Monday, 22 June 2009

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.

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