November was an incredibly busy month. There was bottom blacking, a wedding, a broken car, lots of visitors and some paid employment. Goodness knows how we ever had time to fit in two full time jobs before we started this boating malarkey!
With our compulsory Halloween pumpkin on board we left Polesworth and headed towards the Birmingham Canals Network (BCN) via Fazely Junction and the Birmingham & Fazely canal.
As it was past canal switch off day, there were very few other boats around and we had the cut pretty much to ourselves.
There was a lovely mooring at the bottom of the Curdworth flight right outside the Kingsbury Water Park; a disused gravel-pit which has lots of walks and bird watching hides around the lakes. Elizabeth, Ellen and Sarah came for a day and we had picnic in one of the hides before taking Legend up three locks and mooring outside the Dog & Dublet at Bodymoor Heath. The girls had a lovely little boat trip and Sarah wrote about it on her blog when they got home.
The Dog & Doublet has a very handy car park which backs right onto the visitor moorings; just the thing when you need to clear all the stuff of your boat roof. Kim and Luke were kind enough to let us stash most of our plant pots and other paraphernalia that we cart around with us until the spring, by which time the new roof paint will have cured. Well that’s the plan. We also dismantled our big box and took it up to Anne’s so it could spend the winter, along with our folding bikes and camping stuff, in her shed. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that after all that there’d be nothing left and we’d have a clear roof. Wrong. There are still strawberries, rhubarb, coal, logs, petrol cans, two mops, a ladder and the boat poles. None of which we could possibly do without, apparently.
With Kim, Luke and George on board we set of for our last mooring before heading into Birmingham at Curdworth, just after the tunnel. We had really good weather as we went up the rest of the Curdworth flight;
Luke had a look at the offside vegetation
It was quite shady in the cutting but very beautiful with all the autumn colours, and perfect for what we needed. From there Kim helped us with a big car shuffle which left the Astra in the car park at Hawne Basin, and left us with an easy trip into, and through the city.
We took the road less travelled, and at Salford Junction (better known to land lubbers as Spaghetti Junction on the M6)
turned off onto the Tame Valley canal towards Ocker Hill.
We had considered stopping under the motorway, as there’s an off side mooring, (on the right in the photo)
But it was all a bit gloomy and the noise was rather relentless, so in the end the prospect of a peaceful night won over the (very slight) added sense of security and we went on to the bottom of Perry Bar locks.
We’d been warned about Perry Bar locks being a bit tricky, but despite a couple of the pounds being a bit low we had no problems as we made our way up the next morning
and carried on to Doe Bank Junction. The Tame Valley has very much the same feeling as the Birmingham new main line; instead of the hidden meanderings of early canals it proudly cuts a bold straight line across the land with wide cuttings under towering bridges, and high embankments with grand aqueducts spanning roads and rivers.
There are towpaths on both banks and it confidently states that no expense has been spared and that waterborne transport is the future. Although most of the written accounts and old photographs of working boats come from the days of paired motorboats and butties, with families living cramped together in ever increasing poverty in back cabins, there was over one hundred years of highly successful and profitable horse boating before that. That’s the climate in which Messrs Jessop and Telford drew up their plans for a brave new world. It’s not hard to imagine a time when there was a regular passage of laden boats in each direction, coal working up the locks, pig-iron working down, and the towpaths through the cuttings echoing to the steady clip-clop of prosperity hard at work.
At Doe Bank Junction the Tame Valley meets the Walsall canal. This is perhaps better known as Ocker Hill, and there is a sanitary station there and a permanent mooring site on the Lower Ocker Hill Branch. While we were filling the water tank a chap came past with a dog and invited us to moor in the branch overnight, which we did and very nice it was too, although we think that our decision to go in backwards was very much the right one.
Although the water couldn’t be described as shallow, it was considerably thicker, blacker and decidedly less fluid beyond a certain depth.
The next morning we were up and at it first thing. Out of the moorings before any of the permanent moorers were awake and straight into Ryders Green Locks; referred to in hushed tones by those who know them.
We talked to a lady later on who said that she’d moved from Ocker Hill because she couldn’t face “Doing the eight” every time she wanted to go anywhere. To be fair, although they were a bit heavy going we didn’t think they were that bad, there are worse things to have on your doorstep.
It has got a fair amount of rubbish in it though; this was just one of Dave's trips down the weed-hatch.
After that we joined the Wednesbury Old Canal to its junction with the New Main Line at the wonderfully named Pudding Green where we turned right.
After a couple of miles we reached Dudley Port Junction where we turned left onto the Netherton Tunnel branch and headed for our first big tunnel since Harecastle.
The water point marked on the map just before the entrance there wasn’t there anymore, so we put all our lights on and sallied forth into a two-mile-long hole in the ground.
We met four other boats in the tunnel which passed the time, but really, after all the excitement and apprehension at the entrance, boating through tunnels can get a bit tedious.
Popping out into daylight is always fun though. The southern end of Netherton Tunnel is at the lovely Windmill End, where the water point still works and where there’s a café and a Dudley Canals Trust information office. And lots of onlookers if it’s sunny, which it was.
While we were filling up and chatting to our fans, we rearranged the roof so that nothing got scraped as we went down the Dudley Number Two canal and through the second tunnel of the day at Ghosty Hill.
This one we remembered for being very low indeed, but the last time we went through was before we’d seen Harecastle, which is just as low and lumpier, or Froghall which is lower than the lowest thing in a how-low-can-u-go competition. Which meant that Ghosty, although interesting with its variable roof and its Count Dracula portrait half way through, wasn’t quite the squeeze we’d expected.
At the other end of Ghosty Hill is Hawne Basin. We got there in plenty of time to moor up and get ourselves sorted out for our second trip up their slipway the following morning.
By 9am the next day Legend was up the slipway and sitting on the trolley in the shed. It was rather disturbing to find that although we’d only blacked the hull 2½ years ago there wasn’t a scrap of it left below the waterline.
We think this may be because last time we did it, we’d put Intertuf16, which is a vinyl composite, over traditional bitumen. We think either of these would have been fine on their own, and even the other way round, but we’d put a hard plastic film over a soft undercoat. We’d noticed that whenever we bumped the boat against the bank with a bit of wellie a chunk of blacking had flaked off, but it was still a surprise to find that it had all gone. We spent the rest of Friday removing all we could from the waterline up to the gunnels. It was a horrible job; bash a section of the hull with a hammer, then chisel off the shattered coating, sending showers of black chippings everywhere.
We got blacking chips in our teeth, in our hair and in our underwear. Thankfully Hawne Basin has a bath; when we’d finished we spent an hour soaking in it, then another half an hour cleaning it.
On Saturday morning we had our hull survey. Because our boat will be 25 years old in 2015 our insurance company require a satisfactory hull survey report before they issue a certificate. As this necessitates an ultra-sound test of the steel thickness below the waterline it has to be done out of the water.
After spending the previous evening worrying about our un-blacked and, to our untrained eyes, rust-riddled hull, it was to our great relief that Ashley Pinder, (Marine surveyor and boat building son of famous boat building family) pronounced it to be in pretty good nick for its age. He made a few suggestions about keeping it that way, including some advice on blacking frequency – ie. do it more often, but in general pronounced it fit for purpose and went away to write a report to that end. It is his belief that as environmental controls become more strict, the canals are becoming cleaner and in consequence have more oxygenating organisms in them. These in turn are attacking steel hulls more vigorously than before so the coatings aren’t lasting as long. It’s a theory. It could also be true that the stricter environmental controls are resulting in less effective paint. Whatever, it seems that if we’re going to go cruising all year round, bash a bit of ice now and then and venture out on the salty stuff on occasion, we ought to be slapping on a few coats of jollop every two years from now on. Ashley also told us to consider having the whole of the underneath grit-blasted and epoxy coated – a process that costs about £3,000. We are considering it, but if we’ve got to come out every 6 years anyway, and blacking every two years costs us £300, it’s difficult to make it viable. The slipway at Hawne is for hire by the week, so we had a list of other jobs lined up. As soon as Ashley had left we set too with some little foam rollers and a can of traditional bitumen each.
On Sunday we did a second coat and on Monday we added a third. In between times, while we were plugged into proper mains power, Dave was up on the roof with the orbital sander,
and Ann-Marie sanded the whole of the oak flooring inside and gave it two coats of a protective oil emulsion. The outside temperature was down to seven or eight degrees overnight, so the decision to go ahead with the roof painting might not have been the wisest, but once we’d started there was no going back. When the red oxide was still tacky 24 hours later it became obvious we weren’t going to get two coats of gloss on by Friday, the addition of some quick drying white undercoat speeded things up a bit and then some very fast brushwork with a very big brush saw a really good film of topcoat done by Wednesday night. It was still soft when we left on Friday, but we had all our tat suspended on wooden batons across the hand rails so it didn't get damaged. We'll probably leave it like that till the spring.
At some time during the week we went to start the car and it wouldn’t. At first Dave thought it was the battery, but a quick swap with the starter battery from the boat confirmed that it wasn’t, so on Wednesday Dave borrowed a set of axle stands, writhed the starter motor out from where it was lurking behind everything else (it’s funny how Haynes Manuals never mention anything about removing chunks of skin from the back of your hand) then got onto Euro Carparts and ordered a new one. We put the basin down as a delivery address and paid for next day delivery; the plan was to fit the new one on Thursday, go back down the slip on Friday morning and leave the boat in the basin for the weekend while we drove to Hereford. Simple,no?
Most of the people in the basin knew of our plight, the chap who ran the shop was aware that we were awaiting delivery, but by teatime on Thursday it still hadn’t turned up so Ann-Marie checked the tracking number. According to that it had been left at the shop at 2:30 and the shop had shut at three. To cut a long story short, after a lot of people went out of their way to help and after we’d almost given up hope, we finally got it by sheer coincidence at about six o’clock. Someone on a boat had taken delivery and because he didn’t recognise the name had kept hold of it, despite it having “Slipway” written on the label. He could have given it to the shop, he could have asked around, he could, God forbid, have walked over to the slipway and mentioned that he had in his possession a piece of hand delivered equipment that perhaps we might find useful. But no, he’d put it in his engine room. Why would someone do that? What did he think was going to happen to it? What stopped Dave from pushing him into the canal when he found out? The answers, Dear reader, are beyond us.
And so, just after dawn on Friday morning, while the rest of the residents of Hawne Basin were still snuggled up in their beds, a very jubilant and rather grubby Dave was punching the air with his bloodied hands and shouting “YES!” simply because his car had started.
The rest of the day went perfectly to plan. With its nicely repainted stern first, Legend gracefully re-entered the water.
Dave backed it across the basin and we tied up to the service point to take on water and fill up with some of the cheapest diesel on the cut. After that we settled our account and then backed over to a gap in the permanent boats on the far side where we moored up and left it safe and sound while we went west for the weekend.