Tuesday, 31 March 2015

What a day!

The fallen tree that blocked our passage
Yes, what a day it's been. We took half an hour to get off our overnight mooring; got comprehensively stuck getting out of the next lock, stuck again on the pound to Kidderminster, stuck again when we tried to moor after the lock for a well deserved McDonalds, caught in a hailstorm that peppered my face like airgun pellets and finally brought to a halt by a huge tree which had been blown down across the canal. On top of that I witnessed the old chap on the boat in front fall overboard when his plank slipped and badly gash his head.
All this in little more than two miles! Which took about three hours.
The first problem we were half-expecting: we went aground when mooring last night at Wolverley Lock but usually a quick shove gets you away. Not this time: poling, pulling, reversing - we tried the lot until we were finally off.
All went well until we reached the next lock, Wolverley Court where the tower blocks of Kidderminster loom in the distance. In the top, down, out the bottom gates. Stuck! This time we were right in the middle: memories of Llangollen and the night we had to spend stuck in mid-stream. Fortunately we managed to pole the nose close enough to the side for me to jump off and gather up front, rear and centre lines to try and manipulate us into what water there was while Harrywoman helmed us gently forwards. And so finally we got away. Or rather she did while I walked. And walked – there were no bridgeholes to hop on at.
Evidence of the drop in water levels that got us stuck
A mile later I hopped on at the first one ... and we immediately got stuck again so I had to hop off again with the lines! It was clear by now that the pound was well down – more than six inches I reckoned. We were expecting to find a paddle left up at the next lock as the cause.
The handsome canalside church at Kidderminster
The entry to Kidderminster is unprepossessing, following a long line of bland 'executive' homes newly built in the familiar crammed-in fashion along the offside and then a waterside Sainsburys. But then relief: the handsome town church with a small wharf and crane in front of it as we reached Kidderminster Lock. But God is very much separated from Mammon for the church sits in lonely isolation on one side of the noisy dual carriageway ring road. And on the other is the huge Weaver's Wharf shopping centre with its McDonalds, Pizza Hut, M&S, Tesco and all the other usual suspects. Mind you, the giant carpet mill has been saved and now houses Debenhams and a Frankie & Benny's.
Kidderminster was once famous for its carpets. Today the old carpet mill is the only evidence. Oh, and a Carpet City outlet!
The canal was still low, even though we'd found no paddles left up at the lock. I soon had other things to contend with when the sun rapidly vanished, the wind brought rain and moments later a vicious hailstorm. I sheltered under a bridge, went inside and had an excellent noodle lunch conjured up in moments by the Queen of the Galley.
Tools of the tree clearers' trade
And so to the fallen tree where boats were queuing either side, the first since nine a.m. Three gangs from CRT were out clearing fallen trees in the area and ours had just arrived after sorting a previous faller. But before they could begin their first aid kit had to come out for the elderly boater who'd fallen in. An ambulance was called and he went off for checks. (Fortunately he was fine and arrived back three hours later just as the last of the tree was cleared.)
So how do two men clear a 40ft tree that's crashed across the canal? With the aid of a rowing dinghy, a chainsaw and a very clever mini tracked vehicle with a built in winch they made it look easy.
The only good side to the day was that we discovered that the low water levels had been caused by paddles left up at Kidderminster – the boat in front of us had found them – and, even better, our temporary mooring waiting for the tree clearers was outside a pub.
Which is where we are just heading for a meal!

Monday, 30 March 2015

Watch out – hire boaters about!

School Easter holidays have begun, the first hire boats have started to appear on the cut and the Grumpy Old Boaters are already started to grump. Witness the chalked message to Starline hire boaters on the bridge across Debdale Lock.
We're usually happy to see them. There's nothing like a hire boating family with some eager windlass clutching kids seemingly  always on the brink of falling in, a panic stricken mum up front and a blase dad at the helm steering a haphazard line across the canal to get you chuckling. Unless they're aiming at our boat of course. The only ones who we don't like are the gangs of beery blokes who've left their various missuses behind and gone off for a noisy, high speed, waterway pub crawl.
The canal is carved around the sandstone cliffs
And sometimes through them as here at Cookley Tunnel
I did knock our speed back a bit today though in anticipation of meeting a hire boat or two. The canal from Kinver through to Wolverton carves a narrow way through some hefty sandstone cliffs that look somewhat unforgiving should a newbie hire boater arrive round one of the tight bends.
It's a spectacular few miles though which must have caused a few headaches for the canal builders. Cookley Tunnel goes through the rockface (and has houses built above it), Debdale Lock is built into the rock and has a hewn out shelter for horses. The rocks everywhere are impressive; layer upon layer, worn away by time, eaten into in a myriad places to becomenesting spots for birds and small creatures. Makes me wish I'd done Geography GCE so I knew how it all came about. What good was Latin, eh?
Graham 'The Narrowboat Builder's Handbook' Booth and his boat 'Rome' live here
This is Whittington Horse Bridge and you can see why it got that name
Stunning view from high on the ridge above Kinver
Before we left Kinver we took a final walk along a footpath on the offside which took us high onto a wooded ridge above the canal and past a cluster of houses which have a beautiful setting but no road access at all – it's a quarter mile wheelbarrow push through the woods to get the shopping home.

Tonight we are moored just above Wolverley Lock listening to the wind get noisier and hoping that the hefty trees above us don't choose tonight to come adrift. 

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Life on the Edge in Kinver

One of the restored rock houses at Kinver Edge 
There's a bit of the caveman in all of us and here in Kinver you can get closer to your primitive instincts than most places in Britain. It has some of the finest cave houses in Europe, carved out of the soft local sandstone among the high cliffs of Kinver Edge.
And the remains of another - literally carved into the rock
The distinctive deep red sandstone, worn smooth and grooved by the passage of time, had become a familiar sight as we neared Kinver, occasionally poking through the soil and sometimes demanding the canal builders carve a passage past – and sometimes even under – its outcrops.
But here it Kinver it rears up high into the air as we meet a massive sandstone ridge that towers around the local countryside. The village church standing high above the canal is an impressive sight but just a taster; the real hills are beyond.
Unsurprisingly Kinver and its surroundings are something of a tourist attraction – and have been for over a century. Way back in 1901 the Kinver Light Railway opened and brought thousands of trippers from the industrial grime of the nearby Black Country. Over 15,000 of them came on one Bank Holiday Monday.
The tramway is long gone but plenty still arrive today – though, as we discovered on our last visit fie years back, the village doesn't pay them much heed. Last time we arrived on a Saturday and found all the shops shutting up at 4pm; this time we came at 3.55pm on Friday and found the same thing! Only the Co-op and Spar shops disregarded the curfew.
Kinver's pretty High Street where every day is early closing day
Still, at least we knew our way around, which was just as well as Kinver doesn't provide a lot in the way of signposting. It's a pretty little village, with some handsome houses, but the real sights are a sharp walk further up the hill.
We headed upwards, out of the village, and kept going...and going until we were sure we must have gone wrong and then spied a distant car park sign for the Holy Austin Rock Houses.
These remarkable houses – there were eleven of them clustered together, built in three levels as well as alongside each other – were quite literally carved into the soft rockface. Need an extension? Just carve another room out!
They date back to 1770 but were at their peak of occupation when homes were short for workers at the local Hyde Ironworks. When that closed, families gradually moved away but the last two houses were occupied until the 1950s. After that they fell into disrepair and eventually so dangerous that there was serious talk of them being demolished.
The restored Victorian parlour in the rock house
Today they're owned by the National Trust which has stabilised the crumbling rockface and (since we were last here) restored two of them and furnished them as they would have been used in Victorian times. Apparently 17,000 people came to see them last year.
There's not a whole lot to see but what there is was fascinating. Life was simple then, it centred around the kitchen-parlour, heated by a large wooden range which of course also cooked the food and heated water. The range, incidentally, was made in Tipton by Charles Lathe & Co. It is exactly the model originally used in the house and was tracked down in a local reclamation yard. Beyond the parlour lies a simple bedroom, no bathroom of course and candles and there are oil lamps for lighting. The houses had no electric but they did have water and even, remarkably, got town gas by the end. Outside each had its vegetable gardens.
At its centre, this fine range
There's a certain appeal to this troglodyte (what a great word!) lifestyle. Plain whitewashed walls and ceilings, tiled floors, thick walls to keep you warm in winter and cool in summer – and create a cosy, sound-damped feel, some homely sticks of furniture. It makes one realise just how simply one can live a satisfying life. Of course, I don't envy those rock house dwellers the lack of modern medicine but I bet they were fit from walking, ate healthily, savoured the stunning year round views and the only twittering they knew of were the birds in the trees.
Spectacular views are all around from the top of Kinver Ridge
From the rock houses we climbed higher still to the top of Kinver Ridge itself. The top opens into a spectacular plateau which offers a panoramic view as far as Birmingham in one direction and the Malvern Hills in another as well as literally miles of walks across the heathland and woods of this huge high ridge.
The camera gives only a feeble impression of the scale of the views
I'm glad we did all that yesterday for today on the first day of British Summer Time it has most appropriately  p*ssed with rain all day so we have adopted our own troglodyte lifestyle and stayed on board.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

The birdwoman of Birmingham

Ocker Hill: our best bird spotting location
Harrywoman has always been fond of birds and she felt particularly sorry for the birds of Birmingham, trying to eke out a living in those unforgiving urban surrounds during our often cold and wet late winter months.
So she decided to take them under her wing! Sorry, excruciating pun I know but I couldn't resist.
Everywhere we moored, first thing was to find somewhere to hang her bird table and nut feeder where her local feathered friends could find them and she could watch them from the windows.
Even in central Birmingham they soon discovered her bankside food bank but, unbelievably, the best place of all was in a shabby little mooring arm at Ocker Hill where, amid the factories and power plants we spotted more birds than anywhere else.
Now we are back in the country we've done a tally of all the species we've spotted on our travels round greater Brum and here it is, all 32 of them. It's just birds that we've seen from the boat, not those we've spotted elsewhere:

Even in central Birmingham they came to the bankside food bank
Blue Tit
Great Tit
Long Tailed Tit
Pied Wagtail
Yellow Wagtail
Canada Goose
Herring Gull
Black Headed Gull
Kingfisher (two of them on a desperate stretch near Tipton)

So even in the most urban or ruinous of locations it's worth bird watching. And well worthwhile giving seeds and nuts to the small birds rather than hurling heaps of bread to the greedy and overfed ducks, geese and swans that can fend perfectly well for themselves.

Friday, 27 March 2015

It's been downhill all the way

Countryside ahead! On the Stourbridge 16 near the Red Cone
We are officially off the BCN and back in England's green and pleasant land. Tonight we are moored in one of the prettiest spots in that land, the hillside village of Kinver which we will be exploring over the weekend.
It's been a hard couple of days work to get here – 31 locks (24 of them in one day), all downhill as we head slowly down to river level and every one of them set against us.
Leaving Merry Hill on a blustery morning that alternated sunshine and rain – usually just as I'd taken my rain jacket off – we very quickly reached our first challenge: the eight Delph Locks. These are one of the great secret gems of the waterways. If they were out in the countryside rather than one of the BCN's lesser used canals they would be thronged with gongoozling visitors as boaters queued to use them. Instead, there was just us; a few joggers and plenty of evidence of dog walking and spray can practising.
The spectacular Delph locks and their side ponds
The locks are truly special: after the first you turn to meet the main flight of six closely grouped locks which rises up from the valley like a mini Caen Hill, with large side ponds beside each lock to conserve water. At each pond, surplus water cascades in a glittering waterfall down to the pond below, but if you're experienced lockwheelers (like us, of course) you waste little as you progress down by working ahead to make sure water leaving the lock above can flow straight in the one that needs filling below it. It's brisk, hard work rushing to and fro, as Seadog Brian will testify as he was taking part too. At the final lock we watched while a model yacht enthusiast skillfully sailed his yawl across the pond, gently tugging a length of fishing line to keep it with the wind.
Our model yacht enthusiast shows off his hand-rigged yawl
After Delph, the canal loops gently almost back on itself around Brierley Hill, again on a route through a mix of industrial decay and green space, before looping the other way to the top of the Stourbridge Sixteen locks. This is as bleak a spot as you could wish for; blank sided grey corrugated steel factories, graffiti-ed and razor wire topped walls and a large incinerator chimney. There's history even here though: we are at Leys Junction where a stub of canal is actually the Fens Branch that led to the long dead Stourbridge Extension Canal which took traffic from local coal and ironstone mines. Here, too, we leave the Dudley No1 Canal for the start of the Stourbridge Canal.
As bleak as it gets: the Fens Branch and Stourbridge junction
The Stourbridge locks are less dramatic in appearance than the Delph flight but drop the canal 145ft in less than a mile. And all but the final two are closely spaced enough to demand energetic to-ing and fro-ing from the efficient lockwheeler and his four-legged compatriot.
Oddball home improvement by the locks: those angled roofs are dormer windows
It's certainly not without its sights either. From the half way spot a spectacular vista opens; distant hills across the skyline while the canal drops down into the valley, passing two historic landmarks on the way. Dadford's Shed, a former transhipment warehouse is now home to a cluster of historic working boats since it is the base of boatbuilder/renovation doyen, Ian Kemp, and occasionally painting guru, Phil Speight.
Stourbridge was a major centre of glass-making. All that survives now is the huge Red House Cone, a massive brick furnace, now part of a glass-making heritage centre.
Below Red House stands an imposing canalside warehousing which was a burned out ruin when we passed a few years back. It still is but is in the early stages of renovation into (the inevitable) apartments and a museum. And along the canal past here the wasteland is being re-developed as tidy looking houses. All part of what appears a gentle upwardly movement in Stourbridge's fortunes.
Ignoring the Stourbridge Town Arm (we've been there) we headed out into our first 'proper' countryside for some weeks and moored savouring the adjacent green hillside with its walkers and horses like a thirsty man savours his first pint.
Entering the final lock with a pretty canal arm weaving off to the right 
The remaining two miles of the Stourbridge Canal are as pretty a rural canal as ever you'll wish for, gently smoothing along the picturesque hillside until you reach the final four Stourton Locks and a picture perfect finale as a short canal arm leads off between the first and second locks.
And then we were on the Staffs & Worcs again – the same waterway we had left for the journey into the BCN some weeks back. And once more the sun shone on a pastoral picture as the canal swept a long arc towards the pretty Hyde Lock, where the lock cottage has just sold for £325k and then on into Kinver.
But even in these last couple of miles, some delving into the history books (Pearson's excellent Guide, that is) reveals that Stewponey Lock, the first we passed on the canal, was a significant staging post in working boat days with an octagonal toll office, stables, wharf, workshops and cottages (all of which are still visible) even post WW2 still catering for 50 boat loads of coal a week heading to Stourport Power Station.
Hard to believe but for 200 years this picturesque sweep was a huge ironworks
And that delightful country scene above Hyde Lock was a huge and sprawling ironworks for over 200 years with as many as twenty furnaces on the go. The only evidence of it all now is the former manager's house – now a pristine white painted country home by the towpath with a brusque 'no mooring' sign on the fence. How times change.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Intu Merry Hill or into merry hell?

The Waterfront at Merry Hill, passing its long term moorings
We are on our way out of the Birmingham canal network. But not before a few final glimpses at its industrial history – and a vision of what has replaced it. Whether that vision is a dream or a nightmare depends on your point of view. And your appetite for shopping.
And the previous day; leaving the friendly Hawne Basin
Anyway after a few days away with family we returned to the ultra-friendly folk at Hawne Basin to collect Harry and retrace our route back through the dreaded Gosty Hill Tunnel to Windmill End. Second time around, the tunnel was no less slow but less worrisome, though we did seem to be hitting a lot of underwater 'stuff' and collecting more round the prop. At Windmill End I had to spend an hour with the boat hook and then head down in the weed hatch untangling plastic, bits of sheet and plastic binder tape from the prop. Unfortunately we also seem to have damaged our newly refurbed rudder: it felt very stiff and heavy which I put down to all the rubbish round the prop. Sadly, no: it was just as stiff once the rubbish was off. Looks like we'll have to find a drydock to get it checked.
An entertaining hour in the weed hatch produced this from round the prop
We took a longer walk around the area while moored at Windmill End: the views from the hilltop (actually the gone-wild remains of a slag heap) are spectacular in all directions. It beggars belief what it must have looked like when the area was a mass of smoking factory chimneys.
Just a portion of the stunning views from the hilltop at Windmill End
We also discovered the former Harris's boatyard at the end of the enchantingly named Bumble Hole Arm. They were probably the last builders of riveted iron boats on the BCN: today the site is an eccentrically arranged mooring wharf.
The former Harris's boatyard there, now an eccentric mooring wharf
From Windmill End the canal winds along the contour towards its junction with the Dudley Tunnel at Parkhead, another link to the main BCN. This predates the Netherton Tunnel but is long, narrow and tight. No powered trips are allowed; only electric tug towed or by the traditional 'legging' method. The line to Parkhead is a mixture of utter nastiness – the offside bank cascading piles of factory litter down into the canal – and surprising rural charm as the canal nudges out into the countryside to round the steep Netherton Hill.
An angler points the way at Parkhead: we went left past the pumphouse into the lock
Parkhead itself is a fine canal scene. Or it would be but for the incessant racket of an adjacent concrete plant. Set around a massive basin there's a fine pumphouse where we turned left to carry on our journey but where a flight of three other locks lead up to the right towards the tunnel.
I can think of a lot worse reasons for giving a bridge its name
Beyond Parkhead there's another mile of mess and muddle, evidence of the area's struggle to find its feet after the closure of so many traditional local industries. Then, finally, just as we are passing the weed engulfed remains of yet another flattened factory, the roofs of the massive Merry Hill Waterfront development loom into sight.
This was built in the late 1980s on the site of the massive Round Oak Steelworks which had closed in 1982 with the loss of over a thousand jobs. With its offices, bars and restaurants in their pattern-book, colourful glass and steel late 20th century style this and the shopping mall over the road were supported by Government Enterprise Zone incentives. Ironically, in the wake of the recession most of the bars and restaurants and plenty of the offices have shut and the area has tinges of decay. It's now a candidate for more Enterprise Zone incentives to resurrect it.
And just a fraction of the sprawling Merry Hill shop megalopolis
Not so the shopping mall - now "intu Merry Hill" which has grown into some chaotically styled shopping monster, each segment seemingly designed by an architect intent on his own 'vision' and regardless of the size or style of what's next door. It's a madhouse but a busy one and, as aggressive monsters do, it has sucked the life out of all the surrounding shopping streets. There simply is no need to go to Brierley Hill or Dudley anymore - just head intu merry hell.

Intu Merry Hill - or into Merry Hell. Depends on your point of view
We had a quiet night, surrounded by the Waterfront's empty bars, and preparing for a busy day of 24 locks which would finally take us away from industry and into the country.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

We survived the Gosty Hill Tunnel

A welcome from the ghost of Gosty Hill
'Infamous in boating circles'. That's how Pearson's Guide describes the Gosty Hill Tunnel. And you can even buy a souvenir plaque for your boat with the legend 'I survived the Gosty Hill Tunnel'. To make it even more alluring, it doesn't lead anywhere: just a few pretty missable miles to a terminus at Hawne Basin.
Once the canal went on through an even more demanding tunnel, the two plus miles of the Lapal which linked to another of Birmingham's major canal routes and created a busy circuit for working boats. But the Lapal has been out of action for a hundred years now.
Our surviving leg of what's known as the Dudley No2 Canal remained in active service until 1969 serving the huge Stewart & Lloyds steel tube factories. When they went the canal would probably have gone too but for the efforts of the Coombeswood Canal Trust who have restored the old canal/railway interchange basin at Hawne into a thriving boating centre that welcomes visitors: there's a bar, a little shop, diesel, gas and so on. It didn't seem the decent thing to be at Windmill End without taking the three mile trip down there so say hello and call it 'job done' on the canal. Even if it meant braving the Gosty Hill Tunnel.
The route there meanders around past the remains of old wharves and arms, now replaced by the blank faces of steel framed, corrugated alloy 'units'. It runs high along a hillside, offering distant views to the Mucklow Hills across miles of house roofs.
Circus elephants played in the canal here in 1905
Ingenious graffiti spraying toll clerk

Along the length of the canal is a series of steel sculptures, each giving little insights into its locality and some, like the graffiti spraying toll clerk, delightfully witty. Kept tidy and clean, they are witness to the fact that, grubby as it might be to others, some people love this canal.
But then the tunnel lurks menacingly into view, led into by a narrow channel which has the remains of what was a tunnel tug dock beside it.
The tunnel entrance looms as we pass the old tug dock
In the sludgy, silted up water it's already slow – very slow – going and we're not even in the tunnel. It's only 577 yards long and we can see the other end but, clearly, this is going to take a while. Apparently the old working boaters used to set the engine, go inside and have a brew in the cabin while the boat steadily nosed itself along the narrow bore.
And it gets just a little bit tight
And it's certainly narrow, not much more than our boat's width but it's high...at least for a while until a third of the way in the ceiling height drops suddenly, Dracula greets us, and it's claustrophobically low, the brickwork arching just over us. The boat's on little more than tickover: no point going faster, it just digs down into the sludge. It's smelly, dark and noisy in there. The worst bit is: I'm staring at the gradually enlarging circle of light at the far end then notice a sign on the tunnel wall that tells me we're only half way!
Suddenly the roof rises again and for a few minutes there's a bit of relief from the claustrophobia before it drops down again for the final 50 yards. And then we are out - 22 minutes after going in, which is a speed of just under one mph.
Emerging into the light and the sprawling ruins of the old steel tube works
The final leg of the canal is wider and deeper than pre-tunnel. It emerges from the tunnel to be greeted by a high, long wall of brickwork and archways on the offside – all that is left of the Stewart & Lloyds works. These stretch on for a quarter mile and there's even the remains of old ramps on which the company's boats were launched sideways into the canal.
Finally, moored boats started to appear and we near Hawne Basin. Entry into the basin is a sharp right turn into a challengingly narrow bridgehole that completely defeats me and demands much to-ing and fro-ing and pole work before we are in. Then a deft bit of reversing to make up for it slots us into a mooring – just in time to walk round to the bar and miss the end of the rugby which has just finished.
Tomorrow I guess we'll do it all again in the other direction!

Saturday, 14 March 2015

A pub lunch with a difference

An unprepossessing side street local from the outside
You can't come to Windmill End without visiting The Old Swan, better known as 'Ma Pardoe's', just a few minutes walk from the canal in Netherton.
On the outside it's simply a streetside pub in the middle of a terrace of Victorian shops but step inside and you discover a startling gem of ornate Victoriana. The highspot is the famous enamelled ceiling with a beautiful swan at its centrepiece but there's loveliness everywhere you look: the ornate bars, the elegant lights, the gleaming brass, the bold swirls of the period wallpaper, the richly painted woodwork.
But inside a Victorian masterpiece
It's a little masterpiece; perfectly restored and immaculately maintained. But it is still very much a pub. The front bar has its complement of drinkers (the pub brews its own beer as well), a quieter lounge serves those want to eat and there's a cosy 'smoking room' – though of course it's not smoke filled these days – for those who want a quiet corner to chat, read the paper or sup an ale. There's even a posher restaurant upstairs these days.
Gleaming brass, warm lighting and rich paintwork
The nickname comes from its long time landlady, Doris Pardoe, who owned the pub until her death aged 85 in 1984. Such was its fame among pub lovers that when it then came up for sale a company was set up by CAMRA to buy and run it. That was short lived but was enough to ensure the pub and its on-site micro-brewery survived.
If it was in London, tourists would be queuing outside and beer would be a fiver a pint. In Netherton it can be a beauty spot and a proper pub as well, a fortunate combination. We left with contented smiles after a couple of pints of Bumblehole and two hearty lunches.
Mushroom End, a cosy hamlet that could be part of any English village
Netherton was home of the Black Country chain and anchor making industries. The anchors for the Titanic were made here. Today the noise and smoke is gone but streets of unprepossessing houses and a few small factory units have replaced them. But in next-door Cradley (the boundary with Netherton seems purely an administrative one) is one little corner that is an unexpected oasis in this hum-drum sea.
A nod to the area's past in the chain mushroom sculpture
Mushroom Green was originally a small collection of workers' cottages built around a chainmaking factory. Today the little Victorian houses are a tucked away hamlet that could be found in any one of many little English villages.

A picture perfect country cottage in the middle of a Midland suburb

Friday, 13 March 2015

Out of the rain and into the darkness

Windmill End – as delightful as its name suggests
Tipton might be a small place but it has served us well these past few days with trips to the dentist, the vet and the local shops, culminating last night with a meal at the friendly canalside Fountain Inn.
The Fountain is a proper local pub, small, unassuming, old fashioned and all the better for it. Two big plates of decent pub grub for £12 and a line of nicely kept real ales which the landlady let us sample before choosing – what's not to like?
But today it was time to move on even though the weather did its best to encourage us to stay put. The dismal rain stopped at lunchtime so we unmoored and headed towards the New Main Line. As I said last time, Tipton is on the junction of Old and New canals and a five minute walk gets you from to the other. To get there by boat involved descending the three Factory Locks and took over half an hour!
Descending Factory Locks, once paired as the disused pounds reveal
The locks are a handsome set, beautifully maintained and the metalwork striking in its black and white livery even on a dull day. Originally they were twinned to cope with the amount of traffic, the duplicate locks have gone but the twin pounds between them remain.
After them, and passing the other end of Tipton, we headed half a mile down the canal before turning right onto the short leg leading to Netherton Tunnel – passing under the aqueduct carrying the Old Main Line on our way.
Going under the Old Main Line with Netherton in the distance
The 2.75 mile Netherton is the third longest canal one can take a powered boat through and the last major canal tunnel to be built in England, opening in 1858. It's a magnificent structure that drives like a watery motorway through the high Rowley Hills that dominate the landscape in a high, double width bore that even has a towpath either side. It was even illuminated by gas lamps – later changed to electric, though these are unlit now. Until it opened the only route through was the narrow single width Dudley Tunnel nearby. Boats could wait over a week to get through, such was the bottleneck it created.
Meeting an oncoming boat in the middle of the quietest tunnel in the system
Netherton nearly closed a couple of years back when serious cracking and subsidence was discovered in the centre section but major restoration work was done in a four month programme costing £1.5m.
In its heyday, Netherton must have been crowded with boats; now it must be the quietest big tunnel on the system – which of course meant that we met our only moving boat of the day in the middle of it!
Emerging into the sun and into a new set of waterways
Going through Netherton is rather like going from North to South London. We have effectively left one network of canals and entered another; left Birmingham and entered Dudley and Stourbridge. There are no easy circuits or rings of canals: just the tunnel, and you're either north of it or south of it.
Tonight we are in one of the prettiest spots imaginable, Windmill End, and as delightful as its name suggests. Wide mown areas of parkland, lined by yellow daffodils and edged by trees are all around and black and white cast iron bridges criss-cross a maze of canals and canal arms.
Hard to believe that the streets of urban Dudley are only yards away but they are, below us on our embankment. And harder still to believe that this whole area was once a smoking, black mass of coal mines and factories.