Sunday, 21 June 2009

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

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