Monday, 21 September 2015

A game of two halves

Bratch locks: pretty looking and pretty complex
The great footballing cliche seems very appropriate to today's boating. This morning it belted down with rain. After lunch the sun appeared and I stripped down from rain gear to tee shirt.
After the dreary trudge to Gailey that provoked Thursday's blog outburst, the canal gods relented and allowed a little more water into their canal. We reached Autherley, junction with the Shroppie with no trouble (though the half mile long and one boat width cutting through the rocks was very slow going) and on past Aldersley where we turned off up the Wolverhampton locks earlier this year.
From here on we were on a stretch of the Staffs & Worcs we hadn't visited for five years when we came through here on Star. Incidentally we had passed Star a few miles earlier.
After a weekend break from some 'granny duties' we woke this morning at Compton to find the rain pouring down but with our permitted 48 hours just run out we had to don the wet gear and get moving. But three miles and a couple of locks later we called 'early lunch' as it was getting ever heavier, moored up and watched blue skies start to appear. Must try that trick again.
The locks come more frequently now as this canal drops rapidly down towards its eventual destiny with the Severn. They are deep locks, too, but none deeper than the 30 feet drop of the complicated trio of locks at The Bratch.
These locks started out as a staircase (where each lock joins the one below and empties into it). That's a slow and inefficient process so side ponds were added and each lock is now fed or emptied via these. Even though they may still look like a staircase, they are effectively three separate locks.
Disappointingly hidden by trees, the fine pumping station
Get it? No, no did I even after the resident lock-keeper explained it to me. It's a good job he's permanently on site during the season to prevent flooding or the chaos of one boat trying to go up while another is coming down.
The Bratch locks are a canal landmark too, with a pretty, octagonal lock house. Nearby is a fabulous Victorian gothic water pumping station with two of its original steam engines still in place - one of them in working order. Unfortunately it's been closed to the public for five years while arguments went on about its future. To judge from the scaffolding around it, restoration work seems now to be in hand. Hopefully they will also cut back some of the trees which disappointingly hide much of it from sight.
Is it that a phone mast I see?
Talking of trees, way on the horizon we also spotted a rather unusual species of tree, the phonus mastius camouflagius. A good try but you can't hide a mast that's 10 feet taller than the surrounding trees with a few stick-on branches. Still, it means we get a good 3G signal tonight

Thursday, 17 September 2015

A bad day at the office

Yesterday was the sort of day that made us wonder if we were in the wrong game - or maybe the wrong boat.
It was a day of almost incessant struggle as we dragged a reluctant Harry from Great Haywood to Gailey. I say dragged because the canal was more a silt filled ditch than a waterway for us in a three foot deep boat. It seemed worse than on our passage earlier this year and that was slow and sludgy with stretches of reeds and debris in every bridge hole.
The low point was when we tried to moor for lunch at some piling and got so badly aground it took half  an hour of poleing, rocking and revving to get free.
Afternoon saw more locks and as the day drew on so the pounds got lower. We were getting stuck on the entry to every lock and the pole kept coming out. We barely made it through the last couple.
Ah well the sun is shining  now so hopefully today will be better.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Suddenly it's busy

What's this? A queue at a lock
Everywhere we've been this year – and we've been all over – it's very rarely been busy. I really can't recall us having to queue for a lock, save at the notoriously crowded Bradford Lock on the K&A.
Until we arrived on the Coventry Canal, which was like joining the M6 from a country lane. Boats were coming and going all the time, from early in the morning – and by early I mean six a.m. – until after dark.
But we still never had to queue at a lock. Even at Fradley where a clutch of volunteer lockies were speeding everyone through the flight in very efficient style.
Until today when, after a long, long lock-free stretch from Fradley, we arrived at the pretty Colwich Lock on the edge of Great Haywood, and found ourselves number four in a line; a line which very rapidly became six boats long.
Apparently a novice crew at their first ever lock had got in a complete muddle and held everyone up. It doesn't take long for a queue to build or for one to dissipate for by the next lock there was only one in front when we arrived.
It's been strange once again cruising a length of canal we know so well. Little seems to have changed: the dreadfully silted up bridge by the Lengthsman's Cottage on the Coventry is still dreadfully silted up (and the house still for sale). The narrow dutch barge is still moored by the mouth of the A38 tunnel, still with no licence or mooring discs and still causing silting problems. More amusingly the padlock, which CART warned a year ago would be fitted on the little swing footbridge at Fradley is still not there (or has maybe be nicked!) and the bridge still swings to and fro quite happily.
Maid of Oak, the all wood narrowboat ten years on
A few new houses have been built here and there and some familiar foot-dragging continuous cruisers from the Coventry have shuffled a bit further away, under the warning gaze of CART no doubt. And Maid of Oak, the unique all-wood narrowboat that I reviewed at its launch ten years ago is still to be seen on its home mooring near Colwich, looking a little frayed in places but a lot smarter than some would have imagined.
The only thing that does seem to have changed is the weather, which, after all the dry months, has been appalling for the last couple of days, with heavy rain and chilling winds. Summer seems a long time ago.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Back on home ground

Moored in the setting sun at Whittington
If there's anywhere you can call home when you spend your time cruising the inland waterways then we are home.
The stretch of Coventry Canal between Tamworth and Fradley is one that we know almost off by heart. I could probably almost drive it with my eyes shut.
It all started when we spent a winter at Streethay Wharf refitting parts of our last boat, Star. Then we disappeared for three or four years and re-appeared to discover a forlorn and burned-out wreck called Harry sitting at Streethay.
Cue another couple of winters fitting that out before we set off again.
And now we are on our way back once more, just to say hello before we set off on the familiar route up to Fradley and head west.
Tonight we are tied up in what is one of our favourite spots, the village of Whittington, an attractive, friendly, self-contained village with shops, pubs, doctor and school (not that we need this, but it is a marker for a thriving village). It's also a quick bus ride away from the town of Lichfield.
The unique Drayton footbridge, newly facelifted
Over the past couple of days we have meandered to the end of the Birmingham & Fazeley – relieving the no gas panic by picking up new bottles at Fazeley Mill Marina. It was good to see that re-development at Fazeley Junction where the canal tees into the Coventry has finally finished and the dilapidated canalside buildings have been turned into smart flats and houses.
Old canalside buildings at Fazeley finally revamped
Yesterday we stopped at Tamworth where the massive retail parks have grown even larger – a new Mini dealership is now much use to boaters but a new Toolstation depot could be. There's a choice of Sainsburys or a giant Asda plus everything else from John Lewis to M&S or B&Q.
No wonder that the centre of Tamworth has collapsed. It looks even shabbier than when we were last here, full of bargain stores and closed shops. The clientele are the sort of folk who can't make the out of town malls - the old, the disabled and the under-privileged. Every other person seems to be in a mobility buggy (and usually vastly overweight), walking with a crutch or just a pallid skinned smoker modelling leisure wear from JD Sports.
It's a sorry place. An object lesson in the way towns expand outwards to the suburbs, leaving the old centres to implode. A shame because Tamworth has history - the ancient capital of Mercia, it has a Norman castle, a former Prime Minister, Robert Peel (the man who established the police force) was its MP and raise your head from the Home Bargains and Cash Converters and the centre has the remains of some fine buildings.
We were glad to move on.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Fifty eight up, now thirty eight down

Moored in the evening sun at the bottom of Curdworth locks
Birmingham certainly is on a hill. It took us fifty eight uphill locks to get there and only now after 38 down the other side have we reached level ground.*
Today was a quieter day than yesterday; a mere eleven locks of the Curdworth flight. We would have gone further but this is such a nice spot to be and Tamworth which lurks ahead is not an enticing alternative.
We are moored alongside one of a multiplicity of old gravel pits which form the vast, 600 acre Kingsbury Water Park. Some are for the active, with sailing and water ski-ing, but this is a wildlife area with only carp fishermen to disturb the birds. Just the distant drone of traffic on the M42 spoils an atmosphere of total tranquility.
Indeed the second half of the Brum&Faze is a very different beast to the drab, industrial wastes of yesterday. It runs through a gentle farmland landscape, surprisingly remote from habitation. Unfortunately there's always the background traffic noise of busy roads in the air; the A38, M6 Toll and M42 all slice across or run nearby.
Small but a cosy fit, the little Curdworth Tunnel
The eleven locks began a couple of miles from our overnight stop. On the way was the diminutive Curdworth tunnel; just 57 yards of it but a tight
fit and its roof festooned with masses of dangling spider webs, hanging like little stalactites.
It has been a sunny day; Seadog Brian basked on the roof while I sweated through the locks. They were surprisingly busy after the almost total absence of boats yesterday. Three crews were eager hireboaters doing the Warwickshire Ring and in the middle of two energetic weeks.  Fortunately almost everyone was going the other way so every lock ran in our favour.
After the dark tunnel Seadog Brian relaxes in the sun
Tonight we had the embarrassment of running out of gas in mid-dinner. It's a puzzle: this bottle has lasted only six weeks rather than the eight we regularly get. Maybe it was 'pre-enjoyed' before we were sold it? Anyway the Refleks stove came to the rescue to finish the dinner but early morning tea may prove trickier. Looks like I might be getting up early to light the fire.
* No more locks for us now until Fradley but if we turned right there another 17 would take us down to river level which would make 55 in all from the high point of Birmingham, compared with the 58 from the River Severn at Worcester heading up to Brum the other way.There's no escaping it: what goes up must come down.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Into Brum – and out again

Birmingham Main Line from the Library roof garden
Are you still there, readers? If any of you are then you must be patient people and my apologies for being absent these past two weeks. Things have got in the way. Not least of them being locks.
We ended the last episode on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal just outside Worcester. This is a fiendish canal, of 58 locks and five tunnels in its 30 mile climb to Brum. What a challenge it must have been to the builders way back in 1798. And how profitable, they must have hoped, to justify that enterprise.
The early locks are like a warm-up routine for the main act: we went through a flight of seven, then one of six as well as the first, short tunnel. On the way we passed Stoke Wharf where a music festival was under way. The beards, long hair, jeans and black t-shirts in the pub meant just one thing – it was a heavy metal festival; wonderfully named 'Beermageddon'. Sadly the tickets were sold out, he said with tongue firmly in cheek.
Tardebigge where only radio aerials outnumber the locks
The main act in our festival of locks was the Tardebigge flight: 30 locks, one after the other with no space for a halfway breather. They're not as bad as they sound: closely packed flights are easier to deal with than locks a few hundred yards apart. All the same, I was starting to flag after the first two dozen.
Fine views from the reservoir make the work worthwhile
It's then you come upon the pretty feeder reservoir and your brain tells you this must be the top, even though the lock numbers don't add up. It isn't! Round the corner you go to find the final seven. Groan. And it was starting to rain. BTW there must be something about these locks – two of the canalside cottages are serious, and I mean serious, radio hams. Their houses are festooned with vast aerials; one even has some suspended from the mobile crane in his garden.
The Rolt-Aickman memorial above Tardebigge top lock
We moored one below the top, then crossed the summit next day, stopping to view the plaque commemorating the spot where Robert Aickman met Tom Rolt, who'd been moored above the lock on Cressy during the war. From the meeting came the start of the movement to campaign for the resurrection of the canals.
A short run through two more modest tunnels to Alvechurch that day to re-stock at the village Co-op. (Be warned, it's a steep hill down into the village from the canal and an even steeper one back with a load of shopping).
Then came the big one; the 2700 yard long Wasts Hill Tunnel, straight enough to see right through but not especially pleasant with its dank, misty atmosphere and lack of ventilation. Two boats can pass in it, apparently, but it must be a squeeze.
You enter the tunnel from countryside and leave into the outer edges of Birmingham and the canal follows a vaguely squalid and graffiti ridden route towards the city, only brightening in the final mile or two. Then the huge 'Cube' building comes into sight and you round the right angle turn into Gas Street to enter canalside Birmingham at its finest.
As many have said, Birmingham has wholeheartedly embraced the canals here. It's a wonderful spot to be, watching pretty girls tottering on their high heels beside boyfriends en route to the clubs and bars, seeing new graduates from Aston University in their gowns and hats fresh from the awards ceremony at the ICC and being photographed at the canalside by proud mums and dads, dressed in their Sunday best, strolling the few hundred yards to the spectacular library.
We spent a few days doing all that and more before deciding, finally, that we would soon have outstayed our welcome on the short stay moorings.
So, with a couple of weeks to kill before our next diary date, we've headed out northwards for a long loop around the familiar territories of Streethay, Fradley and Great Haywood.
Today we tackled the 24 locks of the Farmers Hill and Aston flights, through increasingly decrepit areas of the city.  Apparently a body had been found on the towpath earlier in the day. It's the sort of spot where that news doesn't sound as shocking as it ought but all evidence was gone when we passed.
Below Spaghetti Junction, four canals meet in their own version
Then under the edge of the motorway Spaghetti Junction we had our own canal version where four canals meet and we continued out of town on the Birmingham & Fazeley – a bleak waterway running through a landscape of factory backsides and electricity sub-stations. At one point the canal disappeared under a factory which straddled it and we spent fifty yards or so in a watery basement.
Below the mysterious 'works' on the Birmingham&Fazeley
The guidebooks give no clue as to this mysterious 'works' as they simply call it, but apparently it was the home of Birlec who made electric furnaces for steelworks. Our basement may even have been bomb-resistant wartime loading bays for boats.
Three more locks finally saw us away from the raucous noise of the nearby A38 and beyond factories. At the first sight of green grass we tied up.