Monday, 20 August 2012

Slow Boat Under the Hill

(Stourport Ring - Week Two - 7th to 14th July 2012)
And the rain stopped, and the sun shone, and we had to wear sunscreen, which made us all sparkly – oh, the indignity! My birthday, so cards and pressies with breakfast, and away to the south, heading for Stourport Junction and the lock-mountain we have to climb to get to Birmingham.
Today I mostly did steering, and not just through locks, which was fun, and rather exciting, because somewhere between last year's debacle and this year – and with the absence of too much breeze – it seems to have gelled in my brain and I was mostly getting it right! Sunshine brings out boats and joggers and cyclists and dogwalkers, and the towpath was a busy place. Went back down through Bratch, where the lock-keeper said that yesterday was probably the worst weather he'd seen bar once, and the Severn is shut once again. I think we were lucky.
Fields full of black-and-white horses, (they were even sorted into spotted and patchy) squirrels chasing up trees, a pheasant in a cornfield, and we glittered on....

There has been something odd happening along the Staffs & Worcs – someone unknown has been leaving 'faces' ….on the ends of tree stumps, on trees and on posts along the banks, two eyes, a nose and a mouth have been nailed. It's not always on the towpath side either, so there is a rumour it's a boater or even a BW man....
We water up at Greens' Forge, get rid of some rubbish, and moor for the night below the lock, conveniently close to the pub.
It wasn't an early night, and we are pleased to manage an 0930 start, heading to the junction with the Stourbridge Canal, where I hand over to Drew for the turn (there are too many gongoozalers!). Stourton Locks are really pretty, the side pounds lie to the left as you ascend, giving some lucky homeowners a lovely water feature at the bottom of their gardens, complete with water lilies and reeds and fish. The water's reasonably clear, and we can see lots of different sorts of fish from small fry to larger ones that I think are dace. Drew hangs over the side with his underwater camera, but only succeeds in recording blurry weeds and water. 

A couple of kayakers tell us that the Stourbridge arm is closed, because there is a police incident. A narrowboater a bit further on says it's closed for a couple of hours, so we moor up at Wordsley Junction (which is the last place before we'd have to start up another lock flight) and Drew goes to find out what's happening.

He returned with the news that it was open again, so we headed for Stourbridge, along a more cluttered canal with lots of white waterlilies (and the inevitable clogging of the propeller), running beside the old glass-making works and old warehouses, past small boys fishing, and the police incident tent (there had been a body in the canal apparently) which was just packing up. The Town Wharf was crammed, boats moored two and three deep, and no free spaces.

With the help of a bearded and bay-windowed gent from the Canal Trust, we turned in the winding hole and moored beyond the bridge not far from the water point. Had a reasonably early night so that the shore party could go to the gift shop in the morning, and I did some necessary washing of clothes.

Again, there are not many boats moving on the canal – of the 4 we saw all day, naturally 2 were in the locks! The Stourbridge Flight (16 locks) has a 'mini-Bratch' partway up, and a very convenient off-licence at lock 9-10. Industrial elements creep into the scenery as we skirt round the edges of Dudley; a bottle kiln at the Redhouse Glassworks, boatbuilder's sheds, and Unknown Obstacles under the water. Now on the Dudley No 1 Canal, we start up Delph Locks, which are interesting- the run-off goes down a sort of sluice beside the lock, pounds full of ducks and moorhens.
We clatter against something submerged halfway up – a fisherman say helpfully 'that'll be a trolley'. The last lock is under a road, and reminds us that we are getting closer to Birmingham. We moor up at the Waterfront, a large and rather flash development near the Merryhill shopping mall, and check the weed hatch – plastic bags, weeds and a piece of old climbing rope....

The cafes and restaurants seem rather subdued even after dark, and we have a peaceful night, with pretty (although pretty wasteful) colour-changing lights.

Morning brings the inevitable fact that we need a pump-out of the waste tanks. We check the guide books to see where we might get one – not a lot of choice.

We're heading for the Netherton Tunnel, passing the end of the Dudley Tunnel at Park Head Junction (you can only go through this by being towed by an electric boat) and pootle along quietly. A couple of dredgers are stirring up the canal, creating more mess than they seem to be removing. Somewhere around here the anchors for the Titanic were assembled, and the casings for Barnes-Wallis' bouncing bombs were made. A large sunken rounded casing in the canal makes us think they may have done a preliminary try out of the latter...
Looked to get a pumpout at Withymoor Island, but they were closed (although you couldn't see the sign until you'd practically moored up).
We water up at the Bumblehole Nature Reserve, and head into the dank, dripping depths of the Netherton Tunnel. This is probably the longest one we've done – 3027 yards – but is very straight, so you can always see an exit. I do believe that tunnels are plotting against boaters, trying to turn us into flowstone, drip by soggy, splattery drip....

We emerge, blinking, into the light on the Birmingham side of the hill, and make slow progress through ranks of fishermen lining the banks. 

Hoped to get a pumpout at Caggy's Yard, but had gone past the miniscule jetty before we realised it was there. Hit the canal rush hour at Factory Locks – interesting though, with working boats coming down the locks, with unpowered barge in tow – this had to come down the lock behind its powered unit, so we just sat and waited until it was clear, and then alternated with several other working boats going through the locks, resulting in close negotiations in small pounds! That done successfully, I even navigated my first junction without mishap, before the rain came on again.

 Made it into the Black Country Museum moorings (no space but a water point, and a self-operated pumpout) and Drew went to get a card for the machine.
Lord High Panjandrum, King of the Kharzi officiated, (with any number of bad puns and off-colour song parodies) and then proved he is also the King of Spin by turning our 68-footer in the smallest of spaces. Moored by a small park, ready for a trip to the museum, and a welcome break from travelling.
I'm not going to detail the museum – you can read all about it here on their website. The day was mostly sunny, with only a few showers, and very pleasant!
Thursday saw us back on our way, wending our way through the maze of bridges and underpasses and junctions that form the Birmingham Canal Navigations.
Under the M5, there are odd juxtapositions of structures – footbridges to nowhere, Spon Lane Locks (which are a listed building) the oldest working chambers in the country, roads that run over canals and under railways....

Summit Tunnel has a tall archway, almost egg-shaped, and leads us to the last three locks of our trip – Smethwick. They only have one gate at each end, which is unusual, and the downstream gates are Very Heavy – around 2080kg. Drew celebrates by breaking into a sprint to reach the last gate.

We weave our way around some of the side-loops of the BCN – the Soho Loop, past the prison at Winson Green and under Asylum Bridge, to good views over the city, and round the Icknield Loop where the BW boats are moored several deep. 

Sliding under Sheepcote Bridge we find ourselves a rare mooring spot opposite the National Indoor Arena – and only a boat's length from where we moored in 2007. The place is FULL of boats - this is obviously where they've all been hiding!
Drew changed from boater into consumer, and headed off for the Bull Ring, and the Apple store, returning triumphant (if footsore) with a new MacBook... and the rain set in overnight.
Shore party paid a visit to the National Sea Life Centre in the morning, before we set off for our last night's mooring somewhere near Alvechurch. 

And in Gas Street basin, disaster struck. We had to pull into the side to let a tourist boat past, and he took so long that we got hard alongside the quay. Drew hopped off to give the nose a push, turned to come back to the stern and slipped. Didn't get up. Made 'painful' noises.
I managed to ge the boat secured with the help of passers-by, and a very helpful lady rang for an ambulance. Drew wasn't sure what he'd done, but he still wasn't getting up. Many thanks to all the helpful people of Birmingham, was were real stars in trying to sort us out. The ambulance came, (gas and air) and diagnosed 'dislocated knee' – oh hell. Needs to go for X-ray. We need to find a temporary mooring, as we can't stay here. One helpful bloke finds another helpful bloke, who goes to find us one. The ambulance crew help Drew up to sit him in the chair to take him to the ambulance and – pop – the kneecap goes back in. It's gone in right, so there's no need for the X-ray or the hospital, which is a relief, so he's signed off and – after profuse thanks to the folks who helped – we can go. 

Driving is its own distraction, and Drew takes the helm again to take us down to Alvechurch, by the Cube and the University, through the Wast Hills Tunnel, past Kings Norton Junction and the reservoirs at Lower Bittell. We meet quite a number of obviously new-to-it boaters, all heading for Birmingham, albeit erratically!
Mooring for the night isn't easy, and it's a disturbed night, followed by an early morning of packing up and cleaning out, before we reach the yard at Tardebigge once more. The Anglo-Welsh guys help us moor and assist with hauling our gear to the car, and we make the weird transition from 4 mph back up to motorway speeds. All get safely home, knees nothwithstanding. I guess if it had to happen, it happened at about the 'best' place it could – after all the locks, and where we weren't in the middle of nowhere.
Need to start planning next year. A few changes in the wind...

Just for fun, my journal cover, above, and as usual, a map of our travels can be found here!

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