Friday 27 October 2017

Into Marina for Winter

Today's Canal - Droitwich

We made a good start, although Andrew insisted on first going to the supermarket for a newspaper. Again, with a clear sky, the autumn sun was only just shining over the trees.

Vines Park was looking good as we set off with Andrew walking ahead to set the first swing bridge.

The river lock as level and gates at both ends could be opened at the same time - not that we did so intentionally, but then life does have its little surprises!

It did not take us long to cover the rest of the distance, and four more locks including the final two-lock staircase, to arrive at the entrance to Droitwich Spa Marina where we had booked a space some time ago for the winter. We paused at the service wharf whilst Christine sorted out arrangements and was shown our pontoon by, we believe, the marina owner. We have only been here once before when we called in for fuel but we certainly found them very helpful back then and this arrival was equally so. We were in urgent need of elsan disposal so did that before moving to what turned out to be a near pontoon - it is quite some distance to the furthest ones.

Sadly we failed to take any photos of the marina so that will have to wait until we next visit.

Next, Mike and Andrew cleaned the roof, the fore deck and the rear deck - the cab sides will have to wait as it was time to change and prepare to do the two car shuffles. As Mike, with Andrew's assistance, found such a good deal on train tickets that we felt we could blow the saving on a taxi to the station.

Andrew caught a train  first, into Birmingham and then out to Wolverhampton before finally a train to Chirk. He had to walk across the aqueduct to collect his car but he had a smooth journey back to the boat.

Mike, on the other had, had some wait before his train at 2 o'clock which took him to Smethwick Galton Bridge where he changed for a connection to Crewe. Finally there was a very short hop, on a very packed train, to Nantwich. A taxi which had booked whilst waiting at the first station was ready and waiting which efficiently took him to Swanley Bridge Marina - much easier than the almost an hour walk otherwise!

Christine took the opportunity of an otherwise empty boat to do a through clean - at this time of the year, especially in places where the contractors have just done their final grass cut of the season, the floor can easily look a bit in need of a clean. When the other two returned, it looked a different boat!

After handing back the gate access card, Mike set off. His journey was the more tedious - the A500 to the M6 had queues at almost all the road junctions and the satnav told him that around Birmingham was not going to be quick.

He was amused to note that the last part of traffic queues was above the repair work that we had seen a few days earlier when we navigated underneath. Eventually he arrived back, almost a hour later than Andrew. At least Christine had already prepared the evening meal. Afterwards, Andrew returned home - he has less than two hours to do.

1.4 Miles - 5 Locks

Thursday 26 October 2017

Droitwich (again)

Today's Navigations - Droitwich Canal, River Severn (just)

After much debate we eventually set off towards Hawford Junction to complete the length of the Droitwich Canal. What was still uncertain was whether we might turn around earlier and where we would moor for the night. Much hinges on the optimum location (or the least effortful) from which to collect both cars. We know that we will go by train from Droitwich to Nantwich (in Mike's case) or Chirk (in Andrew's case) but there is still some detail to agree in order to minimise extra journeys beyond that!

It was a very dull day, not cold, with almost no movement in the air, certainly nothing to call a breeze. Both Andrew and Christine went for a wander from the boat after breakfast so it was well after 10 before we set off. Most of the other overnight boats had already left.

Originally the wide, barge canal, went as far as the lock at the other end of Vines Park but the reconstruction through the railway viaduct just beyond Netherwich Mooring reduced the usable width by using a poorly designed corrugated lining that curves around under the waterline, but also by adding a towpath. The result is that now there are distinctive warning signs that mean that only narrow boats an proceed from here.

A team of contractors  to reduce overhanging branches - not from the canal so much as the towpath. It certainly looked a job needing to be done.

When the canal was first re-opened it was well-known for the narrow channel between the reeds that quickly developed. Since then a better plan for maintaining the balance is in place and we could see clearly where the reeds have been cut back, although the new season's growth has sprung up. But at least it stops the spread towards the middle.

A couple of swing bridges fell into disuse some time ago and did not form part of the restoration. At the first the old swing deck is still in place, albeit very overgrown and decayed. However, aficionados can at least still and have their picnic whilst contemplating the design!

At the second, the deck is now abandoned in a nearby hedge although the underwater structure is a potential hazard to deep-drafted boats.

After about an hour cruising we arrived at the top of the five Ladywood locks. At both top and bottom lock there is a former lock keeper's cottage.

At the second lock there is a very different style of overflow weir - quite an impressive design.

We shared the last few locks with a friendly hire boat that was on its way back to Worcester. At Lock 2 there is a new high tech warning display that should show the water conditions in the River Severn just above and below the junction. Alas, it was not working (the one we saw yesterday at Hanbury was operational) so we wold have to resort to tried and tested methods to judge the safety of proceeding out of Lock 1.

There are some very new warning signs concerning a pinch point below Lock 1, where the canal joins the river.

The problem seems to be that the tail of the lock, along with the lock landing, is at  a slight angle to the alignment of the lock itself. Why do we get the feeling that the signs are a response to one incident where boats got into difficulty? Still it is not too much of an inconvenience gto go out separately - it is the only sensible option really gto maintain adequate control when joining into a river stream which here is on a bend and running across the line of the canal.

We let the other boat go ahead as all that we were doing was going out onto the river and turning around to come back in and start making the ascent back to Droitwich. Mike stayed at the lock to close it once the boat was safely back inside whilst Andrew made the turn. A photo cannot show that at this point it looked as if the boat was going fast sideways without making much forward progress but eventually the boat and lock were lined up for a safe entrance.

New houses have been built alongside the lock but the ground is much higher so a retaining wall was put in place. Either initially, or perhaps later, serious retaining bolts have had to be provided although the wall does seem to have a slight bulge. However, we did not feel that this prop would make a lot of difference!

A boat came up the river just as we were about to ascend so we waited - it turned out to be a single hander. Both of us moored just above Lock 2 for lunch but he was still there when we left later - after enjoying good potions of Christine's latest soup (we had the first portions yesterday so it had had another day to mature)

The return journey did not yield any surprises and this time we saw no moving boats. However Mike did manage to capture the moment at which water starts to come into the lock chamber from a top paddle. In these locks the entry culvert is well below the normal water level and so shows for a couple of seconds as a large bubble stream before bursting to the surface with the usual turbulence which means that boaters need to take care to operate the paddles in the correct sequence to minimise the effect on a single boat - not so much of an issue when there are two boats in the lock.

Just before 5 we arrived back at the moorings with plenty of space - signs indicate that the whole of the visitor mooring is to be designated a Winter Mooring but that does not start until the first of November.

11.2 Miles - 16 Locks

Wednesday 25 October 2017


Today's Canals - Worcs and Birmingham, Droitwich

It was a wonderfully bright and clear sky as we awoke and took the boat across from one side of the canal to the service point at the CaRT maintenance base opposite. It was also unseasonably warm - a passer-by at one stage remarked that it felt as good as summer!

The sun was still not showing over the horizon, down at canal-level but was catching the church steeple at the village on the hill above.

The view across the plain to Welsh hills was marvellous - pity about the telephone pole and wire across the middle but our journalistic principles (aka insufficient commitment to effort!) prevent us from PaintShopping it out!

As we waited for the water to fill we looked around, seeing this preserved boat that once operated from Tardebigge to pull unpowered boats through the tunnels between here and Birmingham Worcester Bar.

The dry dock is again in use with what appears to be a new tenant (their main base is where we later stopped for lunch). They were already at work jet washing a narrowboat ready for blacking - it made an incredible noise, let's hope he was wearing ear defenders!

There is really one one word to describe today: locks! (and plenty of them, 50 in all). So we began at the beginning with Tardebigge Top Lock.

A waterside garden had not only Flowerpot Men but also this welded metal hippo (catch it at the right angle and honestly it does look like a hippo ought to look)

A few locks down and we passed Tardebigge Reservoir.

We had help from several lock keepers as we passed down the flight but they usually only stayed with us for a few locks at a time.

One of the lock keepers was accompanying a three person film crew making a video for CaRT about holidays on the canals. They were using a 360 camera so had to hide when filming. Mind you, they never asked our permission!

At a couple of locks, a local volunteer work party was clearing undergrowth from around the bypass weirs.

By mid morning a lot of high level cloud arrived with a slightly fresher breeze but it still felt balmy.

There was plenty of water coming down the flight and at a few locks it ran over the top of the gates. This made it difficult to cross the top foot boards as they were under water!

And here we are, just tree minutes under three hours and out the other end of the 29 lock flight.

However, no respite as immediately (it does not really feel like a different flight) comes the six locks of the Stoke Flight.

Christine noticed that some of the blue bricks used to edge the lock chambers have their makers details imprinted into them Here are three. The last one is dated 1893 so they do last well!

By now the cloud largely passed on and we were back to really warm, almost hot, weather.

Just above the last lock is a large Black Prince hire base. Several new boats were being fitted out ready no doubt for next season. We saw one with a later registration number than ours which had obviously had quite a few trips already, comparing our well-worn blacking (was it only just before Middlewich that we re-painted?) with this one.

We pulled in for lunch below the final Stoke lock and debated our options. At the rate of progress so far today we could possible get as far as Hawford, via Droitwich which would leave us with a feasible trip via Worcester tomorrow.

After a short rural run we arrived at the next flight, the six locks at Astwood.

A dead tree makes a beautiful if stark image against the blue sky.

After our earlier debate we turned right at Hanbury Junction, joining the Droitwich Canal. The upper part of this canal is narrow whilst the lower part is a broad beamed barge canal from the town to the Severn.

The top three locks, where a volunteer was assisting boats through and actually asked if we would like his help (of course!), all have working side ponds.

After passing the marina where we will return shortly for our winter berth, we passed through the two lock staircase that was a completely new construction when  the canal was restored.

One of the challenges for the restorers was than whilst the canal was closed the M6 was built leaving only a culvert for the River Salwarpe. As a result there is a very low headroom at this point but (even through we had failed to check our official air draft!) we made it easily although the radio aerial did just tickle the underneath of the tunnel roof.

We continued the short distance to the town where the canal leaves the river via the Barge Lock, At normal river levels there is barely any change in level but the catch is that the swing bridge across the middle still has to be opened. Leaving the lock was a but trickier than usual as neither gate wanted to open fully so we had to use both.

The canal runs for a short distance through the well used Vines Park - but it does have several swing bridges just when you might think about having a rest!

The locks down the Droitwich all took very much longer to negotiate than those earlier so by the time we arrived at the moorings in the town there was no time left to go any further, This canal offers few places to moor as the edges are mostly kept as reed beds for environmental reasons. (One of the issues when restoring a canal is that in the period of disuse all sorts of wildlife and flora take up residence with groups wanting to protect them). The upshot was that we ended up staying here for the night with yet another debate to be had about what next!

8.4 Miles - 50 Locks

Tuesday 24 October 2017


Today's Canals - BCN, Worcs and Birmingham

The day was generally very grey and at times quite wet - not a great day for photography - a bit unfortunate as there is plenty of interest to see on the way through central Birmingham.

As Mike set off, Andrew walked to the nearest Tesco, rejoining the canal a little later after cutting a corner well beyond the narrows at the junction.

We opted to take the Old Main Line into Birmingham. A little later we passed over Tividale Aqueduct which spans the later line through Netherton Tunnel leading to canals to the south. We were amused to see a junction fingerpost - it points towards Netherton but this is only possible if you can drop the boat over the edge into water below!

The canal network in Birmingham is still extensive but in previous more industrial times there were lots of short arms and wharves branching off a frequent intervals. Many still have the towpath bridges retained even if what was behind is long since filled in.

Much of the 'old'industry has closed and many sites are being reclaimed for housing but some have modern  buildings for the technological business that now thrive. This one did seem a little contradictory - security and openness are not always possible but this company specialises in CCTV surveillance systems for large institutions, including some NHS trusts, local authorities and housing trusts. Given the very large use of tv cameras for security purposes it would be interesting to know whether there is independent evidence about the effectiveness. How many criminals have they caught or is it all down to the fear factor rather than the ability to capture usable images?

One of the arms at Oldbury is called Chemical Arm and linked to a works manufacturing some noxious substances, long ago closed down. It seems that most of it has been filled in under perhaps unfortunate circumstances. However, few of those that do remain look like being anything more than an eyesore.

The next section is quite a long run under the elevated motorway. We have passed above several times in the past year (especially on our way up to Stafford to see the progress in building Alchemy. From the road level it seems that the reduced width lanes and slow speed limits are not link with a lot of activity. However, we could now see what is going on underneath, out of sight of all the motorists.

The scaffolding envelops all of the joints where there is a concrete beam resting on a concrete column which accounts for most of them. Where the motorway crosses the canal then some are steel beams and others have a solid joint between a concrete column and pillar. This must surely be one of the largest scaffolding contracts going! The repair work is extensive as well. At times the scale of the motorway dwarfing the original canal bridges is somewhat incongruous.

Just after Spon Lane Junction we could glimpse the former Chance Glassworks site which too is surrounded by scaffolding. A trust has been formed to ensure that this site is preserved and records the history of this important and innovative company. They supplied the glass for the original Crystal Palace but their most important contribution is probably the making of glass lenses for modern lighthouses.

We eventually arrived at the only locks for today - the three at Smethick which take the Old Main Line down to the level of the New Main Line.

Just before the locks we realised that our speed had dropped and steering felt clumsy. So, shortly after joining the wider, newer we took advantage of one of the former toll islands - there is a narrow passage either side of an island. Andrew made a foray down the weed hatch and made a considerable haul of twisted plastic that was around both the propeller and the drive shaft.

At Old Turn, the heart of the BCN, we saw for the first time the much-commented-upon decorative feature on the 'roundabout'.

Next we passed under the Broad Street Tunnel - really just the wide street with buildings either side of the road.

Just beyond is Gas Street Basin and Worcester Bar, the narrow former transshipment point, a consequence of thew two separate canal companies failing to agree on sharing tolls. It took an Act of Parliament in 1815 to open up the through route.

There is a very sharp turn at the MailBox to take us onto the mainly very straight Worcs and Birmingham Canal that runs out through the University and Bourneville (home of Cadbury Chocolate!) Just around the corner we stopped briefly to empty the elsan.

The short Edgbaston Tunnel is the subject of slightly controversial proposals to widen the towpath to the same dimension as elsewhere. Many of the towpaths in Birmingham are very well used by pedestrians, cyclists and joggers. The effect will also be to reduce the tunnel from two way working to one way. However it is only 100m in length and not much longer than other bridges which have also similarly reduced the width.

At the University we saw the much-reported Hydrogen Boat, a research project to develop the use of hydrogen engines as a means of propulsion. This has been considered for some time as a promising alternative to fossil fuels but has not yet made it into economically viable options for general use. Sadly, it looks as if the research team have rather lost interest in their canal boat as well.

We then arrived at Wast Hill, the longest of our tunnels today at some 2500m in length. We could see that there was a boat already in the tunnel coming the other way but as it is double width we pressed ahead, meeting them about a third of the way in. They seemed to be a bit uncertain what to do or even if two boats could actually pass each other . We did!

After passing the Bittell reservoirs and another stop underneath a motorway bridge to check the weed hatch, we spotted a new marina under construction. Although Alvechurch is a popular canal boating centre, both building and hiring a large fleet, there are no marinas for some distance. We think these are to be called the Withybed Moorings and there has been a long gestation period, with plans going back around a decade. However, work now seems to be moving on but this is a stage when weather is quite critical.

Shortwood Tunnel was approached with a splendid autumnal look to the cutting. The leaves are a bit of a hazard for boaters however.

Our final tunnel for the day was Tardebigge, like Shortwood just over 500m in length. However, this one is less usual in that only the end sections are fully brick-lined and in the middle the roof is still the rough hewn rock, a reminder of just how much hard physical work went into the construction of the canals.

The start of the well known (and by some well feared) Tardebigge is just a few hundred metres beyond the tunnel portal but fortunately there as plenty of visitor moorings available so we pulled in for the night and will tackle the endless locks in the morning. We were the only boat here as we stopped.

24.0 Miles - 3 Locks