Sunday, 28 June 2009

Single handed through the Black Country

Richard had to head off after helping me down the Crow, leaving me to tackle the return to Old Turn on my own. I have decided I want to do the Gower Branch so this means that my first single-handed locks will be the three Brades locks, two of which form the BCN's only staircase.

The stretch through Oldbury is taken slowly as I try to trace the lines of the old basins, loops and arms.

By Valencia Wharf there is a rather disconsolate set of moorings, but is all seems all rather half-hearted. There is a little more care for the surroundings here and it gets greener as I head west.

Approaching Brades Junction, I decide to moor up before the turn alongside the bridge. I am learning that when you are on your own you have to think way ahead of time. If I make the turn and find there's not enough space and a boat coming the other way, then I am buggered. After bringing North Star to a halt and tying up, I turn to see a boat descending. And there are bollards right by the lock. Oh well.

The lock is surprisingly easy but I still use a lot of energy doing it all myself. I am glad for the opportunity to try out a lot of little things with Richard on the Crow earlier and yesterday.
I am worried that any of a hundred common things could mess it all up. What if the top gate won't stay open? What it it won't stay open? What if it's so deep I can't get down to it. It's so hot and the clambering around is exhausting.

A Polish man stands and watches. He doesn't ask anything or say anything. He just watches intently. Two cyclists arrive and watch.None of them lift a finger at any point.

Eventually I move out and on to the third lock, only to discover no approach bollards. I find this quite incredible, given the staggering number of useless bollards placed in narrow locks everywhere now. When you really need a bollard, there's none to be seen.

As the lock is empty, I am going to have to wedge the bow by the gate on tickover while I fill it.
When ready I try to push the gate open against the pressure of the boat on tickover. No chance. I'll have to move North Star back, open the gate and run back to catch the boat and bring her in. Oh this is a lot of work, but eventually I am in and descending.

I discover that the approach bollards at the tail are occupied by anglers. This is a particularly annoying habit that anglers have: they can fish from anywhere, but the bollards at a lock are "ours": we really need them, never more so than when single-handed.

I am forced into hanging in the tail and hoping the gate stays shut. It does, and I do my best scowl at the two hopeless anglers. My annoyance melts away as I sail down the Gower Branch: it is very green and the eastern edge is fringed by rushes. I would happily moor along here.

I turn at the bottom and turn towards Birmingham.

8.1 miles, 9 locks

Saturday, 27 June 2009

A rallying cry from Titford

It was set in my mind a month ago that I would be here for the Titford Rally, the annual summer get-together of the BCNS - the Birmingham Canal Navigation Society.

For around 40 years, this august society has been the most vocal friend and defender of the canals of Birmingham and the Black Country, from the days when the canals were seen as simply a receptacle for old sofas, motorbikes and unpleasant local chip-shop owners. Although some stretches do continue to receive unwanted furniture, it is usually a somewhat better quality and has a Swedish name. Down the years, volunteers from the BCNS have cleaned up, mucked out, planted signposts and boundary posts; the older ones - of which there are one or two in the society - have campaigned, pestered, whined, moaned, battered, shouted and generally forced the authorities, national and local, to do what they should do without asking. The BCNS saved these Midlands waters. Interesting that so few of them have been recognised by the corporate suits and real estate gurus; without the BCNS, Brindleyplace and the Mailbox would have had no canal long, long ago.

I felt that I needed to go to the 2009 rally to pay my money, join in, talk to people, be a negligibly tiny part of what is going on. I roped in Richard from NB Tawny Owl easily enough - it was the presentation of awards for the BCN Marathon Challenge and we reckoned we were in with a chance.

So now we set off from Sherborne Wharf, this time swinging north to squeeze through the moored palaces. So much easier going out through Old Turn.

Richard requests a diversion down Icknield Port Loop, which is a pleasure and once again I discover this hidden world, like the secret garden, of British Waterways craft and blokes with a mission. On the exit though, we come across a mud barge adrift across the cut, it's blue string unravelled. With careful poling and a nudge at the front, it drifts back across.

We continue, but I am annoyed that the engine is smokier than ever. Much smokier and noisier.

There are a fair few boats about and we head up the Smethwick locks quickly and turn into the Engine Arm for a nose around. I almost lose the tiller on the security wall just past the aqueduct and swing east towards the end. Beyond the bridge a line of boats are moored, with a nice carpark at the end and even a 48 hour mooring in the winding hole. We return to the Main Line and are soon turning up the Crow.

By the bottom lock, a couple are busy restoring the lock-keeper's cottage: it's a lovely building but the canal is simply the only redeeming factor of the site. All around are post-modern sheds - nothing made, just stocked - and a collection of empty roads, steel fences and above all, the towering M5 striding past above Oldbury. What did the local people do to deserve such reckless development?

Midway up, Richard suggests that North Star keeps a dead straight line between the locks, and can motor herself across from one to the next. A might crash reduces North Star from 57' to 45' and that's the end of that theory.

We pop our heads up at the top lock among men with their model boats, a playful if slightly odd scene. None of the onlooking kids have a model boat, only the men: when did model boats become an adult past-time? Sad.

We pass a long line of double-moored boats, with North Star's fine low speed abilities coming in to their own on several occasions. It looks like we are going to be past the bridge and also the very last boat in the line, opposite Langley Maltings. Nice view, but shouldn't we be circling the wagons here?

We cruise past Uncle Ben's Bridge - the limit of Tawny Owl's ventures on the BCN Challenge and on towards the Pools. The top end of the Titford is so green, with the canal lined by huge trees and bushes and gardens on both sides. While the private spaces are lush and verdant, the public spaces are tired, worn and broken. Most surfaces are covered in graffiti or strewn with glass and rubbish - there is very little interest or concern in the surroundings.

One group of anglers grins at us - they are having fun and the arrival of a boat doesn't stop that. The next bunch scowl at us fiercely, so much so that one man gets up and walks away.
We arrive at the junction, wide and still, and slow completely; Richard poles at the front and we slide towards the motorway viaduct. The Pools are hidden behind trees and shrubs but we have to concentrate on the water here. The depth is good at first, and must be at least 5'. But as we approach the narrowsunder the motorway, the depth vanishes and Richard calls a rapid halt.

We look forlornly at the clear canal beyond, but have to reverse back to the junction. That angler looks even more unhappy.

We return to Langley Maltings to moor up, and wave at NB Phoenix as they pass with another group of revellers; they are turning by Uncle Ben's.

We wander down to the Titford Pumphouse which has marquees outside for serving food and a collection of charity and sales stalls. There's a good crowd but it's all the BCNS crowd, and not much sign of the local community. A small group of locals turns up, with vodka, and entertain us for a few hours - while the heavens open and prevent anyone from doing anything outside.

Inside the building books and jeans are on sale, as well as a real ale bar. I have a pint to go with a burger and chips, and sit to chat about the BCN. Hardly surprising that. Everyone knows everyone. Apart from me.

In the evening, there are presentations for the winners of the BCN Marathon Challenge. NB Tawny Owl came second after NB Muskrat. Richard accepts the award gracefully. The music starts soon after, along with the drinking and the chatting and it's a thoroughly enjoyable evening to end a nice day. I'm still no wiser as to what the rally is about though.

7.8 miles, 9 locks

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The Loops

Absolutely beautiful weather once again, and the world is out at Brindleyplace and around Farmers Bridge.

We set out, returning to Old Turn rather than the shorter way out to Ladywood Junction as it's difficult to turn. We leave the glitz and glamour just seconds after passing Sheepcote Street Bridge and return to the 1970s: big factories, open grass with broken glass glittering, empty basins, bricked up doorways.

We turn sharply after a mile, into the Icknield Port Loop. On the right is a wide open space with factories beyond, scrubby buddleia edging the canal. To our left, old buildings crumble in the sunshine. By the bridge, the old tube works has collapsed in on itself, leaving huge piles of bricks and a wall holding up glassless windows. Steel grills protect the spaces.

Then we burst through the bridgehole into a different world. Two wharves, backed by Victorian sheds and the green grass of the Rotton park reservoir. The BW yard here is crammed with boats - old and new - and all around is industrial equipment for maintaining canals. Great. It's like stepping back 100 years: grizzled, tanned blokes hammering things on boats, men wrestling with ironwork, loading scaffolding, all the time with a fag in the corner of the mouth.

We pass a covered boatdock and beyond it, water rushes in over a shallow weir from the reservoir. We continue out of the yard, through the bridge hole and back into the desolation of the 21st Century: lines of boats are tied up with blue string.

A minute later we are back at the BCN main line, where three wonderful bridges frame the junction. We cross over and continue up the Soho Loop. The heat shimmers off the walls of factories. As we take the first turn, a door lies wide open on the towpath: it's too dark to see in.

We pass a couple of prison guards who are all smiles and nodded Good Mornings. Anglers look up and give a cheerful smile. This is a friendly part of Birmingham. I suppose you have to be if you elect Clare Short as your MP.

We pass the arm that now leads to Hockley Port moorings: it looks lovely, all tree-lined and cool and green. The rest of the Soho Loop is equally verdant, but the anglers are less welcoming.

The grafitti dies away as we approach Winson Green Prison and its array of CCTV cameras. The main bridge leading to the prison is called the asylum bridge, a reminder of the days when it was, of course, a lunatic asylum. A deep, dark side arm seems to lead straight under the wall - not a Birmingham Traitors' Gate but to deliver coal to the old boiler house.

Just a minute later we are back out on the BCN at Winson Green Stop. The Cape Arm used to curve away to the southwest from here, but the Tat Bank feeder embankment has obliterated it at this end.

We turn left and head back to Oozells Street.

5.0 miles, no locks

Monday, 22 June 2009

Gas Street and Sherborne Wharf

I remember wanting to take a boat into Gas Street and we took it slowly. Again, it's all changed.
We wind at the Mailbox - perfectly I might add - and tie up opposite the Premier Inn.

After numerous phone calls to secure a mooring for a few weeks, we decide to take a place at Sherborne Wharf on the Oozells Loop. I remember Oozells Street but only vaguely. I don't remember a towpath, but now you can walk most of the loop. There are new apartments all around including the old FMC warehouse. It's nice to see a few old sheds around as well, just to prevent the whole area becoming plastic.

It's a nice setting and it's an eclectic mix of boats. We are slotted in among the longer narrowboats, but we have to reverse in. It's like yachting in the Med. Smaller boats though.

We have no access at the back though so we need to shimmy along the gunwales to get on and off.

Up Ashted and Farmers to Gas Street

You can see it all in one go. It's a historic turn out onto the final mile of the Grand Union towards Digbeth.
I explain the history of this stretch to T and towards the end, point out the halls of residence at Aston University where I first looked down on the canals here. It feels odd, returning on my boat all those years later. I had often wandered along here dreaming of having a boat one day.

I consider going into the Typhoo, but I can't remember how NB Tawny Owl had done it. Reverse in? Can you turn in there? With just two of us on board and no towpath, I'm not willing to risk it.

We plunge into the Curzon Street tunnel with its array of multi-coloured spotlights: somehow this feels like a prediction of the future for the redevelopment of this stretch. Ashted bottom lock appears, and it feels like 'home'.I know these locks so well. We lift up through the broken walls, the rush-fringed side pools, the blank windows and - nowadays - the silent space all around.

I am not looking forward to Ashted with such a smoky engine, but it is the Belmont Row bridge - set at an angle - at the tail of the fourth lock that rips paint off the top of the handrail. Minutes later, as we rise to the Ashted Lock we see a headlight at the far end of the tunnel. Incoming!

I keep North Star in the lock until the other boat is almost clear of the tunnel and then slip her into the layby on the towpath side. I'm pleased that I can do this so precisely. North Star may be tricky on rivers but she moves nicely at very, very slow speeds - she can almost inch along.

It's a nice boat coming the other way - forgotten the name. We continue up to the Science Park and notice characters lurking silently in the bushes by Aston Junction. Just as we pass, the tug Hecla is getting ready to leave Aston Top Lock. A dapper gent looks forlorn as he knows that Farmers will be set against him now, and he knows that a boat has just passed coming down.

We offer to help him up, and this is gratefully received. However, within 5 minutes he is claiming - to T - that I am "obviously new to boating because I am so slow". Errrrrr. No. I am slow because my son is running back at every lock to give considerable help to you, sir.

Farmers is exceptionally tiring, and T is insisting on doing every lock. I'm almost disappointed. I need the time to rediscover the canals in Birmingham, but taking a boat up Farmers is not the way. It all seems so different. I remember it being a hidden world of rich, ochre bricks and dusty corners. Now it's a thoroughfare, with a procession of cyclists, joggers and pedestrians. The obviously unloved and rancid lowest section becomes the hub of the entire Midlands canal network at the summit.

We pull away from Hecla halfway up the flight when we pass one oncoming boat and see others appearing. We can't really set locks for him now.

We moor up at the top. And go for a drink.

Saltley and a lack of water

An early start wasn't really necessary, but there is really not a lot to do at the Star City moorings. A huge red neon "Casino" sign blinked all night long and is still flashing at Aston this morning, but it all seems like a scene from Blade Runner - huge car parks, bland corporate architecture, no feeling, no emotion, no humanity. It used to be the Nechells B power station, I think.

The early morning light allows me to reminisce: I lived just a mile away for three years back in the 1980s and walked this area. It all seems so unfamiliar now. I don't think I like it. What's the saying? Never go back?

North Star pushes through the still waters towards the locks, passing the sites of the old power stations and the old FMS boatyard. We pass the first lock uneventfully but then run out of water halfway up the second lock. For the third night running, vandals have emptied part of the flight.

Mark and Eugene, the British Waterways maintenance crew responsible for the area, are already on site letting water down, but the spacing means that they even need to check the Camp Hill flight as well to ensure enough water is available.

It takes an hour to get enough water into the very short pound, and we have a go when the water is still two feel off the normal level. North Star almost makes it, but the overflow weir is so fierce that the bow is swept right over to the bank. Mark helps T with the rope to move us back in line.

We continued up the flight smoothly and expected to have an easy run up through Digbeth, the Ashted and Farmers but we see plenty of other boats.
We pass Armadillo, another boat that blogs, waiting for the bottom Camp Hill lock and an extremely attractive tug on the Ashted flight.

Log (Star City to Sherborne Wharf)
5.3 miles, 24 locks. Feels like 124 locks. No, seriously.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

An evening on the Birmingham & Fazeley

We slip the moorings by the Boat Inn. Two rather annoying ten-year old boys accompany us down the towpath. Initially we had answered their questions, but the questions keep on coming; very large numbers of them and they are phrased without any due regard to the answer to previous questions.
"Where do you come from?"
"We live near London, but we are bringing the boat from Nottingham"
"Where have you started?"
"You have come from London?!"
"Are you Polish? Who do you support? Is it your boat?" and so on and on and on and on.....

At Minworth bottom lock, they want to wind the paddles up. T shows them how.

"Where do you get one of these?"
"From a shop"
"How much do they cost?"
Seeing where this is going and mindful of what happened at Saltley last night, I reply "Two hundred pounds"
"You were ripped off, mister"

We left them swinging off the beams and motored on into the bright evening sunshine. The evening light lit the dusty, misty waters ahead and we could see the flies hovering and the fish breaking the surface. But quickly the light started to dim, and it all felt a little gloomy.

A suspicious couple lurk under a bridge. As we approach, a man disappears up a bank, leaving a woman in the shadows on the towpath; curious and sinister. She smiles at us, but it is a weak, wan smile. I feel sorry for her without even knowing why. As we motor away, the man reappears.

At Minworth Middle Lock, we meet a friendly Yorkshireman with his equally friendly dog. He's down from Scarborough to visit his daughter's family. It was a refreshing change from the banal conversations of much of the afternoon and evening.

Just a short distance up the canal we come to Minworth Top Lock, and thereafter the canal feels quiet and isolated. The light is low and the water is like a mirror: either side, there is much desolation. It is difficult to tell what industry lay there before - but there is none now.

The towpath becomes a concrete path, and even if you want to moor, it's just not possible as there are no mooring rings: the pub on Tyburn Road, recommended in several canal guides, has not one. It is simply not feasible to visit - what do you do, just leave the boat floating about?

The evening feels slightly grey as we approach the last few bridges before Salford Junction: no walkers anymore, no joggers, no-one. For its finale, the Birmingham & Fazeley plunges under a factory for several hundred yards, which is really creepy.

With maybe ten minutes light left, we arrive at Salford Junction and turn slowly onto the Saltley Arm - I can't remember what the official name is: the Birmingham & Warwick Junction Canal? The name seems as long as the canal.

We pass the old stop lock or was this maybe a shallow lock, and moor up at Star City's visitor moorings as darkness falls.

Down the Coventry, then the Birmingham & Fazeley

An early start in the fresh blue morning light, and we need to get to Fazeley by 10.15 to meet an engineer. Not a chance, I'll have to rearrange for Hopwas or somewhere.

But as soon as we set off, an oncoming boat forces us into the undergrowth. A low branch flicks the chimney hat into the Cut. We spend at least 45 minutes with the magnet and the boathook trying to recover it. Lots of gnashing of teeth. No joy, so we get going again.

Huddlesford is a lovely junction and I hope the Lichfield & Hatherton gets restored soon. It will make a huge difference to the prospects of the northern BCN and create new rings for those that 'do rings'. The cottage on the junction is particularly attractive.

We are soon skirting the Tame Valley with views over towards Tamworth. The Tame was once renowned as the most polluted river in Europe, and in the 1970s it was blamed for the poor water quality of the Trent as well. To our right, pleasant open fields give way to the heavily wooded slopes of the Hopwas Hays Woods military firing range.

There is a constant procession of boats coming the other way, all friendly and we also pass the beautiful boat Pirate with its Gardner engine pounding away quietly. We moor up by Leih's Teapot by School Bridge to wait for the engineer to drive over.

Leih's Teapot is a new business set up recently by a couple who live on their boat nearby. He was made redundant, she works in Tamworth; together they have bought and fitted out a boat to sell teas, coffees, sandwiches, sweets and drinks by the towpath; it's good coffee and a very good bacon and egg bap. It seems the BW Commercial and local staff have been extremely helpful. I mentioned that I had heard that BW in Birmingham were actively seeking businesses to operate from boats, and it seems to be the same elsewhere. They have been recommended to operate from three separate sites to get round the issue of mooring licences in high-volume places. They have been doing two days a week at Hopwas, two in Fazeley and two near Drayton; Hopwas is the best. They plan to cruise a figure-of-eight ring within commuting distance of Tamworth. Have a coffee or tea and a bap if you pass by!

The engineer reassures me that the engine problem is not serious, but is probably just injectors that need sorting out.I'm just not good mechanically; I've noticed a certain snootiness on the Canal World towards people who aren't proficient with engines and anything that requires the use of the contents of a toolbox. I can't understand this. There are plenty of things I can do that are extremely specialist yet I don't ever turn my nose up at those who cannot do them: everyone has their own talents.

We set off again towards Fazeley, and I find the village to be particularly attractive. I note the two boats that we have been told have been on 14 days moorings for seven years and three years respectively. Old buildings abound in Fazeley; the guide-books talk disdainfully of Fazeley comapring it unfavourably with Fradley, but actually the former is much nicer. Indeed the utilitarian and industrial architecture is largely undamaged by developers or by the wrecking ball. It's got real atmosphere.

We push on through the wooded charms, over a couple of aqueducts - tributaries of the Tame presumably - through a particularly awkward bridge on the outskirts of town and into a relly delightful stretch of countryside among the gravel pits, massed ranks of ferns adorned with stands of foxgloves. It's lush, damp, cool and charming. Pearson's are condescending, suggesting that there's nothing special about the Birmingham & Fazeley. We love it. Even a 16 year old teenage biy is moved to suggest that this canal is special. The sretch before the bottom lock is particularly engaging.

We start the climb up, taking the time to explain the working of the lock to children and adults who gather to watch. We notice an incredible number of cyclists - so much for couch-potato Britain. A springer spaniel on the towpath discovers the stiffened body of a rabbit and wanders around with it in its mouth; walkers are a bit stunned but the owner shrugs his shoulders and walks on.

By the third lock, the Dog & Doublet Pub appears. This Bodymoor Heath pub dates back to 1786 and continues to attract customers with its blend of seemingly good food and good beer - several real ales are available. Their long wharf has mooring rings and consequently it is rather difficult to pass by: you feel a real need to check out the moorings. We hear from another boat that the Saltely flight was emptied last night by vandals: our hearts sink for this is our preferred route tomorrow.

We continue up the flight, T wanting to do the heavy work on the locks, while I just keep North Star moving. We pass Marston Farm Hotel which also provides good moorings for customers. The single gates are easier to use than the doubles on the T&M anyway. The M42 motorway just to our side provides some additional interest, but the rich farmland to the north and west is constantly enaging anyway. The cottage and barn at Marston Lane Bridge is particularly evocative and even the traffic on the motorway just a few tens of metres away fails to spoil the atmosphere: I could live here!

The top lock is modern and has replaced the older top lock that was demolished, along with a row of cottages, during the construction of the M6 Toll motorway. We pass a few boats just after the top lock but then only one more moored boat (in Minworth, and that was a tatty GRP boat) the rest of the way into Birmingham. I find that very sad.

Curdworth Church Bridge markes the end of the countryside really, and the now empty and unloved Kingsley Canalside restaurant marks the entry to suburbia. In fact like so many restaurants and hotels, the Kingsley clearly made no real use of its canal frontage, and the canal is screened from the water - or is it vice-versa?

Minworth doesn't impress us at all, with The Boat stopping sserving food by 6.30pm (on Father's Day!). We walked back to the Hare & Hounds, which was really dire but we ate there anyway.

It had been a fascinating day's cruise, and T is beginning to appreciate the British countryside more. He and M have grown up in China, the US and Holland so don't really know their own country: North Star is opening their eyes to their own heritage and they seem to enjoy it.

Log (Huddlesford to Star City)
18.2 miles, 14 locks

Saturday, 20 June 2009

A big river

We've had no chance to get milk or bread or anything, so we stop at the A38 bridge and I walk up to a garage. It's deserted and it takes some time for the man to appear behind the counter. I have stocked up a bit and he seems bemused.

"Why don't you shop at a big supermarket or somewhere? It'd be a lot cheaper."
"We're on a boat and this is the first place we've come across that has a shop."
"A boat?"
"Yes. A boat." I think he'd have been less surprised if I'd claimed to have beamed down from a spaceship. "There's a canal just down the road. About 100 yards away."
"You're the first people who have ever come here from the river. Is it a big river?"

Ho hum.

The Plough, Huddlesford

The Plough at Huddlesford is the local at the Lichfield end of the Lichfield & Hatherton. It's a pub that has been seen by millions of railway travellers as it is squeezed into a small space between the Coventry and the West Coast mainline. These days, the pub is screened by wooden panels alongside the tracks.

It's a simple building facing the canal and turning its back on the rail lines above, but it is fast becoming more restaurant than pub, although there are good beers on tap; I had the Landlord. The restaurant part, towards the back, was packed out and even the tables at the front were filled with diners: it's not the kind of place where local farmers play darts and discuss the price of heifers anymore.

The staff were extremely friendly and served up great food - not the usual pubco standardised restaurant but something slightly different, while still solid enough to retain the attention of the risk-averse Great British public.

The restaurant hours are a little longer than advertised on various websites, with last orders at 9pm, with the pub open until 11pm or so.

Onto the Coventry

Arrive at North Star to a flat battery. Cannot for the life of me work out why, as it's only been a couple of weeks since we were on the boat. Anyway, Bill from NB Valour springs into action with a charger, and 30 minutes later, we are up and running again. Just in time for the wind to pick up. I understand it's the first puff of wind in this part of Staffordshire since the afternoon we arrived. Still, manage to get her around and heading out for the T&M in the lovely afternoon sunshine.

T takes the tiller while I just relax and smile.

We find a hire boat in front and a hire boat behind as we go down the three locks: very friendly families. We stop at The Swan for a swift pint and watch the boats come and go. The house on the corner is still for sale - pity that they have put up such a high hedge.

We motor onto the Coventry. It's really beautiful down this stretch, with thick trees on the right, fringing the aerodrome. We've arranged to meet Diesel Dave tomorrow at Fazeley; the engine is belching more a lot more smoke now, even at slow speeds. It's really embarrassing, and it means we stick to quite a slow speed to avoid creating too much noise. Last time, it was only when you put a bit of power on - now it's even at slow speeds. We have to push on - yet another trip when time is dictating what we do.

We know that The Plough stops serving food at 9pm and it's going to be a close run thing. We tie up early and decide to leg it along the towpath. It was worth the effort - very good food and very good beer.

6.2 miles, 3 locks

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Criminals payback with canal cleanup

Criminals from Wolverhampton have been clearing up the canal along the Bradley Arm of the BCN recently. It seems that there was an internet vote recently on how these criminals should repay society and this was the result.

Unsurprisingly local Tories, in true British political style ever willing to whinge about anything when in opposition, claim it to be a 'gimmick'. Seems to be a perfectly sensible solution to me. It may also encourage these people to consider the canal as a community amenity.

Medium term moorings?

One of the most common complaints you hear is how boaters hammer through Birmingham and the Black Country, blinkers on and throttle sellotaped forward. The trick s to keep moving so fast that you can ride the Factory Locks on the bow wave.

I want to explore it. I want to hang around a little bit. See a bit. Talk to folk. Take photographs. Compare today's scenes with the photos in Ray Shill's books.

But I need a secure mooring. I also have a day job and another life which means that I can't get on North Star every couple of weeks. I need moorings for a few weeks and the marinas along the T&M have been fine with this. No problem. Same along the Grand Union in Northamptonshire. They charge a fee and I pay for it. But BW can't do this. I suppose there's been no demand for it. It does seem odd though. Surely there must be more people wanting moorings for longer than a couple of days.

Obviously the 14 days moorings are intended for people like me who will moor up, go home and come back a couple of weeks later. But none of these moorings are secure. Many of us are perhaps understandably reluctant to leave our pride and joy alongside the towpath in West Bromwich or Tipton for a couple of weeks. Or even the boat.

BW should surely offer a couple of places and see if there are any takers for paid medium-term moorings - by the week or the month. It might encourage more voyages on the BCN.

Thanks Fiona of BW and 21st Century Caggy

I phoned up BW earlier today to ask about moorings. The lady said they only have permanent moorings and moorings for a couple of days and 14 days. Nothing in-between. Nothing for a month or two. I invoked the wise old words of Bernard Cribbens in that episode of Fawlty Towers where he suggests "such a service". The woman was friendly enough and said she's get one of the enforcement officers to call me back. I took this as a good thing, although a mate suggested that the only enforcers he knew collected debts down Whitechapel way.

I didn't really expect her or anyone to call back. After all, neither Swan Line at Fradley nor Willington Marina called me back a few weeks ago when they said they would. Why should someone at BW.

In the meantime I looked at Waterscape and saw Caggy's Yard. No. Surely not that Caggy. Is he still around? I recall someone talking about him back in the 1980s when he was abit of a legend on the Cut. I phoned up and the voice was that beautiful - if much ridiculed - Black Country brogue, all rolled r's and ah's and yow's and yo's. I really like this accent. I have no idea who I was speaking to but he was ever so helpful - no moorings available but he told me where I could try.

Then an hour later, I get a call from Fiona of BW who is so keen to help. I hadn't expected any response from BW, let alone someone who is clearly trying hard to come up with a solution. She is very apologetic about the lack of medium-term moorings. "I've never had an enquiry from someone like this before," she said but then proceeded to explore all the options, patiently waiting while the various screens loaded on Waterscape.

She ruled out the BW moorings and suggested that the only visitor moorings which are secure are at Merryhill on the Dudley No 1. They have a gate. Other suggestions included Grove Colliery, Aldridge, Ogley Junction. She also introduces me to the Boaters Guides on Waterscape, the dynamically-generated factsheets available for all canals.

So although I didn't get a result, I dealt with two really nice, friendly people.

Mooring in Birmingham?

Where are there safe moorings in Birmingham? I know of Hockley Port, but what other places have secure moorings?

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Price of coal to plummet in Daventry

It must be why the town of Daventry is planning to bring the Grand Union into town. The planning authorities have even approved the construction of a marina, before the canal arrives.

I'm fascinated by the enthusiasm with which this town seeks the canal, while the Cut is still barely tolerated elsewhere. They may do lots of little brochures and talk about the role canals play but most towns and cities don't really mean it.

In my home town of Bishop's Stortford, successive planning permissions have resulted in the end of navigation of the Stort becoming an absolute dump - ugly tall apartments towering over the canal and ground level carparks behind dark grills, so no-one has any desire to use the towpath or even the water. Horrible. The whole stretch is now an ASBO zone. Then,laughably, the local council have talked about regeneration. It was their witless planning that have created this damp, gloomy little corner in the first place and now they talk about brightening it up. Hopeless, utterly hopeless!

Recently I have seen how Walsall, Wednesbury, Birmingham, Oldbury and Sandwell have all allowed their canals to deteriorate. Birmingham and Walsall have then glamourised the canals and created the opportunity for commercial and residential real estate developments. However, very often the associated infrastructure is inappropriate or inaccessible to boaters, walkers and other traditional waterways users. The worst outcome - and a very common one - is where the property owners either prevent mooring or complain about boats and obstruct plans to install sanitary facilities or visitor moorings. These riparian properties usually make absolutely no contribution to the social or financial well-being of the waterways. There just has to be a better way!
The city and town authorities also make little real contribution to the waterways these days, other than more enlightened planning. Again, given the value and revenue the canals drive and the lift for the economy, there should be more money spent on the waterways.

It is encouraging to see Daventry so enthusiastic about the arrival of the canal, but hard questions should be asked of the town about what, exactly, it intends to put in to the canal in the way of money for maintenance, activities, infrastructure, moorings and events.

Regents Canal's a stage

Vagabond's Voyage is a play set along the Regents Canal. Mixed reviews, but I do want to go and see it.

Denver Sluice gets a blow job

Interesting story about how Denver Sluice is getting air pumped into the water through a series of looped tubes to try to prevent silt building up. They have been having to remove 4m of silt each year. I had no idea it was as much as that.

Monday, 15 June 2009

NHS Trusts - find out what they did in the 18th Century

Researching the history of the Wednesbury Old Canal (where?), I tried to find out what else was happening in the world in November 1769, so I Googled that date.

As well as plenty of interesting, relevant information, on the first page of hits are a number of NHS Trust online calendars. Do these calendars actually exist to show events in the mid 18th Century or are they just dynamically created?

Randomly put in a date....November 1345...and you get plenty of blogs and an event calendar for the town of Barnstaple, Massachussets showing that nothing happened that month. Not entirely surprising, given that November 1345 is 294 years before the town was founded.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Ridgacre Branch - a lost cause?

Interesting discussion on Canal World Discussion Forum about the present state of the unloved section of the Wednesbury Old Canal that is a dead-end off the top of the Ryders Green locks.

After the BCN Marathon Challenge, one boat - I was on it - decided to venture up to the end, despute an unofficial sign stating that the canal was unnavigable. The discussion on the forum has developed along two lines: should this boat have gone there and should these short industrial arms be saved.
My view? Yes to both questions. More detail below.

On the question of whether NB Tawny Owl should have gone up the arm, BW have a mechanism for stopping boats using a canal. They have not used it for this canal; ergo it is open for navigation. Should there be significant concern over pollution then they, Sandwell Borough Council or the Environment Agency can all effect closure. The authorities are actually well aware of the sediment, having successfully prosecuted a riparian landowner. A bigger concern is whether the substantial fine from that prosecution was ever used to remediate the situation in the canal.

In the long-term, the best hope for the entire waterways system may well be an electoral guarantee by all three major political parties that all revenue generated from the canals will be reinvested directly. This would make it worthwhile pursuing a whole load of opportunities and would encourage volunteer efforts.

If a canal is open, it is reasonable to be able to use it. Claiming a canal to be unnavigable when it is actually not is disingenuous and counter-productive. Indeed, the BCN Marathon Challenge originally existed to save this very stretch of canal, so it is perhaps particularly apt for boats to be encouraged to use it during this event. Also, it is equally counter-productive for the BCN Marathon Challenge to explicitly discourage navigation to the very extremities of, among others, the Cannock Extension and the Engine Arm. While I appreciate that there are residential boats in these places, the event is only over one weekend annually and attracts a relatively small number of boaters. There may come a time soon when closure beckons for these little arms and branches, and these very residents may expect the wider waterways community to rally to save them; this is considerably more likely if those arms and branches are considered part of the network rather than private property.

On the second issue of the valuation of environmental services, it’s not just a question of environmental services. Canals have been shown to have a significantly higher value in urban regeneration than almost any other factor; possibly the only more important element is iconic architecture and canals often have this as well – plenty of examples of that around the country.
When it comes to canals, some towns – Swindon and Stroud – are desperate to get canals back and, in Swindon’s case are even proposing to have a canal where none have gone before. Sadly, in the West Midlands, I get a strong sense that canals are used as the magnet for property development but thereafter there is an active drive to remove the very community who through the last 50 years have kept these waterways open and alive.
It’s still fairly shocking that property developers pay absolutely nothing for waterway frontage other than a premium to the previous owner which they pass on to subsequent users, yet contribute absolutely nothing to the canal or waterways communities.
We, boaters and anglers (and some specific industries and utilities), are the only part of society that pay directly for the waterways, and society in general is paying, in real terms, less every year for the upkeep while putting ever increasing pressure on the system. Furthermore, despite contributing nothing, most new property developments actuallhy put big signs up saying "No Mooring". Given that I am actually paying along with every other boater, for the water to be alongside those luxury apartments, I should be able to moor where I damn well please! In fact, it would be quite a nice idea to encourage new developers to start voluntarily putting some cash into the canals to avoid unwanted derelict boats being moored with mud anchors six inches off their property. (Now there's a campaigning thought!)

If there was a more equitable financing structure for all the environmental services, landscape services, and tourism and social services performed by the canals, many of our long closed canals would still be open and many restoration projects would get the money needed overnight. The potential value added by canals in an aging population is considerable and even the unloved, grimy corners may one day have a part to play. Have a look at old photographs of the Trent & Mersey, Caldon, Gas Street and many others to see that the eventual transition from industry to leisure and beauty is not an impossible dream.

If the Ridgacre/Wednesbury Old Canal has contaminated silt in it, then the authorities should get rid of it. It is not acceptable to say that BW cannot afford it, because even if the canal is closed and filled in, it will still require environmental remediation. The difference being that closure and in-fill would require remediation before further use, whereas remediation of a canal can be done over time, bit by bit.

So whatever anyone thinks of the situation, the Ridgacre should be cleaned up because one way or the other it will have to be done anyway, and the cheapest option is to do it as a canal. Then maybe one day in fifteen years or so, we can perhaps see something that reattaches the Balls Hill Branch, the Ridgacre, the Halford, the Dartmouth and the Jesson to the network.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Highlights of the BCN Challenge 2009

  • finishing
  • bow-hauling a 70' boat from Horsley Jn to Chillington at 7am
  • bow-hauling a 70' boat slightly more slowly from Oldbury Bottom Lock to the Aqueduct in the heat of the sun
  • Robert deciding to swim the Old Main line instead of bow-hauling
  • getting to the end of the Ridgeacre, after the Challenge
  • no seriously. The very end. TNC-style with the stern inserted into the culvert
  • being asked how much the boat cost by a teenager and watching his disappointment when we said seven quid
  • the dogging couple at Anglesey Basin; obviously in search of privacy they chose to "dog" in full sight of the canal, a major A road and the M6 Toll, so proving that there is indeed a shallow end of the human gene pool
  • being rammed sideways by NB Kerchez at Catshill
  • the tent on fire at Wednesbury and passers-by just ignoring it; clearly this is nothing unusual hereabouts
  • a man telling his kid "No, it's not a narrow boat. It's a barge"
  • learning how to splice a rope
  • debating whether an object recovered was a fender or a dildo (jury still out, but now on Tawny Owl anyway)
  • the mince and potatos
  • the beauty of the Rushall, Curley Wyrley, most of the Old Main Line, the upper part of the Titford, most of the Walsall
  • the grammar and spelling of the graffitti artists ("We will not be stoped! Yes you will!"; "WV2 Crew. No-one will wath us"; "Lena is a slarg")
  • the semi-naked anglers rising like prairie dogs from the reeds as we approached
  • the bloke who asked us if we had seen "a fat bald bloke fishing"; errrr...all of them?
  • Richard asks "what can go wrong down the Ridgeacre?" and the three of us who don't own the boat say nothing
  • seeing Que Sera Sera being steered by Elvis and towed by Shergar
  • sunset over Goscote
  • Phil Lynott lookalike bellowing orders around the Walsall basin as boats arrived
  • everything actually: great crewmates, great boat, great canals, great event. If you weren't there, you missed a huuuuuuge event!!

Originally posted on the Canal World Forum!