Thursday, 17 June 2021

Heading south on the Grand Union

 It's been some days since we updated our blog largely due to poor internet reception over the last few days. This posting brings us up to date as we approach the canal junctions around Braunston, in many ways the centre of the canal system. So let's get started on the story to today;

Our friend Maurice joined us on Friday evening (11 June) and stayed with us for a few days. On Saturday we set off, soon coming to the top of the Knowle flight of 5 locks. These are the first broad locks (take 2 narrowboats side by side) we have used since Stenson Lock on the Trent and Mersey Canal about 4 weeks ago. In this view at the top of the Knowle Locks you really get the impression that you are at the top of a hill.

And here we are looking back to the bottom of the locks.

It was a hot afternoon on Saturday and, after mooring near Kingswood Junction and close to the Navigation Inn, we walked a mile or two to the National Trust property at Baddesley Clinton. Helen is introducing herself to a fox in the grounds.

We treated ourselves to a cream tea and watched the swallows coming to and fro to their nest in a barn in the courtyard. This one, sitting on a weathervane, is watching to time its flight into its nest. It didn't seem fazed when the vane swung in the wind.

Here is the fine moated house of Baddesley Clinton, dating from the 16th century or possibly earlier.

We walked back to the boat a different way and passed Lyons Farm with another weathervane. Having a boat called Leo we are keen to spot and record any lions on our travels.

After a good evening meal at the Navigation Inn with Raymond and Yvonne, two friends of Maurice, we carried on our cruise on Sunday with the prospect of the Hatton flight of locks to come. This photo shows Kingswood Junction. Under the bridge to the right is a short canal that links to the Stratford Canal part way down the many locks down the hill from Birmingham to Stratford.

Before tackling the Hatton Locks we came through Shrewley Tunnel as seen in this photo. The tunnel is only 433 yards long but it was very wet, especially in the first half. Umbrellas were very necessary! The towpath on the right leads up to a tunnel for boat horses.

Lest you thought we had left Maurice behind, here he is steering Leo towards the Hatton Locks. There are 21 locks in this flight though we moored before reaching the bottom so only did 18 locks on Sunday.

Down one lock is a well known and well liked cafe, much used by cyclists and visitors as well as boaters. The cafe is to the left in this photo looking back to the top lock.

The main run of locks is known as the 'stairway to heaven'. This view looks down the flight straight to the St Mary's church in Warwick. We like the moorings near the bottom of the locks as being still very much in the countryside. After a hot afternoon lazing on the boat, we cycled to the Cape of Good Hope pub further down the canal where we had booked an evening meal sitting outside next to the canal. The food was truly excellent. Afterwards Maurice left to cycle home while we cycled back to Leo.

On Monday we carried on without Maurice to help us. This photo shows us coming to the bottom lock of the Hatton flight.

The paddle gear varies on different canals. The locks round here were originally narrow locks but were enlarged in the 1930s. The paddle gear is very distinctive. The works are all enclosed which must be good for durability and the locks work well, whether with one boat or two.

Only half a mile or so below Hatton Bottom Lock are another pair of locks. The top one is right next to the Cape of Good Hope pub where we had eaten on Sunday evening. The pub is to the left here just above the top lock.

We had been going down locks all the way from Birmingham as we dropped down into the valley of the Warwickshire Avon which we then crossed on this aqueduct. After this we started climbing away from the valley. There is a possibility of building a few locks to take boats down onto the Avon and making the river navigable from Stratford to Warwick, but that remains a remote prospect.

We found this scary cat as we came through Warwick and Leamington Spa. A handy offside mooring gave easy access to a big Tesco for shopping on our way. We then carried on out of the built up area to moor near the village of Radford Semele

We've reduced our daily mileage and lockage recently as our son David and his girlfriend Ash are planning to visit at the weekend and we don't want to get too far away to worsen their journey. So on Tuesday we travelled all of two and a half miles (plus 5 locks). In the photo you can see Leo waiting below Fosse Bottom Lock.

And here is Leo coming into the lock. Note the steps either side and what was originally a narrow lock to the left of the wide lock. The old narrow locks now function as bywashes with waterfalls down to the next pound.

On Tuesday night we moored above Wood Lock and found we were moored exactly where HS2 will cross the canal, with huge construction sites either side of us. Why do they need so much land? The photo shows some of the works but we couldn't work out what all these towers and cranes are for. A lot of the work on the other side of the canal seems to be to do with drainage.

This is a  lovely evening view looking out from the stern.

I am sorry to say that we did not have a good night's sleep on Tuesday night. Ian woke up just after 2 o'clock for usual reasons but found that the world had changed! The boat was tipped over and inspection showed the canal had dropped in level by about 9 inches. Soon we were both up releasing the mooring lines and pushing the boat out into deeper water. Finally back to bed with a more level boat, but neither of us slept that well. Woke up again soon after 6 to find we were once more tilted and the water had dropped another 9 inches. Ian cycled to Wood Lock downstream to check if the paddles had been left up, but no so it was just that this pound leaked. The top gates at Wood Lock were leaking quite badly and the bottom gates were allowing this to seep out into the lower pound. So we decided we ought to move off and by about 7.20 am we were on our way, an unheard of start time for us. We were rewarded by the sight of a hot air balloon seen here above Welsh Road Lock, the next one up from the low pound.

This is as we left Welsh Road Lock. The unusually large lock cottage reminded us of those on the Thames. Perhaps it shared the same architect?

After Welsh Road Lock came the four Bascote Locks, the last two of which form a double staircase seen here as we approach them. So the rule is to make sure that the bottom lock is empty and the top one is full before you start up (or down) the staircase.

This is looking down from the first lock of the staircase. You can see the single locks down below. We finished our cruising on Wednesday by about 9.15 am because of our early start. Often we don't set off until after that! We both felt a bit fragile after our lack of sleep, though Helen somehow found the energy to clean the carpets and the mats. Ian was more lethargic. It was another hot day but we did manage a walk in the afternoon into Long Itchington which is an attractive village where we patronised the local Co-op and had a drink at the Two Boats pub just below the next lock.

After a much later start here we are going up Itchington Bottom Lock. You can see clearly on the right the narrow lock which is concreted over and used as a bywash. Leo is in the wide lock alongside.

Above that bottom lock we were into the Stockton flight of 10 locks in total. We had a friendly CRT volunteer who helped us up most of the locks. After the second lock from the bottom we passed the Blue Lias pub which is unusual in having a dinosaur on its sign. Blue Lias is the local limestone which does have fossils.

Here we are looking up the Stockton Locks climbing into the distance. Helen and our volunteer are by the left hand bottom gate. The locks were a delight to use. They were built in the 1930s and perhaps they had learned a thing or two by then. Often going up as a single boat in a wide lock the boat can get thrown from side to side by the incoming water. Not with these locks. Opening the paddle on the same side as the boat, a stream of water wells up on the other side from the boat holding it firmly to the side of the lock. Chains hang the sides of these locks (presumably for small boats to hold onto). We've found in the past that the chains scrape the paint off the hull as the boat moves to and fro. So we've developed a new technique - Helen pulls the chains up onto the lockside while we use it and then Ian drops them back into the water as he steers the boat out of the lock.

And here is the view looking down the Stockton Locks - a mini version of the Hatton 'Stairway to Heaven'.
We are now approaching Calcutt where we climb the last 3 locks of this section of the Grand Union before it joins the Oxford Canal at Napton Junction. We are heading over the next week through Braunston to Gayton Junction where we will descend the 17 locks to Northampton and the River Nene.

Friday, 11 June 2021

Escape from Birmingham

 We are now moored on the Grand Union Canal at Catherine de Barnes which is often reckoned to be the first safe mooring coming out of Birmingham. We have cruised 10 miles and 11 locks today which is quite a lot for us these days. So this is the story of what we have been doing since the last update.

On Tuesday (8 June) we left our lovely mooring below the dam of Chasewater Reservoir and set off back down the Anglesey Branch to Catshill Junction. Leaving the reservoir, we passed two of these structures which we think were used to load coal into narrowboats when the mines were operating here.

This is the most northerly part of the BCN (Birmingham Canal Navigations) and the views confirm that we are now out in the country.

We stopped for a few minutes at Ogley Junction where the Lichfield Canal used to leave the BCN. Huddlesford Junction is on the Coventry Canal but between the two a lot of restoration needs to be done. We admired the forethought of whoever designed the sign as the word "being" can clearly be removed when the restoration is complete, leaving the spacing of the rest of the text looking perfect. No idea when we will be able to cruise this missing waterway. Many years we suspect.

Once we had turned south at Catshill Junction there was a narrows, so Helen nipped off to take this picture. The bridge behind is at the junction. We are now on the Daw End Canal which was constructed as a branch of the Wyrley and Essington.

At the end of the Daw End Canal is Longwood Junction which used to have an arm under the bridge to Hay Head but the arm is now just used for mooring boats. The unusual boat on the left is called Elizabeth and was built in the 1860s. We have seen her several times at different places on the waterways. We were told that she now has a new owner who is intent on restoring her, as she is now in a sorry state inside.

From Longwood Junction the Rushall Canal links the Daw End with the Tame Valley Canal. On Wednesday we set off down the 9 locks of the Rushall. The picture is taken at the top lock where we made use of the services on the right.

The Rushall Canal gave us problems in the past when going the other way when we simply ran out of water going up the lock flight and Helen had to cycle up the flight to let more water down. This time we had no problems and once down the locks we soon moored close to the Tame Valley Canal. For non boaters to get an idea of where we were, this was close to where the M5 and M6 meet. A distant rumble of traffic could certainly be heard from Leo. The photo was taken through the iron framework of a nearby bridge.

At Rushall Junction where the canal ends we turned left on Thursday morning onto the Tame Valley Canal. The picture shows the sign at the junction. We had come from Catshill Junction and were heading to Salford Junction.

The Tame Valley Canal was built late in the canal era and has deep cuttings, high embankments and is very very straight. This footbridge is called Chimney Bridge and gives a good idea of how deep are the cuttings.

From the embankments we could see right into the centre of Birmingham. The prominent Post Office Tower can be seen which is right beside the Farmer's Bridge flight of 13 locks (the old 13) into the city centre.

Well I said the Tame Valley Canal is very straight!

After a few miles of pretty boring canal we came to the top of the Perry Barr Locks. There are 13 (the new 13) of these which drop the canal over 100 feet. The first 7 locks worked well but after that we had a few problems - weed in the pounds, leaking top paddles, bottom gates that refused to stay closed and flooding the towpath below one lock when we let the water go.

Alongside the Perry Bar Locks the Alexander Sports Stadium is being substantially rebuilt to host next year's Commonwealth Games.

Having come down the 13 locks we soon came towards Salford Junction. This complicated canal junction lies underneath Spaghetti Junction where the A38 intersects with the M6. Underneath that web of motorway roads and links there is a railway, a junction of 4 canals and the River Tame. It's an amazing place.

Here we are weaving around the pillars holding the motorway.

Here is the sign at Salford Junction. We had come from Perry Bar and Tipton. Two canals turn right from here following different routes into the city and a fourth arm is the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal. We took the second turn on the right.

Immediately after making the turn we crossed an aqueduct over the River Tame shown here. Avid readers of our blog will recall that we last saw the Tame downstream at the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas several weeks ago.

We moored overnight last night (Thursday 10th) at Star City soon after Salford Junction. Though famous in the Midlands as an entertainment centre, its attraction to us as boaters is that it has a secure mooring only accessible from land by means of a CRT (Canals and Rivers Trust) key. Today we finally made our escape from Birmingham by first climbing the 5 Garrison Locks. This photo gives a good impression of the dreary nature of the surroundings with derelict factories alongside the canal.

An oddity of the Garrison Locks is that the paddles at the top gates have channels that mean the locks fill at both ends, not just the end by the paddles. This photo shows water bubbling up at the stern which is not usual. It does have the advantage of holding the stern of the boat clear of the bottom gates, thus saving any damage to our Yorkshire flag!

Above Garrison Locks and a plethora of bridges we came to Bordesley Junction where we turned left to immediately go up the 6 Camp Hill Locks. To the right leads up the Digbeth Locks towards the city centre. In the photo you can see an arched bridge below the lock. This crosses the canal heading for Garrison Locks. Some of the graffiti is quite artistic but there is a lot of it.

This picture was taken at the top of the Camp Hill Locks where we made use of the services which also provide a pretty secure mooring. The factory beyond the top lock has an awning which would have protected cargoes being unloaded from narrowboats.

We've enjoyed our visit to some of the more remote places on the Birmingham Canal Navigations but we're glad that we are now moving to better patronised parts of the waterways and some more countryside which we've missed. We are expecting our friend Maurice at the moment who has promised to help us with the Hatton Locks (foolish fellow!). So for the next few days we will be following the Grand Union south and east.

Tuesday, 8 June 2021

Walsall and the Curly Wyrley

 We've now decided on a route that will take us around Birmingham to the north but not into the centre. So a circular form of Birmingham by-pass by canal. Last Friday we set off down the Oldbury Locks heading towards Walsall which we have not visited by boat before.

Once down the Oldbury Locks we were on the 'Wolverhampton Level' of the Old Main Line and turned east for a stretch where the M5 has been built over the top of the canal. If you look into the distance you can see an original canal arched bridge which contrasts oddly with the newer road flyover.

Soon the Old Main Line crosses the New Main Line which you can see through the forest of concrete columns holding up the M5. A railway runs nearby too, so three forms of transport are all close together.

A mile or so further and our way was to turn sharp left down three Spon Lane Locks to drop to the New Main Line. And it was a very sharp turn. We had come from the canal to the left of the picture and turned almost back on ourselves into the top lock where you can see Leo facing the other way. We're glad our boat is not 70 feet long!

We were now heading west and here Leo is waiting at the bottom of the three locks. Just below this lock we joined the New Main Line under the bridge on the right. The bridge on the left is over the New Main Line.

Below the locks is a gauging station. This is basically an island in the middle of the canal with a 7 foot wide gap either side. This was used for men to measure how much cargo you were carrying and to charge an appropriate toll. Cargo would be measured by a graded stick to work out how much of the hull was above the water and thus how heavy was the load. Anyway it made a convenient place to stop and clear the propellor. How do you like Ian's elbow length gloves? Going down the weed hatch is a common occurrence round here and you never know quite what you are going to find! Could be weed, could be plastic, could be something nastier. Best to take precautions.

Just under a mile west at Pudding Green Junction, we turned right under the bridge off the New Main Line onto the Wednesbury Old Canal. New waters for us.

Soon we came to the Ryder's Green Locks, a flight of 8 that leads down to Walsall.

In this view looking back up the Ryder's Green Locks you can see the piled up pallets either made or stored here. The surroundings are industrial round here.

We had been told of a safe mooring on the Ocker's Hill Tunnel branch not far from the bottom of the locks. Here we are turning under a side bridge into the branch. Immediately on the right once in the arm is a mooring that seems to be used by passing boaters or by CRT to store their work boats. With grass beside the mooring it was very pleasant and secure, in fact so secure that we couldn't go anywhere else from the mooring! Still it was a nice spot and there are always jobs to do.

On Saturday we backed out of our mooring and carried on north. Here we are passing Tame Valley Junction where the Tame Valley Canal goes to the right between the two bridges you can see. The Tame Valley Junction is a late one and is astonishingly straight and rather boring. So we didn't go that way but carried on straight ahead.

The canal towards Walsall was surprisingly green and attractive. Some areas were industrial and some were private houses but the canal continues as a green corridor even where civilisation gets close on either side. I don't however want to suggest that this stretch was easy cruising. Ian went down the weed hatch three times in the 5 miles to Walsall.

Eventually we reached the junction with the short arm leading to Walsall basin. In the distance you can see a lock on the left which is the first of the flight of 8 Walsall Locks and on the right is the arm into Walsall.

Here is the sign at the junction. We had come from Ryders Green Junction and were heading down the Walsall Town Arm. On Sunday we would be going up the 8 locks to Birchills Junction. The Canal Museum is sadly no more but we did meet Paul who used to run it.

Approaching the basin we pushed a spring loaded boom out of the way to enter the basin and moored, the only boat present in this central spot in the town. The huge balloon floating in the basin belongs to CRT and is there to warn you that the water is deep and it will be best not to fall in. It doesn't exactly say that but that is the intention. We had lunch in Brewers Fayre in the building to the left where we sat in a window watching the boat just in case. The worst we saw was two people taking pictures of each other leaning on Leo.  After lunch we visited the art gallery and found an amazing collection of works by famous artists given by two friends, Sally Ryan and Katherine Garman (the latter married Jacob Epstein). After having our fill of Walsall we moved to a secure pontoon on the way back up the arm to escape the noise of the town centre basin on a Saturday night.

Sunday morning started with persistent rain and we came up the 8 Walsall Locks carefully as some of the paving by the locks was a bit slippery. Here the photo is looking down the flight from Lock 3 to Lock 2. The fine old warehouse to the left of the lock includes a side pound which used to allow boats into the building to unload.

Here we are at the top lock. The single storey building was a toll office and the two storey one was a Boatmen's Rest. More recently it had been the Canal Museum until it closed, apparently due to lack of financial support.

Here is the plaque on the side of the Boatmen's Rest.

The water above the locks was exceptionally clear so I tried a photo looking down into it from the back of the boat. If you look carefully you can see a few fish too.

A half mile beyond the top of the locks we came to Birchills Junction where the Walsall Canal meets the Wyrley and Essington Canal (widely known as the Curly Wyrley). Here we turned right (east) and after a few weedy and twisty miles we moored at Pelsall Common where this photo was taken. This is open country of heathland and pools. The yellow flowers are on gorse bushes and there are also lupins.

And these yellow flowers further down the cut are of course yellow iris. On Sunday for the first time in three days we met other boats, albeit only a couple of them. In the afternoon we went for a walk over the common and back along the Cannock Extension Canal, a short branch which goes north and which we've decided not to visit. We've been before and it is not as interesting as Pelsall Common.

On Monday (yesterday) we cruised just 5 miles to Chasewater. We liked this CRT contractor carrying his road works sign on the mower.

The canal here is pretty weedy - we've made our own track through the weeds. However we managed the journey without lifting the weed hatch. We stopped at Tesco at Brownhills to replenish the larder. This must be one of the most accessible supermarkets to a canal - just cross the road by the canal and there you are.

Half a mile beyond Tesco we came to Catshill Junction and turned left. Almost immediately it became apparent that we really were out in the country and had shaken off the suburbs of Walsall and Birmingham.

Not far up is Ogley Junction. Straight on under the bridge is the Lichfield Canal which used to join the Coventry Canal at Huddlesford and may one day do so again. Our way lay to the left for another mile along the Anglesey Branch to a dead end, but a really delightful dead end. We went under the M6 Toll to emerge on the most northerly part of the Birmingham Canal Navigations and moored right below the dam of the Chasewater Reservoir.

On Monday afternoon we walked right round the reservoir, a distance of about 3 or 4 miles. This is an area of old coal mines now turned into common land. One footpath was under water and the only reason we can see for that is that the land may still be subsiding into the mines beneath. The willow trees are shedding their seeds at the moment and walking through woods we were amazed to see a coating of what looked like snow but proved to be willow seeds a few inches deep like cotton wool lying on the ground.

Around Chasewater the old mine railway has been turned into a tourist attraction, though unfortunately not open on a Monday. This is Brownhills West Station.

The Anglesey Branch ends in a small lake just below the dam of the Chasewater Reservoir. It is a delightful peaceful spot despite being not far from the M6 Toll. As usual whilst travelling on the BCN we were on our own, though when we left this morning another boat was just arriving.
So that brings us up to date to where we were last night. Today we've set off south to by-pass Birmingham to the east. We're now moored close to the top of the many locks (22) we must go down to reach Spaghetti Junction which is also a big junction for the canal system under the roads which are raised up on pillars above the water. But that is for the next update. Hope you enjoyed this one.