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.


  1. Well done you two for enduring the agonies of the badlands and for writing so well about them. We now don't have to. Best wishes

  2. Thanks for the kind comments but there are worthwhile places you will miss by not giving the BCN a try