Day 41: Wolverhampton – so good, we did it twice!

August 10th, 2010

We headed off before 9 on Sunday morning, and made brisk progress along the empty canal to Wolverhampton, arriving at about 11. Here begins the long flight of 21 narrow locks down off the Black Country plateau to the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal.
We locked down fairly briskly and arrived at the bottom by mid-afternoon. Having decided that we didn’t fancy the look of the one rather tired pub near the supermarket (aside to Wolverhampton businesspeople – a pub somewhere close to this important three-canal junction would make a mint!), we considered curry in Wolverhampton. At this point I got a text from James and Amy on Lucky Duck, saying that they’d passed Innocenti while we were out. I suggested to an already tired Nicola that we might go and help them back up the Wolverhampton locks, and she (spurred on by thoughts of curry) agreed. The run back to Wolverhampton was very brisk indeed, and we then availed ourselves of a copious curry (“largest naans in Wolverhampton”) at Jirvan’s Balti House before I took Nicola to the station and went back to the boat by bus.

Day 41: 8 miles and 21 locks (plus another 21 helping Lucky Duck…)

Day 40: the Black Country

August 7th, 2010

I spent two full days in Birmingham, doing various odd jobs and (ahem) relatively little thesis work. The odd jobs did include getting all the Manchester Ship Canal paperwork sorted and fixing the minor problem with the starter motor though, so I’m happy with that.

Today I’ve had Nicola on board for a short cruise to the Black Country Living Museum – we left Brum in the drizzle, went up three locks at Smethwick, noodled about under the M5 and finally headed off along the Old Main Line towards Dudley. The New Main Line I did on the way down – it’s ruler-straight and rather tedious with little scenery. By contrast, the Old Main Line is just as wide and deep, but much more interesting. As you get towards Tipton the canal gets clearer and the margins become full of waterlilies.
At this point we met the steam narrowboat “President” and butty “Kildare” coming the other way – I seem to meet them every time I come to the West Midlands – and I managed to get some video of them chuffing past.
Just around the corner is the Black Country Living Museum, where we moored for the afternoon and overnight. It’s got trams, trolleybuses, a coal mine, historic houses and other buildings illustrating industrial life in this part of the world. It also serves traditional Black Country fare – there was a colossal queue for fish-and-chips-fried-in-dripping-and-wrapped-in-newspaper, so I had faggots and gravy in the cafe instead…

The museum is adjacent to Dudley Tunnel, which isn’t a traditional canal tunnel at all, but rather a series of limestone mines linked by canals. Some of the junctions have been opened out now, so you go through a sequence of tunnels, passing briefly out into the light again between them. The Dudley Canal Trust operate three electric trip boats, and also have a tugboat that can tow a narrowboat through, provided it has a sufficiently low cabin, as the headroom is very limited!

Day 40: Birmingham to Tipton Junction, 8 miles and 3 locks. Tomorrow, the Wolverhampton flight of 21 locks!


August 5th, 2010

I like Birmingham, for reasons I can’t really explain. I think it’s partly the fact that it’s such a nice place to moor, coupled with the lively and pedestrian-friendly shopping centre and the fact that the accent always makes me smile. This morning I went to the laundrette, a normal chore whenever I have a day in a city. When did you last see a new laundrette? So far, every one I’ve been in has had an early-sixties feel, like the one in Cambridge, and the air is thick with the sweat of assets. Pablo’s Laundrette (5 minutes from the canal, map here), is however new and shiny and open until 8pm. The manageress was friendly too, which is always a bonus.
In my other tasks for today, I went round to Sherborne Wharf, to talk about Manchester Ship Canal certificates. Going on the Ship Canal requires a modicum of preparatory bureaucracy, which I suspect is designed by the Ship Canal Company to deter the casual boater. For the benefit of other boaters, here’s what you need to do:

– call the Ship Canal company. You need to speak to the harbourmaster’s office. Pleasure craft applications are currently dealt with by Colin Chambers ( or 0151 327 1461), who’s very helpful. He will send you a “fact pack” in the post, which consists of: two application forms, a copy of the Navigation Bye-Laws, a list of approved surveyors and the Transit Notes – a diagrammatic map of the canal.
– you fill in the top part of the application form, and enclose a copy of your third-party insurance certificate (you must have £3m cover, mine has this as standard)
– you find a suitable person to complete the bottom part of the form, the “Certificate of Seaworthiness”. This needs to be a marine surveyor who’s approved by the Company, or a boat-builder who’s a member of the British Marine Federation. If you’re outside the north-west, a BMF member is your best bet.
– to qualify as seaworthy, your boat must have: “an adequate anchor and cable”, two warps (ropes) at least 50 feet long, two fire extinguishers (you need these for Boat Safety Certificate anyway), “sufficient life saving apparatus” (in my case a lifejacket per crewmember and a lifebuoy), an Admiralty chart (number 3478 – should cost about £22) and a “current tidal almanac”. This list is defined in law, being the Third Schedule to the Manchester Ship Canal Act 1960. Quite what the point of the tidal almanac is I’m not sure, since the canal itself isn’t tidal, though I suppose it’s reasonable to assume that anyone making the passage into the tidal Mersey estuary would need to know the state of the tide.
– having got your surveyor to make the inspection and sign the form, you send everything off to the Ship Canal Company at least 48 hours in advance, along with the transit fee, which depends on the journey you’re making. For the Weaver-Manchester segment this is about £125.

Anyway, Sherborne Wharf have agreed to do my certificate tomorrow, and my Admiralty chart is on order and should arrive tomorrow morning (fingers crossed!)…

Days 38 and 39: Up the hill to Birmingham

August 4th, 2010

I had a very productive morning on Tuesday, revisiting some software that I’d given up on and came within a hairsbreadth of getting it working. I reckoned it was worth a day or two’s effort before I wrote it up as a failure! Another day or so and I might actually have it working, which would be great.

Anyway, in the afternoon I locked up the five locks at Knowle on my own – the locks are closely spaced and I was able to use the “back-stitch” technique of allowing the lock with the boat in it to fill while going back to close the gates on the previous look and then going forward to open the gates on the next one. You do walk a long way, but it’s so much easier to drive the boat from lock chamber to lock chamber rather than try and moor up singlehandedly between locks, especially where the pounds are short.

After Knowle the canal becomes very quiet – I saw very few moving boats, but an awful lot of debris in the canal, drawn out of urban Birmingham on the slight current generated by the lock flight. A car wheel, with tyre, floated by, accompanied by a builder’s helmet, some roadsigns, various footballs, and countless plastic bottles and other items of jetsam – all rather incongruous on the otherwise still very rural canal. Once through Catherine de Barnes, the canal enters a very long wooded cutting in Solihull which is mostly straight and quite boring. I was hoping to get a view of the Land Rover factory, but it’s hidden behind high fences. At Tyseley the canal emerges from the cutting and becomes a more typical inner-city setting, with industrial and post-industrial buildings along its banks. Finally I arrived at my destination for the day, Camp Hill top lock. There’s a little BW compound here, with a sanitary station, showers and secure moorings. I asked the lock-keeper, who was just knocking off, where was best to moor, as the little mooring arm was full. He suggested that I go on the water point overnight, so I did.
I mooched off to a nearby supermarket in the hope of getting a sturdy plastic box to cover the generator with (the last one disappeared in Claydon, mysteriously), but they didn’t have anything suitable. Returning to the boat, I met a Dutch family in a hired narrowboat that were stuck in a lock – the pound above them was almost completely drained. I showed the lady how to let water through the flight to refill the pound, went back to my boat for my windlass, and then helped them get through to the top. They then moored alongside me and thanked me profusely.

Day 38: Knowle Bottom Lock to Camp Hill top lock, 10 miles and 5 locks.

Today I decided to cruise all day, as I needed to get off the water point and that would allow me to get all the way to central Brum without having to stop in Aston overnight. It was also raining, heavy drizzly rain, the kind that gets you wet. Much faffing ensued as the Dutch family reversed off the mooring and headed to Knowle, and I went into the first lock just as two boatloads of Scouts and Cubs arrived who wanted the water point…
I locked down slowly in the rain, and the Scouts caught me up. In fact, they did the bottom three locks for me, since they were so mob-handed, and I rewarded the gaggle of girls who’d manfully pushed the gates with a packet of hobnobs, they were very chuffed. At the bottom of the six Camp Hill locks is Bordesley Junction. I turned left, passed through a nicely-restored stop lock (the Warwick Bar, which once seperated the BCN canals from the Grand Union system) and then turned right at the junction onto the Digbeth Branch of the Birmingham & Fazeley canal. A sign here said “Be aware of the Somali mugger, call 999!” – nice!
Having done six locks down at Camp Hill, I was then faced with six locks up at Ashted, surrounded by a lot of empty plots where industrial buildings had been demolished. Just before the top lock is Ashted tunnel, a narrow, drain-like tube 100m long, but with a towpath inside. At the top is Aston Science park, where there are nice secure moorings, and I stopped for a bite to eat.

I then joined the Birmingham & Fazeley main line and locked up the 13 Farmer’s Bridge locks, where I was assisted by a helpful retired gent who was dawdling on the towpath on his way back from the Records Office – he’d been doing some geneaology. He and I chatted about canals, and it turned out that he’d worked for a firm that made equipment for forges and foundries. He helped me to the top lock and I managed to bag a 14 day mooring space right there, after some entertaining reversing manoeuvres!

I’m now in Brum until Saturday, so no more cruising ‘tll then. I have some odd jobs and plenty of PhD work to do though!

Day 39: Camp Hill top lock to Cambrian Wharf, Birmingham: 3 miles and 25 locks.
Total so far: 407 miles and 294 locks.

Day 37: singlehanded again

August 2nd, 2010

This afternoon I said farewell to Mike, who had to go back to work, and plodded on up the Grand Union to Knowle. The long pound between Hatton and Knowle was extremely low and I went aground in a few places. Beyond the junction with the Stratford canal at Kingswood, the canal becomes quieter – most people follow the guidebooks’ advice that the route via Lapworth Locks and Kings Norton is prettier. I’ve been the “pretty way” twice before, so this time I’ve chosen to go the other way. So far, the canal has been quite pleasant, and Knowle Locks (which I walked round to have a look at after mooring up) are very nicely situated and well-kept. Interestingly, they have two side ponds each at different levels, both apparently disused and full of bulrushes and moorhens. I’m guessing this was an advanced feature installed when the locks were widened in the 1930s.

Tomorrow I’m planning to be in urban Birmingham, so I’m enjoying the tranquil rural setting while it lasts!

Day 37: Hatton Station to Knowle Bottom Lock, 7 miles and no locks.
Total so far 394 miles and 264 locks. Thesis 12311 words and 64 pages.