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.

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