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

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