A Race On An Icy Canal To Beat A Birmingham Blockage
Seven days to go. Seven days to cover a mere forty-three miles. How difficult could that be?
That was our goal when we left Market Drayton last Monday morning. The sky was clear and the canal untroubled by the fierce gusts which had buffeted us all the previous day.
We needed to reach central Birmingham and the bottom of the thirteen lock Farmer’s Bridge flight by last light on Sunday 3rd February. The flight was scheduled to close at 8 am the following morning and, I thought at the time, close any route to Napton Junction.
The weather forecast concerned me. Circumstances conspired against us. We would be travelling at the very worst time of the year thanks to the delay with Orient’s remedial work. The forecast was for heavy snow the following Thursday and, more worryingly, a string of sub-zero nights and only marginally warmer days. Snow would be an inconvenience, mildly uncomfortable and slightly challenging when negotiating locks. Thick ice could stop us dead in our tracks. Sure, we could batter our way through ice up to an inch thick providing I didn’t mind losing all the paint I had carefully applied to the waterline just five weeks earlier. We prayed for balmy days and mild nights. No one listened.
We met the day’s first challenge at Tyreley’s five lock flight where the canal runs through a dismal sandstone cutting. The channel is narrow, very narrow, and difficult to negotiate in a deep boat. I grounded too far away from the first lock landing to jump ashore so had to painfully and slowly reverse for a hundred yards to a spot where I could reach the bank. There was nowhere to tie a rope to on the rocky canalside ledge, so I had to leave a trailing centre line on the towpath and hope the boat behaved itself.
Evidence of the previous day’s high winds lay beside and sometimes across the locks throughout the flight. Fortunately, our only moving boat sighting of the day, a CRT workboat, ascended the flight ahead of us clearing the way. We ground our way through the flight and then entered the deep and dismal world of Woodseaves mile long cutting. The CRT workboat saved the day again. A wind-felled tree leaned across the canal, its lower branches blocking the channel altogether. Two contractors worked tirelessly for an hour using cutting edge technology to clear the way. One guy held the workboat in place while the other slipped and slid over his cabin’s ice-slicked roof. He used a pruning saw tied to a boat hook with a length of old rope to carve out a tunnel wide and high enough for Orient to pass.
The first water point we stopped at had been turned off. Fortunately the second worked after being given the kiss of life by a kettle of boiling water. We had enough water for another week. Now, all we needed was coal.
After eight and a half hours of high embankments, deep cuttings and painfully slow bumping-along-the-bottom progress, we moored on a muddy towpath in the gloom of a tree-shaded cutting at Gnosall Heath.
I checked the weather forecast the following morning. The prediction remained unsettling. Plummeting temperatures, ice and blankets of snow. I steered clear of anything written by the tabloids online. They suggested that Britain’s Big Freeze was going to decimate the population and bring the country to its knees.
The day’s cruising routine remained the same. Up at 6am to clean the ash out of both fires and coax them back to life. Then the engine checks; dip the fuel pump, gearbox and engine oil, fill the header tank and fill and tighten the grease points. By 7.30am I was waiting for enough light before setting off.
Our exit from Gnossal Heath was delayed by a shopping trip. I scoured both Gnossal Heath and Gnossal for anything worth eating. I don’t know why I bothered. Neither village has much to offer passing boaters.
Fortunately, the cruising day was short. We travelled ten miles and negotiated a single lock in five hours. Our mooring for the night was an hour north of Atherley Junction and the start of our three-day urban cruise.
Five days to go. The thermometer crept ever south. Weather forecasters still predicted heavy snow and nights cold enough to worry the elderly. And concern me too. We were down to three bags of coal and a single string net of kindling. I prayed again for nights without ice. No one listened this time either.
I paused briefly at the stop lock at Autherley Junction. Good news and bad news at Napton Narrowboats. They usually sold coal, but they were out of stock. I turned right at the junction and pulled onto the lock landing at the bottom of the Wolverhampton Twenty One.
I wasn’t looking forward to our passage through Wolverhampton and Birmingham. My one and only narrowboat visit to England’s second largest city hadn’t been particularly pleasant. On a long April day, I skirted Birmingham’s south-east on a Warwick Ring circuit. The route included Camp Hill and Garrison locks. I stopped four times on the Camp Hill flight to clear my propeller. The locks and the pounds between were a sea of plastic bottles and bags and discarded clothing. I saw more canalside than waterborne rubbish on the Garrison flight. Three emaciated men in tattered clothing slumped next to a burned out building by one of the locks. Drunk by mid-morning on special strength lager and bumper bottles of mind-rotting cider, they mumbled obscenities to me as I passed. They were harmless but unpleasant, very similar to the bobbing contents of the lock they sat beside.
I expected more of the same on this trip. I knew we would have to moor overnight somewhere within the urban sprawl for at least two nights, more if the forecast ice and snow caused delays.
I worried about utilities. Would the taps at water points be turned on and would they be ice free? Tracking our water supply is difficult. There’s an empty hole within a small metal frame to the side of the pine steps in front of the water tank. It’s labelled “Water Gauge”. That’s another entry on our lengthening to do list. We think we have a 700-800 litre tank. It should last us two weeks with careful management and a reluctance to bathe. We don’t know when we’ll run out, so we have to fill the tank as often as possible.
Heating fuel was another concern. Orient is not an efficient space to heat. There are three different areas; the forward cabin which includes the saloon, galley, bathroom and bedroom, the engine room and the boatman’s cabin. Our Squirrel does a passable job of heating the forward cabin back as far as the galley. It provides little meaningful heat to the bedroom.
Orient’s boatman’s cabin has a Premiere range. It doesn’t heat the cabin so much as melt everything that’s in it. The thermometer showed minus four when I wrote this section, but I sat typing on the cabin’s small fold-down table with the back doors wide open. It’s overkill for heating such a small space but brilliant for baking potatoes.
The boat’s centre section can, in theory, be heated by the Kabola boiler. There’s a towel rack in the bathroom, a radiator in the bedroom and another in the engine room. “The Kabola heating system is super simple to turn on,” previous owner Stuart told me. “All you need to do is turn the thermostat up until it clicks and, voila, you have hot radiators!” No matter what I’ve tried so far, no click and no central heating. At least we’re saving on money for heating diesel.
So we have three different heat sources, but only two of them work. We have two coal-burning stoves to feed. A twenty-five-kilo bag of coal briquettes lasts about three days. I used about the same just for one stove on my last boat. Orient’s multifuel stoves burn more efficiently than the stove on James and Orient’s spray foam insulation retains heat much more effectively than the James’ polystyrene. More efficient coal burning maybe, but we still needed to ensure that we had enough.
Multiple sub-zero days and a string of lock closures meant that we could be stuck for several days in one spot at the coldest time of the year. I had seen little activity on the waterways we cruised. Many of the boatyards appeared to be closed for the season, nor had I passed any roving fuel boats. Finding a canalside fuel supply was proving to be more of a challenge than I expected. I don’t mind walking a mile or two to do grocery shopping, but the thought of walking a similar distance carrying coal didn’t appeal to me at all.
So I tied up on the lock landing beneath the Wolverhampton Twenty One somewhat preoccupied. I didn’t notice the solid sheet of ice which filled the bottom lock. Ice in locks is a right royal pain in the backside. My expected five-hour lock passage became eight.
The ice was still thin enough to push through with the boat, but too thick to open the gates completely. Orient’s pole joined me on the lock ascent. On the many occasions when a gate became obstructed by ice, I swept it out of harm’s way with the pole.
My pace slowed even more halfway up the flight when I ran out of water. That’s when I fell in love with Wolverhampton dog walkers and cyclists. As I crept through a low pound painfully slowly a dog walker gave a cheery wave and told me that contractors had drained a lock at the head of the flight.
The Farmer’s Bridge flight was my main concern, but the Wolverhampton Twenty One was also scheduled to close for maintenance the following Monday. Had they decided to close the flight early? I was about to phone CRT when another dog walker shouted over to me. “I’m going home in a minute. I’ll jump in my car and go to the head of the flight for you to see what’s happening.” How kind. A cyclist also stopped, spoke to the dog walker and decided that he could take half an hour out of his day to make the return trip to the problem lock on his bike. Another unexpected act of kindness.
He returned half an hour later with good news. The contractors were measuring up for the following week. They would be finished long before I reached them and taking most of the flight’s water with them judging by the increasingly shallow pounds.
No sooner had the cyclist left than a CRT employee arrived with a big smile and a windless. “Don’t worry about the low pounds,” he reassured me. “Give me half an hour, and I’ll run some water down the flight for you.” God bless all CRT employees.
As darkness fell, I cruised out of the final lock and on to a superb mooring in Wolverhampton city centre next to a small park. We were away from the towpath and felt very safe. It was the perfect urban mooring, which was just as well. Leaving the following day wasn’t easy.
I woke to a thermometer showing minus seven and a half an inch of ice surrounding the boat. We had four days to reach the other side of Birmingham before the route closed. It wouldn’t have been a problem under normal conditions, but the ice was a big problem. Added to the cruising difficulties we needed both water and coal. We really needed to move, but would we able to fight our way through the frozen stuff? What would happen if we couldn’t couldn’t break our way through? If we missed our Farmer’s Bridge deadline, we would have to find another route south. The only one I could think of was back up the Shroppie to the Middlewich branch and then down the Trent and Mersey. That would add another couple of weeks to the journey. The alternative was to have Orient lifted out and shipped by road. I phoned a few local boatyards. None of them had lifts on site. The cost at one for bringing in a crane was £550, plus the cost of road transport and putting Orient back in the water at the other end. The price was too high. We needed to try ice breaking. I decided to walk along our route for half an hour trying to judge the ice thickness and the chance of forging a path through it.
I spotted a CRT workboat fifteen minutes later idling on an offside mooring, a trail of broken ice behind it. If I could reach the furrow it had ploughed I could follow that at least part of the way. I hurried back to Orient.
We fought our way off our mooring and onto the service point at Broad Street basin for water. While I defrosted the tap with two kettles of boiling water, coaxed the ice plugs out of our own hose and filled our tank the broken expanse of water behind us began to freeze again. By the time we reached the path opened by the CRT tug, it was a jumbled mess of refrozen ice. We crashed into the first of it and said goodbye to our month old hull paint.
The semi-broken track continued as far as Factory Locks where I had to turn to avoid a stoppage further along the main line. To prevent damaging moored boats through Tipton, and angering their owners, I reduced our speed to a crawl. Slowing down meant reducing our icebreaking capability. Orient was dead in the water by the time we reached Tipton Junction.
I ate the hot meal Cynthia brought up to me on the back deck as the bow butted ineffectively against inch thick ice. I had a choice. I could either reverse a few hundred yards onto a line of iced in moorings or try to break my way through and hope that the ice thinned again further down the canal. The worry of missing Farmer’s Bridge made the decision for me. I reversed fifty feet, twisted the speed wheel, said a prayer and charged forward.
Cynthia likened the rest of the day to be like living inside a tumble dryer. The afternoon wasn’t the most peaceful she’s ever enjoyed on board. The day wasn’t much more pleasant on the back deck. I carried on until dusk. The canal ice varied from quarter of an inch to a particularly unpleasant spot one and a half inches thick, with the odd patch of clear water between. We bypassed Oldbury and then through the scaffolding forest beneath the M5 motorway at West Bromwich. Finally, aided by Orient’s tunnel light, we found Smethwick locks and forced our way onto the frozen lock landing. Then I spent the rest of the evening trying to warm up.
Winter cruising is quite pleasant on Orient providing I remember or have time to keep the stove burning. I focussed so much on keeping the boat ploughing along a central channel the fire had died down hours earlier. I was very, very cold.
We woke to slightly better conditions, but a rather depressing view. We were moored opposite a burned out toll house on a strip of green through a sea of ugly housing. This is not a place I would want to stay when warmer weather encourages the local single digit IQ males of dubious parentage to venture outdoors.
Three locks and an hour on an icy canal brought us to neat and tidy central Birmingham and Sherbourne Wharf. We’d made it. The first of the Farmer’s Bridge flight was two minutes away, and we had found a trading coal supplier. Hooray!
Farmer’s Bridge was a delight. Thirteen easy to negotiate locks and then a short cruise to a super mooring in a clean area close to Aston University. And yet another cold night.
The following morning I walked the length of both the Ashted and the Camp Hill flights. Many of the locks were obstructed by ice, but we decided to push on towards a much-anticipated rest day at Catherine-de-Barnes the following day.
The icy lock flight routine continued. Over half the locks needed jagged pieces of ice cleared from behind the gates. The first flight was smooth enough apart from a short but nerve-wracking passage through Ashted tunnel. I had been warned (thank you Pete Earley) that the tunnel was low enough to remove the expensively applied paint on the cabin’s handrail. Setting the next lock downstream would remove an inch or two of water in the tunnel pound and possibly save the handrails. I set the next lock and lowered the water but, despite having a boat with a low air draught, we still touched the uneven offside tunnel roof. I didn’t examine the damage at the time. I don’t like crying in public.
Camp Hill bottom lock was a mess. It didn’t look as though it had been used for many days. Bottles, plastic bags, both empty and full, and shreds of clothing obscured a lock mouth blocked by ice. Breaking through the mess with Orient’s bow was easy. Stopping the refuse from swirling across the stern and down onto the propeller was impossible.
I developed a new routine for the Camp Hill flight. I used my pole to break and clear the ice from behind the lock gates and a boat hook to remove the shit from my propeller. The flight passage was hard work, especially when I tried to negotiate the hairpin bend before lock four. The ice caked pound was low, very low. I should have spotted the tide mark on the canalside concrete. However, trying to make a U-turn on an ice-caked lock pound is a demanding affair. I didn’t notice so grinding to a halt halfway into the lock came as a surprise. Neither reverse nor forward worked. The water was too low. I had to climb onto the cabin roof, walk to the front of the boat where the cabin was highest and vault onto the lock wall carrying my centre line. The only solution was to run some water through the lock from the upstream pound to float Orient out of the mud. Doing that would require so much water that I would drain the upstream pound too. To ensure that all the remaining locks held enough water I had to walk to the head of the flight opening every paddle I passed. Half an hour later Orient was afloat and the rest of the flight passable.
We stopped briefly at the service point at the top of the flight. Thanks to an eight-foot-high needle sharp metal fence protecting it, the facilities block is in first class condition. It’s worth negotiating the Camp Hill flight just to pay a visit. I emptied one of our cassettes and cursed the owner of the rusty wreck of a boat moored on the water point. Then we continued ice breaking.
This was the most challenging icebreaking of the trip so far. Thick ice and a shallow canal made life very difficult. If I cruised slowly to prevent the stern digging into the loose leaves, twigs, cloth and plastic obscuring the canal bed I didn’t have enough power to force myself through. So I had to wind up the throttle to break the ice and lower my precious propeller into endless snagging opportunities. For half an hour I had a small tree stuck to the rudder. It’s lower branches, aided by the thrashing propeller, swept the canal bed clean. The debris which avoided my spinning bronze blades clung to the sapling’s trailing branches until I had my own tree decorated with multicolour plastic leaves.
I stopped every few hundred yards to give the propeller a blast in reverse in an attempt at throwing the rubbish off. Either that or remove the weed hatch to give the propeller a thrashing with a boat hook I kept within reach.
As the afternoon wore on the ice thickened as much as the water thinned. I ground to a halt as I tried to creep past a moored boat on the tree-lined cutting north of Catherine-de-Barnes. Tired, cold, hungry and frustrated, I didn’t have enough patience for any finesse. Try as I might, brute force didn’t work. I gently switched between reverse and forward gears, moving ever so slowly backwards and forwards before finding a route through.
Five minutes later, just two hundred yards from our intended village mooring the same thing happened again. This time Orient wouldn’t move at all. All that reversing achieved was to swing the bow into the bank. At least I could jump onto the towpath and try pushing and pulling the boat. It wouldn’t move. Two male dog walkers offered to help. They helped me push Orient sideways into the channel centre where I hoped there was a little more water.
The owner of the GRP cruiser I had slowed to avoid turned up while we were huffing and puffing. I asked if many boats grounded on this stretch of canal. I know Orient is relatively deep, but there are plenty of narrowboats with a similar draft. Her reply? “You’re the first boat to get stuck this year.”
“How many boats have you seen pass this year so far?” I asked.
She smiled. “You’re the first boat this year!”
Thanks for that.
Back in marginally deeper water, I managed to creep past Mrs Comedian and smash enough ice a little further on to moor for the night, and for the following day. A freezing night was forecast. I suspected that cruising the next morning would be out of the question, not that I had the energy. I was looking forward to a rest day and a mixed grill on a dustbin-sized plate at the village pub. Boating is an exceptionally effective form of exercise. Because of that I’m eating like a horse and still losing weight.
Much as the journey south has been challenging so far, I’m enjoying every minute of it. Each day has been an adventure, a set of hurdles to overcome. The cruising is physically demanding, mentally taxing but very rewarding. Much as I’m looking forward to reaching Napton Junction towards the end of next week, a part of me wishes the journey could continue. But I don’t live in a world where money grows on trees. I need to return to work for a while, long enough to plan and save for the next adventure.
Discovery Day Update
I should be back at Calcutt Boats within the next week. That means that I am now in a position to take bookings for winter experience days. I have taken a few already but I still have space for one or two later this month. You will only see dates on my calendar for April onwards. I have to make special arrangements for winter dates because of possible disruption from ice or snow. If you want to arrange a winter date you can either email me or call me on 07868 981943. Click here to find out more about my Discovery Day service or click here to check my available dates between April and December.
“Where one door closes another opens”