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.

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