Sunday 2 August 2020

Kingswood Junction to Hanbury Wharf. Stratford Canal. Worcester and Birmingham Canal

A young nuthatch visiting our bird table at Kingswood Junction.

Our steady climb up from the Thames to the Birmingham Level continued with the Lapworth flight.

Later on, looking at the diary, we were surprised to find that this was only the second time we’d navigated up this lovely set of narrow locks. They feel so familiar, but that’s probably because we’ve visited them and walked up and down quite a few times. We set off fairly early (for us) to try and miss the rain, but failed. We were surrounded by very gentle warm drizzle most of the way up the locks that didn't really get us wet, but then we caught the edge of a downpour just as we moored up at Hockley Heath.
It was good to see the canals getting busier, we passed six boats in the flight and several more came past after we’d stopped. Quite a lot of hire boats were about as well which must have been a huge relief for the hire companies. All through June we’d been passing hire bases with entire fleets of freshly painted and blacked holiday boats, all tied up with nowhere to go, each one of them with stories of a disappointed family, a cancelled reunion, a missed hen party for a wedding that didn’t happen. All very sad.

Packwood House (NT) was only a short walk from Hockley Heath, so we had a wander over to show our support. The house was still closed but the gardens were open with a one way system in place. We followed the arrows and despite strolling and looking at the beautiful flowers we were back out in 20 minutes. We’re rather glad we’re members and didn’t pay to get in, but as we’ve said before, we joined the NT to give support for all its work on coastal paths, unvisited tithe barns, remote heathland and other national treasures which without it would have become overgrown and unusable, or worse, fallen prey to developers. Being able to visit posh houses and wander round other peoples gardens is a bonus.

We had a one night stop at bridge 11 in Dicken’s Heath and a fabulous walk round the feeder reservoirs at Earlswood, before a slightly less interesting walk into Solihull for our weekly Waitrose fix.

The next morning we took our car over to Hopwood on the Worcester and Birmingham canal and walked back over the Wast Hills tunnel and the lovely North Worcestershire Path to Dicken’s Heath.

The last part of our walk should have taken us over Shirley Drawbridge, but it was raised and being mended so we had to traipse round to the next bridge to get back to the boat. Of course what you lose with one hand you get back with the other and when we cast off after lunch, we boated straight through the raised bridge without having to stop and open it.

At the end of the the Stratford Canal we went through the guillotine stop lock...

 and turned left onto the Worcester and Birmingham Canal before mooring up in the nettles just after the junction.

Not the sort of place you want to be wearing shorts and sandals.

We've not been on this bit of the W&B before; the first new water since we entered Bristol Harbour over a year ago.

In the morning we checked the tunnel light and the head torches, took the speaker to the back, sorted out a sing-a-long playlist and headed for the 2700 yard long Wast Hills tunnel.

Before we went in we stopped at the water point. While we were filling up, Dave went down the weed hatch and untangled an assortment of debris from the prop.

Here's one we made earlier.

We followed a hire boat through the gloom, singing our heads off to Simon and Garfunkel and the Carpenters, with the odd bit of Meatloaf thrown in.

With our caterwauling and the Lister rattling away behind them, the hire boaters must have thought there was some sort of haunted ghost ship bearing down on them, but we had a smashing time.

The light at the end of the tunnel is getting dimmer.

At Hopwood we had the rare pleasure of mooring up next to the car...

...then had a wander along the canal to Alvechurch. We managed to miss the village itself and only found out what a lovely place it is the next day when we took the car to the railway station carpark.

On our 19th Wedding Anniversary we took a picnic up the Lickey Hills. We had an ice cream, picked raspberries and bilberries (on Bilberry Hill) and ate our picnic at the viewpoint looking out over Worcestershire and the Malvern Hills.

Dave, finding his thrill.
It's just a shame that hedgehogs can't read.
When we got back to the boat we fired up the Lister and had a short hop to Alvechurch where we moored in the evening sunshine at the Crown Meadow Arm junction. A very memorable day.

We knew that the moorings at Tardebigge top lock were only 48 hours, so because we needed three days we stopped for the night at Tardebigge Orchard just before the tunnel.

Not the most practical of mooring spots, being under an oak tree with no solar and sticky bits on the roof, but very pretty and only for one night. We took the car to the top lock services carpark and had a walk down the locks to see for ourselves just how daunting the biggest flight in the country actually looked. ‘Not very’ was our verdict. Because you can only ever see two or three at a time and, unlike Devises, they aren’t all in on big long line, you never get a sense of just how many there are, 30 locks from top to bottom.

We left our oak tree and went through Tardebigge tunnel. It’s worth having extra illumination when you go through this one, at both ends it has traditional brickwork over the roof, but all through the middle it’s bare rock and you can see the marks and holes where it was chiselled and blasted 200 years ago.

After stopping at Tardebigge New Wharf services to do our doings and tranship our shopping into the boat, (we do like to use a wharf for its original purpose when we can) we pushed over to the towpath side and moored up on the visitor rings just before the 11’ deep top lock. It’s that deep because originally the prototype for a hand wound counterbalanced boat lift was built there, but it was deemed (by John Rennie; a man who earned his wages building locks) to have too many moving parts to be reliable, so it was dismantled and replaced with what is claimed to be the deepest narrow lock in the country.   

The sunsets on the two evenings we were there were brilliant, as was the view out over Worcestershire and Wales.

While Ann-Marie was busy cleaning and baking inside, Dave washed all the sticky stuff off the roof and made it all ship shape. Between our chores we had a very pleasant and productive blackberry picking walk along the Monarchs Way (a long distance path that we come across quite regularly).

The next morning was Tardebigge lock day! The Lovely Margees, Laura and Alison, had offered - nay - insisted on helping, and Dave’s sister Anne was coming over as well. Just as we were getting ready to set off, another boat came past us with what was obviously a novice crew. we thought we were in for a long day, but they soon got into the swing of it and didn't hold us up at all. The Lovely  Margees arrived just in time to turn the top lock around...

 so with Ann-Marie’s scones and sausage rolls ready to sustain us we set off.

There was a very short pause at the first bridge, where Laura very slickly moved our new toilet from her car into our well deck (more about that later). There was a bacon butty and coffee breakfast stop about 6 locks later where Laura did a wonderful impression of Mrs Overall, coming down the towpath calling "Two soups!"

 Anne turned up about 10 locks down, so we stopped for more coffee before carrying on. It was all very smooth and slick and immensely enjoyable. Thank you to our brilliant crew; you were outstanding. We would have done it without you but we wouldn’t have had anywhere near as much fun. 

The only bit of unexpected excitement happened at the last lock when someone coming the other way started to empty it without looking, when we’d already set it and had the top paddles open. Lots of shouting and arm waving but no harm done.

We moored up almost exactly where we’d planned opposite the Queen’s Head at Stoke Prior and tucked into a picnic that the famous five would have been proud of.

After the Margees left we got a visit by the local police. They took our details and told us not to move the boat or use the towpath as it was all closed due to an ongoing murder investigation and that CRT were gong to be draining locks either side of us! We were a bit spooked for the rest of the evening.

In the morning we had a chat with a couple of local boaters and found out that the police had been looking for the body of a woman since March. They’d been using divers and underwater cameras, and draining sections, but so far to no avail. After they left we had another knock on the boat, a woman walking her dog asked if she could take photos of our solar panels and how they were fixed to their boxes. While Dave was outside showing her how it all worked he noticed that the water had suddenly started dropping quite fast and Legend was beginning to list rather dramatically.

Ann-Marie rushed off to the next lock to see what was going on while Dave began loosening ropes and moving breakable things inside. Ann-Marie found that our water was being purposely run through the next lock by a CRT volunteer because “The next pound was a bit low”. He hadn’t even looked round the bend to see if there was anyone moored in the pound he was taking water from. The pound outside the pub with the visitor moorings. That pound. Apparently his colleague had opened a sluice up at the reservoir to let some water down. The fact that the reservoir was over twenty locks away and it would take most of the day for it to arrive hadn’t crossed his mind. We were fuming. We went up to the two locks above us and (after making sure there was no-one on their way down the flight) stole enough water to put us back on a even keel. It took till the next morning for all the bywashes and pounds to get back to normal. And a week later we’re still cross about it.

Dave fitted our new toilet while we were at Stoke Prior.

The old loo and the new loo
The reason we’ve got a new toilet is because, although the old one was still working, the plastic casing has started to de-laminate and discolour and it always looked grubby. It’s a Thetford C200 cassette loo and they’ve discontinued it, replacing it with a different one would mean disposing of our two perfectly good cassettes and buying a spare cassette for the new one. Better to replace like for like while it’s still available; we only have to dispose of the casing, fitting is a cinch and we get another spare cassette. So that’s what we did. The Margees very kindly took delivery, and brought it with them when they came to Tardebigge.

Talking of replacing things, the bowls club that Ann-Marie’s Dad goes to was replacing the carpet tiles in the club house, so he asked us if we’d like some of the old ones. As we’ve always had an off-cut of carpet on the bedroom floor and an even worse bit on the wall by the bed we jumped at the chance. We’ve now swapped it all for some lovely purpley blue tiles. Dave spent a couple of days fitting them and gluing the ones behind the bed. (He also finally got round to recessing the little bolts on the cupboard that we’ve been stubbing our toes on for 9 years) We think they look brilliant and completely change the bedroom.

Rather than dragging the car from Stoke Prior all the way down to Droitwich and then all the way up the Severn to Stourport, we took it to a little village half way between the two and left it there for a week or so while we went boating. We’ve done this sort of thing before when there’s a big loop or a river involved. Of course there’s always the risk that we’ll unexpectedly need the car, but it’s not come to that yet, and it’s never more than a couple of hours away on a bicycle. And of course it means we get to walk somewhere other than the towpath.

The Stoke and Astwood lock flights were our next hurdle. We stopped for water on the way at Stoke Works and cleared the prop again...

...thankfully just weeds this time and then moored up just before the bottom lock. The opposite bank was covered in reeds, so although we didn’t have much of a view it was very entertaining watching the buntings and warblers flitting about and the sun-sets were fabulous.

We chose our mooring spot for it’s accessibility to lots of footpaths; we’re trying to get out every day if we can, and our walks are getting longer. Ann-Marie has a target of 50 miles a week; we don’t always reach it, but we’re getting fitter trying. It’s also the best mooring for getting to Hanbury Hall (NT). Visiting there was a much more satisfying experience than Packwood, mainly because the grounds and gardens are so much bigger. Entry to both estates was by timed pre-booked appointment, but because we are totally flexible we had no difficulty booking, and planned a nice long walk round our visit. As it turned out, our long walk was a couple of miles longer than we expected….

Because we make up circular walks from wherever we find ourselves, we often end up on lesser, if not never used footpaths. (The downloadable feature on the OS Explorer maps has been a godsend to us, a quick glance at a phone can tell us exactly where we are and in which direction our path goes, even if there’s no actual evidence of a path on the ground.) So we often get to overgrown styles, impassable brambles, and nettles up to our ears. Dave used to get annoyed when his constitutional right to roam the country was impeded, but really you can’t expect a busy farmer to spend time keeping a right of way passable when no-one ever uses it. Nowadays we just chill out and either battle our way through, or go and find another way round.

On this particular day we got to a chained up gate on the footpath with a herd of bullocks on the other side. You know how they do this thing where the ones at the back want to know what the ones at the front are looking at and push their way in, which makes the ones at the front panic, which the ones at the back think is interesting and push harder, and a dozen stupid little boy cows end up crammed in one corner of a five acre field. Well, there they were on the other side of the gate. It pays to be a bit cautious around cornered cattle, they scare easily and when they’re frightened they’re unpredictable, so we climbed up the gate and told them to move as calmly as possible. They shuffled around a bit, we climbed over the gate and did some shoo-ing and clapping and eventually they managed to get themselves out of the gateway and all wandered off down the field. Terrific, minor crisis dealt with. About a mile further on at the top of the hill, Ann-Marie went to take a photo and couldn’t find her phone. We figured it must have slipped out of her pocket as we were climbing over the gate, so we walked back down to the cow field and sure enough, there it was at the foot of the gate, sticking out of a cow pat. Luckily the cows hadn’t gone back to the gate and trampled on it, but it added a couple of miles. After a picnic on a ridge looking out over a ripening wheat field we added another two miles by going on a detour to Shell, just because it had a pretty name and a ford, and then a bit further on we had a very tough half-mile trudge following the GPS across a rock strewn ploughed field. The ice cream we got from Hanbury on the way back to the boat was the most delicious in the world.

The previous week we’d been down to Mum and Dad’s to pick up the carpet tiles, the post and Dave’s tablets. Unfortunately there’d been an admin cock up and the tablets weren’t at the pharmacy. Rather than do another five hour round trip a couple of days later, Dave asked for the ‘script to be sent to a pharmacy in Droitwich. The next morning was Saturday and Droitwich has a Waitrose. So despite getting caught in a pant-drenching downpour on the way in, we walked back from town with the weekend paper, some yummy treats and a bag of drugs. It’s the first time we’d had a prescription sent to somewhere other than the pharmacy at our GP surgery, and we were very impressed at how smoothly it worked. We’ll not be doing it every month, because it’s nice to go and see the folks every now and then, but we’ll definitely do that again.

Early the next morning we prepared the boat for the notorious M5 tunnel which has “Variable Air-draught” This is because when the Droitwich Junction Canal was restored, the simplest way to get it under the motorway was to use the existing Body Brook culvert which was made, as most culverts are, out of pre-cast rectangular sections which have an internal height of about 3 meters. The Body Brook still goes through the culvert with the canal and the spill-weir was set to give a minimum water depth of 0.9m and a maximum air-draught of 2.1m. Of course when there has been a lot of rain, the water level goes up and the air-draught is proportionately less. Also, there is a small flight of locks just before the tunnel; emptying them can send the water level up as well, and there have been cases of boats being wedged in the tunnel when someone opened a lock above them. To avoid all this foolishness, we lowered our roof tat, brought all the tall plants indoors. And set off before breakfast. We’d checked the air-draught gauge on the tunnel the day before and were happy that the big box and the solar boxes would fit, but we took the hoops and canvas off the big box just in case. 

We had a quick stop just after Astwood bottom lock to pick some damsons and then carried on to Hanbury Wharf where we turned right onto the Droitwich Junction Canal. It’s taken us quite a while, and we’ve done it in three bits, but we’re very pleased to have finally added the fabulous Worcester and Birmingham Canal to our list of completed navigations.

 Ahead of us lay seven locks, a very low tunnel and three swing bridges. Would we get to Droitwich unscathed before lunch time? Find out next time.


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