Sunday, 31 May 2009

Nine strangers and an owl - the 2009 BCN Marathon Challenge

Nine strangers, a former hire boat called Tawny Owl and more than fifty miles of Britain's finest Industrial Revolution heritage promised for a good weekend. I hadn't set foot or keel on the BCN since I left Aston University in 1986 and the reinstated BCN Marathon Challenge was an opportunity to reestablish my acquaintance, through a request for a ride on CWDF. Our appointed rendezvous at the Star City moorings saw these nine strangers meet with windlasses, sleeping bags and assorted anecdotes of canal exploits.

As the clock struck nine, we set off and immediately, we pulled up behind Papua New Guinea's finest, NB Kerchez. Our ascent through the Perry Bar flight slowed as each pound became lower, until we were in the mud. The coordinated attempts to get water into three pounds drew an appreciative crowd. Shortly we were coasting above rooftops towards Rushall Junction, where the lush peacefulness of the Cut contrasts with the motorways nearby. The Rushall Canal saw our second set of locks. The proximity to the Manor Arms stirred the slaves into renewed vigour at the locks, but our skipper cried "Onward!!" and we sailed wistfully past the moored Kerchez and their pints of foaming ale. At Catshill, four boats arrived at the same time and a gardener was so astonished, he rushed inside for his camera. Our arrival at Anglesey Basin was also memorable for the pursuits of a couple who had probably chosen the worst day of the year to get so intimately acquainted by the canal, and their prairie-dog appearances above the grass was seen by all.

We winded and returned along the Curley Wyrley, winding left and right, this way and that, along the contours of two hundred years of industrial history: past the submerged boats by Birchills, past the reed-filled arms and basins, the long-vanished blast furnaces, steel mills and finishing shops. Tawny Owl nosed her way past mischievous kids swimming at Pelsall and into the sylvan charms of the Cannock Extension. We knew about the swathe of old coal-mines here, but only the ghosts remain under the trees and the grasses and a picture-book canal as pretty as any in England.

We sailed on until darkness fell and we tied up in Goscote, rarely recommended but peaceful. During the night, we heard the sounds of a mysterious boat with a vintage engine passing in the night. Surely not the ghost of 'amptons past?? But we all heard it, at a quarter to three. An hour later, we too were under way, slipping our moorings to continue the quest. The green beauty that had accompanied us much of the way on Saturday gave way to the grittier, dustier shadows of our industrial heritage. As we rounded Horseley, the engine stuttered and we drifted. Prolonged duty at the weed-hatch required bow-hauling to Chillington Wharf. A passing early morning jogger looked astounded to see us pulling a boat in the half-light on a Sunday morning. "Don't ask!" I muttered, as he passed us. "It's difficult enough for us to explain to each other!"

After a brief diversion to the end of the Bradley Arm we returned to the main event, as the sun rose gloriously over Tipton, a bright glow warming the old wharfs and basins; little fragments of Black Country history now merging into apartment complexes and modern warehousing. We talked of Steve Bull and the Tipton Slasher, making up what we didn’t know for sure. Yet again, we did battle with Kerchez before swinging into the Titford Branch. We gazed wistfully into the few watery yards of the Crow branch, but continued ever upwards – paddle gear rattling, feet slipping on dusty ground, clouds of smoke from a laboured engine, backs creaking, and those old black bricks echoing with so many familiar boaters’ curses. Twenty minutes later we were winding gracefully for a second look at the foundry, the engine house and the Tat End Branch. Worth putting our nose in to say we’d been there, done that? “No points,” muttered the skipper and we motored onwards.

However, that motoring halted at the junction and once more the slaves were required to take up the ropes. An immaculately dressed Sikh family watched our performance from a bridge, shaking their heads in disbelief. “We’ve been very naughty,” we told the wide-eyed child before Robert made the ultimate sacrifice of the human ponies and ended up in the Main Line. The family scurried away.

Within minutes though, the prop was free and we sailed down the Spon Lane locks, under one of the finest bridges anywhere in the world and so on to Walsall. We were going to be a little late, but we didn’t mind. This exhilarating weekend was concluding with a cruise past more of Britain’s unsung social history - Monmore, the Gospel Oak, Ocker Hill, Anson, Bentley: lost power stations and collieries, abandoned wharves and bridges. If only BWB could properly package and market the glorious greenery, landscape and vitality of the Curley Wyrley and Daw End Branch with the complex social history of the Walsall Canal and there would be so many more boats in this part of the world.

Our final vignettes are of an angler naked but for his pink-edged grey Y-fronts, of the antics of the graffiti artists, of families fishing together, herons feeding, a flash of kingfisher and the smell and sounds of working boats turning in at Walsall. Who needs the Llangollen or the Kennet & Avon when you can have such fun on 54 miles and 33 locks of the BCN?

As the last celebrations concluded late on Sunday evening, on a former hire boat, those nine friends - and many others - drank a toast to Brindley, Telford and Boulton and the men of FMC and other enterprises and to all those working men and women who built this heritage and on whose endeavours much of our present lifestyle is built.

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