of town malls have sprung up, pulling away all the big stores, and leaving a vacuum in the town centre. Walking down the wide, pedestrianised main street with its closed shops and shabby seventies parades you expect to see tumbleweed rolling past. And all of it presided over by the vast ugly council offices, looking like something out of Soviet era East Germany.
From Stafford, the run is a level, lock-free one for several miles, generally accompanied by the railway. In a rare bout of incuriousity, we passed three people standing on isolated canal bridges looking into the distance. By not asking them what they were watching for we missed a steam train, which roared past just as we disappeared behind a belt of trees. I'm guessing it was the Flying Scotsman. Damn!
Hot air balloons rise into the clear sky
The final lock on the Staffs & Worcs brought us to the beautiful open expanse of Tixall Wide where we moored behind another handsome tug, Tebay and settled in for some tug talk. It's a historic 1929 boat with a Kelvin engine and even deeper in the water than us. On an evening stroll we saw a pair of hot air balloons go up and drift off across the clear sky, then spoke to some lads fishing - and one caught a pike right in front of us. It was young and about ten pounds but big enough and with teeth looking mean enough to make me stand well clear while he released it.

Just keep well clear of those teeth!
Today we've wandered down from Great Haywood where the S&W joins the Trent & Mersey amid an increasing number of boats and a corresponding decreasing number of mooring spots. Finally we've tied up just above Wood End Lock on the run in to Fradley junction.

Monday, 12 June 2017

What a difference a year makes

This canal is not short of locks - 33 since we started
Pretty much exactly a year ago we were coming through Awbridge Lock on our way down the Staff & Worcs and got talking to a couple of old boys about the forthcoming EU referendum.
“Oh yes, we’re voting leave” they agreed. “We want to make Britain great again.”
A year on, coming back up the canal we reached the same lock and reflected on what an extraordinary amount had changed in that twelve months. Contrary to what most of us anticipated, the country did vote for Brexit. We lost one Prime Minister and got a new one, the ex-Chancellor became a newspaper editor, the people’s apparent favourite as P.M. didn’t stand and Theresa May crept almost un-noticed in Number 10. And now she’s on the brink of going after Jeremy Corbyn, the ‘looney leftie’ proved to be a formidable campaigner and she proved to be anything but the ‘strong and stable’ leader she claimed to be. A lot happens in a year even when you’re enjoying life at 4mph. One thing's for sure: Britain's not yet great again.We are boating our way slowly east round the S&W after returning from a glorious week of walking on the Pennine Way. Well, five days’ of glorious walking and two of hiding from the rain in galleries, museums and shops! Where we are going, I can’t tell you because we don’t know ourselves!
Over the past three days we have meandered our way from Stourbridge to the outskirts of Stafford. The Staffs & Worcs is a strange canal; delightful in long stretches yet it’s hard to recall many individual locations. I frequently look at the name of a lock and can’t for the life of me recall what it looks like.
Terry the Terrapin looking lonely on his rock
The canal is at its best in the miles beween Stourton, where we joined, and before Wolverhampton rears its head. Weaving along between high trees, low cliffs and a small river, with locks often hewn out of the sandstone rockfaces, it feels more country river than once-industrial canal.
We enjoyed it in good weather (we spotted a large but lonely terrapin sunning itself on a rock) though the rain started as we neared the notorious narrows at Wolverhampton, where a section of hard rock meant the early navigators could only make a half mile of it, one boat wide, with occasional passing places. And, of course, on a day when there had been hardly any boats about, we met two exactly there. Fortunately the first warned us about the second so we were able to hang back and avoid traffic chaos. The rain got worse and we moored as soon as we were clear of Wolverhampton ‘bandit country’ within earshot of the M54.
We were now on the ten mile lock-free summit level which wanders around the desolate flat landscape there, passing a huge rail-interchange freight site which was just a plan a year ago but now looks well into the build.
After that, we began our descent towards the little town of Penkridge (one of few towns on the route. What peace this countrified route once enjoyed has long been shattered by the M6 which runs noisily close to the canal for miles here.
The massive B52 climbs into the sky
Smaller but no less thrilling, the Flying Fortress
And there was more noise, too, when a huge USAF eight engined B52 Strato-cruiser banked across the sky, followed shortly by a tiny (in comparison) WW2 Flying Fortress. They were stars of the nearby Cosford Airshow, though sadly the only ones we saw.
Today we’ve moved on through more miles of bland country, interspersed with scattered locks to the edge of Stafford. Tomorrow it will be Great Haywood and then where? Who knows. A bit like the state of the country right now.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

After the rain, the sun

Seadog Brian goes walkies

Phew what a scorcher, as the tabloids used to say. The past few days of glorious sun have made last week's rain a distant memory.
We've taken full advantage, making a stop at one of our favourite mooring spots just outside Stourbridge before heading down to another favourite, Kinver.
That Stourbridge stop wasn't a planned one: a Chad Valley child's play tent wrapped itself round the prop. And the game to get it off wasn't much fun, I can tell you. The tent frame was plastic coated spring steel and defied all my on-board tools to remove it. I had to borrow a pair of bolt croppers from Martin Brookes' yard nearby to cut my way through it. (The next day I invested in my own pair just in case...)
The sun sets on an idyllic scene at Stourbridge
Anyway it was a chance to watch the sun go down on an idyllic scene of horses grazing, ducklings and goslings feeding and birds singing their evening songs.
We moseyed on down to Kinver and got there last night to find the moorings virtually full. Suddenly the canal is busy! It must be the sunny weather. This morning we set out for what will probably be a final 'training session' before our week on the Pennine Way, heading for a longish loop over Kinver Edge.
I wonder how many boaters visit the remarkable houses carved into the rocks up there and then walk across the Edge to enjoy its spectacular views across three counties? Few I suspect. It doesn't help that the Kinver moorings are only 24 hour ones - a stroll up to the High Street Co-op or visit to the lockside pub is probably their limit.
Distant views from the Edge
Boy, what are they missing: the climb is steep but the views on a sunny day like today were immense. There are plenty of benches along the way to sit and admire it, including a poignant one to SAS medic Richard Larkin, blown up in one of those deathtrap 'snatch' Land Rovers in Afghanistan.
An SAS medic and father of three killed in Afghanistan
We headed along the high ridge and dropped down the southern side – where we managed to get pretty comprehensively lost in a maze of pathways. We got out in the end of course and via a couple of country lanes to Caunsall where the always popular Anchor Inn was heaving. From there a path took us over a pretty little cast-iron river footbridge to the canal and a two-mile walk back to the boat. I think we managed around six overall.
When I say 'we', Seadog Brian only did about four – the remaining two he did carried in my rucksack like some Indian maharajah riding in state. I even had to give him my hat because his head was getting too hot. The things we do for our dog, eh!
Brian models the latest in canine headwear
Tomorrow we are off to Suffolk to hand the Seadog over to our daughter's keeping while we get ready for our walking exploits. I'll try and do some Pennine blogging – if I have the energy.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Stormy weather

The fires of hell wouldn't have doused our rain

Boy, have we had some rain the last couple of days. Fortunately the biggest storm – hail, winds, rain, flooding – came while we were sitting in the pub. By the time we headed back to the boat, the skies had more or less cleared though our heads were a tad fuzzy.
Short of walking training for our up-coming Pennine Way foray, I spotted a local hill and decided we should walk up it. It wasn't hard to spot, the canal from Windmill End winds around the base of the steep Netherton Hill. As an aside, it really is remarkable how bumpy this part of the Black Country is; you're up and down hills everywhere.
Netherton Hill with St Andrew's at the top
Anyway, back to our walk. We did a brisk mile and a half along the towpath to bring ourselves to a footpath straight up the 500ft hill to St Andrew's Church perched on its summit. It's a pleasant stretch of towpath, often quite countrified, and the walk is made even better by the really cleverly crafted and fascinating local history signs along the way: Netherton was the home of chain and anchor making (the Titanic's anchors were made here), St Andrew's sat on a volatile coal seam which would spontaneously combust sending up smoke and flames 'the fires of hell' through the churchyard: that sort of thing. Would that some of the current crop of canal signage elsewhere could match the style and content of these. There are 35 in all, made by Luke Perry and his team for the Dudley Canal Trail.

One of the fine towpath local history panels
The walk up the hill was a short, muscle-straining one, rewarded by spectacular distant views. We then wandered round its Gothic Victorian graveyard, full of tombs and monuments broken and twisted by that unstable ground below them.
The Gothic Victorian ruins of St Andrew's churchyard
After that we boated along the same stretch of canal, hiding under an umbrella through the first rainfall of the day, and finishing up at Merry Hell Hill moored in the bland modernity of the Waterfront development, between offices and what seems to have been a failed attempt to create a vibrant waterfront of bars and restaurants of which only a Wetherspoons and a shabby looking pastiche pub of some old industrial building - the only vague nod to the fact that the whole site used to be the vast Round Oak Steelworks. We didn't fancy either pub and walked down the Delph locks to the Tenth Lock, a bustling local with decent quality and good value pub grub – from which we watched the mother and father of rain and hail storms that flooded the road, threatened the pub and kept us firmly in our seats.
And the Delph from below with the old route to its right
Caen Hill is the most magnificent lock flight in the system but in my view the Delph is not far behind, a heady blend of engineering symmetry and beauty, with its unique flight of cascading waterfalls from the side ponds. And yet, how many boaters have ever been there? In a better known part of the system it would be far more widely celebrated.
(Incidentally, the Delph was once nine locks rather than eight before the main lock flight was rebuilt with one less lock. Hence the bridge at the top is 'Nine Locks Bridge' and the pub at the bottom 'The Ten Locks') You can see the track of the old locks in the undergrowth to the side of the flight.
We got through the Delph in the sun, then the sky blackened and the rain cascaded. On with the waterproofs and up with the umbrella and we carried on through a mix of scruffy industry and pleasing country (but always with too much floating rubbish) to reach the 16 locks of the Stourbridge flight in sunshine again.And the sun held on until half way down when the heavens opened. I struggled into my waterproofs – and immediately the rain stopped. It's a nice flight, with its familiar view down the locks past Dadford Shed and the glassworks cone. From the lockwheeler's view, though, I have to say it's probably the most dog mess strewn that I've had to tiptoe through in years. Horrible.
Today we are, yet again, moored in Stourbridge. And the sun is shining – for the moment.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

(Not) waiting in Wolverhampton

It all happens in Wolverhampton
Well there's only so long you can wait in Wolverhampton. It's not the most inspiring of places and in the rain it's even worse. So after three days there in the rain we've turned tail and headed a different way. To be honest, we wouldn't have stayed that long but the lock repair was a case of, as Shakespeare put it, "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow." Finally it became clear that tomorrow was actually likely to be the end of Friday so we gave up.
Poor old Wolverhampton, you really are a charmless and sad place of shabby shops or empty ones. We did find a spark of light in the Art Gallery, though its highly spoken of pop art collection had been shunted out to make room for a special, extra charge Lego art display, a much needed money spinner I guess. Still there was other good stuff: entertaining automata, plus Georgian and Victorian collections. And a decent cafe too.
Speaking of Victorian, Queen Victoria visited the town to unveil a statue of her late husband Albert - her first trip in public after a long spell mourning. But she kept the train blinds down on the way there so not to see the grime of the industrial Black Country. Sensible lady.
Mrs B has her particulars taken down by a policeman
On our final day Mrs B became embroiled in a police incident: as we walked into town incident tape had cordoned off part of the street outside a fast food outlet where, seemingly, a lad had been seriously injured in an early hours fight. A couple of streets away we spotted an evil little knife fashioned from a Stanley blade dropped on the pavement, Mrs B handed it in at the scene of the fight and spent the next half hour sitting in a police car making a statement of where, when and how she found it, just in case it was part of the fight. So we really weren't sorry to leave the town.
We headed back to Tipton , stopped there last night (unshipping a large polythene sheet and a mans jumper from the prop after mooring) and moved on south today through the nearly two mile long Netherton Tunnel to reach Windmill End.
The Bumblehole, once bustling now a quiet backwater
In the heyday of the working canals this was a noisy, stinking, smoky, black mix of coal mining, blast furnaces and workshops - as well as working narrow boats. Nothing remains, save the shell of the pumping house that kept the mine clear of water and a couple of short canal arms. Now it's a large green oasis used by dog walkers, bird watchers and anglers as well as leisure boaters like us. Though just to remind us of what things used to be like the historic tug Bittel that used to serve nearby Stewarts & Lloyds steelworks came past.
A reminder of the past, the tug Bittell

n the 18th and 19th centuries this open space was a noisy and dirty workshop, lined with a heady mix of factories, boatyards, sawmills, blast furnaces and collieries. - See more at:

Monday, 15 May 2017

Stopped in our tracks

Oops: the cause of our hold-up
We have been stopped in our tracks for many reasons during our boating career – broken down, run aground, rubbish round the prop, iced in – but never in more than ten years have we been halted by a broken lock beam.
But that's what happened today. After a morning of blustery winds and showers we reached the top of the Wolverhampton 21 flight just in time to meet the lock-keeper stapling a 'flight closed until further notice' notice on the top gate. Seemingly a beam on lock ten had broken and would need replacement. It might take four days – if they had a suitable one available.
Wall to wall graffiti and burnt out building at Horseley junction
Never mind; we are not in a hurry but, on the other hand, I can think of far nicer places to be stuck than Wolverhampton. A massive new estate of nicely designed houses spreads back from the canalside as you near the town but, as we soon discovered that is a false dawn. The run into the town is one of the most depressing I can recall, a squalid mile or two of semi-derelict sites, scrap yards, wall to wall graffiti and floating detritus.
Relic of the industrial past, the mouldering gantry crane
Still there on the outskirts is the rusting relic that is the imposing Babcock & Wilcox gantry crane that once shifted steel girders at this Chillington Wharf rail/canal interchange. It's been out of use since the sixties and though Grade II listed, hasn't had much love since.
Walking back to photograph it, we met a local who recalled playing around on it as a young lad thirty years a go. He painted a depressing picture of modern day Wolverhampton - no jobs unless you're prepared to work for the minimum wage or less, fewer and fewer places for youngsters like his with parks and youth clubs closing, mess and litter all around ('if the place looks like a dump, people will treat it like a dump') and a council intent on building a new shopping centre when the present one is full of shut shops.
One day this will be a new 'canalside quarter' we are told
Things might improve. A new 'Canalside Quarter' is promised in the area utilising, as the website puts it 'its unique character to provide both desirable city centre living and a destination for visitors with shops, walkways, cycle paths and leisure facilities.' It's a look-alike of many such bland schemes but, to be honest, it can't be worse than what's there. Near the end of the run in some striking blocks of flats are already emerging but it's too little, too late really.
Latest news is that they've found a replacement beam and repairs start tomorrow so we won't be held up too long. We are yearning for the countryside of the Staffs & Worcs.

...and finally. Among the graffiti sprayers was a 9/11 conspiracy theorist whose messages were all along the canal:

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Bubbling Birmingham

Seventies B'rum vanishes ready to rise again
I love Birmingham. What a dynamic place it is. Always on the move; always reinventing itself. Knocking down, putting up, creating dramatic new buildings and resurrecting fine old ones. And at the heart of it; people out having fun, living the good life.
Since we were last here only two years ago the Metro tram system in the city centre has been completed and the huge stainless steel writhing monster that is New Street railway station has opened, its gleaming curves visible behind and between the side streets. The ugly seventies concrete development between the library and town hall has been flattened, too, and the towers of tall cranes dot the horizon all around.
Saturday night buzz at the Mailbox
The waterfront hasn't escaped either, the stretch from the Mailbox to Gas Street seems to be waiting for the jack-hammer; all shut down and dark. But on a Saturday night the rest of the canalside hummed with a vibrant buzz as Brum's young things set out for the bars and restaurants full of Saturday night fever.
It's a great spectator sport for the moored boater (always has been on our trips here). Girls in skimpy clothes tottering on impossibly high heels, layered in cosmetics that must have demanded hours of the afternoon in front of the mirror; lads in their skinny brother's jackets and knee-shredded refugee jeans whose aftershave hung in the air long after they'd gone. All of them out for a good time.
This morning was the morning after the night before. After a catching up on things cuppa with our friend Charley of Felonious Mongoose who moors nearby we headed out of the centre. And it didn't take more than a few hundred yards before the glamour turned to graffiti and grime.
Chance's famous Glassworks, being restored to new use
For all that, the BCN still has an appeal: passing all the dead arches through which boats entered old arms and basins even in my lifetime, then weaving among the massive concrete stilts of the M5 above us. On the way we passed a huge brick building wrapped in a spider web of scaffolding (it's even more dominant seen from the M5). This is Chance Glassworks, once the largest glass makers in Britain, suppliers of glass for the Crystal Palace and a world leader in producing specialist glass for lighthouses. Yet another of Birmingham's many contributions to British industry. A Heritage Trust now aims to restore, conserve and regenerate the site.
Tonight we are in Tipton, a shabby but friendly little Black Country suburb, famous for the legendary prize fighter the Tipton Slasher, the Black Country Living Museum and Mad O'Rourkes Pie Factory, home of the 'cow pie' of Desperate Dan fame, where we rounded off a good day with pies and chips.