Friday, 27 February 2015

The BCN strikes back

Lockie Baz shepherds us down the low pound
I guess it was too good to be true. A week of largely enjoyable cruising with no more minor incidents and issues than you'd find on any canal – a bit of rubbish, a bit of shallowness, the odd dubious kid, that sort of thing.
But today the BCN struck back! It took us five hours to do five miles. Well, to be more exact, it took us two hours to go one mile and the remainder to do the rest. We tore ourselves away from our affable and convenient mooring by Longwood Boat Club to tackle our first locks since Wolverhampton nearly a week back.
The nine locks at Rushall are the start of a gradual descent into the centre of Birmingham. There are two at the top, then a mile long pound, then the remaining seven in a close flight. We were greeted at the top by Baz, one of the lockies from CRT's Wolverhampton team who gave us the glad tidings that the mile pound was "very low". They actually keep it low because it leaks badly, so no point wasting water – until a boat turns up and wants to go through. "Stay in the channel, we'll get you through" smiled Baz.
Where's the driver? Up at the front, poling off
I dropped down the lock, moved a few feet...and got stuck. I was in the channel but the channel wasn't deep enough. Behind us Baz was dropping through more water. I went forwards, backwards, then sideways with the pole to slowly scrape and grind a path forwards. For a while we were okay until the channel disappeared in the silt again. More poling, more to-ing and fro-ing and we were off again.
Scraping the bottom means churning up all the plastic bags, rags and other rubbish that lie buried in the silt, no to mention listening to the clonkings as the prop bashed half sunk objects and ominous underwater scraping noises as we ran over more. Then there were the mysterious humps and bumps – little hump bridges of silt that Harry lurched over in clumsy jumps or ran along the edge of at a whacky angle until dropping back level.
Dragging rubbish off the prop
And this is what we found

All the while we were edging slowly, so slowly towards the distant lock until we finally made it and I stopped to clear a tangled assortment of plastic bags, polythene, rope and rang off the prop. 
The remaining locks were a doddle: we dropped down through them in no time and onto a long dead straight length of canal where we found ourselves back in rubbish-ville – black bags of the stuff chucked about everywhere as if the canalside was an extra waste disposal site. Not to mention another floating fridge.  On the other side of the canal was a huge expanse of rugby and football pitches in perfect order. I didn't see any plastic sacks and old fridges there so why do local people think it's alright to chuck it in the canal?
Headings down the locks toward distant Birmingham
Turning onto the Tame Valley: look at the rope score marks on the metalwork
The Rushall ends at a T-junction with the Tame Valley Canal where we turned right just as boats had for more than a hundred years – as the score marks of ropes across the metal bridge on the corner bore witness to. Ironically the junction is right alongside the M6 motorway, today's transport corridor (and not much quicker just here for much of the day!).
The Tame Valley is universally described as 'very dull' in the guidebooks. I didn't think so, at least not to start with. True it's pretty much straight but for much of its length it runs in high embankments so there are some fine views across B'rum. And none finer than the spectacular crossing of the M5 just as it means the M6, the two motorways carried on concrete stilts across the landscape yet still lower than the far older canal.
Soaring over the M5 with the M6 coming in from the right
After that the Tame does pall. As the houses close in so the rubbish appears again as well, this time, as kids on motorbikes and quads. But then we're past them and for the final mile running through industry – ugly on the eye perhaps but scrote and rubbish free.
The remains of the old toll stop where working boats paid their dues
Not before time we reached the ruined remains of Goldshill Stop where working boats paid their canal tolls and then Ocker Hill junction where we met the Walsall Canal and snuck into our own quiet mooring spot, reversing under a low bridge into the dead-end Ocker Hill Tunnel Branch.
Journey's end – Ocker Hill ahead in the setting sun

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Walsall - trying to come to terms with its past

The canal basin, with sadly empty mooring pontoons
The signs of Walsall's proud past in industry and commerce are all around you in the shape of handsome municipal buildings like the Town Hall, substantial private houses and intricately worked upper floors of shop parades. As we drove in on the bus we passed the elegant and beautiful Victorian park and Arboretum.
But around too are the signs of the seventies blitzkrieg that affected so many of our town centres and replaced (albeit tired and shabby) houses and shops with bland, amorphous and poorly built shopping malls, ripped the guts out of many old properties that survived in shadow only and generally made a complete balls-up of the place.
IKEA as art by Sikander Pervez
Monolith new art gallery
At last things are happening to redress the balance and the canal basin is at the heart of some of them. It's here that the Art Gallery was built in 2000. Once inside the somewhat brutalist looking edifice we discovered a superb gallery of largely modern art and sculpture spread out across four floors. A was great to see groups of young schoolchildren on class trips taking full advantage of this very accessible culture.
There's a lot to see from Jacob Epstein bronzes to an ingenious young artist who  assembles brilliant sculptures from pieces of IKEA furniture wood.
The view from the gallery's third floor
In the Basin, alongside the gallery is a collection of apartments, cafes and restaurants in similarly angular styles and a looking over it a block of colourful modern flats. The only thing missing were boats and I felt immediately guilty that we hadn't included the canal in our boating schedule. The basin is used by boats but deserves to be busier. Maybe an element of security – it's entirely open to the streets – would reassure nervous nellies like us that it was a secure spot to spend a night.
The town museum is a sorry contrast to the gallery: it's council funding has been axed so only one of three galleries remains. And word is that this will shut soon. It's a classic tale: reduce funding, so the museum can exhibit less, so less people come so the place has less justification for financial support. Already it's a flimsy little show: a bit of obvious stuff about the canals and Walsall's famous leatherware, saddlery and saddle ironmongery industries and that's about it.
Sister Dora, Walsall's heroine
Fine reliefs surround its base

What we did find was the statue to Sister Dora, an Anglican nun who arrived in 1865, was horrified by the medical provisions for workers in the local industries. She devoted the rest of her life to improving matters for working men and their families to such a degree that thousands came to her funeral. The magnificent bronze statue (replacing an earlier marble one) has intricate reliefs of industrial scenes round its base. It was apparently the first public statue in Britain erected for a woman not of royal blood.
Handsome building reveals the town's former glories
It's hard to get to grips with Walsall's centre in a single visit. We arrived by bus at the modern but to my eye sublimely ugly circular bus station and tried to find our way around a higgle-piggle of streets, small arcades of various ages and more than one shopping mall. Things are happening though. Outside the ring road there's been substantial new building and council money is now going into new town centre shopping developments.
Let's hope it all succeeds and Walsall has a future to be proud of as well as a past.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

A canal of two halves

 Longwood Junction with the stub of the original canal now boat club moorings
This  classic bit of footballing parlance is an apt description for the Daw End Branch which we travelled today.
The first half is wide, deep (well, mainly), pretty straight and decidedly urban. The second is winding, shallow, often narrow and remarkably countrified.
We'd returned from Angelsey Basin to Brownhills last night for some shopping and boat stuff so we retraced our route for the half mile back to Catshill Junction where we swung right under the bridge and onto the Daw End. There's another fine piece of sculpture on the offside at Catshill, though it's half submerged in the undergrowth now so easy to miss.
Somewhat overgrown but still a handsome piece of sculpture
The Daw End runs down the side of Clayhangar Common, the huge area of open space formed largely from old coal workings that forms the W&E boundary all the way from Pelsall. On the other side are smart, modern estate houses so the canal has a trimmed, rubbish free appearance – especially enjoyable on an almost warm sunny day.
For two miles and more it runs in a high embankment, towering over nearby houses and the surrounding land whose gradual subsidence due to mining and quarrying has caused the canal sides to be gradually heightened to preserve its integrity.
Dredging and rebuilding the canal offside
Rescue for a grounded workboat

It was quite a surprise to discover work boats on the canal here – they were dredging the canal bed and then using the material to once again raise the level of the offside canal bank in this endless task. A little further along we did our good deed of the day by hauling a pusher tug and loaded butty from the shallows where it was stuck.
Some of the bridges on this canal are surprisingly low as well as being sited on tight S-bends. I had been too busy photographing a canalside sculpture of a larger than life angler to grasp this fact until almost too late and had to whip our back cabin chimney off only seconds before Walsall Wood bridge did it for me!
One angler who doesn't get grumpy with passing boaters
Houses give way to industry here on the off-side but it's large scale, tidy industry not the small units that often use the cut as a waste tip. Meanwhile on the towpath side a vast – and I mean vast – quarry appears with toy-like excavators working far below. It's mining the raw materials of an adjacent  big brick and tile plant. Huge deposits of clay were found soon after the canal was built and there are a number of working or disused quarries nearby.
The base of this vast quarry is far, far below
Sitting among the industrial units here is the little Aldridge Marina with pump-out facilities for passing boats (who can also moor at a noisy 24-hour spot nearby.) Shortly afterwards the canal starts a big looping swing, rather like a mirror image of East Anglia's coastal bulge.
From town to country and picturesque brick bridges
Then quite suddenly industry vanishes and we are into farmland with scarcely a house in sight, on a gently wandering canal marked by traditional red brick accommodation bridges. It's a bit shallow but still no great problem, even for us.
Named after John Brawn, BCN engineer
Brawn's Bridge, named after a BCN engineer, carries a plaque to say as much but at the next bridge housing intrudes briefly and with it disgusting fly-tipping; a puzzling pile of loft insulation on the towpath with old house windows in the side nearby and a stream of used beer cans opposite. It's the only rubbish of note we saw on the trip but still very sad.
There are quiet, rural moorings at an old lime quarry, now a nature reserve – the huge rings are a reminder that lime was another important cargo for the canal.
Indeed its original terminus was pretty much where we are now. Here the canal ended at Hay Head lime workings but when the line was extended the spot became Longwood Junction and the original arm is now a stub used as a mooring base by the Longwood Boat Club.
It's a quiet spot with a golf course and countryside all around yet only ten minutes by road from Walsall where we will be heading tomorrow by bus.

Monday, 23 February 2015

The end – but also the beginning

End of the line and seemingly in the middle of nowhere
We are at the end of the line –literally. In front of us is the dam that holds back the Chasewater Reservoir. We have reached the far north eastern limit of the BCN: the terminus of the Angelsey Arm, the short two mile canal that brought us here from Brownhills.
But we are also at the beginning because the Chasewater is a major water source for the BCN canals. Not so long ago the dam below which we are sitting was showing signs of weakness so the reservoir had to be drained for repairs and the BCN became worrying short of water until, 18 months later the repairs were done and nature had refilled it.
The reservoir was built back in 1799 to provide water for the Wyrley and its linked canals. Later, when the surrounding area was developed for mining the end of the Arm was the site of a large loading basin where conveyors poured coal into trains of joey boats that were towed by tug to nearby power stations. The last coal was shipped in 1967 but only a couple of buckled steel remnants of chutes remain beside the canal.
It’s a remote and windswept place which greeted us with a hailstorm. Small local towns like Brownhills, Cannock and Chasetown are not far away but you wouldn’t know it. (See bottom). Only the drone of traffic on the nearby M6 Toll is intrusive – surprisingly so given how little traffic is on it whenever we use it.

Brownhill's powerful thirty feet high statue of a miner 
We did a spot of sightseeing in the sunshine at Brownhills before leaving. The town has a couple of impressive examples of urban art, most notably the fine 30ft high stainless steel sculpture of a miner on the roundabout at the edge of the main street. At the other end of the street is a smaller but no less appealing town sign, showing off the town’s links to the railways, canal and mining in handsome three dimensional steel.
And its delightful three dimensional town sign
But that’s about it for Brownshill. The fine waterfront with its canalside Tesco flatters to deceive. Walk up the footpath past the graffiti-ed side wall of Tesco and you crunch through broken glass to reach a high street largely built in that architectural nadir, the 1970s and showing it. There are all the usual signs of a down on its luck town: money lending shops of various types, fast food outlets, nail bars, hairdressers and the inevitable tattooist. Plus a small shopping mall that has been entirely abandoned by its tenants. Sad. Maybe some of the local authority money spent on urban art could have been put to more practical community support?
I don’t want to end on a low: the Chasewater reservoir is now the centre of a well used country park, with dog walkers, joggers and skate-boarders (as well as a solitary pair of boaters) enjoying the space and peace, while sailors and boarders enjoy the water. It's a lovely spot.
PS After posting this we discovered that the homespun little community of Chasetown is barely 15 minutes walk away. It's a useful place to know: there's a  Co-op, Post Office, pubs and even a very good charity shop. Look for the large green footbridge off to the east from the Basin, find the footpath from the canal to it, cross the bridge and go straight on into the town.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Foul day – fine dinner!

Just what you need at the end of a horrible day
Tonight's dinner was by far the best thing about today: venison hot-pot served in Yorkshire pudding boats. And wide-beam ones at that! This is what you get when you're lucky enough to be married to Canal Boat mag's cookery correspondent.
The weather forecast for today proved to be spot on. After a very sharp overnight frost, we got up to a cloudy day with a sharp, sharp wind and rain forecast from midday on. So we pulled the pins early and headed the couple of miles to the former mining town of Brownhills where there's a CRT service station and both Aldi and Tesco close to the canalside moorings.
No sooner had we rounded our first bend than we came upon ice across the canal – just a thin sheet and easy to crack through. It's more of the same Curley Wurley mixing semi-rural and urban with the odd bit of industry, in this case a canalside waste site, thrown in. And, today, patches of ice too.
Semi-sunk like an abandoned ship - a sofa drifts in the drink
As we neared the edge of Brownhills we spotted our most extreme example of rubbish dumping yet: in the woodland on the off-side were a three piece suite and an armchair. How did they get there? It would have been easier to take them to a tip than haul them there surely. And then shortly after, drifting mid-canal like an abandoned ship, was yet another sofa. Again, carrying it there down the towpath; throwing it in – why not just take it to the council tip?
And so, with the icy wind blowing ever harder, we came into Brownhills to find an ultra-modern services building shared with the local canoe club followed by a quarter mile of mooring bollards with three other boats already on them.
Only snag was that we couldn't get closer than two feet from the edge so it was plank down time again.
By the time we moored the rain was pouring and the wind even harsher. We called time on the day. Tomorrow would surely be better.
Filling with water before mooring at a surprisingly busy Brownhills wharf

Saturday, 21 February 2015

We are not alone!

We are not alone: Nb No Problem comes into view
We are not alone out here in the distant waterway galaxy that is the Wyrley & Essington. Today we met another boat on the move – the first we've seen in the two days we've been here. And it was a fellow boating blogger – Sue of Nb No Problem who seems to have been curley whirlying the opposite way round the outer BCN to ourselves.
We met them just as we burst out of the seemingly endless housing estates that throng the canal and into open countryside with trees and birds and grazing cows, as bucolic as you'll find anywhere on the system. Ironically, half a century ago most of it would have been dusty collieries and smoking steelworks.
Pelsall in the sun - a chance to put the washing out
We are moored behind a solitary winter moorer tonight at one such spot, Pelsall Common, a huge spread of grass, bird filled pools, and wild heathland on which once stood the huge Pelsall Ironworks. The day ended in bright sunshine; bright enough for Mrs B to hang the washing out to blow dry in the light breeze.
Sneyd Junction where we moored last night
The first old lock of the abandoned Wyrley Branch canal
This morning we had woken to find a dusting of snow on the ground and a sharp chill wind blowing. We went to see where we'd arrived at in the dark last night. The tight bend we'd turned right and gone round is actually a junction where the Wyrley Branch left straight ahead. Now it ends in a few yards at the remains of a lock and beyond it a boggy ditch that's sadly now a local fly-tipping site.
After boat hooking various plastic bags off the prop we left Sneyd for a rather soulless stretch of water past fenced off factories and floating rubbish of every sort. But at last the water was deeper and by coasting in neutral through bridgeholes we kept the prop free of most mess.
Birchills Junction where the Walsall head off to the right
After a couple of miles we arrived at Birchills Junction where the Walsall Canal heads off to the right into the town. We veered left on the Curley past large modern industrial buildings on sites that were once Staffordshire Ironworks and Peter Keays wooden boatyard. The canal is not at its best beyond here, hemmed in by untidy housing estates and with a depressing amount of rubbish about from bottles and cans up to wheelie bins and fridges.
Far distant views once the canal is clear of housing
Ruins of the vast old copper refiners at Goscote
A brief respite saw the view open out into a distant panorama, revealing just how high above the far countryside the canal actually runs. Then we dived back out of the greenery and were passing tumbledown brick walling and a loading jetty behind which was eventually revealed a huge industrial site now razed to the ground. Apparently it was Elkington Copper Refiners Goscote works.
We could be anywhere on a quiet country canal but this is the Black Country
A few twists and turns later and Nb No Problem suddenly appeared round a bend, just as we were admiring the country views that had suddenly arrived. The old rubbish strewn urban Wyrley was gone and we were out in the wilds on a wide, handsome waterway that brought us to Pelsall and our night stop.
Pelsall Junction where the Cannock Arm leaves
The short remains of the arm once full of collieries are now quiet, countryside
Boatyards at the end of the Arm just before it is chopped off by the A5 
A few hundred yards before mooring we'd passed Pelsall Junction where the Cannock Extension Canal runs a mile and a half dead straight to its end at Norton Canes and CTS boatyards and the A5 main road. Until the 60s it continued on to Hednesford Colliery and was thronged with working boats – as many as 70 were simply abandoned there when the section was shut after subsidence. Now the remaining canal is a peaceful and utterly rural length that we walked with Brian in the afternoon sun.
It's salutary to see how little is left of the old industries after such a short time and how they have simply been absorbed back into nature. There's industrial history all around but so little of it left to see.
And this is how Pelsall was: Steve Dent's evocative painting of the ironworks

Friday, 20 February 2015

Too many hours in the day

Turning off the Staffs & Worcs into the Wolverhampton 21
Today was a day that went on for too long. If we'd moored up at five, fine but we went on another hour and moored in the dark – and I mean the dark, even the moon was just a slim crescent – tired, cold and hungry.
The day started well. It was cold; very cold but an hour's run down the Staffs & Worcs, including the infamous narrows carved through solid rock, brought us quickly to the bottom of the Wolverhampton 21 and a chance to warm up.
The huge chimney of the local incinerator plant soon looms into view
The first couple of locks on the flight are silent and secretive, tucked sleepily among trees and hardly shouting 'Welcome to Wolverhampton'. After that, things start to open out, past the racecourse and then edging up through industry, Wolverhampton's refuse big incinerator plant and urban dishevelment towards the town itself. The locks are somewhere local folk like to go: plenty of people were walking the lock flight at lunchtime but the broken glass and rubbish around some of the locks was depressing.
Gavin, our enthusiastic and capable local lock-wheeler
The locks were all set in our favour - hooray - and worked smoothly and easily, especially after we acquired a helper. Local 'yoof' Gavin has a mate with a boat and so has done a fair bit of boating in the area; he was happy to see us up it in return for a steak and ale pie en route and a beer 'thank-you at the top. Halfway up the locks another boater happened along: "is that the boat that caught fire and you rebuilt? I've got a boat and I follow the mags; I've read about it." Nice to have a boat people recognise. BTW he's selling his rather nice narrowboat here.
The canal ducks under the main railway line
The locks all continued to be in our favour and we motored in and out at a steady speed, only held up when – just as Gav predicted – we found the pound between locks 3 and 2 was half empty. Lock 3 leaks, you see – always has; even the local walkers know that so the short pound above it steadily drains. Why don't C&RT fix it? Search me.
Leaving Gavin at the top of the flight
A quick pit stop at the handsome Broad Street Basin
Three hours after we started up, we parted from Gav at the top lock and made a brief pit stop at the handsome old Broad Street Basin then a half mile along the Birmingham Main Line to Horseley Fields Junction where we turned off onto the Wyrley and Essington and another world.
Heading into the unknown at Horseley Fields Junction
The 'Curly Wurly' was built to serve the multiplicity of collieries that used to exist in the northern reaches of Birmingham. Originally it ran from here all the way to Huddleford near Lichfield. As its nickname suggests, it's a wriggling contour canal without a single lock along most of its length. And that's quite a feat when you look at a canal map of the area and the number of locks that had to be built on other local canals to accommodate the hills and vales of Birmingham.
Beyond these arches were once large working boat basins
The Curly Wurley starts amid some remnants of its origins: the entrance portals to long gone Midland Railway basins. But aside from the odd brick ruin, canalside industry now operates in faceless corugated steel 'units' that turn their backs to the water.
Passing the start of the old Bentley Canal, now surrounded by a retail park
A mile or more on comes the stumpy remains of the Bentley Canal, one of many derelict arms and canal stubs along the BCN. The Bentley, complete with handsome roving bridge, now offers a few moorings for the massive retail and leisure park adjacent – cinema, bowling alley and multiplicity of chain restaurants and take-aways offering suitably safe and predictable dining experiences.
It was shortly after the Bentley that the Curly Wurley showed us its darker side. We were briefly stuck in the silt on a tight S-bend and I then spent several miles trying with varying degrees of success to clean off the prop with bursts of reverse. (Each to the accompaniment of agitated yapping from Seadog Brian). A conglomeration of plastic bags, mysterious rubbish, the occasional clattering thump from underneath and plain old sludgy water slowed us to less than walking pace, save for short spells when the engine burst back to life.
The Curly Wurley spends much of its route winding through housing like this
By now it was getting towards twilight and the prospect of mooring in what we could politely call an urban canal where every dog seemed to be a doberman, alsatian or Staffie (usually muzzled) was not encouraging. Secure CRT were ahead so we made for them, only to find a boat was already parked and there wasn't room for us.
We went on, heading for Sneyd (pronounced Sneed) Junction where more moorings were listed, meandering through former coalfields, now a country park. But twilight had turned to darkness as we made the hairpin turn (with Mrs B pulling the bows around by rope from the bank to help get us through the silt) and finally, finally moored up.