Thursday 10 September 2020

Back to the Marina

 Today's Canals - Worcester and Birmingham, Droitwich

We had just 15 locks to go before our marina, two flights of 6 and then the three at Hanbury just after joining the Droitwich Canal. Our aim was to complete these by lunch time, leaving us sufficient time to do some boat cleaning, inside and out.

At the second lock, Christine drew Mike's attention to several coping bricks with makers marks on them. One, Joseph Hamblet was one of the larger brick producers in the very late 19C and we have written about him before. There were also two others that we have not previously recorded.

The first is Wood and Ivery with a mark that uses the distinctive Staffordshire Knot. Their site was next door to Hamblet's and it seems likely that George Wood was a brickmaker all his life, ending up with running this works in West Bromwich. The history of the family is complicated as George had 9 sons and 7 followed him into the trade. By the time of the partnership with John William Ivery he had retired and some of his sons were left to run the business. There is also a suggestion that the sons quickly lost a large fortune that their father bequeathed to them.

The second is less well recorded. The Earl of Dudley had many business interests in and around the town. One of these was a coal mine at Coneygre, remains of one of its shafts has now been incorporated into the Black Country Living Museum. It seem probable that the brickworks was on the same site but much less important.

As we neared the next lock we could just see a film crew at work, so we held back gto avoid spoiling their scenery! They were taking a boat down the lock but were not entirely happy that the two cameras had captured enough shots so they wanted to do it over again!

The director came go sweet talk us into waiting just a little longer, which we were quite content to do.As var as we could glean, they were making a programme for CBBC but we could not fathom how shots of a canal holiday fitted into a story about astronomy. Perhaps we missed something . . . Even the fairly straightforward scene took a crew of at least 20 people, most of whom seemed to do very little most of the time.

Still, we did persuade two of the stars who had earlier been filmed operating the lock, to close up after we had later descended whilst the director and her assistants debated how to shoot the next lock. The person on the left came from the company who supplied the boat and was quite expert at it but the chap on the right had absolutely no idea about how locks work or are operated!

At Stoke Bottom Lock we spotted this delightfully painted pebble hat someone had left propped up against one of the wooden bollards.

We continued on, through the Astwood locks until arriving at Hanbury Junction. As we turned the corner three volunteers rushed out of their cabin to help us down the flight of three. Help? Actually they were most insistent that we could stay on the boat and that they would do all the operation! Who are we to complain?

This was the last lock of the day and this trip. we returned to the marina somewhat reluctantly and not knowing when we will be able to return. There is rather a lot to sort out - COVID Fallout - and we may not be able to spare the time to go boating, alas. On the other hand, if things fall one way we may end up having to come back sooner rather than later and make Alchemy our home whilst we sort our where we will live next, but it is fairly certain that we will be leaving Cornwall in the not too distant future. However, if things fall another way, we may be there for a lot longer . . . No one ever said that life was easy!

We turned into the marina just after 1 o'clock and soon were tied up, back on our berth. The afternoon was spent cleaning - Christine sorted the inside, including what seasonal change of clothes need to go home, whilst Mike tackled the roof and the front and rear decks, all badly in need of a wash. The cabin sides could well have benefited from a proper shampoo and polish but time meant that they had to make do with a quick wash over. The attempt at the windows on the non-pontoon side was visibly less successful. A proper spruce up of the sides really needs the time to be able to turn the boat around to have access to both from the pontoon - and a day with no wind, as pushing out, turning and coming back, only to reverse the process an hour later, is not simple otherwise.

4.7 Miles - 15 Locks

Tuesday 8 September 2020

Stoke Pound

 Today's Canal - Worcester and Birmingham

We were off in very good time this morning (ie just a few minutes after 8) as we had about an hour cruise to the top of Tardebigge which was our main task for today. The day stared grey again but improved through the morning with sunshine breaking through by noon, lasting until tea time.

Just over half an hour and we entered Shortwood Tunnel - as can be seen this wide and very straight. However, we met nothing coming the other way and were through in about 10 minutes.

Twenty minutes later we passed the Anglo Welsh boatyard. At this time of day not much was happening and it did not appear to be a turn around day, although did see a number of their boats yesterday afternoon.

Then it was into Tardebigge Tunnel, very similar to Shortwood, both just over half a kilometre in length.

We stopped at the workshop service facility to empty elsan and dispose of rubbish but we did not need water today. Off then to the top lock in the 30 lock flight. We entered at 9:34. This lock is nit only very much deeper than the rest but also the next pound is quite long.

The second lock delayed as we did not immediately spot that the boat ahead of us (yes, there was one so most of the locks were empty) had left a bottom paddle up. The bottom paddles on just this lock has an hydraulic mechanism and the top of the paddle is shrouded in a metal frame. On one gate there is a clear indicator to show whether it is open or not but this is missing from the other.

There were no volunteers in sight at this stage so we worked steadily down with our own particular scheme: Christine went ahead to fill the lock and open the gate whilst Mike came down the previous one. As soon as the boat was in a lock he hopped off, perhaps closing the gate, then emptying at the bottom. As we no longer feel up to leaping across the gap between the bottom gates this means walking back to the top end and down the other side. Mike then climbed down the lock ladder to move the boat out of the lock. There is then a set of steps which he could use to alight from the stern and take with him a rope so that he did not lose the boat! He then closed the gates, again walking all around the lock. These antics are repeated at each lock but we quickly gained our rhythm. If we get the timing right, Christine is just opening the next top gate when Mike is ready to cruise from the previous one - all the locks now are very close together.

After about seven locks a volunteer arrive but apologised that he would be back after having gone up to the 'hydraulic' lock to check as he had noticed rather a lot of water coming down. He was happy with how we had left it!

From now on we had help that speeded up  our progress a little but made it much less effort! After a while, Christine swapped over to do the steering, but she did not have to tend the bottom gates.

We did meet two boats coming up - here the crew of one waiting for their boat to cross with us in the short pound - chatting to 'our' volunteer. This did mean that we could leave the bottom gates for a couple of locks and have a similar number filled and ready for us. After that it was back to having them all against us.

The volunteer met up with another that had been further down the flight and they paused to have their lunch at their base alongside Lock 41. This left us to carry on on our own but they did suggest that we could leave the bottom gates for them to close as they came back to find us once more a little later.

By Lock 42, the unbroken grey cloud had started to break and patches of blue emerged. The day warmed up considerably and  by the time we were nearing the end of the flight it was very hot indeed.

Alongside this lock a combine harvester was rapidly clearing the field. By the time we arrived at the next it was already part way through another field.

Christine managed to make mugs of coffee as she waited i the locks and, together with another piece of eccles cake, we staved off lunch until we finished the flight.

Another volunteer joined the party for the final lock and we waved them all farewell with thanks for their assistance. We completed the flight at 13:44, just ten minutes over four hours - around 7.5 locks an hour.

We continued around the corner to find a mooring that was not quite opposite the popular Queens Head. There were plenty of customers, socially distanced of course, but our noses to guess that most of them opted for deep fried something!

Our lunch break was somewhat extended - so much so that by the time we thought about making a decision, it was really too late to do any more locks - the next flight of 6 starts a few metres around the corner! Hence we turned it into an overnight stop. We did do just a little cleaning and maintenance, but only enough to feel other than totally lazy! The onset of autumn could be seen in the drainage channels around the back deck which were rather clogged up with dead leaves.

5.8 Miles - 30 Locks

Monday 7 September 2020


 Today's Canals - Stratford, Worcester and Birmingham

Most of today was, as forecast, very overcast and a little chillier than yesterday. \It was to be a day of ;level cruising, firstly to complete the Stratford Canal to Kings Norton where it joins the Worcester and Birmingham and our route southwards back towards Droitwich.

Our first target was Bridge 20, reached in just under half an hour. 100 m from the bridge is Wedges, a locally well known bakery which we try to visit whenever we pass this way. Whilst Mike held the boat on the centreline, Christine popped to the shop and returned with a large loaf of bread, two eccles cakes, a fruit cake and a large pork pie!

One of the reasons for stopping where we did last night (apart from being able to visit Wedges!) is because the canal from here onwards is very much surrounded by greenery, sometimes making it quite dark and at risk of 'stuff' falling from the trees onto our roof. But it makes for a pretty journey.

Somewhat later we reached Dickens Heath. Until 1997 this was a tiny hamlet in open countryside. But in 1989, Solihull was faced with the need to build a significant number of new homes and a major part of the ensuing plan was to create a New Village - Dickens Heath. Within 10 years the village had expanded to around 4000 residents. It is obvious that the developers were keen to create 'significant' architecture but to us it all looks like a mish mash of different pastiches without any real visual integrity. It certainly does not look like a traditional village.

The water feature which is part of the view up towards the central piazza is not always wrong but was flowing today. However, the steps involve significant upkeep and a worker was out today trying to remove the green colour which slow moving water inevitably encourages to grow. But why did he start from the bottom? Surely it is better to start from the top so that all the debris is swept down and out of the way?

Shirley Drawbridge carries only a minor road but it looks from the map as being a useful shortcut for people living in the Major's Green area to get to Shirley Station or Solihull. When we came this way a few weeks back, the road was closed to vehicles but could still be opened for boats to pass. Today it was carrying traffic and although we could see plenty crossing as we approached, we only managed a measly tally of lour car held up as we passed through!

The overhanging greenery gradually becomes thicker as we neared the entrance to Brandwood Tunnel. Although it is wide enough for two-way working (but we did not meet anyone today) there is no towpath and originally horses had to be walked over the top of the hill.

Shortly beyond the tunnel we stopped for lunch, during which there was a brief spell of light rain but it cleared by the time we were ready to set off once more.

Bridge 2 was previously a swing bridge which has now been removed. As such bridges are often hard to move we can be grateful that it is no longer an obstacle. When originally built this was open country and the track served a nearby farm. By the start of the 20C, Lifford Chemical Works was built alongside but has now been abandoned. However, its wall on the side of the towpath is home to a number of colourful and intriguing tags. The adjacen site is still operational and its webe site says: "In the UK Specialty Minerals have a manufacturing plant in Birmingham that produces a range of precipitated calcium carbonates for use in a variety of applications and markets that include plastics, sealants, inks, pharmaceuticals and food."

Just before reaching Kings Norton Junction we passe through the guillotine stop lock. It was built to maintain a very small difference in level between the two canals, at a time when there was often fierce competition over the ownership of water, always a vital resource for canals. The present structure was restored in the 2011 to the design constructed at the start of the 19C but was abandoned when the canals were nationalised and the competitive need eliminated.

At the junction we turned left onto the Worcester and Birmingham. As we passed under one of the urban road bridges it seems as if magnet fishermen have been active here, their haul including a mu h crumpled motorbike. Pity that they have not taken it away as there is a high risk that it will before long end up back where it was, alas.

Wast Hill tunnel is 2493m in length, wide enough for boats to pass but again with no towpath. As we approached we could see a boat not ling to emerge so we held back go let it complete its transit before we entered.

After the tunnel we were back into largely rural countryside.

The Bittell Reservoirs were an important part of the water supply for this canal but we have not been able to establish reliably the sequence of events in their construction. Different sources tell slightly different stories. As far as we understand it, the Lower Reservoir was built at the time of the canal construction which used water from the River Arrow to feed the canal. Mill owners downstream complained and so this reservoir was built to maintain their supplies and is lower than the canal. The Upper Reservoir was built when the canal was well established and able to afford a backup supply in case the river dried up in drought weather. Only a few years later the canal company was bought by a railway company and the need was never fulfilled.

We had hoped to reach Tardebigge tonight but by now it was clear that it would be quite late before we reached there. With a lack of mooring opportunities beyond Alvechurch we opted to stop at the Withybed Visitor Mooring.

14.3 Miles - 0 Locks

Sunday 6 September 2020

Hockley Heath

 Today's Canals - Grand Union, Stratford (North)

We awoke to a very pleasant morning and, despite a forecast of grey skies in the afternoon, it stayed good until after we had moored.

Just for once you will get two photos of our overnight mooring, in the morning.

OK so neither of the above shows our boat, so, just to please . . . 

We had about 40 minutes cruising before we reached Kingswood Junction where we turned sharp left onto the Stratford Canal. There are two ways to the northern half of the canal, both less than 100 m. This time we took the right turn just before this bridge which leads into the pool where there are services (not needed on this occasion).

Just above the lock is, as far as we can discover, what is properly called Lapworth Junction. Today there is a small permanent mooring area, with, we think, no other facilities except the general ones and electric and water bollards.

At this lock we were fortunate to meet up with the only volunteer on this flight today - he stayed with us right up to Lock 5 where there is a longer gap before the top four. A former school teacher he works this flight one day a week and very much enjoys the opportunity. From our point of view he is amongst the best that we have come across.

With his assistance we made good progress up the first section of  six locks. We thought that, and there is a short walk to the next set we might lose him if he turned around to restart with another boat, but, no, our luck was in and he continued up the next nine.

This set are slightly different in design and very close together, so much so that they need extra space alongside the lock to act as a reservoir to avoid the levels going up and down too much as boats pass through. At times they are so overgrown that they are not obvious to the casual onlooker.

Eventually, at lock 6 where there is a real gap before the next two, the volunteer left us and went back down with one of the very few boats we saw going down. (There were rather more in the afternoon)

At lock 5 the adjoining house has planted a distinctive row of pyrocanthus plans of several different varieties. They look quite young and, in time, will be even more spectacular as their fruit is in full colour.

At the top lock a couple of cyclists took and interest in the operation and joined in, which proved helpful. However, they had made the mistake of saying at first to Christine, "Why is it always the woman who does the lock and the man always steers?" - with the sharp retort that Mike had been doing the locks and Christine steering for much of the flight, including the tricky bend into lock 8! After that they had no option but to lend a hand!

After completing the flight we moored for a lengthy lunch break. We did not want to go too much further as a visit to Wedges Bakery in the morning is on the agenda, from Bridge 20. So, we pottered along and stopped for the night just after Bridge 24, hopefully away from the busy road alongside the top lock and not too close to the motorway ahead.

We had a couple of manually operated lift bridges to negotiate - the first taking more than twice the number of turns on the hydraulic mechanism than the second.

After we had moored a boat came along - much modified from its original purpose, probably carrying, with a very cheerful family on board. But oh did they leave a trail; behind them that plays into the hands of those who want to abolish diesel engined boats as soon as possible. (Abolishing them is easy, finding an alternative with available technology is rather harder)

5.6 Miles - 19 Locks

Saturday 5 September 2020


 Today's Canal - Grand Union

The day started bright and sunny and remained that way until later in the afternoon, after we had moored.

Our overnight mooring, two locks up the Hatton 21, was surrounded by trees and shrubs giving a dappled appearance in the sunshine.

We delayed our start a little in the hope that another boat would come along and we could join with them going up the remaining 19 locks. Alas none came and, as we could see back down the first two, would not arrive any time soon. In the end we had to give in and set off on our own. At least the sunshine made everything look much better!

Unlike most canals, the locks here were built to a standard pattern and the rise is the same for each one. This means that we could get into a rhythm of  how we operated each one. On the other hand, the distance between them varies, rather more at first, getting much closer towards the top half. So there were some variations and also for the odd occasion when a volunteer lent a hand. Alas none seemed to stay consistently with anyone.

The former narrow locks form overflow weirs at each lock.

That bee on the bridge has been here for some years now, according to our picture library. Calling it Ugly Bridge does seem rather harsh of someone in the past. Another positive feature: just the other side Christine spotted a way through to a Shell filling station on the A4177 where she was able to pick up a copy of today's newspaper. As it is larger (and more expensive) on a Saturday is is a shame to miss it as we have prepaid!

As we came nearer to the top of the flight there were graphically more onlookers, especially families with small children. As always we enjoyed getting several of them to lend a hand. It is quite refreshing to see how surprised - and delighted - they can be when they find that they can move such a large object. Delighted parents, and even more delighted grandparents, eagerly take action photos! Alas, these days we feel rather nervous about taking any pictures in which young children can be identified and then using them in a blog. Only four more locks to o once at the canal workshops.

We had seen only two other boats going down but two were waiting as we came up the top lock so no time to stop and take pictures. Actually, that is a bit of an excuse as we stopped at the water point just a boat length above the lock but we needed some reason other than lack of attention. At least this was an opportunity for a full range service.

Once that was over we pulled forward a short distance, passing a few long term moorings, to stop on the first visitor mooring we could find! A well earned lunch after which it took a little effort to stir ourselves once more but at least we knew we only had about an hour to cruise and NO LOCKS to arrive at our planned overnight stop. For once quite early and we could enjoy the extra break - the sunshine had not entirely deserted us.

5.2 Miles - 19 Locks

Friday 4 September 2020


 Today's Canal - Grand Union

This next section we have traversed every year since 2011, except in 2016. As a result, much of the detail is familiar and when added to the fact that the day was generally very grey, we are struggling in today's blog to think of something different to say and show!

Just after we started to prepare to set off, another boat showed on the horizon (OK, so came around the previous bend!) As is usual in canal etiquette, we let them go by before finally letting go (we had already untied from the goat chains). However, this was not entirely altruistic as we knew that we were minutes away from the Bascote Staircase and a string of locks down to Leamington Spa. As this was an experienced and well-crewed boat, we hoped for an easier passage.

We have often moored close to this former railway bridge but we included this photo for its range of colours especially in the gently rusting bridge sides.

We soon finished the four locks of Bascote - the above is the bottom lock - and they stayed with us for one more. At that point they opted for a Full English Breakfast and so pulled onto a convenient mooring below the lock. Thereafter we had to operate all of the locks on our own.

Just below Fosse Top Lock, and alongside the bridge that carries the Roman road of Fosse Way over the canal, we paused to empty the elsan and also to adjust the weed hatch (it has a tendency to loosen and sound an annoying rattle)

Radford Bottom Lock is the last before Leamington Spa after which the canal begins its long climb up to the Birmingham level.

We then had about 45 minutes cruise to the Morrisons stop, just on the further outskirts of Leamington. We did our shopping before taking a lengthy break for lunch and rest!

It was almost quarter to three before we sere on the move once again. 

Almost immediately we passed this rather desolate feeling open space that look and feels as if it has long since seen any TLC. Later, looking at maps and aerial views, it seems as if this was a left over space when creating the adjacent large roundabout and road scheme and not, as we had previously considered, a former industrial site. Too often, planners or local politicians have these good ideas for community assets but do next to nothing to put in place the long term funding to maintain them.

Between Leamington and Warwick the canal has a number of aqueducts, including over the River Avon where one day there may be a set of locks to join the two together. However, this is the one that crosses the main railway line between the towns.

The canal runs to the north of Warwick town centre and sees ,little of interest. On the OS map from 1887, most of it is in open country, apart from the section beside the Emscote Mills - where Delta Marine Services, amongst other businesses, now operates.

The modern large Warwick Hospital is on a site that has had such an institution for some time. Part of the site was once the extensive Warwick Union Workhouse.

Eventually we arrived at the two Cape Locks. Alongside the upper one is the Cape of Good Hope pub where several groups were enjoying a drink or food at tables in the gardens.

The Hatton flight is 21 locks and to reduce tomorrow's task just a fraction we went up just two to moor in a longer pound.

10.3 Miles - 14 Locks