Friday, 10 April 2015

Perfect days

Beautiful woodland on a beautiful day at Kinver
Hasn't it been a beautiful week? Perfect for just lazing around in the sun, not rushing anywhere and simply wandering the local footpaths to admire the scenery and watch Spring unfurl.
Which is exactly what we've been doing. We're certainly not in a rush: we have an appointment with the boatyard crane next Tuesday and it's only four miles and five locks away. I think we can make it on time.
Having spent our allotted 24 hours mooring up in Kinver, we eased our way just half a mile out of town to the most idyllic country mooring on a sweeping bend past Hyde Lock where we could stay a couple of weeks should we wish. And we'd be tempted if it wasn't for that crane.
We've found ourselves at the centre of a little network of secretive country walks, the simplest of which was a circular route to Kinver and back, returning (via the Plough & Harrow for a pint of Bathams, the celebrated Black Country bitter) along the course of the old Kinver Light Railway.
This, incidentally – the railway, not the Bathams – rescued the village from near oblivion when it was built in 1901 and brought thousands of day trippers to visit the cave houses and Kinver Edge.
The River Stour twists and turns a delightful course beside the canal
But our truly delightful walks were in the other direction, through magnificent old woods with towering ancient oaks and beeches. The canal here, as elsewhere, follows the course of the River Stour and the woodland runs alongside them both. It's an ancient wood, only lightly managed and decaying and decrepit in places, but all the more delightful for it.
The Sheep Whisperer at work
Our route was taking us towards Stourton and the final stretch crossed a ploughed field, full of sheep chewing on some unrecognisable root crop or lying in the furrows to try and mitigate the sweltering heat. I've never come across sheep so tame – one particularly curious one came up and allowed me to stroke it. Even Brian the dog didn't seem to bother them.
From Stourton we returned along the towpath to the boat where a two mile walk deserved a beer in the sun.
Brian pays his respects at the pet cemetery
Today we explored further in the woods and discovered part was a local nature reserve, Chance Wood. This was originally planted as an ornamental wood and, hidden here and there were half buried remnants of stone walls and paths like something from a lost civilisation. Here, too, we found an overgrown Victorian pet cemetery and Brian paid his respects to 'Punch' and 'Tim' and the rest.
Yet another walk today (we were overdoing it; this was going to be a 'two beers' evening) saw us cross the canal by the lock and climb a steep track to the main road. Where the river and canal take the valley, the road follows them along the high hilltop and the views all around are superb. Then a short footpath took us down to the top of the little Dunsley Tunnel where we spotted a weasel scurrying along the towpath until he heard us coming and scuttled off into the undergrowth.
Yes, it's been a blissful few days, enjoying the delights of the countryside. Yet it wasn't always like this here. Back in the 17th century a local entrepreneur built a waterwheel powered 'slitting mill' here – one of the first – and harnessed the power of the river to slit iron bars into strips that could be made into cut nails. That brought industry to the area and it was followed by what grew into a massive ironworks along the canalside, right where we are moored now.
Not a trace of this remains; the Light Railway's razed the site to the ground and nature did the rest, incorporating the land back into the woods around it.
The slitting mill had gone much earlier, though ironwork continued and a firm making spades worked there until the early 1900s. The ironworks manager had a magnificent Victorian pile of a house, Hyde House, and when the works closed it was leased by a pastor who formed the Midland Counties Crippled Children's Guild and brought disabled youngsters from all over the Midlands to live there. Sadly, after he died home went downhill, eventually closed and the building fell into decay before being destroyed in a fire. Just a few fragmentary traces of this past remain: bits of brick wall, remains of millponds and fragments of gates and fences.
Fragments of a past life in this sturdy old fence tensioning ratchet
Nature has reclaimed the rest – and is making a better job of it than we probably could. Leave it to us humans and we'd probably have a Tesco and some executive style homes there.

Nature works its magic in miniature on the top of this fencepost

Monday, 6 April 2015

All hands on deck

Cheers! First time this year, out on the deck in the sun enjoying a beer
Phew, what a scorcher! as Private Eye would say. For the first time this year we've had the chairs out on deck and been able to sit, cold beer in hand, enjoying the sun.
After a few days in Stourport we are trickling slowly back towards Stourbridge to get our damaged rudder looked at. It's been an enjoyable few days here in the only town in Britain to have been created solely because of the coming of the canals.
Moored in Stourport basin with the magnificent Lapal behind us
For our final night we dropped down into the basins and managed to find one of the absurdly scarce visitor moorings. Here we were alongside a stunning tug 'Lapal' whose master cabinetmaker owner had fitted it out himself – and the result was unquestionably the most exquisite boat I've seen. Not just beautifully made but so carefully thought out in so many little ways. Made us feel very, very envious!
Now that's what you call a mooring ring Brian
Stourport was humming with visitors over the holiday weekend, though most confined themselves to the fairground and the park for the basins were very quiet. We took a walk southwards down the river and found remnants of various old wharves and moorings that used to line the edges of Stourport. The huge power station that received coal supplies from the canal has vanished completely though, with new houses in its place. Close by, a large collection of derelict brick buildings are what's left of a vinegar works.
A boat with a difference – no windows! They're all done the other side
But finally, after a visit to the launderette (most towns don't have any these days: bizarrely, Stourport has two) and a last shop at Lidl, we were off.
The journey back has been a lot easier than the trip down. No fallen tree, no drained pounds. Just sunshine and plenty of water. And another view of the steam train high above. Tonight we are moored once more at Wolverley, a village once known as a centre of nail making.
The Severn Valley Line steam train heads across the canal viaduct

Friday, 3 April 2015

Location, location, location

One of the five canal basins at Stourport and the fine clock warehouse
Yes, Stourport-on-Severn really is three locations in one. Slightly down at heel country town, magnificent Georgian canal port, unmatched in scale and quality and brash, gaudy seaside resort with its Treasure Island funfair, amusement arcades and crazy golf course.
The old Tontine hotel building now restored as apartments
All seem to lead separate lives: the townsfolk get on with their shopping and simply nod the canal a polite good day, the Wolverhampton day trippers have their funfair rides, their hot dogs, a round of crazy golf and some chips before heading home and the canal basins stand in glorious splendour, surrounded by handsome old buildings and admired by visitors.
And all the fun of the fair at Treasure Island
Somehow, though, for all their spectacular layout and scale, they are a bit of a static exhibit, almost entirely filled by marina-moored craft and with virtually no space for visitors to stop. Even more so at the moment since the fierce flowing Severn is still shut to boat traffic. But let's not gripe: the whole basin area has been thoroughly regenerated, new uses found for the old buildings and even a once built over basin re-excavated. Shame, though, that it only has a few – unused – residential moorings.
The restored Lichfield Basin is centre of this development. But why no boats?
Having exhausted all the delights of Stourport (apart from the waltzer and big wheel), toured the dozen or so charity shops and visited the towpath-side Lidl, we decided to exhaust ourselves with a four miles each way walk along the Severn footpath to Bewdley.
Bewdley's fine riverfront has been a frequent victim of Severn floods
Bewdley is a peach of a place. A major Severnside port before the canals but then supplanted by Stourport, it's a contendedly comfortable little Georgian town with an appealling waterfront and an assortment of shops up its steep main street that climbs away from the water. A sturdy Thomas Telford river bridge has stood the test of the Severn's powerful waters for Bewdley has been a regular victim of flooding over the years and now has some very substantial defences in place.
Telford's handsome bridge leads across it
On our way to Bewdley we spotted a large number of mysterious blue metal pipes sticking out of a field, each with its top padlocked off. We came up with plenty of ideas but only one fact – a Land Rover with the company logo 'GIP'. That and Mr Google solved it: it is ground testing the site for a massive £255 million scheme by Severn Trent Water to pump water from the river and send it to Birmingham via a five feet diameter underground pipeline.
The 'Birmingham Resilience Project' will provide a back-up water supply to the city so that the old Victorian pipeline from the Elan Valley Reservoir in Wales can be taken out of service in winters for badly needed maintenance without leaving Brum short of tap water.
Tomorrow the river is set to re-open, weather permitting, so the increasing queue of boats waiting here will finally get a chance to move off.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Steaming to Stourport

Severn Valley steam railway train crosses the elegant viaduct above the canal
Phew! After yesterday's antics, today's final miles to Stourport were thankfully free of drama. We even got a treat and saw a steam train from the Severn Valley railway crossing high over the canal on a magnificent viaduct.
Just a couple of locks and four short miles separated us from last night's mooring outside The Watermill pub at Kidderminster and Stourport where the canal meets the Severn.
What an odd place that Watermill was. A huge establishment devoted to providing 'twofers' for a clientele of families, pensioners, girlies on nights out and occasional marooned boaters, aiding the choice of food with menus that include pictures of the dishes for those who struggle to imagine what the words 'steak and chips' actually means. It actually means rather less than you might hope from the pic as the food was decidedly average and, if you look at the prices too, then not as tempting an offer as the two-for-one deal suggests.
First lock of the day, the pretty Caldwall Lock
Time worn steps tell an eloquent story of 200 years of use
That said, the building itself was clever: an old watermill actually built about 20 years ago but fitted out with some panache inside using reclaimed beams, stained glass, pine panels and such like. And the beer was okay, if a bit cold. Nice to get a decent pint of proper brown bitter too (Hobgoblin) after all these golden ales that Midlanders seem to like.
We were quickly past the site of the tree blockage this morning and through the picturesque Caldwall Lock, followed  by a long, steep bank of more elderly trees, any one of which looked likely to topple into the water during the next breezy night.
And then, just as we passed under the railway viaduct along came the steam train. The Severn Valley is a 'proper' steam railway that runs 16 miles between Kidderminster and Bridgnorth and uses big ex-mainline engines like the one we saw. No 43106 is an ex-London Midland & Scottish loco: a 2-6-0 for any railway buffs.
After that moment of nostalgia we came to our last lock, Falling Sands and a final, somewhat insipid run into Stourport through the flat, scrubby floodplain of the River Stour which the canal had been tracking all the way from Kinver and which was also destined for the Severn.
Once this arm led under the bridge and down to an ironworks
Stourport was a huge inland port where canal boats traded loads with the big Severn river vessels. It had its own local industries, too, but only vestiges remain. We passed a stub of canal that once led down to the river and provided a link to an ironworks while on the edge of the town another stub, bordered by a high brick wall inset with mooring rings, is the remains of a canal/rail interchange basin.
Now Stourport is an eccentric mixture of magnificent 18th century canal port, slightly shabby country town and, most bizarre of all, a sort of inland Great Yarmouth with kiss-me-quick style amusement arcades and chip shops and a huge, permanent funfair 'Treasure Island'.
Not sure I'd fancy going out in that flow: the Severn was running hard
But more of that tomorrow. Enough for now to say that the line of narrowboats moored up here waiting won't be going on the Severn yet awhile: the river is flowing fiercely and the depth boards are on red for danger.
PS Actually we did have one incident today: while out shopping in Stourport I managed to lose my special, bought-by-Harrywoman-for-Christmas glasses. So far I've walked round the town three times and can't find them. Blast.