The Northern parts of the BCN consist of the Wyrley & Essington, Walsall, Daw End, Rushall and Tame Valley Canals and can be a bit of a challenge to boaters. These are all remainder canals but even so a great part of them have been dredged in recent years.
Most boaters enter the Wyrley & Essington from Horsley Field Junction at Wolverhampton. You immediately pass through the remains of the original stop lock, dating from the time that the W & E was a separate entity from the Birmingham Canal. They amalgamated in 1840 to become the Birmingham Canal Navigations. The W & E, known as the Curly Wyrley, being a contour canal, heads for Wednesfield and you shortly arrive at the junction with the Bentley Canal. All that now remains is a short stub as moorings alongside Bentley Retail Park. All the retail outlets you could want are here together with cinema and bowling and The Nickelodeon Pub – but no real ale when I last went in!
The Bentley descended by several locks from this junction with a splendid lock house by the top lock. The locks and lock house were still in being when I first passed this way in 1982 but the scene is difficult to imagine today. In fact the land has now been built up to such an extent that the ground is now level with the main canal. From things I have read the cost of infilling the canal and making good the drainage far exceeded what the likely cost of restoration.
The canal twists and turns to Lane Head where you pass the old loading basin for Hollyhead Colliery. The water in the basin is deep enough to moor easily and the grass seems to be cut regularly. There are secure gated moorings at Lane Head Bridge with two pubs facing each other across the canal.
You now pass through an area of wood and grass land called Rough Wood before passing under the M6. Looking to your right the land drops away to give you views towards Walsall about a mile away. It will be about 3 miles by canal! At Sneyd Junction it is obvious that the canal used to go straight on through the locks whose remains you can see. This became the Wyrley Branch leading to a reservoir and several collieries. We need to turn sharp right however passing the old maintenance yard, now residential moorings. There is a sanitary station here and you may be able to moor overnight if you talk to the warden nicely.
Otherwise we wend our way to Birchills Junction. Go right here and you pass a Sainsbury’s with its own, shallow moorings to arrive at the top of the 8 locks that drop you down to Walsall. There is another secure mooring here with sanitary station and on the towpath are an old toll office and the Birchills Boatmen’s Rest. This listed building was for many years a small museum but funding cuts have made their presence felt and now the building is at risk. The boatyard opposite was once the home of Ernie Thomas, a well-known BCN carrier. The Sainsbury’s is built on the site of Birchills Power Station, the recipient of much of the coal mined in the area.
Continuing on the main line, the observant will see the remains of a few wooden boats lying amongst the reeds on the offside. These are from Peter Keays boatyard which operated by the next bridge. Keays was the last wooden boat builder in the area. After passing through the housing of Bloxwich you now pas extensive green spaces on your right with the remains of Goscote Copper Works on your left.
The housing gives way to some farm land and then you pass through Pelsall Common. It is difficult to imagine that this green space was once a hive of activity with coalmines and iron works, including a blast furnace. The Cannock Extension Canal goes off to the left, straight as an arrow with a vista of several bridges spanning it. The canal used to pass several collieries before descending the flight of 16 locks at Churchbridge to join the Staffs & Worcs Canal at Hatherton Junction. Subsidence took its toll and most of the canal was closed in the ‘60s. It terminates now at Watling Street. It is possible to turn at the end but you may have to ask the boatyard to move a boat or two. Just before the end are two old colliery loading basins that are now used for mooring.
As the canal leaves the common you have The Fingerpost Pub with moorings outside. The canal twists and turns a bit more before arriving at Brownhills. I have to admit a soft spot for Brownhills. A sanitary station, extensive moorings and 24 hour Tesco. But no nearby pub! There used to be a huge outdoor market here but it closed a few years ago due, I am told, to the amount of counterfeit product that was being sold. Cross the canal to the Clayhanger Country Park to exercise your dog, or yourself, where you may be lucky to spot the small herd of deer that frequent the area.
At Catshill Junction the W & E goes off to the left and to Anglesey Basin at the bottom of Chasewater Reservoir. Another great area for walking and exploring the immediate area. Until the mid ‘60s there was a gantry across the canal here to load coal for delivery to the local power stations. For a good description of the operation read Tom Foxons ‘No. 1’. The water here is crystal clear and is a good place to examine your boat hull below the waterline! You will have seen Ogley Junction that the canal went off to the right. This was the main line dropping down through several locks to join the Coventry Canal at Huddlesford. This is currently undergoing restoration and will eventually make a back door entry to the BCN.
Going the other way at Catshill takes you onto the Daw End Branch. Again, it is difficult to imagine that when built this contour canal was level with the surrounding land. Subsidence means that the canal is often several feet above now. You will see that some of the bridges were designed to be easily raised with simple steel girders with alcoves beneath where jacks could be inserted. Look at the brickwork edging the canal and see the lines of mortar as they disappear at an angle into the water. Just before Aldridge is a huge hole in the ground on the towpath side where clay is mined for the nearby brick and pipe works. There is a small boatyard at Aldridge with another gated mooring just beyond.
The W & E was dredged in 2010 up to this point and it will feel as if you run into a brick wall. The first time I felt this I immediately went down the weed hatch but now I just throttle down and plug on with it. Never the less, deep draughted boats can still continue with no problems as long as they don’t want to moor. The Manor Arms is now in sight by the towpath. This pub is a jewel and must be visited. It has no bar with drinks being dispensed from faucets in the wall. Visit in the winter and it is like sitting in someone’s front room. If you don’t fancy mooring outside a few hundred yards on is the Park Lime Pits Country Park.
Another mile or so and you arrive at Longwood Junction. The old canal went off to the left to a quarry that is now a nature reserve with the arm being used as moorings. There is another sanitary station here but the elsan is one of the most un-sanitary on the canals.
Straight in front of you is the first lock of the Rushall Canal. This is one of the newest of the BCN canals, being built in 1847. When the BCN was formed in 1840 this was one of three new canals specified in the act of union but the BCN declined to build it as they could see no economic benefit. However, as they had borrowed money for this, and would have to repay it, the canal was eventually built, dropping in a straight line through 9 locks. These are not the easiest locks with a small crew, having double bottom gates with no over bridges and anti-vandal locks on virtually every paddle. The first two are close together but the bottom gates on Lock 2 refuse to stay open. The trick is to take your boat hook with you and jam one gate open whilst you lean against the other. There is a long pound to Lock 3 then all the rest of the flight are grouped together. You may find one or more of the pounds low so get used to running water down. When you get to the bottom, take satisfaction that you have just been through the most underused locks in the country with just 250 movements recorded in 2012.
Arriving at Rushall Junction you can turn left or right onto the Tame Valley Canal. The Tame Valley was the M6 Toll of its day, being built to allow boats to bypass the busy Aston & Farmers Bridge locks. Built by James Walker in 1844, it follows the same methods as Telfords New Main Line being straight with twin towpaths, deep cuttings and lofty embankments.
Turning left you soon come to the first of these embankments with views across the rooftops to the Dudley hills beyond. The cuttings are spanned by high bridges. 13 locks grouped as 7, 4 and 2 drop you down to Salford Junction which lies under the shadow of Spaghetti Junction. You can go straight on to Fazeley, sharp right to Birmingham or not so sharp right to Warwick. You may notice several canalside buildings with strange names such as ‘Reflux Valve No. 2’. These were part of a back pumping system.
Going right at Rushall Junction you find yourself running alongside the M5 motorway and then crossing it on an aqueduct. This has narrows each side designed to test your steering skills as nothing is in line. Passing through the cutting under Crankhall Bridge you will suddenly pick up speed. The canal from here on was dredged as recently as winter 2012 and is a pleasure to cruise. Passing under several more bridges you arrive at the junction with the Walsall Canal at Ocker Hill.
The Walsall Canal officially starts at the top of Ryders Green Locks but for our purposes we’ll start from Pudding Green Junction with the New Main Line. The canal is quite industrial at first. You arrive at Ryders Green top lock where the Ridgeacre Branch (technically the Wednesbury Old Canal) goes off to your right. This used to go to Swan Bridge for the Gas Works and the Balls Hill Branch and some railway interchange basins and were navigable up to the 90s. Then to the shame of British Waterways they allowed the Black Country Spine Road to be built on the level across the canal and blocking it for ever. Boats are discouraged from travelling on what is left due to the amount of toxic silt that can be dragged up from the bottom.
Ryders Green locks are easy to work despite the anti-vandal locks and you drop swiftly through the first 7 locks to the longer pound at Great Bridge. Great Bridge Street used to have some hefty steel girders supporting it meaning the steerer had to duck down at the last minute to avoid a nasty knock. The bridge has now been rebuilt. There is another new bridge joining Great Bridge to the Asda store opposite. You are advised to knock the boat out of gear and float under this. The local sport is seeing how many Asda trolleys can be dropped into the canal here. Shortly after the 8th lock you arrive at Ocker Hill and the junction with the Tame valley Canal. There is a short arm here with residential moorings and space for a couple of visiting boats, plus the usual elsan, water and pumpout. The building here was the West Midlands regional office for a few years but has been empty for at least the last 3.
Passing the office block you are now on the least used canal in the Black Country. Shallow, weedy and rubbish strewn. Why would you ‘cruise’it? Because the next time you are in the pub you can say ‘I’ve been to Walsall, have you?’
The housing on the left here is built on the site of Ocker Hill Power Station, another recipient of all that coal mined on Cannock chase and as you go on you will see evidence of old arms and branch canals going off on either side. At Darlaston you pass through a section that has been narrowed by steel girders built out into the water. This used to be an electric lift bridge joining two factory sites. You nosed up to the bridge, pressed the button and the bridge deck rose automatically in the air. After you passed through you pressed the second button and down it went. When it was no longer used the Wey & Arun Canal Trust purchased it for later use.
The canal runs straight now on a weedy embankment towards the M6 (you can see it easily from the road just before you pass the Showcase Cinema) Immediately after the M6 the canal went under an office block but this was demolished in 2009 and is now another derelict site. On the bright side the canal always seems to be a bit deeper from here on and you shortly arrive at the bottom of the 8 Walsall Locks.
Before ascending them and joining the W & E at Birchills Junction you must go right to the end of the Town Arm. This was derelict for many years but is now slowly being regenerated. The basin was opened out with a new Art Gallery, a wharfside bar called, imaginatively ‘The Wharf’, a hotel and restaurant and a lot of housing. The Art Gallery is a must to visit and make sure you go to the top for the viewing platform where you can not only see across the Black Country but you can look down onto your boat and admire it from afar!
There are secure moorings on a pontoon at the beginning of the Town Arm but I’ve always moored on the pontoons in the basin itself. Unfortunately there are no facilities in the basin itself but I am assured by the Trust that there will be in the near future.