Monday, 25 July 2016

To Boldly Go on the BCN

You've probably read that there are more canals in Birmingham than in Venice.  Well, we've been exploring some parts of the BCN (Birmingham Canal Navigations) that we haven't travelled before.

Last Thursday and Friday we carried on from Alvechurch on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal into the centre of Birmingham.  We passed the Upper and Lower Bittel Reservoirs.  The Upper one provides water for the summit level of this canal (and thus also feeds into the rest of the summit of the BCN).  The Lower one was built for the mill owners who were peeved about the loss of water caused by the canal.

This fine looking cottage is almost surrounded by water.  It has the canal on one side, a feeder from the reservoir on another and an overflow from the canal on a third side.


This bridge just before the Wast Hills Tunnel gave lovely reflections in the water ahead of Leo.  The Wast Hills is the longest of five tunnels on this canal at about a mile and a half.

Soon after the tunnel we passed King's Norton Junction with the Stratford Canal.  This is also the most direct route to London via Warwick on the Grand Union Canal.

Here we are coming into Birmingham.  The Aqueduct ahead was only opened in 2011 and crosses a new road near the University.

Here is the view to the East from the newish aqueduct.

The University boasts a fine collection of towers shown here, including the famous campanile clock tower which is reminiscent of Venice.

This photo looks back on what is called Worcester Bar.  When it was first built the Worcester and Birmingham Canal was not allowed to meet the BCN and a short barrier between meant goods had to be transhipped.  This nonsense was later sorted out, but a narrow link remains.

We moored for a couple of days in Cambrian Wharf in the centre of the city.  For most of the day this is a quiet spot but in the evening the pub next to it, the Flapper, becomes quite noisy.

We've been to Birmingham on Leo before, indeed it is common to pass through Birmingham when going North to South, and we wanted to do something different with our time here.  So on Saturday we went to the Botanical Gardens at Edgbaston, just a short bus ride from the centre.  We really enjoyed our visit.

We had a picnic lunch on a bench just by this pond with a very varied collection of trees round it.

We've never seen a dahlia bloom quite as big as this one!  It was one of many dahlias in a trials bed where different cultivars were being grown to test them.

The red one above was the biggest, but we reckon this was the prettiest dahlia we saw.

The Botanical Gardens hold the National collection of Bonsai trees with some truly splendid examples, like this one.  They must be pretty valuable because they were locked behind stout bars.

As well as plants there were aviaries.  We liked these parrots, one of which was quite keen to say "hello" to passing people.

And some very colourful parakeets in a distinctively shaped aviary on the main lawn.

In the summer the Gardens include a butterfly house where you can walk through and have huge colourful butterflies land on you.

On our return we went to the 7th floor of the new Birmingham Library building for the superb view of the city.  This new building is a distinctive landmark and well worth a visit to see inside.

This view shows the reflections in the International Convention Centre and Symphony Hall.

Here we are looking towards the Town Hall and the Museum and Art Gallery.  The round building right of centre is the Bullring.

The tall tower is the BT Tower that you pass close to on the Farmers' Bridge flight of locks.

The City Centre Gardens below us were distinctive with beds of geraniums.

And here between two tower blocks and left of the tree you can just see Leo moored at Cambrian Wharf.  In front of the buildings you can make out the top lock of the Farmers' Bridge Flight.

On Sunday we left the centre of Birmingham and travelled to the highest part of the BCN on the Titford Canal.  At 511 feet above sea level this is higher than the summit level of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal over the Pennines.  It is also a place that few boats ever go.  We had to follow a tortuous route because the three Smethwick locks were being repaired and thus out of action.

This is Old Turn Junction where three canals meet and is probably the busiest part of the BCN with trip boats as well as other boats travelling through - probably a boat every two or three minutes.  It even has a roundabout!

We went straight across at Old Turn and round the Oozells Street Loop.  This is one of many of James Brindley's original bends that was cut across by Telford when he shortened the canal journey from Wolverhampton to Birmingham from 23 miles to 15!  Leo is passing through Sherbourne Wharf.

 Here we're looking back with Oozells Street Loop to the right and the main line (Telford's alternative) to the left.

Ian is waving goodbye to Birmingham.  The New Main Line (Telford's Canal) is very wide and straight.

Two old loops form a cross roads with the New Main Line here and you can see the loops signposted left and right.  The Icknield Port Loop goes  just below the Rotten Park Reservoir which feeds most of the BCN summit with water.  The Soho Loop passes Winson Green Prison.

The Galton Tunnel is wide, short and very modern looking.  It has a new road on top which has to cross the 40 foot deep cutting that Telford dug to straighten Brindley's earlier route.

Here old meets new.  Leo is cruising on the New Main Line and the low solid looking bridge is the aqueduct carrying the Old Main Line over the top.  Behind, the imposing viaduct carries the M5 high above both canals.

And here we are coming under the M5 viaduct.  It is a fine structure with its graceful concrete tubes and braces.

At Bromford Junction we had to turn right back on ourselves to go up the three Spon Lane Locks.  From the canal water you can see we had to spin round 180 degrees to pass under the bridge behind the signpost from the far side.  Not too easy because of the mud thrown up where the two canals join.

Here we've turned successfully and are heading for the first of the Spon Lane locks.

Having climbed the locks we had another tricky right turn back onto the Old Main Line and over the aqueduct shown 4 pictures above.  The M5 viaduct once again dominates the picture.

Again old meets new with this original canal bridge now dwarfed by the M5 viaduct overhead.

For much of this section of the Old Main Line the M5 sits firmly on top of the canal.  Not a bad thing as it was beginning to rain.

If you look carefully here you can make out our left turn at Oldbury Junction in front of the pillar in front of the footbridge.  This turn is not as tight as it looks in the photo.

The six Oldbury Locks follow the junction and here Leo is in the top lock by the Engine House that has been restored and is now the home of the BCN Society.  Secure moorings next to the Engine House were welcome and we used them after we had explored the rest of the Titford Canal.

Beyond the top lock the Titford Canal is pretty seedy and soon passes this derelict old Maltings which were clearly pretty extensive at one time.

After passing another area of demolition and some housing including a pub that is still open the canal splits into two branches shown here.  The advice is to turn here, which we did, but we walked back later to explore on foot.
Titford Pools comprises two lakes one on the right hand branch and the other between the two branches.  If the water is deep enough it should be possible to navigate down one branch, through the lake (shown in the photo with the  M5 above on stilts) and back down the other branch.  A challenge for the future perhaps.  Aldi and Asda are well prepared for an influx of boats here as they have a surfaced path from the canal.

Having moored by the Engine House with full services right by the boat we came back down the six locks this morning and along the Old Main Line to the Black Country Museum at Dudley where we are now moored.

The Old Main Line crosses an aqueduct over the canal that goes to Dudley via the Netherton Tunnel which you can see in the picture.  This tunnel was built very late in the Canal Age and is huge inside - two boats can pass, the roof is way above the boat and there are towpaths down both sides.

Not so the Dudley Tunnel which runs from the Black Country Museum to reach Dudley to the West of the Netherton Tunnel.  Dudley Tunnel is very low and small and has no ventilation shafts so diesel boats have to be towed through, even if they will fit.  So we took a trip into the tunnel on the electric trip boat from close by the Museum.

The Dudley Tunnel is not just one straight bore.   Tunnels, caverns and shafts were built originally to extract limestone from the hill, not to take boats through it.  So the trip takes you through various interlinking tunnels and areas open to the sky.  Here are the "Hanging Gardens of Dudley" in one of the open basins.

The Singing Cavern is huge as this view looking high up above the trip boat shows.  Concerts are held here sometimes, though the name comes from the sound of the wind blowing through.

This construction shaft is covered in calcite deposits forming a spectacular show.

It is a real privilege to be able to moor in the Museum and tomorrow we plan to spend the day having a proper look round.  We will probably then return to Birmingham by a different route, again one we've not done before.  There is plenty of choice of routes round here - perhaps the only place in the country where you could get lost on the canals.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Up the hill towards Birmingham

Our last posting was on the River Severn just before we came up the Droitwich Canals.  We are now on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal heading into Birmingham, so now for the update of how we got here.

Sitting on the pontoon on the River we watched the water levels come up a total of 17 cm by Wednesday morning.  We managed to get off the pontoon, not altogether easy as it is on a bend of the River and the flow of water was pushing us back on again.  Soon we were off up the Droitwich Barge Canal.  The Droitwich Canals consist of a wide canal up 8 wide locks to the railway bridge before the town and this will take boats up to 14 feet wide.  From there the Droitwich Junction Canal is only for narrowboats and continues through the town and up more locks to join the Worcester and Birmingham Canal at Hanbury Wharf.

This is a peaceful early morning picture from the pontoon on the River Severn.  It is a lovely spot and, being on the bend, you can see both ways along the river.

This fine brick arched bridge is one of the original bridges built by James Brindley 250 years ago.  As you can see the Droitwich Barge Canal is lined with tall reeds so mooring is only practical at designated places and there are not many of these.

Much of the Barge Canal looks like a river.  I liked the cloud reflections in this shot.

In Droitwich there is a fine secure (locked with a CRT key) mooring at Netherwich Basin where Leo is shown in this picture.  You are allowed to stay for 48 hours which we did.  The "Project Boat" next to us had apparently been there for much longer.  It is for sale if you want a challenge!
 In Droitwich is a Roman Catholic Church called the Church of the Sacred Heart.  The outside is fairly plain brick (though even that has some nice touches) but inside is a glorious mosaic made of Venetian glass.  The church is an unsung treasure which should be better known.  If you want to find it, it is about three quarters of a mile out of town down the Worcester Road.

Here is the mosaic over the altar.

Here is the exterior of the church which was built in 1921.

The mooring basin is on the edge of Vines Park which was a salt works but is now a fine local park by the canal and the River Salwarpe.  This sign was new since we last came here two years ago.  It points to the furthest  canal points to North, South, East and West from Droitwich.  Furthest North was Tewitfield on the Lancaster where we were in May - 127 miles and 106 locks from Droitwich.

On Friday we set off up the locks to the Worcester and Birmingham Canal.

Vines Park has three swing bridges to keep boaters on their toes.  Here Helen is operating the first swing bridge to let Leo through.  After Vines Park a stop lock (another wide one) takes boats up onto the River Salwarpe for a short way before a narrow lock leads to the passage under the M5.

Here is Leo about to go through the tunnel under the M5.  There is not a lot of clearance and if someone empties the lock above while you are going through then things can get even tighter.  But we got through without scratches, though you'll notice there are no flowers on the roof today!

A single lock follows the M5 tunnel and then a double staircase - there is plenty of variety on this short canal.

The top three locks have functioning side pounds. You can see the two paddles in the middle of the lock which link to the side pound.  In going up you first fill the lock from the side pound, then close those paddles and finish filling from the pound above.  The effect is that you only use half a lock full of water each time because the side pound takes the other half.  It's more complicated to explain than to do, but does take longer.

Here we are at the top going through the last bridge before turning left on the Worcester and Birmingham.  Right goes back to Worcester.  This last bridge is ridiculously narrow, barely an inch of clearance.

Once beyond the junction we moored fairly soon and on Saturday we visited the nearby National Trust property of Hanbury Hall, built as the country pad of a wealthy London Solicitor, Thomas Vernon, in the early 1700s.

Here is the house, a fine looking country retreat.  

One reason the National Trust took the house on was the fine wall paintings by James Thornhill.

The gardens were laid out by George London and are pretty spectacular.  The National Trust grows produce here for many of its properties in the Midlands.

Yes this is what you think it is!  It seems that the Earth Closet almost became the loo of choice in the 1860s rather than the water closet we know today.  The square plate to the left of the hole has a handle which dropped a measured dose of ashes or earth over the contribution and these toilets were apparently pretty well odourless in operation.

On the way back from Hanbury Hall we walked over to Hanbury Church which is on a slight rise and has a fine view.  Here you can see the Malvern Hills from near the Church.

I couldn't resist this one.  Here is cuddly Leo guarding our flowers, geraniums on the left and fuchsia on the right.  They are lovely but we are not sure that the pink of the flowers goes with the raddle of the roof.

As all boaters (but perhaps fewer 'normal' folk) know - Birmingham is at the top of a hill.  So sooner or later we had to ascend the 30 Tardebigge Locks to the Birmingham Level.

From Hanbury to Tardebigge Bottom Lock you first have to climb the six Astwood Locks then the six Stoke Locks and in fact we moored below the top Stoke Lock so on Monday we climbed 31 locks - quite a task.

This photo is taken looking down the flight to lock 44 and below.  The flight starts at 29 and goes up to 58.

Here Leo is waiting to come out of lock 45 while another boat comes down 46.

As you get nearer the top you begin to see Tardebigge Reservoir on the right.  You can see the embankment behind the bridge which holds the reservoir.  This supplies water for the canal, though now the top level is supplied by the Bittel Reservoirs higher up.

If you look closely you can see that the straps that hold the gate hinge are cast with "W & B  C Co" for Worcester and Birmingham Canal Company.

This building is now converted to apartments but was originally an engine house to pump water from Tardebigge Reservoir up to the summit levels.  Once you see the reservoir there are a further 7 locks up to the summit.

And here we are at the top!

Tardebigge Church is a bit higher than the canal on the top of the hill and is well worth a visit for the view, though the church is rather fine too.

Tardebigge Reservoir was looking very peaceful in the heat of Monday evening and some lads were even swimming.

To Alvechurch where we are now moored is but a short hop of three miles or so, but there are two tunnels, Tardebigge and Shortwood.  We passed a boat in Shortwood which is always a bit nerve wracking.

Tomorrow or Friday we will carry on into the centre of Birmingham.  We plan to visit the Black Country Museum and probably take in some bits of the Birmingham Canal Network that we have not done before.  So after a long spell in the country we will be enjoying urban scenery for a while.