Wednesday 25 April 2012

Dudley Canals. Hawne Basin to Merryhill.

It was only when we were back in the water after a week on dry land in a shed that we realised just how much we’d missed it; it seems that being warm and gently rocked to sleep at night is somehow addictive. Having daylight coming through the windows definitely is.

Once we were back back through Gosty Hill tunnel and up to Windmill End we stoked the fire up and awarded ourselves a couple of days R&R. The Dudley Canals Trust (DCT) information centre situated on the junction is a smashing place and well worth a visit.
It includes a little café and a resident herd of geese, as well as a mine - excuse the pun - of information about the history of the Dudley Canals, the surrounding industry that they supported and the impact it all had on the rest of the world at the time. On a topical note, the anchor for the Titanic was made in nearby Netherton, famous throughout the world for its anchors and chains.
The iron ore, limestone and coal used in the blast furnaces, foundries and forges that made the Black Country what it was, came out of the ground here, and the finished products were transported away by water and rail. The scars on the landscape, although healed, are still very real. You can’t take a 30’ high coal seam out from under several square miles of landscape without leaving one or two clues.
All the way along both Dudley Canals there is evidence of the Trust’s hard work; towpath improvements, tree felling, restoration and vegetation control. At relevant places along the bank there are iron structures telling the story of the Black Country and the canals.
There was a gap in the rainy weather on Tuesday so we upped sticks and meandered off to the bright lights of Merryhill, passing Withymoor Island,
which struck us as an idyllic place for a permanent mooring and stopping at the nicely restored Blowers Green Pumping Station - another tribute to the efforts of the DCT.
It stands majestically on the junction of the Dudley No1 and No2 canals with the 12’ deep Blowers Green lock right outside. So that’s another canal boated from one end to the other, although to be fair the Dudley No2 used to continue past Hawne Basin and through the horrible Lappal tunnel to Selly Oak. At just over 7’ wide and over 5000yds long with no towpath or headroom, Lappal tunnel was universally hated by the boaters. Rather than legging the boats through there was a pumping engine at each end creating a sort of pitch-black, claustrophobic, underground log-flume. They probably had a knees-up when it collapsed.

Merryhill is a bit of a surprise. Retail heaven – or hell, depending on your point of view – pops out at you as you round a bend; all shiny glass and pointy architecture. There are two bits to it, one is called Waterside, with bars, restaurants and a mooring basin,
(unconfirmed rumours say there is free electric to be had on the pontoons) the other bit overlooks the sprawling shopping centre itself. If you’ve been, you’ll know how big it is and although it isn’t our usual habitat, over the past couple of rainy days it’s been rather nice to have somewhere warm and dry that we can roam about in, with the added bonus of free wifi for hours on end for the price of a cup of coffee. And we get a little buzz when we come back outside and our boat is at the top of the hill.
At sometime in the next few days, depending on what the weather does, we’ll be going down the Delph Nine onto the Stourbridge Canal, marking the end of our BCN excursion for now. That’s followed by a descent down the Stourbridge 16, a diversion along the Stourbridge Town Arm and finally the Stourton 4; a total drop of 270’ from the Birmingham Level down to Stourport Junction and the Staffordshire and Worsestershire Canal.

We were, to say the least, a bit apprehensive about bringing our home into the middle of a big city, especially as it was going to be left on its own for a couple of nights, but it’s been fine. The car hasn’t; a pair of numpties ran up the bonnet and over the roof leaving muddy footprints. One of them slipped off and broke the mirror (and a femur, hopefully) on the way down.

We’re being fairly philosophical about that for two reasons;
1. The mirror was already broken and needed replacing before the next MOT.
2. If it had been a 2CV we would have probably found it upside-down in the canal.
All in all we’ve had a positive experience, but we can’t wait to get back out where we belong – in the middle of nowhere.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Dudley No2 Canal. Hawne Basin, Halesowen.

By complete coincidence Legend came out of the water almost exactly 1 year after we bought her. The reason we ended up on the slipway at Hawne Basin was because John & Jac, who had originally booked the week, ended up doing all their painting and blacking in Braunston last year. As they’d paid a non-returnable deposit they gave us their booking. Thank-you guys, it was even better than we expected. The slipway crew made pulling 17 tonnes of boat up a slope look easy; a trolley runs on rails into the water, the boat floats over it, and then the whole lot is gently winched out. They do it every Friday and are very slick. The facilities in the basin are lovely; on Friday afternoon we found ourselves in the clubhouse with tea, cake and raffle tickets. All very civilised. However, that was about the last time we stopped to do anything social all week.

Here’s what we did do.

First, as part of the slipway hire, Tony (The Main Man) pressure washed the hull and declared it “Not too bad really, I’ve seen a lot worse. Some of ‘em are down-right fright’nin’!” only he didn’t say “down-right”.

After that we were left pretty much to ourselves; the only rules were No Grit Blasting and No Spraying. By Friday night we’d got the first coat of hull blacking on,
on Saturday we took the rudder out for cleaning and painting. (Actually what happened was that we undid the bolts and slowed it’s decent to the ground. A bit.) We cleared and prepped the roof, put another coat of blacking on the hull and Tony put 4 new anodes on.
These are 4Kg lumps of magnesium that are welded to the hull below the waterline. They’re sacrificial; in other words, instead of the steel boat going rusty, the magnesium (being more volatile) gradually disappears.

On Sunday, John (of “John & Camilla” fame) came over to lend a hand. Just as well really; no way would we have got the rudder back in on our own. John and Dave manhandled it back up and we put 10 nice new stainless bolts in the holes, which we feel is a vast improvement over the 5 rusty ones that have been holding it together till now. John took the weed hatch out and then bravely went up the hole from underneath with a blacking brush. That’s what friends are for, eh? We put what was left of the blacking along the waterline, where the fenders rub and on the rubbing strakes. That was 20 litres of Intertuf 16. If it had been warmer we would have probably got 3 coats out of it, but as it was so cold and thick we’d got through it all in 2½. Still, we figure 20 litres is 20 litres, and it had from Sunday to Friday to harden before it got wet. In the evening we masked off all the cream bits and undercoated them.

Monday. Still cold and now raining. The roof and all the other cream bits got their first coat of gloss
and all the old paint, blacking, and ugly chunks of welding got stripped off the stern. (At some time in the past there was a platform attached to the back, probably for a generator, and the remains of the supports had been left behind.) In the evening, under the strip lights, Dave marked out the sign writing for the front.

We went out shopping on Tuesday – more paint and another tin of Owatrol, (terrific stuff!) then back to our fridge/wind tunnel for the second coat of cream gloss
and finished the sign-writing.
On Wednesday, although it wasn’t in the plan, Dave took a wire brush to the tumblehomes. (The bit between the top rubbing strake and the gunnels.) It made sense to attack them while they’re at shoulder height rather than kneeling on the towpath. After kneeling on the roof for 3 days it was nice to stand up for a bit, so by the end of the day they’d been prepped, red-leaded and black undercoated. We’ve given the back end a more traditional colour scheme of cream & red and brought out the detail on the steelwork in black; over the week it got red-leaded, undercoated and given 3 coats of gloss
On Thursday we carefully put all our stuff back on the roof. The paint is going to take a couple of weeks to harden so we’ve got to look after it. The tumblehomes got a rub down and coat of gloss black
much nicer than the flaky cream, they’re going to get another 2 coats in a while, but the 3 coats they got in 2 days need a bit of a rest. In the evening , to celebrate our achievements, we went out to the nearest Weatherspoons for dinner and a de-frost.

We were up first thing on Friday morning with fenders and ropes attached, and by 9am Legend was being gently lowered back down the slipway into the water.
After a rather haphazard bout of reversing we pulled up onto the water point at the other end of the basin
bought some coal and a bottle of gas, did some laundry and then with a cheery wave, chugged under the bridge out of the basin and back up the cut towards Windmill End.

Despite everything, despite being cold, in a shed, up some wobbly steps at the wrong end of the boat and being right out of our comfort zone, it’s been good. We got far more done than we thought we’d have time or energy to do; all that’s left now, as far as outside painting is concerned, are the black panels on the sides, the signwriting on the back and the back doors. We can do all that in smaller chunks. The people have been lovely, the basin is really pretty and we’re definitely coming back in 4 years to do it all again. Only next time we’ll be a bit later in the year and hopefully a bit warmer.

Saturday 21 April 2012

BCN and Dudley Canals. Gas Street To Halesowen.

The recent lack of blog is in no way due to the lack of anything to write about, perish the thought. No, our failure to fill these pages at every opportunity is simply down a shortage of opportunities; for the last couple of weeks “Blog Content Deficiency” has been the least of our worries. “Not Freezing To Death” has been a lot higher up the scale.

For the last seven days we have been - or rather Legend, with us inside it, has been up in the air at the end of a slipway in a big shed. Because we were in a shed we haven’t been allowed to light the fire and, despite the very nice man lending us an electric heater, it’s been a tad cold up in our wind tunnel. When we haven’t been applying 30 litres of various ludicrously expensive coatings to the outside, we’ve spent the week inside either in bed, under a big duvet with all the blankets we own and a hot water bottle each, or on the settee under a big duvet with all the blankets etc. etc.
Our trip down here to Hawne Basin from Gas Street where we left you, dear reader, was quite eventful as well. It started easily enough; after a night surrounded by a hen party on 3 hire boats, we set off north-west along Mr Telford’s wide, straight navigation which, with embankments and cuttings, cuts a swathe from Gas Street to Tipton and 8 miles off the original line. The old line is still there – now in the form of several loops which disappear behind warehouses only to re-appear after a few hundred yards or so. After about a mile of wide & straight, the Soho Loop looked decidedly interesting so we turned right and followed Mr Brindly’s older contour navigation for a bit.

Luckily, the fishing match that we didn’t know was taking place all the way along the loop hadn’t started yet so, waving demurely, we drifted gently past about 100 happy souls and several thousand pounds worth of high tech lures, reels, spinners etc. and enough carbon fibre poles to make a new roof for Wembley Stadium.

Our next departure from the New Main Line was at the 3 Smethwick locks, where the old line climbs up and runs parallel with the new for a while. The first lock was empty so we went straight in. That was when we discovered that paddles on BCN locks need a water conservation key. This is a “T” shaped key that undoes a bolt allowing the winding gear to be used.
We didn’t have one. We pondered our options, raided our tool box, and considered various kitchen implements; all to no avail. We were just about to pull the boat back out and go back to the last winding hole we’d passed when we heard the distinctive sound of a boat coming down the lock above us. On hearing of our predicament they kindly lent us their key (to be honest, they didn’t have much choice- we were stuck in the lock they wanted to go into) and off we went. Let us just emphasise how fluky that was; we’d only seen one moving boat up till that moment, and we didn’t see another one till we stopped at the Black Country Living Museum moorings 4 hours later. If we’d been a few minutes later they’d have been through and gone; half an hour earlier we’d have pulled back and turned round before they got there. We know very well that our dear friend serendipity would desert us in a flash if we ever made the mistake of relying on her, but every time something like this happens it gets more tempting. Sooner or later we’re going to come unstuck, and won’t the page views go up then. Oh yes.

We stopped for lunch near the Engine Branch; a short cul-de-sac feeder arm that spans the New Line on a stunning aqueduct.
After lunch we set off again and soon we were disappearing under the towering concrete pillars supporting the M5
before crossing the New Line ourselves on another aqueduct, and finally turning left onto the Dudley No1 Canal which leads to the Dudley Tunnel and the Black Country Living Museum.
Because of the lack of ventilation, internal combustion engines are banned through Dudley. You can take a boat through though – you just need to leg it. That’s if you can get it low enough to fit. There’s a story of one crew putting a pond liner in their well deck and filling it with water. We’ll leave legging a boat over a mile underground to the hardened enthusiasts; we were down there to visit the museum, use the very nice BW amenities block and moor for a couple of nights before turning round and going through the much nicer, wider and better ventilated Netherton tunnel.

We would thoroughly recommend a visit to the BCLM.
It is hugely interesting; it really brings home to you just how down-trodden working-class people were, how little they had, both in possessions and expectations and, in comparison, how vast and full our lives are today. The people who play the roles (it doesn’t seem right calling them actors) are really friendly and knowledgeable. Among lots of other fascinating stuff, we watched a nail-maker turning out perfect square-headed nails with just a few whacks of a big hammer, and a brass founder casting a new ring for one of the boats in a sand mould. Both of them talked all through the process and were happy to answer any questions we had.

After a couple of nights we turned round and did a 15 minute trip to Tipton where we stayed for a couple more. Before we went any further we needed a trip out in the car to a chandlery to put a Water Conservation Key on our key hook. So far we’ve not used it; we followed another boat down Factory Locks and they left all the paddles open for us.

Next came the big Netherton Tunnel - 10/10 for the headlight
then south on the Dudley No2 Canal; a secluded, little used road to no-where. Or so you’d think, but it’s got a couple of surprises up its sleeve. One of them is the brilliantly named Gosty Hill tunnel. We’d heard that Gosty Hill was “a bit tight”, but, despite reading everything available about it, we couldn’t find any reference to its air draught. So for anyone who’s interested
Gosty Hill Tunnel Air Draught is 1.98m.

That’s low – not as low as Dudley, but low all the same. We’d taken the precaution of walking the towpath and we’d read the sign at the entrance, so our bikes were in the well deck, the big box was folded flat and the chimney was lying on the roof. The tricky thing is, if you don’t read the sign you go sailing in without a care because the entrance is a good 4m high. The stoopingly low bit comes at about 200m in. Then there’s a high bit in the middle, then another low bit, then the exit is as high as the entrance.

At the present end of navigation is Hawne Basin. Getting in involved a tight turn under a little red-brick bridge, followed by a very careful weave between all the moored boats to the slipway at the end. We turned up on Thursday afternoon ready for the big day on Friday.

Saturday 7 April 2012

Stratford, Birmingham & Worcester, BCN. Wilmcote to Birmingham.

No matter how often the British weather takes us by surprise, we are still taken by surprise. Between us we’ve been on this odd little planet for the best part of 100 years; you’d think by now we’d have got used to its quirky ways but it seems not. After spending a week telling anyone who came within earshot that we couldn’t believe the balmy blue skies, warm breezes and the need to wear a hat all the time, we found ourselves equally not believing that we were plunged into a blizzard and the need to wear a hat all the time. And gloves. And thermal underwear.

Over the past couple of weeks we’ve bimbled back up the Stratford Canal in glorious weather stopping at Edstone, Preston Baggot, and Lowsonford. Sue & Dave came to be crew for a weekend
and to make a delivery. Dave does lovely things with wood and we’ve wanted something created by him on Legend ever since we bought it. Now we’ve got this.
Gorgeous isn’t it?
We climbed up the 6 locks to Lapworth on the Saturday, then on Sunday we attacked the rest of 26 that make up the Lapworth flight. Almost as soon as we got going we caught up with NB Atlantic, single handed by Nick, who very kindly offered to pull over and let us go up in front. In return for the favour, when Karen, Andrew and the kids turned up, giving us a crew of 8, we sent a windlass wielding detachment back to lend a hand. Nice bloke, nice boat, nice dog, and another waterborne friend. Of course with this much crew there was lashings of tea and cake to provide sustenance throughout the day and Ann-Marie got to test her new 2 tier cake stand. At the top of the flight the Stratford attains the “Birmingham Level” of 453’ above sea level.
From here right into the city centre and all through the BCN there are no locks, apart from the 3 up onto the Old Main Line and the “Wolverhampton Level”. We moored up at Hockley Heath, outside the Wharf Tavern, where Wiltz, Annie and Kim just happened to be having dinner, so they joined everyone else back to the boat for cake. It’s great when a plan comes together.

Back on our own again the following day, we drove from Hockley Heath into Birmingham to recce mooring/parking for the next couple of weeks - Tipton Green looks favourite for the most part; really good chip shop - and then went to have a look at Hawne Basin where Legend is being pulled out for blacking. We followed the sat-nav to the postcode, only to hear, at the end of a road in an industrial estate in Halesowen, those dreaded words “You have reached your destination.” when we quite clearly hadn’t. Big industrial units all around us, no sign of a bit of old rope, never mind a boat yard. We sat in the car for a while, pouring over the big OS map, then decided to turn round and have another go from a different direction. As we moved forward a set of gates appeared from behind a bush with “Coombswood Canal Trust. Visitors welcome.” written on it. Doh! We explained who we were to a very nice chap on the other side who opened up for us to drive in. Not for the first time we felt as if we’d passed through the back of the wardrobe; old canal places have that effect. One minute you’re in the harsh, fast, uncaring 21st century, the next you’re in this cosy, friendly haven. The bloke who runs the slipway was more than helpful and we now know exactly what’s going to happen when we turn up. It’s nice to know that plans you’ve made are going to come together.

The next morning, despite dire warnings and drizzle, and dressed up like Nanook of the North, Dave chose to crack on towards Kings Norton. He gave up half way at Shirley drawbridge. The inside of a Narrowboat feels even more warm and snug when you’re hugging a hot chocolate with your feet in warm slippers after standing on the back for 2 hours in the snow. Even when a plan doesn’t come together it’s still not the end of the world.

We left it till after the rush hour had calmed down the next morning, then did a beautifully co-ordinated pass through the drawbridge
stopping the traffic for less than a minute. As we approached Brandwood tunnel the signs of ever increasing suburbia became more evident; the rubbish in the water and graffiti on the bridges was disappointing, but as a sort of antidote to all that we noticed a lot of gardens backing onto the canal, where people had little jetties or fishing spots or just a bit of decking with a couple of plastic chairs. In the tunnel, on its second testing, our new/old 2CV headlight passed with flying colours; Netherton should be a piece of cake. We moored just past the guillotine stop-lock at Kings Norton having for the first time navigated an entire canal. Stratford-upon-Avon - tick. Frankie and Harry came aboard in the evening to stay for a couple of nights and share our discovery of Birmingham.

In the morning, with our Easter Bunting flying in the wind, painted eggs and paper chains in the windows and tummies full of Hot Cross Buns, we turned right at Kings Norton Junction onto the Worcester & Birmingham.
Frankie’s cousin Cat and her boyfriend Ben live in Edgbaston so we’d told them we were on our way and they came aboard just after the Cadbury factory at Bourneville.
More Hot Cross Buns followed, and with a crew of six we crossed the new aqueduct, passed the vast Hospital and University with Cat giving commentary, and slipped into the water point at Granville Street wharf, opposite the Mailbox with The Cube towering above us. There wasn’t a lot of room on Gas Street Basin moorings, so after filling up we chugged our way through, waving madly at all the people, who all smiled at the bunting and waved madly back, went under broad street Tunnel, then turned onto the main line at the roundabout and moored between the two entrances to the Oozells Street Loop.

In the evening we went for a walk down Farmers Bridge Locks. The feeling you get walking down the towpath at the side of them at night is both exciting and scary; they go right underneath a high-rise block and Snow Hill railway station, and again belong to another world.
A little corridor of old brick and iron-work worn smooth by 250 years of boots and hooves is hidden beneath the sharp edges and massiveness of modern architecture. It wouldn’t have surprised any of us if a cloaked figure wearing a dear-stalker had appeared in a waft of pipe smoke from under one of the bridges.

We are incredibly impressed with Birmingham. The moorings are well kept and tidy, the service blocks are clean and functional, everything is really well signed and we feel totally safe here. We have no doubt that it’s not like it was in the old days - nothing ever is. Dave remembers coming here 20-odd years ago when the only way to get into Gas Street Basin was down these stairs
and very few people bothered. This is the scene now.
Waterside developments can only be good for the future of the canals; the more the general public see them as a National Asset rather than an embarrassment the better. Our opinion is that British Waterways, within its financial constraints, has done a fine job of changing public opinion to one of overwhelming support for canals and rivers, and thereby making the challenge faced by the new Canal & River Trust a lot easier to take on.

New Haw Lock to Boveney. River Wey. River Thames.

After pulling the pins at New Haw we dropped down the last four locks on the Wey... Cox's Mill Lock Town Lock The final stretch of the W...