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.

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