After a two year gap, while the Chasewater Reservoir was rebuilt and filled up from a BWB tap, the BCN Marathon Challenge brought about 30 boats to the clear, tranquil waters of the West Midlands again.
In an air of quiet, determined competition, half the battle is won in pubs, dining rooms and studies across the country, as teams plot their route to maximise the number of points. There are points for distance, points for locks, points for questions and multipliers for boat draught, number of crew and numbers of crew. More crew, less points; more draught, more points. Computer programmes get written and shared, tactics get debated in computer forum: "More crew, go for locks; less crew, go for distance".
2009 winner NB Muskrat and 2009 runner-up Tawny Owl were both known to be lurking on the BCN the night before, the former keen to retain their title, the Tawny Owl - on which I was a crew member - keen to replace them. We were also tweeting the event as @nbtawnyowl, even though not one member of the eight-strong crew really understood what tweeting was or how to do it.
|They don't make bridges like this anymore|
Saturday dawned battleship grey, true to form and at the stroke of 8 o'clock, Tawny Owl slipped its moorings and headed down for Uncle Ben's Bridge. We planned to wind there although the instructions indicated the Navigation Inn winding point, we knew that there is no winding point there and that the bridge hole by the Navigation was very shallow.
We solemnly passed the shattered shell of the Langley Maltings, then ploughed down the 6 locks ahead of the working boats who, politely, had nodded the others through in front of them. With a crew of eight, locks are a breeze and a slick routine established itself quickly, using one lock's water to fill the next. We stuck our noses over the wall to ensure the little stub of the Jim Crow branch was still in water (it is) and commented approvingly on the restored - but unoccupied - cottage by the bottom lock.
|All that remains of Combeswood Tubeworks|
Our route took us through the Brades staircase and the Netherton Tunnel to "the dark side". Most of us confessed we had never been south of the ridge, so we were on new territory motoring down to Hawne Basin. We had passed Atlas and Malus in the Netherton, wreathed in orange smoke but saw only two more moving boats all morning as we marvelled at the luxuriant greenery along the Dudley Canal. In 2009, we had marvelled at the beauty of the Rushall and Daw End, this time it was the turn of the Dudley Canal. All agreed it was well worth a detour.
We realised that our planning was awry as we were 90 minutes ahead of schedule by the time we winded at Hawne, so decided we would earn 1 point for exploring the Boshboil Arm. On our return at Windmill End, we crossed at full tilt, to the astonishment of gongoozlers, into the 100m-long arm, before reversing out. We knew it was short, but not that short!
We earned no points for the return through the tunnel, but picked up the track again at Dudley Port Junction as we headed west again towards Wolverhampton. We used the Blue Book to identify the historic past of the area, struggling to imagine Spring Vale, Bilston Gas Works, the old Bantocks boatyard and all the industry around Catchem Corner.
Wolverhampton proved as undesirable as in the past, with our only trouble there - as last time out. Unpleasant, racist, stone-throwing youths were followed shortly after by the shocking sight of a young man punching a girl then stamping on her as she lay on the ground. Even as he turned his aggressive attention on us, we were on the phone to 999, requesting help. As someone with roots in Wolverhampton, I was as sad this weekend, as I was in 2009, that the only unpleasant experiences were in that town - not in Birmingham, Walsall, Oldbury, Dudley or Sandwell. We motored on towards Pelsall Common as the day turned slowly to dusk and to night. We passed the 14 boats of the Wolverhampton Boat Club - rather surprised they weren't joining the BCNS event - and then Joanna and others resting up for the night.
All through Wolverhampton, we had seen ponies - feral, perhaps - in the rough ground, alongside the canal, just wandering wild. We wondered if this was My Little Pony Land.
All along the waterway, we were waved at by beaming children and adults, many of whom said they had never seen a boat "up here".
As darkness descended, we turned into the Cannock Extension, mindful of the two white vans parked on the towpath at the junction. Inside, two men watched TV. In front, a young woman sat in a Peugeot.
We moored up for the 6 hour break in the quiet of the fields and trees.
At 3.45 we were woken, not by our alarm clocks, but by the sound of Yeoford chugging past. It was all hands to the mooring lines as we set off for The Grove. The gloom of night lifted as quickly as it arrived and we were in the grey light of Pelsall. Darkened houses, drawn curtains, just the sound of birds as we set off again.
We turned a bend to see two young men carrying a very large circular mirror along the towpath. "We've been to a party," said one, grinning broadly. It sounded suspiciously like a prearranged phrase to be used in the event of being asked by a policeman. Good parties here: you get to take furniture home in lieu of a paper bag full of lollipops and a bit of cake. Still, no more damn ponies.
We follow NB Firefly down the Rushall flight then turn onto the Tame Valley Canal where we discuss how or if we should make diversions for more points. Back along the Tame Valley for 21, up to Ryders Green for 32 and maybe more, back and forth along the Walsall for a few more.
But we are tiring fast. We turn right at Golds Hill and make our way up the long last stretch to Walsall. Last time, we had marvelled at how slow the Walsall Canal is, and it was the same this year. We were reduced to a slow creep, wondering how many others were doing the same, just out of sight.
|So relaxed, we all spent much of the time snogging|
24 hours cruising since 8am yesterday. The BCN Marathon Challenge brings a great community together, and the show is not about the best boat, or the oldest or the cutest. A 20' Dawncraft or hybrid GRP boat is as welcome as the most expensive or traditional craft. In fact there is a distinct shortage of marina gin-palace craft in the Challenge. (They are all at Crick) It's a very unpretentious, hands-on, get-dirty event which is about canals. And your boat. And eating and drinking with friends. For me, no other canal event evokes the pioneering "use it or lose it" spirit of the early waterways activists quite like the Challenge.
Bring on BCN Marathon Challenge 2012!