Tuesday 30 April 2019

Wheaton Aston

Today's Canal - Shropshire Union

Another warm day and, for the first part, very bight and sunny but yet again all changed around midday and thin grey cloud appeared.

We set off in good time - but the rest of the day was rather more laid back! We level cruised towards Brewood where we planned to stop for a little shopping,

Chillington Hall is home to the Giffard family and the present building - which we could not see from the canal - was built around 1724 and was the third building on this site. It was intended to be an impressive statement and included a long, tree lined avenue as its main entrance. When the canal was  constructed by Thomas Telford around a century later, as perhaps his last major engineering project, he specially designed this ornamental bridge. The Giffards have been close confidants of royalty and other leading members of society since they came lover with William the Conqueror. During the time of Henry the Eighth they were known to be religiously conservative but the family did well out of the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Not long after, the elegant spire of Brewood Church came into sight, the view helped by the fact that the canal runs over a substantial embankment at this point and looks down on the fields close to the village.

There was plenty of room to moor on the Visitor Moorings close to the main bridge and road into the village centre. In summer time, especially at lunch time, this stretch cane be very crowded.

As soon as we moored we walked to the shops. We were not yet ready for a proper re-stock but picked up items from the butcher, the baker and the two small supermarkets. We did look at a van selling 'Grimsby' fish but decided against buying anything - it would need to go into the freezer anyway.

As we were walking back to the boat we spotted an elegant horse drawn carriage approaching.  Alas, a mis-operation of the phone camera meant that we missed a better close up as function was not restored until it had tuned down a side street and was disappearing into the distance!

It was not quite time for a lunch break so we continued towards Wheaton Aston. Along the way we passed a old butty Phoebe moored up with o-one on board. We think that it was originally built in 1945 for use on the BCN but we are not certain so if anyone knows better, do leave a comment!

We crossed Stretton Aqueduct which carries the canal over the old Watling Street. Once a very busy A5, today it was rather quiet, no doubt as most drivers find the nearby motorway more convenient.

A large patch of trees on one side of the canal seem to have succumbed to one of the diseases that periodically destroy complete species. Luckily it does not yet seem to have spread to o far no crossed to the other side of the water.

Just before Wheaton Aston we moored to have lunch. Once we set off again we had a flurry of activity.

First came the solitary lock between the start at Autherley and concentration of locks around Market Drayton and Audlem. Below the lock is a service facility which we made good use of before finally calling at the well-known Turner's Garage, famously one of the most competitive suppliers of diesel to boaters. We put as much as we could into our tank!

We continued another couple of miles but had already decided to stop early today, but finding a place to come alongside an also have a tv signal reduces the options. We managed to find a spot, at least as good as yesterday, again wit the guidance of Waterway Routes. The photo shows just how straight the canal is for most of its length. Every couple if miles or so their is a slight change of direction.

Having settled down to take things easy we felt a boat going by (it is always more noticeable with the shallow edge along this canal) We looked out of the window and realised that it was Ellis (see the blog for) and we quickly dashed out to shout hello. They pulled close (ish!) to the towpath so that we could have a longer chat this time. However, after a while Andy was concerned about making progress go their next date with guests at Nantwich so we reluctantly had to let them continue their journey. They also have help promised for the Audlem locks . . .

7.3 Miles - 1 Lock

Monday 29 April 2019


Today's Canals - Birmingham Main Line, Staffs & Worcs, Shropshire Union

A very different day - it began with cloudless blue skies, although during the day some fluffy white clouds appeared but it remained sunny and pleasantly warm.

Mike walked around to the Bus Station where there is a Sainsbury Local, for a newspaper and a few pother top up items. There is no full supermarket anywhere near the canal through Wolverhampton but we can manage at least for today with just these few extra items.

When we were ready to set off we moved first into Broad Street Basin to use the facilities. The former Fellows Morton warehouse has had a number of uses in the time we have passed this way - one night we moored here when it was a nightclub (noisy!) At the moment it is a Kitchen store. The water tank took some time to fill as the tap is on the slow side.

Eventually we were able to start properly and headed towards the top of the Wolverhampton 21. a long flight of locks that takes the BCN down to the Staffs and Worcs.

We did not break any speed records (not even our own) but worked gradually and systematically down. We passed only one other boat coming up the flight. Water supply problems to the Wolverhampton Level mean that all access to that level is locked overnight but these times did present us with any issues on this occasion. A couple of pounds were noticeably lacking in water but none needed us to run water down.

A large bank alongside Lock 4 had a display of wild flowers - cowslips, daises, pink campion - which seemed slightly odd with the industrial land backdrop. There are few houses close to any part of the flight but plenty of uninteresting workshops and derelict land. A huge waste disposal site dominates the middle section.

Railway lines cross the canal several times and there are two high level and impressive viaducts.

At Lock 16 we met a CaRT Enforcement Officer who entered our registration number into his tablet so we are now known to be on the move. However, we now do have a year-round marina base so we have no concerns about being seen often enough (boaters that do not move very much get quite agitated at this!) We had a good chat over a number of the challenges facing CaRT.

However , this did mean that it was by now unrealistic to delay lunch until the bottom of the flight so, below Lock 17, where there is the longest pound in  the flight, we moored up for an hour.

We were pleased eventually to see Lock 21! Below here we emerged onto the Staffs and Worcs.

Just after the junction is an elegant turnover bridge. It is then about a mile to Autherley Junction where we turned onto the Shropshire Union. The water in the long last pound of the Shroppie is guarded by a stop lock which dropped us down about 150 mm. We were a bit distracted here and so failed to take any photos.

We had no need to continue late today so after passing the long line of moored boats at the Wolverhampton Boat Club we started to look for an overnight stop - hopefully with a chance of a satellite tv signal. It is less easy to come alongside the towpath because of the famous Shroppie Shelf - a sloping edge to the bank which was party of the canal's original design.

Using the indications on Waterway Routes maps we eventually came close to the edge - enough to step over - and, to our surprise, a tv signal.

4.4 Miles - 22 Locks

Sunday 28 April 2019


Today's Canal - Birmingham New Main Line

We set the alarm to be sure to be awake in time to set off to the cathedral by 8:30, to get there for the o'clock communion service. We walked along the towpath before taking to the streets at lock four and arriving at our destination in good time. Whilst we expected this to be the 'quiet' service - a full choral service is at 11 - it was a bit of a surprise to discover that we in a total of nine for the congregation and we were seated in the choir stalls. Nevertheless, it was well led by one of the cathedral team. Her sermon was especially well prepared and delivered.

We walked back to the boat via New Street in order to find some croissants for an extra breakfast. We were a bit early for the supermarkets but did find a couple at Greggs. Back on board we speedily changed and made coffee before casting off and taking the boat back to Old Turn, a hundred metres away as we now needed to retrace our steps. As we completed the turn, a large trip boat held back from emerging from Ouzells Loop, on its way to pick up the first passengers of the day.

The day was very grey and initially there was a chilly breeze but nothing like the strong storms winds of yesterday. Later on, the occasional blue patch emerged and the afternoon was a bit more comfortable.

The Roundhouse - former stables for the canal company - is under renovation.

Towpath bridges are a frequent part of the canal scene in Birmingham, especially along the Main Line. They are a reminder of just how important the canal once was to industry. Some, like this one, gave access to private wharves where factories could load their goods directly onto waiting boats.

Others mark the entrance to a longer arm, here Cape Arm, where a number of places would be served. Some of these arms were formed when the New Main Line was constructed, straightening out the old contour canal.

Yet more are where the old line was replaced by the straighter new line and the older canal gradually abandoned.

Another frequent feature is the toll island, mostly at junctions, where the canal company could collect the tolls which were the basis of its business. Elsewhere on the canal network, toll collection was much more spread out, usually at the ends of a quite long canal. But here, much of the traffic would have been between places on the Birmingham BCN network.

As industry has changed and some places no longer needed the water transport connection, the wharves were filled in and the entrances blocked up. Sometimes it takes a keen eye to spot where they once were - different shades of brickwork or indentations in the towpath may be the only remaining indication.

French Walls bridge has intrigued us on each of our visits to this canal but only now have we investigated what the names comes from. A French Walls Estate dates from at least as far back as 1660., What was then a pleasant rural estate gradually became overtaken by the might of the growing industrial might of Birmingham. By 1796, guns were being manufactured here. By 1816, James Watt the Younger was involved in improving the works.

As we passed under Rabone Road Bridge we could see a good number of walkers but after we had passed and looked back we saw a succession of carnival parade vehicles.

A little later  came the impressive structure of  the New Smethwick Pumping Station - and the first of blue sky patches! The engine here once transferred water from the lower to the upper level - the Old Main Line is very close at the top of the bank.

Smethwick Galton has become a significant stop on the Birmingham rail network as it provides an interchange between a line that runs between Wolverhampton and Birmingham, largely following the canal, and another line at a higher level that crosses the canal at this bridge. This north-south line originally had its station a little further away from the canal but it was later moved to this spot. The platforms have ingeniously been created by cantilevering out from the bridge.

The name of Chance Bridge had not caused us to stop and think until this time - we had not spotted this 'glass' part of the name on the derelict building but more recently as we have ravelled the nearby motorway we have seen the Chance Glassworks part of which is under restoration. From the canal the view is less obvious. Chance were the leading producers of specialist glass - they supplied the original Crystal Palace as well as the lantern glass for many lighthouses. The site closed to production in 1981.

Again from the motorway, the giant advertising screen,with its constantly changing images (after all, unless there is a holdup, people in the cars only have moments to take in the message on display) is somewhat of a landmark.

JB & A Lees, at the Trident Steel Works, manufacture their Liberty strip steel product which is particularly used for making narrow bandsaws.  The company has been here for over 150 years. At one time there were many more iron and steel factories, mostly turning the raw product into specific goods, perhaps as components used in other businesses nearby, with the output transferred by canal boat.

Eventually we passed the junction where we came out onto the Main Line from the Netherton Tunnel, just a couple of days ago.

At Watery Lane End, a sign on the bridge says "The Tipton and Toll End Communication formerly crossed the Birmingham Level at this point". This was a useful link to the Walsall and Tame Valley Canals which are otherwise some distance away. Craggy's Boatyard in the first part of the otherwise infilled canal was started in the 1960's.

We had planned lunch 'on-the-go' but when the bake-off baguette was ready we had just arrived at the bottom of the three Factory Locks. These take the Birmingham Level up to the Wolverhampton level. There are still at least four different places where this can be done, each of them with three locks. So, we paused on the lock landing to have a shorter-than-usual lunch break,

Off again and we made swift passage through the first lock but the pound between this and the middle lock was very low so we had to run some water down from an upper level. This did not take long to enable the boat to make it through, slowly, into the next lock and as soon as we were in, Christine started to close the bottom gate. The locks here are of the BCN design with a single, heavy, bottom gate. It would not close, with a heavy object under water blocking progress.

Mike deployed our long pole (Oh, he wished for a proper keb!) and he made numerous attempts to move whatever was the cause of the problem, out of the way. Although sometimes something moved and the gate would shut a different amount, nothing would allow it to close properly.

Eventually, we gave in and rang the CaTRT emergency line and they promised action as soon as possible. Meanwhile, as Mike continued to work away with the pole, a large group of people ca,me down from the top - two hire boats had arrived and they were due back at Alvechurch tomorrow morning. They had not heard about stoppages before! Fortunately, Mike was unable to hear most of their comments and 'helpful' suggestions. After some time, the brick or stone, or whatever, moved enough to allow Christine to shut the gate (the crowd by now had returned to their boats as the long slog was no longer interesting!)

Just as we had come up the lock and waited for one of the boats to come down, the two staff from CaRT arrived. They were not at all put out by the fact that the immediate problem had been solved and agreed that it was important to find whatever had been the problem. Much to thew frustration of the two hire boat crews, they allowed us to complete the flight but then stopped them from going any further down until they had checked around. After telling them where Mike thought that he had moved the 'stone' we thanked CaRT and were allowed to set off up the last lock and on our way, an hour later than expected. We had been too busy with fixing the problem to take any interesting photos!

We think that is otherwise unremarkable piece of towpath is the point at which the original line of the canal left to wind its way to Bradley. The rest of that line is still navigable and at the end is the Bradley Workshop where many a lock gate is still manufactured, custom built for each lock.

At Coseley we noticed that the towpath was blocked off either side of Hills Bridge. We later discovered a stoppage notice about this which gives the cause a the imminent collapse of a third party wall very close to a narrow section of towpath. When we were here last in 2015 we moored at this point and made our way up to nearest church for Sunday morning service. At the time we noticed how near to collapse was this wall.

It can sometimes be quite intriguing what message lies behind items of graffiti. We did not know this one but subsequently discovered it to refer to one of the various conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center buildings. Quite why it merits this wall on a new housing estate in Coseley remains a mystery.

A little further and yet another new housing estate. Some very heavy duty equipment was on site being used to break up industrial quantities of concrete and stone to prepare for the new houses to be built. One just wonders what the gardens will be like when their new owners start to cultivate them!

Chillington Wharf was originally built by a nearby iron works to transport their product to the canal and load it onto waiting boats. It later became an important canal-rail interchange and what remains is now listed although little seems to be done to prevent its further deterioration. Historic England records it as the last remaining of some thirty similar developments across the country.

Just outside Wolverhampton, Albion Wharf is a large apartment development although one original warehouse has been preserved and converted, amongst all the new structures.

Rather later than we had hoped at lunch time, we arrived into Wolverhampton and moored where we have before, just outside Broad Street Basin. There are boater facilities here but we will leave using them until the morning!

13.8 Miles - 3 Locks

Saturday 27 April 2019

Exploring Birmingham City Centre

As hinted yesterday, we opted to stay put today. Not only did we want to visit the shops but also a high wind was forecast which would have made travelling back along the Main Line both difficult and uncomfortable. As it was, walking against the wind ws rather tiring and we were almost blown off our feet at times.

We had a slow start - partly because a loads of washing was needed and that requires us to stay with it and run the engine for power. Hence it was mid morning before we set out.

Christine had spotted that a lunch time concert is to be held today at 12 in the new Library of Birmingham, given by a Brass Ensemble from the Birmingham Conservatoire. We headed there first to check out the information - it was correct - and also whereabouts in the building it was to be held. It had been planned to be in the amphitheatre but with the small BeatBox room if the weather was inclement. Today it was definitely not a day to sit outside! But because the group playing was larger than the usual chamber music groups (there were 11 of them, and they make quite a sound) the concert was, instead, transferred to the Story Steps.

The library opened in 2013, replacing the former Central Library, famously styled in the brutalist school of architecture. It opened in 1974 and was demolished as soon as the new building was opened. There is a substantial redevelopment of the square which is already surrounded by a number of significant, mostly cultural, buildings.

The Story Steps are accessed as part of the Children's Library on the Lower Ground floor although the space is open to the central atrium - looking from the entrance foyer immediately captures attention to the modern design.

After confirming where and when there was not really enough time to go to Argos (as we had planned) so we adjourned to the Library Cafe for coffee and then took the lift to the ninth floor and the observation area where we had a good view of the city centre - but only in one direction. Below we could see the development works that include a new rapid transit line.

Then it was time to find a seat for the concert. Although the concert was not especially aimed at children, because of where it was held (and helped by being free!) there were quite a number of very young children with parents, even if our photos do not show them.

The Royal Birmingham Conservatoire is part of Birmingham City University and its music students achieve a very high standard that enables many of them to go on to perform at an international level. Concerts such as this one provide important opportunities for them to hone their performing skills.

At midday the concert began and was a mixture of light popular, popular classical and pieces specially written for brass bands, including some test works. It was a good range and mixture and was very well received by the audience (including ourselves) An arrangement of Elgar's Nimrod Variation and the encore item were particularly well played.

After the concert we returned to the boat for lunch before setting off once more into the city centre. We began the afternoon at the cathedral. St Philip's was originally a parish church, built in he early 18th  century. When the diocese of Birmingham was create in 1905, the church was designated its cathedral.

The aspect of the building that, from the inside, immediately captures attention are the three stained glass windows at the East End. They are the work of Edward Burne-Jones who, along with his close friend William Morris, was responsible for inspiring a new generation of decorative works and the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Burne-Jones was born nearby and was baptised in the church.

He was later commissioned to add a fourth window at the West End in memory of Rev Henry Bowlby, at one time Rector of the church and later suffragan Bishop of Coventry.

From there we walked down to Argos , not far away, where Christine successfully bought the replacement hair drier she was seeking. Fortunately the item she had identified in her online search last night was still in stock - but only just!

We opted to return to the boat via St John's Church in the Jewellery Quarter. The entailed walking back to the cathedral and then continuing over a footbridge (high above the cars the wind was fairly intimidating!) across a busy dual carriageway an over the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal. Alas, the church was closed - it only opens for a short time a few days each week.

The church is on the edge of the Jewellery Quarter and although we had not really seen much to show for that industry we headed back as the wind was making walking even harder. We did, however, spit the imposing Assay Office.

We found our way to the canal - some of the access points shown on street maps were blocked off. The area was once very industrial but is now occupied by large numbers of apartment blocks which seem to spring up as soon as one's back is turned.

We eventually made it onto the canal towpath at the fourth lock down the Farmer's Bridge locks. Although the top of the flight is not far from the boat we had a bit of a further diversion to Sainsbury before finally getting back inside and away from wind and rain.