Sunday, 24 September 2017

North West Passage: Day 30

Time to leave Birmingham, and we were on the move soon after 8 on a lovely morning with the sun reflecting off Arena Birmingham.
We got to the top of the Farmer's Bridge locks, and found a boat going down in front of us. We'd expected that all the locks would be empty anyway, so it didn't make much difference. This flight is one of my favourites. There's a lot going on, they're nice and close together so you can set ahead easily, and they just fly by.

We did the thirteen locks in under an hour and a half. As expected, the boat in front of us, a hire boat probably doing the Warwickshire Ring, turned left at Aston Junction to go down the Aston locks. We turned right onto the Digbeth Branch. The six locks here were in our favour. Ashted Tunnel comes immediately after the first lock, and is tiny. We know from experience that the roof curves in so much that boat hald rails are at severe risk of getting a scrape, so Adrian took the centre line to hold the boat against the towpath.

The next couple of locks run through the new campus of Birmingham City University. When I did my postgrad there, it was based up at Perry Barr. The new buildings look like a big improvement.
We took a sharp left at Warwick Bar to join the Grand Union Canal. The next locks, six of them, are uphill -- undoing some of the downhill work we'd already done!
We reached the top of the Camp Hill Locks at about 12, so all 25 locks had been completed in under four hours. The top lock was our last narrow one of the trip; they're all wide from now on. We turned onto the service point to fill the water tank, start the washing machine, and get rid of rubbish. We knew the water would take a while, so we had lunch too.

The next stretch is lock free, starting in industry, going through Solihull, and passing the Land Rover factory. However, much of the length is in tree lined cuttings, and the number of leaves in the canal shows that autumn really is here.

We moored up abput about 4pm about half a mile short of Knowle Locks, in a nice open spot with views of planes who've taken off from Birmingham Airport. I've made a cake for tomorrow's visitors, Adrian washed the towpath side of the boat, and I've given it a quick polish.
13 miles, 25 locks. (354 miles, 223 locks)

Saturday, 23 September 2017

North West Passage: Day 29

Last night's concert in the car park was excellent. The first part of the evening comsisted of what they call living programme notes, where there are small groups of musicians dotted around the space explaining elements of the music. Then the whole orchestra came together to play the whole of Beethoven's Fifth.

This morning, I spotted Paul Balmer from Waterway Routes on the towpath and we spent some time talking in the drizzle. Paul also kindly furnished me with the latest update to his excellent map. Later, as we started to head out for a walk, the boat in front was just leaving so we paused for a moment and pulled Briar Rose forward so we were no longer right under the bridge. Then we walked along to the Mail Box to see the Archers exhibition at BBC Birmingham. After lunch, we had a visit from Diane Kemp, who was one of my tutors when I did my post grad in Broadcast Journalism at what was then UCE (and is now BCU) way back in 1994. Neither of us has changed a bit, obviously.

We ended her visit out by Old Turn Junction where another of the Birmingham Weekender events was taking place -- the Canal Serenade, with musicians on three boats plus choir members on the towpath. The music was, frankly, a bit avant garde, but the spectacle of the boats moving around was enough to keep the interest.

Once Diane had gone off to Opera at the Mail Box, we had a look at the floating market and bought some smoked Lancashire cheese. As the sun had come out, we walked along to Gas Street Basin. The moorings here look much more organised, and the James Brindley pub has been transformed into the Canal House. It was really busy, and we stopped for a drink in the sunshine.

Birmingham really is a favourite city and always worth a stop. It's also great to see the whole canal area busy with people. Tomorrow, we start moving again.

Friday, 22 September 2017

North West Passage: Day 28

Today's journey ended up being a bit longer than planned. We set off about 8.15 in bright sunshine, so bright that I quite often couldn't really see where I was going. It did mean there were some nice light effects under the bridges.

We were travelling along the Old Main Line, as it's a while since we've done this route and it's generally more interesting that the New Main Line. We crossed the aqueduct over the Netherton Branch and then Brades Hall Junction, where three locks go down to the New Main Line level. Soon the canal is joined by the M5 high above. They're doing work on the underside of the motorway, and there's more scaffolding that you've ever seen before. It goes on for miles.

The Old Main Line crossed the New on the Stewart's Aqueduct, with the motorway pillars in the canal below.

We passed the Spon Lane Locks, another route down tonthe Birmingham Level -- and I mused that it's the only set of locks between the two lines that we've never done. Just before Smethwick Locks, the Engine Arm goes off over an aqueduct.

There was a boat coming up the top Smethwick Lock, so Adrian went off to help. The little old office there has been burned down again.

It turned out that the bottom gate of the lock wouldn't shut properly. The boat had been there for so,e time poking about with a boat hook and a keb, to see if there was something on the cill.

After a while, Adrian phoned CRT who said they'd be out within an hour. Not knowing what the problem was, and as other routes were available, we decided not to wait. We turned around, and went back to Spon Lane Locks. Three locks go down to the Birmingham level, the first one is virtually under the M5 but the final one feels almost countrified.

After the locks, we needed to turn 180 degrees onto the New Main Line.

Now we were heading in the right direction again, just 20ft lower. Soon we were passing under Stewart Aqueduct, more than two hours after we'd crossed over it.

We also passed the Smethwick Pumping Station, which we'd also passed on the upper level. Here it is from both levels.

Then it was under the Engine Arm Aqueduct.

We were now getting close to central Birmingham. We'd discovered that there's a floating market this weekend, so most of the central moorings are suspended in favour of trading boats. We didn't really want to stop too far out, so took a chance and went round the Oozells St Loop -- and our luck was in, as there was one space left. We'd arrived at least an hour and a half later than anticipated, and having travelled an extra four miles.

After lunch on hoard, we headed out for a walk. Since we were here two years ago the dreadful Paradise shoppimg centre and old Central Library has been demolished. Grand Central (above New St Station) also wasn't quite open then so we went for a look around. There's an arts festival on in Birmingham this weekend, and there was an orchestra performing.

Tonight, as part of the Birmingham Weekender, we've booked to hear the Multi-Storey Orchestra perform Beethoven's Fifth in the car park of the Barclaycard Arena.

12 miles, 3 locks. (341 miles, 198 locks)

Thursday, 21 September 2017

North West Passage: Day 27

I always worry the day after an oil change -- the engine smells more oily, and I fear lifting the engine boards to find oil everywhere! We were up and away by ten past seven, wanting to make an early assault on the Wolverhampton locks, as rain was forecast later in the day. It took about half an hour to get to Autherley Junction, where the Shropshire Union has a stop lock before joining the Staffs and Worcester.

There's half a mile to Aldersley Junction and the start of the Wolverhampton 21, and the canal is crossed by some big railway bridges.

We arrived at the lock landing at the bottom of the locks, and I got off to open the gates. About thirty seconds later a boat arrived from the opposite direction, also going up the locks. Adrian had the job of the tight turn into the lock. The camera tells me it was 7.53.

The locks were empty, so we had a good run up the hill. The pound between locks 18 and 17 was as least a foot and a bit down, with lots of mud showing.

Just a few feet later, Adrian came to a complete halt, with the boat aground in the middle of the pound. I ran some water down from above, not so much to raise the level of the pound, but because the wave created helped lift the boat over the obstruction. It took probably ten minutes to get into the lock. A couple of locks later we met a boat coming down, they said they'd started at 7am. All in all, it's a rather scenic flight in an industrial way. We haven't done these locks since 2011, on Debdale.

At Lock 13, the nearside top paddle isn't just out of action, most of it isn't even there! It's supposed to look like the one the other side.

The top couple of locks needed turning for some reason. At the top one, the row of cottages isn't looking as picturesque as usual.

The 21 locks took two hours and 50 minutes, which we thought was pretty good going. What's more, there had only been a bit of drizzle, no proper rain. That was to change as we made our way towards Tipton. At first the showers were light and brief, but eventually it properly rained. In addition, there was an awful lot of weed in the canal, and it felt as it we were wading through treacle. Usually a burst of reverse would clear the weed from the prop, but eventually we needed to stop for a visit to the weed hatch. I pulled up under Factory Bridge, so we could at least do it in the dry. We turned right at Factory Junction, staying on the Old Main Line, then at Dudley Junction turned towards the Black Country Museum. A tug made the just just ahead of us and must be deep draughted as it steuggled through the narrow entrance. Then they needed to reverse into the museum arm for an event this weekend, which meant winding up the lift bridge.

We had to wait while all that happened, as that's also the winding hole. It was also pouring, and we were soaked. Eventually we turned, and because the moorings were full ended up in the only space, outside the secure area, but with three other boats. Once tied, we went straight to the Dudley Canal Trust's new building for lunch in their cafe. This was still being built when we were here two years ago.

After lunch we did the tunnel trip on the electric trip boat. There was a bit of excitement, as we could see the light of a boat coming through the main Dudley Tunnel. This tunnel is only for unpowered crafy, and they are supposed to book a passage. As we returned to the visitor centre, they were preparing their tug to go and see what was going on. I went back later, and even the tug hadn't reappeared. When we got back to the boat we were still soaking, so we needed a change of clothes and we finally lit the fire to try to dry things out.

Finally, we've been thinking about our mums the past few days. In Adrian's case, his mum came with us on several Debdale trips, and covered most of the Shroppie; places such as Market Drayton bring back memories of New Year's Eve there with the canal freezing, and she came here to the Black Country Museum, where we left her sitting outside the coal mine while we went down. And it would have been my mother's birthday today, so obviously she's been on my mind.

10 miles, 22 locks. (329 miles, 195 locks)

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

North West Passage: Day 26

With only a short run to do today, we had a relaxed start. I walked to the nearest post box in Gnosall Heath, and we set off at just before 9. Just a little way ahead was the Shroppie's only tunnel -- and it's just a short one at 81 yards. A CRT work boat was just mooring up on the offside, where there's work going on to repair the bank.

We stopped on the water point at Wheaton Aston and started another load of washing. This time the tap had good pressure, and we filled the tank to the brim. There had been quite a lot of activity at the lock while we were there, with boats waiting above and below. When we were ready to leave, Adrian went up to the lock and I joined brought the boat round. It seems a hire boat going up the lock had had top and bottom paddles open, and had been wondering why the lock wasn't filling. There were two day boats at the top of the lock to come down, and they went in together. They were from Copt Heath Wharf on the other side of Birmingham, and have apparently been bought by Norbury Wharf.

Once up the lock we had lunch, and passed Stretton Wharf and over the Stretton Aqueduct over the A5. At Brewood, the office of Countrwide Cruisers has been nicely repainted since we last came this way. The village always looks nice from the canal.

There was only one boat on the long stretch of moorings between Bridge 8 and Bridge 7, but we carried on to just before Bridge 4. There's a Shroppie Shelf here so the bow is way out.

It was only 2pm, but we haven't been idle. I washed the roof, which we've been talking about doing since the start of the trip; by then the engine had cooled enough so I did an oil change which was a few hours overdue. We couldn't find any record of the gear box oil having been changed for a while, so I did that too; it's a fiddly job, so thank goodness it doesn't have to be done too often. I also refilled the stern greaser while I was at it. A hire boat came in to moor in front of us, and ended up with their bow on the far side of the canal, so Adrian went to their aid and helped them get back on the correct side.

11 miles, 1 lock. (319 miles, 173 locks)

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

North West Passage: Day 25

We had a real treat last night. At 7.30, we were picked up from the bridge just behind our mooring by Bill and Sheila Saner from the Nantwich Canal Centre, and taken to a newly reopened pub where we had a great meal. Excellent company and very good food -- all four of us had something different and we each enjoyed it, and the sharing dessert platter was something else. We can heartily recommend The Boar's Head, even if we don't know exactly where it is (somewhere near Nantwich!)

This morning was very misty, but it didn't stop anyone boating -- three went past before we'd even had breakfast. We set off just after eight, to complete the last two locks of the Audlem flight.

The cottage by the top lock is having a big extension built, which ruins the symetry of the building. How it got planning I have no idea. We carried on through the gloom, with our tunnel light on in case any boats came the other way. Very soon after the top lock we crossed into Shropshire (ten miles later we were through the other side, into Staffordshire; not much of the Shroppie is in Shropshire). It was still very gloomy as we did the five locks of the Adderley flight. At the top lock there's a farm shop stall, from which we bought a pork pie, an apple pie, and some chocolate flapjack. They also sell useful stuff such as milk.

Markey Drayton came next, and the little mooring basin has been greatly improved, with new jetties and power columns. Soon after is the flight of five Tyrley Locks. The by-washes here are aways fierce, but today they seemed particularly bad. A boat coming out of the bottom lock was pushed up against the rock on the offside, and our bow was shoved over there too.

It was a similar story at the second lock, where a downhill boat was pushed straight into the trees. It had been murky when we went into the cutting containing the two bottom locks, but the third lock is in the open and the weather had changed dramatically.

We'd met several boats coming the other way at this flight and the top lock should have been with us too. However, a boat had turned the lock by the time I got up there -- but even when the lock was open and ready for them, the boat was still on the water point with the hose attached. I suggested that as they'd set the lock and we were waiting below, they'd better get on and use it. At least the cottages at the top look better now they're not defaced by anti-EU slogans.

We stopped on the water point and got the washing machine going. The water pressure is terrible, and we got bored before the tank was full, so we set off through the dramatic Woodseaves Cutting, with its high bridges and rock sides.

The Shropshire Union is very familiar because Debdale was based here for a few years, and the long lines of boats moored on the offside haven't changed. But there are fantastic views in the open sections, particularly towards The Wrekin. We stopped at Norbury Wharf for diesel, and put in 114 litres at 59p basic; Norbury Wharf was very good to the Debdale syndicate when OwnerShips collapsed, so we don't mind spending money with them. We also got some engine oil, a bag of coal, and a couple of ice creams. There's no internet or phone at Norbury Junction (still) so we carried on to Gnosal.

19 miles, 12 locks. (308 miles, 172 locks)

Monday, 18 September 2017

North West Passage: Day 24

We slipped away at about 8am to complete the Middlewich Arm. The first lock, just after Aqueduct Marina, has a nice cottage alongside with what looked like a very productive vegetable garden.

These locks are deep, at around 11ft each.

The final lock on the Arm is just after Venetian marina, which is really just a widening of the canal. Then it wasn't long before we reached Barbridge Junction. A boat was reversing across the junction and then turned in; maybe he'd overshot, being unable to see because of the bikes and canoes on his roof.

We turned left at the junction, heading south on the Shroppie. Before long we passed the start of the Llangollen Canal at Hurleston Junction. Before Nantwich I finally managed to get a photo of a kingfisher on this trip. I've seen dozens of them this month, far more than usual. I wonder if they've had a particularly good year for some reason.

Originally at Nantwich the Chester Canal terminated in the arm to the right, which is now the Nantwich Canal Centre; the embankment carrying the canal south had to be built because a landowner didn't want the canal on his land.

By the canal a bit further round at Nantwich there's lots of new housing, with plenty more still being built.

At the two Hack Green Locks, the boat in front said we were the sixth in the procession. We had lunch on the move after the locks, then when we reached Audlem we found lots of boat had moored up so there was no queue for the locks.

We went up the first two lock, then moored so we could go into the village. It's very pleasant, and has a useful Co-op.

We'd decided to stay where we were, partly as we're being picked up by friends later, and partly because the forecast was heavy rain all afternoon. However, the boat on the permanent mooring opposite had its engine running, and the mooring was on a slight bend, so every time the lock was emptied we moved quite a bit. So at 3pm we decided to go up the next eleven locks to the Coxbank moorings whixh are a favourite of ours. There were a few boats coming down, then we caught up with a single hander ahead so had to turn the last few. Even so, we did the eleven in two hours, which is pretty good. Audlem is a very nice flight, and always a pleasure to work -- and the rain never came.

15 miles, 17 locks. (289 miles, 160 locks)