Saturday, 12 May 2012

Meandering Through The Black Country

(Boat Sickle - posted by Alan)

Today "Sickle" was due to restart her travels, after last week's event at the Black Country Museum.  Cath's full time job still limits us to a situation where a lot of our boat moving of necessity is a  weekend activity, and this requires some fairly creative use of any combination of one or two of any or all of the following - trains, cars, bicycles.  This weekend we left home by car, but carrying two bikes, but eventually arrived at the Black Country Museum two trains later, but with bikes.  All this takes time, and we knew we would not set off until about mid-day, so decided that today we would only move "Sickle" up into Birmingham, not actually pass through it.

Waiting for boats coming up at Factory Locks.
The Birmingham canals are unique in their complexity, even the parts still surviving, ignoring the many parts lost over time.  For much of the way from Wolverhampton to Birmingham there are not one, but two canals - the "Old Main Line", following a path much of which was originally based on contours, then, 20 feet lower, Telford's "New Main Line", built to relieve pressure on water supplies, and the congestion of the original route, and like a Roman road, driving in long straight lines, often in deep cuttings.  These two lines, and other branches and canals that connect to them, pass over each other at points on magnificent aqueducts, and are at points other than their ends interconnected by short canals, each of which share a common feature of three locks providing the required level difference.

Better headroom than expected at Brades Road Bridge.
I have to  say, I am far more a "fan" of the Old Main Line, which has some magnificent twists and turns, and spectacularly for part of its route now has the M5 built right over the top of it.  However the New Main Line, whilst much of it flat and straight, has its interests too, such as the magnificent iron Galton Bridge - an engineering masterpiece when built.

BCN's only staircase locks at Brades
As we had a bit of margin to get into Birmingham, we decided to take a few diversions from either of the most obvious routes.  We started off at the BCLM, which is on the higher "Old" level, but within a mile were at Factory Junction, in Tipton, and descending the three Factory locks onto the New Main Line.  We had a long wait whilst two large crews on hire boats tried to work out how locks work.  Although these boats had come from Alvechurch, well the other side of Birmingham, I suspect these were their first locks, so perhaps it is not surprising they were struggling.

Spon Lane top lock dominated by the M5
Our first "diversion" was to leave the New Main Line at Albion junction, to head up the little used Gower Branch, a direct link back onto the Old Main Line.  I began to doubt the wisdom of this at the first lock, which was full of so much floating debris we never would have opened the gates without the major clearance I did, pulling lots of wood, and floating plastic out.  Further the handrail of the top gate had been neatly hacksawed through on one side, something I fortunately spotted before still making a couple of hazardous crossings of it!  I was curious to remember just how low the bridge below the top two locks is - I remembered it as very tight with "Chalice", but the fact a foot of water was missing from the canal, and Sickle's lower cabin height meant with chimneys removed, it didn't seem that bad.  The top two locks are interesting, as I believe them to be the only staircase lock on the entire Birmingham Canal Navigations.  Fortunately they were not as rubbish strewn as the bottom lock of this flight.

Spon Lane bottom lock - new territory for us.
The time lost here meant that as we were about to rejoin the Old Main Line at Brades Hall junction, the same two hire boats went past ahead of us!  Actually "Sickle" proved to be quite slow on the Old Main Line, so we didn't catch them up until they had pulled over just past the M5 and Spon Lane Junction.  We think they had no proper map of these complex canals, and were getting confused about where they were going.  The Spon Lane locks are another way back down to the New Main Line, and although they briefly send you away from Birmingham again, we decided to take that detour.  We realised then we were breaking new ground for us - we had never been through these locks, or this short interconnecting canal before.  If you look at the map, there really is no reason when travelling through Birmingham any reason still to use them, other than to say you have - it is good that they have survived though.

Galton Bridge - hard to photograph since Galton Tunnel was built
Coming out of the bottom of Spon Locks at Bromford Junction requires a 180 degree turn back on to the New Main Line.  This should be dead easy with a 40 foot boat like "Sickle" but proved to be anything but!  The whole of the area at the junction between the two routes is heavily silted, and we had a lot of difficulty getting through the "sludge".  We were stirring up thick black oil or tar like substances from the bed of the canal, and leaving a huge black slick in our wake.  It is obvious that although these canals now look quite clean, compared to their murky past, that there are large amounts of industrial waste just sitting at the bottom in places like these.

The collected debris from three prop-fouling incidents
Back on the New main Line, even after delays, and the silt, we just beat the two hire boats, passing the point the Old and New lines finally become one at Smethwick junction, just before they emerged.  We were not to stay in front for long, however!  We then started a series of incidents where Sickle's propeller became heavily fouled, with long stops whilst I tried to clear it with a cabin shaft, (there is no weed-hatch on Sickle, as modern boats now have).  Over the day we collected, one heavy quilted coat, plus accessories, one large ornate curtain or bed-throw, plus accessories, and, just before final arrival in Birmingham, what was probably mostly a "Hoodie", plus accessories.  I was surprised this all happened on the more used parts of the BCN - had we had trouble on the little used branches we took, I would have been less so.

I don't think these ladies were amongst our "trespassers"!
Although we have regularly moored in Birmingham, I now wonder if we have ever previously done so on a Saturday night ?  It was obviously going to be lively, particularly with what we assume were "stag" or "hen" related events.  Not only did we have ladies all in red dresses, all in blue shiney dresses, and as School Crossing patrol ladies, we also had hire boats turning up with crew in fancy dress, including dressed as very large fish.  We had an excellent meal, but on return to the boat, it was obvious a quiet night's rest was never on the cards.  "Sickle" of course has a large flat "tug deck" area, and not once, but maybe as many as a dozen times, did people think it acceptable to run around on it.  "Sickle" rocks fairly violently if several people get on the same side at once, so we were hardly going to sleep through it.  Whether people just think it is OK, whether they assume nobody is on the boat, or whether they are just to drunk to even think about it, I can't say.  A couple of policemen had told us earlier that things normally quieten down bu about 1:00 am, but the last two young ladies to climb aboard chose not to do so until 4:00 am.  They clearly thought it highly amusing, but by then we were not seeing the funny side of it!

Black Country Museum, Tipton to Central Birmingham
Miles: 12.1, Locks: 9

Totals for extended trip....
Miles: 250.9, Locks: 179

No comments:

Post a Comment

We have (finally!) been alerted to the fact that many people have been unable to post comments on this blog. (It seemed a bit odd, as people used to, but it has stopped occurring). We have changed some settings, so hopefully now possible again. Comments will be moderated, and you will need to enter word verification.