Goodbye Tow Path, Hello Water!

14 10 2012

Goodbye Towpath, Hello Water…..

Farmers Bridge Flight

14 10 2012

Wigginshill Bridge to Perry Barr Top Lock

20 05 2012

This entry needs to start with a confession – or at least a clarification – as this is not a walk at all, given that we were lucky enough to have been granted passage on NB Woodbine. The BCNS hold an annual cruise event where courageous narrow boaters from all over descend on Birmingham en mass to cruise parts of the BCN as a group. Not being in possession of a boat (yet) we decided to ask if anyone would consider a few stow-aways and were kind enough to be accepted aboard by Malcolm and Barbara.

Through the vagueries of modern communicatons and despite the best efforst of the rain and high water levels of the River Trent we managed to meet them at the right time and in the right place on Saturday morning. It was nice to be joining them on the first day of their cruise along the BCN. Barbara and Malcolm were wonderful hosts and we are very grateful that they were preparred to share their space (always limited on a narrow boat), their time and their knowledge which made for a most enjoyable day. For us it was another opportunity to join up a little more of the network on our map and it was nice to be propelled by diesel enginer rather than foot power.

However, I would guess that what we saved in foot power we more than spent in arm power having negotiated 16 locks throught the day. Travelling by boat certainly provided a different perspective, and it was great to meet up wth some of the crews of the nineteen boats taking part in the cruise. Everyone was very welcoming. We also enjoyed a far more civilised lunch than we have been used to on our walks.

Barbara had prepared a delicious slow cooked beef casserole whch was made all the more tempting as the aroma slowly permeated throughout the cabin all morning. We arrived at Perry Barr top lock all too soon and wished our new freinds a good onward journey around the BCN. Another great day made all the better by excellent company.


Old Main Line Loops

7 05 2012

Salvage Turn to Smethwick Juncion (going ‘loopy’)

The forcast was for rain throughout the day but thankfully it was dry when we woke up. In an attempt to stay ahead of the rain we decided to foresake the bank holiday belly buster and head off with just a tea and a chocolate coated malted milk or three for sustenance. We’d walked this route a little over a year ago but neglected to take the camera and write it up for the blog. I think the first anniversaryof our blog has had a motivational effect – twinned with my desire to plot out our walks to date on a map (which I think my man will be doing a link to presently). As things stand we have clocked up around 50 miles along the BCN over the last year, which is progress indeed but still leaves a great deal to cover – especially whe considering that a good part of that 50 miles has been circuitous. To this end we are going to try where possible to walk a linear route and use public transport to return us ‘home’ in order to cover more ground and start joining up the bits we’ve yet to do.

I suppose that Salvage Turn is canal ‘home’ to us as it is the closest bit of the network to where we live. It’s also probably the most recognisable part of the BCN given the proximity to such major venues and also the amount of redevelopment that took place on both sides of the canal in the early 1990’s. Sadly I did not visit the area often enough to be able to have a clear memory of what the area between Salvage Turn, past Old Turn Junction and down to St Vincent Street Bridge looked like prior to the major face lift, but Dave certainly can. Reminder to have a quick look on google images to see what’s online after writing this.

As far as possible we decided to incorporate the “loops” off the Main Line, which once were the original route of the winding Brindley Old Main Line contour canal before Telford drove through in a straight line thus created the loops.

We ducked down Oozells Loop as far as we could before having to leave the canal at the offices of Sherbourne Wharf and the private residents area. Great name “Oozell”. I’ve googled with very little success other than to imagine it may be a rather unusual surname. I guess I like it because it reminds me of my dad reading Winnie the Pooh to me as a kid, with the rather trippy song “Heffalumps and Woozells”. Odd given Sherbourne’s preeminent claim to city centre morrings that a number of the craft moored are in a rather sorry state, including a sunken narrow boat that appears to have languished with little effort at salvage for some time.

We rejoined the canal at St Vincent Bridge which seems to mark out the extent to the investment of the 90’s. The towpath quickly becomes a dirt track (and a rather muddy one after the last week of rain) although there is towpath on both sides for this stretch of the new Main Line and the other side does appear to be in better condition. On the left (west) side of the canal the West Coast Main Line is busy with rail traffic in and out of Birmingham and is a peramnent snub to Telfords broad super-fast canal (in relative terms) that ultimately lost out to the permamnent way. On the right (east) side we quickly come to the entrance to Icknield Port loop. This loop has a certain mystery if only because there is no tow path and so it can only be seen from a boat. We know that the trip boats from Birmingham incorporate the loop but we’ve not ventured aboard yet. There is a great deal to be said about the loop on line, not least because it contained some of the oldest factory sites in Birmingham until it was largely cleared in a last four or five years. Sadly the 2008 regeneration project fell foul of the recession but will give you a good idea of what is proposed. For an idea of what the area once contained then visit, with lots of great photo’s further down the page of Bellis and Morcom Ltd – steam and diesel engine manufacturers.

The loop is only a quarter of a mile long and rejoins the Main Line with the entrance to Soho Loop immediatey opposite. I thought I’d waxed lyrical about Soho and it’s history in a previous blog, but can’t find it so must have been dreaming. The Soho loop is just over a mile in length and is largely occupied on the offside by City hospital. At some stage in the near future this is due to be mostly relocated so, in conjunction with Icknield Port Loop, this area will be one of huge redevelopment. But for now the scene is pretty unprepossessing. And yet the history of this particular location and its importance to Birmingham and the West Midlands cannot be understated. Suffuce to say that half way around the loop you will come to the Hockley Port Basin which is all that remains of the Soho Branch Canal that once linked up to Mathew Boulton’s original Soho Manufactory. As you leave the loop and rejoin the New Main Line canal heading northwest you will also cross over a listed roving bridge that once crossed over the Boulton and Watt Soho Foundry – birthplace of the Smethwick Engine, currently the oldest working steam engine in the world and, in my opinion, rather dismally displayed in Birmingham Thinktank. A quick google of Soho Foundry, Soho Manufactory, Mathew Boulton or James Watt will tell you all you need to know and may go some way to explaining my admiration.

Within a half a mile of finishing the Soho loop we found ourselves at the bottom of Smethwick Junction, and it was satisfying to recognise the starting point of one of our previous walks as we begin to join things up.

Walsall Town Arm to Birchills Junction

10 04 2012

Walsall Canal Walsall Town Arm to Birchills Junction

It would appear from the last blog notes entry that I just opened for reference that our canal walks so often follow a period of sofa bound inaction and gorging. And so it is after Easter – a final escape from Birmingham and the confines of the city centre after a long and lazy bank holiday. Over-indulgence is a hard habit to kick, as our journey started with a “small” full English breakfast at Munchies Cafe just opposite the New Walsall Art Gallery in the largely redeveloped centre of Walsall. The breakfast is to be commended but the ‘free’ (more accurately inclusive) coffee that was served with it was the very worst type of Mellow Birds crap that your Auntie Vera used to keep in the back of the cupboard because she never drinks the stuff but keeps some in for those who do. Needless to say that I felt obliged to venture next door to Starbucks where I spent precisely 5 pence less on a tall skinny caramel macchiato to go than I had on a full English with a free cup of mud. Little Wonder Starbucks can afford better furniture.

No sooner had we lined our stomachs for the walk ahead did the heavens open in true April style and so we dashed for cultural shelter in the form of the New Walsall Art Gallery. We probably saw only 5% of what the gallery has to offer, but I very much enjoyed the first gallery space that we came to. should get you there. The gallery is probably most famous for the Jacob Epstein Collection that it houses as a result of a collaboration between the artists second wife Kathleen Garman and her life long friend and sculptor Sally Ryan. I’ve had a limited exposure to Epstein’s work from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and so it was nice to see more of the same with some context, as the works on display are part of a very personal closed collection. As museums so often do, so Walsall provided the opportunity to empty ones bladder for free in the most commodious surroundings. Reclaimed Belfast sinks sit very well against polished steel and sand-blasted glass although I was somewhat alarmed by the anti-drug lighting in the cubicles – a sad indication of the more recreational use of the facilities?

The art gallery sits at the end of the Walsall Town arm of the canal, a short stretch of about half a mile from the main canal. It would appear to have been mostly redeveloped along its route on the tow-path side and opens up into a large square basin at the end. Sadly the basin was devoid of a single boat, despite the appeal of fairly new mooring pontoons and facilities. Also sad to see that the only authentic canal building along side the basin is also the only one that is empty and to let. Maybe it’s listed and is therefore less attractive to the branded chains that occupy the other buildings around (Costa Coffee, The Wharf bar). Still, it looks a little lost and out of context sadly.

We made out way past the multi-coloured apartments – shades of Park Central redevelopment just by us. Not entirely sure that terracotta and navy blue make the most obvious bedfellows, but in general I do like the use of colour in these developments. It is a a good deal better than so many places that go for the unfinished bare breeze block effect – cheap posing as trendy. I do wonder about the appearance of these places in the longer term – on close inspection they do seem to have been thrown up quite quickly and the colours already seem to be fading or washing into drabness. Hey ho. Amazed to see nestling in amongst all these flats was a still working foundry – only peeked thanks to a hole in the wall which piqued my curiosity. No idea what was being made / forged, as other than the furnace at the far end it was pretty black within. Certainly a hive of activity though. Had a quick look on Google satellite and it is clearly there but not tagged / labelled and as it is the back of the building that faces the canal then there was no sign. A quick look on Google illustrates just how quickly the arm has changed as there are just large piles of rubble all along the stretch when the satellite photo was taken.

The canal opens out into a fairly broad junction. Travelling south and then east would take you towards Darlaston and Wednesbury (and we have determined that this will be our next walk) and north towards Birchills Junction where the Walsall Canal meets the “Curly” Wyrley & Essington Canal – our destination for today. Not long after we headed north towards the junction did the sun decide to shine down and remind us that spring is doing its best. The redevelopment has continued in the form of the Smiths Flower Mill which is adjacent to lock number 7 of the eight that carry the canal up 65 feet from the Walsall to the Wolverhampton level. As is so often the case, the ‘jewel is the 1820’s mill which appears to have been converted most sympathetically but is then surrounded by a pastiche of mundane flats with the predictable mix of cheap wooden cladding and exposed steel that do little other than remind one that modern residential developments rarely crack the right mix between utility and aesthetic merit. Why is it that we could build something that satisfied a very specific function – a working flour mill -almost 200 years ago that also satisfied the eye? Minor rant over.

I couldn’t help but be impressed at the carved crucifix over on the left as we passed lock number six. This belongs to St Andrews CofE church which looked from the canal to be deserted / derelict, with just the head of the great JC sadly nodding to us from his cross. Upon closer inspection the church does still seem to be used although the adjoining school building would appear to be lacking pupils.

The locks are spread just a hundred metres apart or so and make an easy amble to the top which is blessed with a cottage and Boatman’s Mission. A quick Google search has provided the following description which seems perfectly suited for reproduction here: “Built in 1900 by the Seaman’s and Boatman’s Friend Society, it is Grade II listed. A flagstone in the wall bears the familiar name of Cadbury; the Chocolate making dynasty has a history of philanthropy much of which was directed to boaters and their families. The Mission offered facilities for boatmen waiting to use the locks in an attempt to keep them from frequenting the nearby Navigation Pub. Spiritual guidance and secular training, such as writing, were offered and women were barred from entering to avoid any corrupting influence. The boat horses were housed and fed in the stables to the rear. Next door to the Mission are the lock keeper’s cottage and a characteristic BCN octagonal Toll Office dating from around 1841.”

Sadly the much publicised Birchills Canal Museum is no longer in existence (despite being listed on the finger-posts still) but used to occupy part of the Mission. Sad that it could not be made a go of. Again, looking at Google Satellite map reveals that just behind the Mission / Toll Office was the site of a huge foundry and steelworks (Beehive works?) But this would appear to have been turned to rubble in anticipation of more little boxes with Juliet balconies just as soon as the housing market picks up and we feel the need to spend too much on very little.

From the top lock the canal kicks off to thee left a little and continues on for another half a kilometre to Birchills junction, passing by aqueduct over the dismantled Wolverhampton and Walsall railway. Feeling we’d done minor justice to our breakfast we slipped our way back down the tow path in search of the sofa once again.

Stourbridge Town Arm

29 01 2012

Digbeth Branch Canal & Birmingham & Warwick Junction Canal

28 01 2012