Wednesday, 24 May 2017

After the rain, the sun

Seadog Brian goes walkies

Phew what a scorcher, as the tabloids used to say. The past few days of glorious sun have made last week's rain a distant memory.
We've taken full advantage, making a stop at one of our favourite mooring spots just outside Stourbridge before heading down to another favourite, Kinver.
That Stourbridge stop wasn't a planned one: a Chad Valley child's play tent wrapped itself round the prop. And the game to get it off wasn't much fun, I can tell you. The tent frame was plastic coated spring steel and defied all my on-board tools to remove it. I had to borrow a pair of bolt croppers from Martin Brookes' yard nearby to cut my way through it. (The next day I invested in my own pair just in case...)
The sun sets on an idyllic scene at Stourbridge
Anyway it was a chance to watch the sun go down on an idyllic scene of horses grazing, ducklings and goslings feeding and birds singing their evening songs.
We moseyed on down to Kinver and got there last night to find the moorings virtually full. Suddenly the canal is busy! It must be the sunny weather. This morning we set out for what will probably be a final 'training session' before our week on the Pennine Way, heading for a longish loop over Kinver Edge.
I wonder how many boaters visit the remarkable houses carved into the rocks up there and then walk across the Edge to enjoy its spectacular views across three counties? Few I suspect. It doesn't help that the Kinver moorings are only 24 hour ones - a stroll up to the High Street Co-op or visit to the lockside pub is probably their limit.
Distant views from the Edge
Boy, what are they missing: the climb is steep but the views on a sunny day like today were immense. There are plenty of benches along the way to sit and admire it, including a poignant one to SAS medic Richard Larkin, blown up in one of those deathtrap 'snatch' Land Rovers in Afghanistan.
An SAS medic and father of three killed in Afghanistan
We headed along the high ridge and dropped down the southern side – where we managed to get pretty comprehensively lost in a maze of pathways. We got out in the end of course and via a couple of country lanes to Caunsall where the always popular Anchor Inn was heaving. From there a path took us over a pretty little cast-iron river footbridge to the canal and a two-mile walk back to the boat. I think we managed around six overall.
When I say 'we', Seadog Brian only did about four – the remaining two he did carried in my rucksack like some Indian maharajah riding in state. I even had to give him my hat because his head was getting too hot. The things we do for our dog, eh!
Brian models the latest in canine headwear
Tomorrow we are off to Suffolk to hand the Seadog over to our daughter's keeping while we get ready for our walking exploits. I'll try and do some Pennine blogging – if I have the energy.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Stormy weather

The fires of hell wouldn't have doused our rain

Boy, have we had some rain the last couple of days. Fortunately the biggest storm – hail, winds, rain, flooding – came while we were sitting in the pub. By the time we headed back to the boat, the skies had more or less cleared though our heads were a tad fuzzy.
Short of walking training for our up-coming Pennine Way foray, I spotted a local hill and decided we should walk up it. It wasn't hard to spot, the canal from Windmill End winds around the base of the steep Netherton Hill. As an aside, it really is remarkable how bumpy this part of the Black Country is; you're up and down hills everywhere.
Netherton Hill with St Andrew's at the top
Anyway, back to our walk. We did a brisk mile and a half along the towpath to bring ourselves to a footpath straight up the 500ft hill to St Andrew's Church perched on its summit. It's a pleasant stretch of towpath, often quite countrified, and the walk is made even better by the really cleverly crafted and fascinating local history signs along the way: Netherton was the home of chain and anchor making (the Titanic's anchors were made here), St Andrew's sat on a volatile coal seam which would spontaneously combust sending up smoke and flames 'the fires of hell' through the churchyard: that sort of thing. Would that some of the current crop of canal signage elsewhere could match the style and content of these. There are 35 in all, made by Luke Perry and his team for the Dudley Canal Trail.

One of the fine towpath local history panels
The walk up the hill was a short, muscle-straining one, rewarded by spectacular distant views. We then wandered round its Gothic Victorian graveyard, full of tombs and monuments broken and twisted by that unstable ground below them.
The Gothic Victorian ruins of St Andrew's churchyard
After that we boated along the same stretch of canal, hiding under an umbrella through the first rainfall of the day, and finishing up at Merry Hell Hill moored in the bland modernity of the Waterfront development, between offices and what seems to have been a failed attempt to create a vibrant waterfront of bars and restaurants of which only a Wetherspoons and a shabby looking pastiche pub of some old industrial building - the only vague nod to the fact that the whole site used to be the vast Round Oak Steelworks. We didn't fancy either pub and walked down the Delph locks to the Tenth Lock, a bustling local with decent quality and good value pub grub – from which we watched the mother and father of rain and hail storms that flooded the road, threatened the pub and kept us firmly in our seats.
And the Delph from below with the old route to its right
Caen Hill is the most magnificent lock flight in the system but in my view the Delph is not far behind, a heady blend of engineering symmetry and beauty, with its unique flight of cascading waterfalls from the side ponds. And yet, how many boaters have ever been there? In a better known part of the system it would be far more widely celebrated.
(Incidentally, the Delph was once nine locks rather than eight before the main lock flight was rebuilt with one less lock. Hence the bridge at the top is 'Nine Locks Bridge' and the pub at the bottom 'The Ten Locks') You can see the track of the old locks in the undergrowth to the side of the flight.
We got through the Delph in the sun, then the sky blackened and the rain cascaded. On with the waterproofs and up with the umbrella and we carried on through a mix of scruffy industry and pleasing country (but always with too much floating rubbish) to reach the 16 locks of the Stourbridge flight in sunshine again.And the sun held on until half way down when the heavens opened. I struggled into my waterproofs – and immediately the rain stopped. It's a nice flight, with its familiar view down the locks past Dadford Shed and the glassworks cone. From the lockwheeler's view, though, I have to say it's probably the most dog mess strewn that I've had to tiptoe through in years. Horrible.
Today we are, yet again, moored in Stourbridge. And the sun is shining – for the moment.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

(Not) waiting in Wolverhampton

It all happens in Wolverhampton
Well there's only so long you can wait in Wolverhampton. It's not the most inspiring of places and in the rain it's even worse. So after three days there in the rain we've turned tail and headed a different way. To be honest, we wouldn't have stayed that long but the lock repair was a case of, as Shakespeare put it, "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow." Finally it became clear that tomorrow was actually likely to be the end of Friday so we gave up.
Poor old Wolverhampton, you really are a charmless and sad place of shabby shops or empty ones. We did find a spark of light in the Art Gallery, though its highly spoken of pop art collection had been shunted out to make room for a special, extra charge Lego art display, a much needed money spinner I guess. Still there was other good stuff: entertaining automata, plus Georgian and Victorian collections. And a decent cafe too.
Speaking of Victorian, Queen Victoria visited the town to unveil a statue of her late husband Albert - her first trip in public after a long spell mourning. But she kept the train blinds down on the way there so not to see the grime of the industrial Black Country. Sensible lady.
Mrs B has her particulars taken down by a policeman
On our final day Mrs B became embroiled in a police incident: as we walked into town incident tape had cordoned off part of the street outside a fast food outlet where, seemingly, a lad had been seriously injured in an early hours fight. A couple of streets away we spotted an evil little knife fashioned from a Stanley blade dropped on the pavement, Mrs B handed it in at the scene of the fight and spent the next half hour sitting in a police car making a statement of where, when and how she found it, just in case it was part of the fight. So we really weren't sorry to leave the town.
We headed back to Tipton , stopped there last night (unshipping a large polythene sheet and a mans jumper from the prop after mooring) and moved on south today through the nearly two mile long Netherton Tunnel to reach Windmill End.
The Bumblehole, once bustling now a quiet backwater
In the heyday of the working canals this was a noisy, stinking, smoky, black mix of coal mining, blast furnaces and workshops - as well as working narrow boats. Nothing remains, save the shell of the pumping house that kept the mine clear of water and a couple of short canal arms. Now it's a large green oasis used by dog walkers, bird watchers and anglers as well as leisure boaters like us. Though just to remind us of what things used to be like the historic tug Bittel that used to serve nearby Stewarts & Lloyds steelworks came past.
A reminder of the past, the tug Bittell

n the 18th and 19th centuries this open space was a noisy and dirty workshop, lined with a heady mix of factories, boatyards, sawmills, blast furnaces and collieries. - See more at:

Monday, 15 May 2017

Stopped in our tracks

Oops: the cause of our hold-up
We have been stopped in our tracks for many reasons during our boating career – broken down, run aground, rubbish round the prop, iced in – but never in more than ten years have we been halted by a broken lock beam.
But that's what happened today. After a morning of blustery winds and showers we reached the top of the Wolverhampton 21 flight just in time to meet the lock-keeper stapling a 'flight closed until further notice' notice on the top gate. Seemingly a beam on lock ten had broken and would need replacement. It might take four days – if they had a suitable one available.
Wall to wall graffiti and burnt out building at Horseley junction
Never mind; we are not in a hurry but, on the other hand, I can think of far nicer places to be stuck than Wolverhampton. A massive new estate of nicely designed houses spreads back from the canalside as you near the town but, as we soon discovered that is a false dawn. The run into the town is one of the most depressing I can recall, a squalid mile or two of semi-derelict sites, scrap yards, wall to wall graffiti and floating detritus.
Relic of the industrial past, the mouldering gantry crane
Still there on the outskirts is the rusting relic that is the imposing Babcock & Wilcox gantry crane that once shifted steel girders at this Chillington Wharf rail/canal interchange. It's been out of use since the sixties and though Grade II listed, hasn't had much love since.
Walking back to photograph it, we met a local who recalled playing around on it as a young lad thirty years a go. He painted a depressing picture of modern day Wolverhampton - no jobs unless you're prepared to work for the minimum wage or less, fewer and fewer places for youngsters like his with parks and youth clubs closing, mess and litter all around ('if the place looks like a dump, people will treat it like a dump') and a council intent on building a new shopping centre when the present one is full of shut shops.
One day this will be a new 'canalside quarter' we are told
Things might improve. A new 'Canalside Quarter' is promised in the area utilising, as the website puts it 'its unique character to provide both desirable city centre living and a destination for visitors with shops, walkways, cycle paths and leisure facilities.' It's a look-alike of many such bland schemes but, to be honest, it can't be worse than what's there. Near the end of the run in some striking blocks of flats are already emerging but it's too little, too late really.
Latest news is that they've found a replacement beam and repairs start tomorrow so we won't be held up too long. We are yearning for the countryside of the Staffs & Worcs.

...and finally. Among the graffiti sprayers was a 9/11 conspiracy theorist whose messages were all along the canal:

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Bubbling Birmingham

Seventies B'rum vanishes ready to rise again
I love Birmingham. What a dynamic place it is. Always on the move; always reinventing itself. Knocking down, putting up, creating dramatic new buildings and resurrecting fine old ones. And at the heart of it; people out having fun, living the good life.
Since we were last here only two years ago the Metro tram system in the city centre has been completed and the huge stainless steel writhing monster that is New Street railway station has opened, its gleaming curves visible behind and between the side streets. The ugly seventies concrete development between the library and town hall has been flattened, too, and the towers of tall cranes dot the horizon all around.
Saturday night buzz at the Mailbox
The waterfront hasn't escaped either, the stretch from the Mailbox to Gas Street seems to be waiting for the jack-hammer; all shut down and dark. But on a Saturday night the rest of the canalside hummed with a vibrant buzz as Brum's young things set out for the bars and restaurants full of Saturday night fever.
It's a great spectator sport for the moored boater (always has been on our trips here). Girls in skimpy clothes tottering on impossibly high heels, layered in cosmetics that must have demanded hours of the afternoon in front of the mirror; lads in their skinny brother's jackets and knee-shredded refugee jeans whose aftershave hung in the air long after they'd gone. All of them out for a good time.
This morning was the morning after the night before. After a catching up on things cuppa with our friend Charley of Felonious Mongoose who moors nearby we headed out of the centre. And it didn't take more than a few hundred yards before the glamour turned to graffiti and grime.
Chance's famous Glassworks, being restored to new use
For all that, the BCN still has an appeal: passing all the dead arches through which boats entered old arms and basins even in my lifetime, then weaving among the massive concrete stilts of the M5 above us. On the way we passed a huge brick building wrapped in a spider web of scaffolding (it's even more dominant seen from the M5). This is Chance Glassworks, once the largest glass makers in Britain, suppliers of glass for the Crystal Palace and a world leader in producing specialist glass for lighthouses. Yet another of Birmingham's many contributions to British industry. A Heritage Trust now aims to restore, conserve and regenerate the site.
Tonight we are in Tipton, a shabby but friendly little Black Country suburb, famous for the legendary prize fighter the Tipton Slasher, the Black Country Living Museum and Mad O'Rourkes Pie Factory, home of the 'cow pie' of Desperate Dan fame, where we rounded off a good day with pies and chips.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Where have we been?

Moored in Birmingham with the library behind
I can't imagine too many people are asking that: there's nothing like a comatose blog to have readers looking elsewhere.
But just in case one or two of the kids are starting to get alarmed by our absence (only joking, girls) here is something of an update on our recent travels.
It's an update that won't have much in the way of pictures: my fancy Canon camera jammed up a few days before we returned to the boat. Fortunately it was still under warranty but repairs are taking a while. An iphone camera is making a poor substitute.
What with one thing and another we've only been back on the boat since mid-April and we set off from Stourbridge vowing to take things steadier than we have in the past; to boat less and walk more.
There's a reason: we are spending a week walking on the Pennine Way with friends in June and, at the moment, walking up a flight of stairs gets me out of puff so we need a spot of training. Most of that has been provided by walking back and forth to move the car we've brought along with us for Pennine Way transport.
From Stourbridge, a gentle jog took us down to Stourport, where we were spotted by Keith from Nb Fruit of the Vine – a boat I reviewed for Canal Boat a few years back and which still looks good as new.
We also spotted an intriguing little craft –  sort of mini working boat – called Henry II and the following day found ourselves on the River Severn with them. With a Gardner 2LW pushing 40ft of boat Sarah and Andy didn't hang around and neither did we: it was good to get some deep water under Harry.
Hustling down the Severn with Henry II
Off the river at Worcester – a place that the river makes a glorious entry into, past the cathedral, cricket ground and elegant buildings – we were destined for the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, with a challenging 58 locks in the 24 miles to B'rum.
We despatched 13 of those in the first session, despite only leaving the city in the late afternoon, and finally moored at Tibberton at nearly nine p.m. Did I say we were taking things steadier? The next day was a six mile walk back to get the car!
The W&B hits you with most of its locks in one heavyweight hit, like a punch from Anthony Joshua. The Tardebigge flight is 30 locks long and you get a warm fight with the six Stoke locks immediately before it. Which would be no problem except that emergency repairs had left one pound near dry and the next few shallow so we were stuck, semi-stuck and just about unstuck for the first half a dozen locks.
A walk in the woods over the tunnel top
Everyone stops and relaxes at the ample moorings before Tardebigge top lock – not us. We went on, moored at the top, walked all the way back down 36 locks, got the car and drove back – before leaving it at the Wharf and heading on through two tunnels to finally stop just outside Alvechurch. From where we could walk back the next day to get the car! (But what a delightful walk following the old boat-horse track through picturesque woods over the top of Shortwood Tunnel – without this car fetching routine, we'd never have found it.)
Having a car is handy, I must admit. We drove to nearby Bromsgrove for shopping – a dreary little town swamped in tiresome roadworks - and to Redditch which has a modern shopping centre surrounded by a vast one-way ring road system around which the locals race at high speed and which is unintelligibly signposted for the visitor.
They don't do names like this any more
We even drove back to Tardebigge Wharf with our rubbish, only to find the road closed by yet more roadworks. We parked at the church, high on a hill overlooking the canal and wandered down via the Victorian graveyard. Here in this remote Worcestershire spot were the family plots of various Earls of Plymouth and their relies - including the stupendously named Walburga Ehrengarda Helena Hohenthal, a lady in waiting to Queen Victoria and, incidentally, a believer in the 'hollow earth' theory.
Seemingly, there were cities under the deserts where the descendants of the lost city of Atlantis went, according to its Victorian devotees. One day in this century they are due back up topsides, which will be a nice surprise.
The Earls and co are buried there because the first Earl was a big local landowner and had a monster Jacobean style manor built nearby in the 1880s. The family also had a decent little castle in Wales and clearly preferred it since they sold Hewell Grange to the State in 1946 – who promptly turned it into a Borstal. It's now part of a sprawling prison set-up. You don't need to be doing time to see inside this Grade II* building: there are occasional tours of the house and grounds for non-residents.
Today we set off from quiet Alvechurch in its rich, rolling countryside en route for Birmingham. The canal is thickly silted - even shallow hire boats churn up silt and leaf mulch. A far cry from the '50s as a local told us: born and bred in Alvechurch and married to a local girl, he recalled the days of horse drawn boats and a canal that was far cleaner than it is now.
The cavernous mouth of Wasts Hill Tunnel is the entry to Birmingham. You depart into the tunnel from countryside and exit, one and a half miles later, into the dank, grubby edges of the city. From there it is a messy, sludgy trudge through scruffy industrial suburbs, then past the university before reaching The Mailbox corner and turning sharp left into central Birmingham, bustling with people and noise.