Life on a narrowboat can be as peaceful as it is idyllic BUT you need to understand the pros, cons, highs, lows, and day to day logistics in living on England's inland waterways. Let me help you find out all you need to know before you commit to what could be a very expensive mistake.
The Calder &Hebble is my favourite waterway, being a mix of canal, quirky lock gear and river with some great views, sturdy Yorkshire towns and plenty of pubs selling good beer. However, its the river sections that cause some people, Jeannette included, some disquiet. The river floods often with the canal sections protected by flood gates rather than locks. Coupled with flood markers than seem be set incorrectly means some care needs to be taken. Life jackets and an anchor are a must as is a boat shorter than 60 feet!
The canal starts at the junction with the Rochdale at Sowerby Bridge and runs to Wakefield where it joins the Aire & Calder Navigation. It is deep and fairly wide all the way.
The first few miles from Sowerby Bridge is lock free until you arrive at Salterhebble Top Lock, set at right angles to the canal. Carry on a bit more to the end of what used to be the branch up the hill to Halifax. Abandoned years ago it is still possible to walk the route into the city. There is a pub at the end of the arm and a useful McDonald’s across the road.
Salterhebble is an interesting set of locks. You will need a handspike to make full use of all the paddlegear. A length of 3 x 2 will suffice but if you are cruising the C & H regularly it is worth investing in a proper hardwood one. There is a sanitary station in the pound below the top lock with the middle lock on the right on a curve. The bottom lock has a guillotine bottom gate and an unusual separate tunnel under the road to carry the towpath.
There is now a long tree lined stretch to Elland. I know from person experience that the canal here is about 7 get deep! Elland village is a stiff climb uphill but if it is refreshment you want then The Barge & Barrel is canal side selling a range of ales from their own brewery. Alternatively, another lock down is the Colliers Arms, a Sam Smiths pub with its own moorings.
The locks combat regular intervals until you arrive at Brighouse. There are ample moorings here at the back of Sainsburys or a large Tesco is only a short walk away. The High Street supports a range of small shops including 2 or 3 butchers, bakers, a fantastic pie shop and a specialist cheese shop. You probably won’t hear the eponymous band but get there on 29 June and you will be rewarded with a free display of hymn and march tunes from the Brighouse Festival. Another useful sanitary station before dropping down 2 locks to enter the river for the first time. The warehouse alongside used to be the home of Sagar Marine, builders of particularly fine Dutch Barges.
A mile or so brings you to the first of the food locks. It has an awkward entry on the right hand side of the river and one of the gates is often swinging in the wind as CRT seemingly can’t afford a new bit of chain to keep it open. This is Kirklees Cut and there are very pleasant visitor moorings just above the next lock. The 2nd lock gets you back onto the river which crosses the mouth of the lock. It can be a bit awkward getting the boat against the landing stage just round the corner on the right. Best to put your nose out slowly and let the stream pull you round rather than charge out and then struggle to get back to pick up your lock workers.
Next up is Cooper Bridge. If you are planning to enter the Huddersfield Broad Canal keep to the right and look for the lock landing just through the road bridge. For the C & H go through the flood gate. More visitor moorings on the left before arriving at the lock taking you back onto the river. It can be a bit difficult getting onto the bank here as it is quite high. There is a lock keeper stone hut here and the old lock house on the other side will sell you fresh eggs though you might have to push the chickens out of the way to get to it. Getting back onto the boat should be no problem with a large floating pontoon newly installed.
The towpath changes sides at the next floodgate, the lock being on the right immediately after the graceful footbridge. This is Battyeford with the South Penine Boat Club moorings just before the next lock. Unless it has been repaired recently this lock is hard work, with the bottom gates leaking almost a quickly as it is filling meaning a long wait until you can open the gates.
A pleasant stretch of river brings you to Ledgard flood lock on the left and the town of Mirfield. Heron Boatbuilders used to occupy the buildings on the left. The weir is just below the entrance to the cut and exhibits a strong pull on the boat as you are crossing the river to enter. The stone pillar sticking up in the middle of the water used to carry the towpath across the river. Walkers now have to make a long detour.Mirfield is another pleasing Yorkshire town with ample moorings. A Lidl is conveniently right by the canal but beyond you have a Coop and plenty of other shops. Cross the bridge and turn right by the builders merchants brings you to the Navigation which sometimes holds its own beer festival.
At the end of Mirfield cut is Shepley Bridge. This used to be a maintenance yard for the navigation but is now occupied by a boatyard. There is a sanitary station here but such is the operation of the boat yard that it can be difficult to see and more difficult to get your boat close to it. Don’t be afraid of mooring alongside another boat here. Likewise, the lock landing on the opposite side is also often obstructed. This is one of the locks that was lengthened when the C & H was trying to attract more trade but you now use the intermediate gates to make a normal length lock.
You can see the next set of flood gates a 100 yards away across a loop of the river. This is Greenwood Cut. Be careful when getting into the landing stage to collect your crew when entering the river. There are some rocks below the surface which can be a problem if the water level is low. We are now on the river running down to Thornbill, passing the new gas fired power station just before entrance to the next cut. There used to be a coal fired power station here and the remains of the unloading staithe remains on the right. Thornhill Double Locks are in a pleasant setting, in contrast to the bit of canal you have just cruised. There used to be a water tap here but it disappeared in the late ’90s when the lock house was sold off. Below the lock are some visitor moorings on the main line or you can turn left and travel a mile to Dewsbury basin. Now occupied by a boatyard, you will have to ask for permission to moor. It is a bit of a trek to the town centre but the boat yard does have its own pub. I’ve been there once and never the need to go again!
The next few miles of canal are the most interesting in my opinion, with the right hand side showing many signs of its industrial past, mainly coal mining. Millbank Lock is one of the shortest on the navigation but not as short as the BW list of dimensions used to show. There are the remains of stone walled embankments running just inside the trees that, I assume, carried railway tracks or roads from Hartley Bank Colliery. Just past the disused railway bridge are some bollards for a nice, informal mooring and a clamber up the railway embankment allows you to cross the canal and walk in the woods.
The next locks are called ‘Figure of Three’. The more observant of you might notice that there are only two. The name supposedly comes from either the fact that there was a thpird lock leading down to the river, the remains of which can be seen by the side of the lock house, or from the curves the river made before it was straightened to make way for the railway marshalling yard. The two locks are big with some unusual ground paddles. Carrying on down the canal, the next overbridge is Horbury Bridge. There is a sanitary station a couple of hundred yards before the bridge but it is not very accessible. To us the elsan you just need to moor and cross the road but for water you will need to turn your boat through 90 degrees and nose into the archway leading to the residential moorings where there is a tap just to the right. The remains of another lock here that lead down to the river. There are visitor moorings just through the road bridge outside the Horbury Arms.
Another tree lined stretch with more disused railways now leads you to Broadcut. This is one of the few places where you may see one of the original C & H bridge number plates. A discreet yellow and blue triangle most of them have been swept away by the corporate BW nameplates. The loading staithes for British Oak Colliery are slowly mouldering away on the offside before you get to the first lock. There are extensive visitor moorings below the lock outside the Navigation and another loading staithe opposite. A stroll up the road brings you to a few shops and an excellent chippie. Before the locks were built the navigation continued up the river on the other side of the pub which is why the front door seems to be on the wrong side. It is possible to cross the river here, there being a foot bridge slung under the railway bridge but it is a dark and gloomy crossing. Just before the bottom lock there is a water point.
Back on the river again and you pass under the M1 before entering the next cut. The flood gates here are not at the entrance but halfway along. There are two locks at Thornes but only one is now in use. It is possible to turn upriver here to moor upstream but the main line is to the left and along the river to Wakefield. The flood lock here is in the form of a large basin. There has been a lot of redevelopment here in the course of which the sanitary station has been swept away. Hopefully the visitor moorings will remain despite the new houses overlooking them. Wakefield has plenty of sights. The prison, cathedral, art gallery and the bridge. There are only 3 Chantry Bridges remaining in England, I think! Wakefield, Rotherham and St. Ives being the only one you can navigate under. The bridge is now car free and should be crossed to get to the town where the Cathedral dominates the High Street.
The prison I’ve never visited but the Hepworth Gallery should not be missed. Don’t be put off by the outside appearance. Its whats inside that matters. Besides plenty of Barbara Hepworth scuptures there are many other works of art. There is a large picture window overlooking the weir and Chantry Bridge and compare it to the scene painted by JMW Turner in 1797. Except that Turners view is from the other side and someone has built a huge road bridge in between!
If you like sculpture or just want a nice day out then the Yorkshire Sculpture Park is an easy bus ride away. Set in huge grounds around a lake it is a fantastic place to spend a warm summers day.
Leaving Wakefield the canal turns at right angles to approach Fall Ing Lock. There are residential moorings here and water taps that you can probably use in an emergency. The toilet block, however, is out of bounds to the likes of us, having a non standard key. There is the remains of another coal loading staithe here. The present lock used to be two locks until combined into one long and deep one. It is slow to fill and slow to empty. Out onto the river and you are now on the Aire & Calder. If you are coming off the river here take care to stay well back in the lock so as to avoid the turbulence from the to paddles. They can be very fierce.
So that’s the C & H. Enjoy it.
I haven’t posted for a while now so I’ll just precis where we’ve been otherwise it will take up too much of Pauls space.
We had to hang around a bit in Birmingham as we were due into the drydock at Hockley Port so we spent the time by going up to Brownhills where we were surprised to see several boats moored. After a few days there we went on round via Longwood Junction to Ocker Hill. There are two visitor mooring spaces here with electricity pillars but C&RT have changed them to the new ‘smart’ metered pillars to which visitors are denied access so presumably this nice new pillar will remain unused until C&RT change their minds. I have £19 of cards which are no longer usable but after several email exchanges with the Trust I no nearer finding out how we get a refund.
So, into the drydock. We always find it strange in a dock. The boat doesn’t move when you walk through and the noise of your footsteps sounds different. It was a very hot week, exacerbated by the sun beating through the poly-tunnel covering the dock. So three coats of blacking and a dent knocked out of the prop, the front lockers kurusted and painted out with Hammerite and the front well and deck repainted.
We left Birmingham by the back door, the Wolverhampton 21 being closed, through Merryhill to Stourbridge where we were awoken by the boat moored behind starting his engine at 11.45 pm. After a shouted exchange he switched it off and we were able to get back to sleep. Onto the Staffs & Worcs and up to Aldersley Junction stopping for a couple of days at a lovely offside mooring above Diningsdale Lock where we repainted the gunwhales. It was good fun sat at the junction watching the boats approaching from both directions all jockeying for position. So many of them just turn into the Shropshire Union without checking if anyone is coming the other way.
We made slow progress down the SU (slow because we only reckon on moving for 2 or 3 hours a day) taking advantage of the many mooring sites provided by the Shropshire Union Canal society. We spent a number of days at Market Drayton, a very nice town, where we had a wine delivery from Ocado and stocked up on filters for the engine and generator from the wholesaler there and some more time at Nantwich.
We are heading for Manchester and Liverpool but are meeting some friends on their shareboat on the Bank Holiday and then my sister and brother-in-law a few days later. Middlewich was very hard work with only one paddle working at each end of the top lock of the three. Consequently boats were coming up faster than they were going down so we had the stupid situation of too many boats waiting in the intermediate pounds and very low water. I received an email telling me a friend had died so we needed to hire a car to go to Southampton so Anderton was convenient for this.
Having returned the car we moved back out into the country to a favourite mooring only to find it full. We continued on the the winding hole and on our return one of the boats was just leaving so we moored. Our friends had phoned to say they were just leaving Middlewich at which point the boat in front left leaving a nice space for them. We were very late getting to bed that night with rather sore heads.
I spent the time moving my two small solar panels to the front of the roof. We had two 80w panels and two 45w panels wired in series and parallel into an MPPT controller. Unfortunately the controller would shut down at times and by a process of elimination I found it was the two small panels which don’t like being wired in series. So I moved them to the front and connected them through a conventional controller to charge the bowthruster battery. I have connected the TV socket to this so, in theory, we shan’t be discharging the main batteries as much. I have another 80w panel coming which I will wire in circuit with the others to give me three 80w.
These are flat panels which are designed to be stuck down which is fine on a fibreglass roof but I’m not sure that the paint wouldn’t lift so I’ve drilled and tapped the roof and bolted them down with security screws. I’m quite impressed with their performance although rigid ones that can be angled to the sun would be much better but we prefer the neater appearance.
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.
The Southern BCN, also known as ‘Back of the Map’, is a useful and attractive alternative link between the Staffs & Worcs and Birmingham. We enter it from the New Main Line and through Netherton Tunnel. At 3027 yards long, this is one of the longest in the country, built by John Walker in 1858 to bypasss the congested Dudley Tunnel with towpaths on each side and originally lit by gas. Gas was replaced by electricity generated by a turbine at the base of Tividale Aqueduct. If you look back as you enter the tunnel you can still see the pipes that fed water from the higher level to drive the turbine.
Coming out of the tunnel you arrive at one of the prettiest spots on the BCN, Windmill End. Here, the new tunnel canal cut through the older Dudley Canal to make a large loop on the right. Left the Dudley Canal used to head off towards the W & B but now ends at Hawne Basin after passing through the low and tight Gosty Tunnel and the remnants of Coombeswood Tube Works. Just past the junction is a café and information centre with a water point and extensive moorings. Walk back to Cobbs Engine House of the hill which used to pump water from the local mine shafts.
As you cruise on, the Dudley Canal makes a big curve around the base of Netherton Hill whose church can be seen on the top. You pass the old railway interchange basin at Withymoor, now operated as residential moorings with a useful pumpout service. Netherton was known for its chain and anchor manufacturers and by Primrose Bridge was where they were tested by Lloyds.
Lodge Farm Reservoir sits on the old line of the canal, it being straightened in 1838 through Brewins Tunnel. The tunnel has now been removed and the cutting opened out but the site is clearly visible. Next up is Blackbrook Junction. The bit to the left was called the Two Lock Line as it originally passed through 2 locks to rejoin the canal a few hundred yards away. This gradually subsided into the old mine workings so we now have to travel a mile or so following the contour to Parkhead.
The locks to the right take you up to the entrance to the Dudley Tunnel and also the junction with the Pensnett Canal and the Grazebrook Arm. These two latter are no more but much of the route of the Pensnett can be followed. The Parkhead Rally of Boats is often held here. The locks are overshadowed by a large railway viaduct which will someday become part of the Metro route from Walsall to Merryhill. There is sanitary station here and if you intend to spend much time at Merryhill you are advised to fill your water tank here.
The main route turns left down the deep Blowers Green Lock. There were originally two locks here but our old friend subsidence saw them rebuilt as one deeper one. CRT have now installed a footbridge over the lock entrance so you no longer have to clamber over the gates. The newly upgraded towpath, now cycle friendly, changes sides at the next bridge, one that seems particularly narrow and I never seem to get through it without scraping the sides. The Two Lock Line enters from the right and then you are in a stretch of canal that is very industrial with remains of bridges on both sides.
You are entering the site of the mighty Round Oak steel works, now buried forever below the delights of The Waterfront and Merryhill shopping centre. The canal here has been moved, tidied up, realigned and moved again. However, there are extensive moorings plus an Elsan point and showers but alas, no public water point. There are residential moorings in The Waterfront with water so if desperate no doubt they will help. Currently this is a desolate place with a lot of the office space and most of the retail units empty and forlorn. The 2 pubs are still in business though! Up the hill is a useful Aldi and Wickes and The Rose & Crown, a Holdens house.
You now arrive at the top of Delph Locks. Descending the hill in a graceful curve, only the top and bottom locks are original, the other seven old locks being replaced with six new ones in a straight line, hence the name of the bridge, Nine Locks, and the pub at the bottom, The Tenth Lock. If it is beer you’re after, make your way to the Vine, also known as the Bull & Bladder. This is the brewery tap for Bathams Brewery and besides the excellent ale they do very good value lunches. If you examine the brickwork on the flight you will see a roll call of Black Country brickmakers commemorated.
This then is the end of the BCN, you now being on the Stourbridge Canal which descends by 16 locks at Worsley and another 4 at Stourton to join the Staffs & Worcs Canal. If you head this way, make the short diversion into Stourbridge itself. Don’t be put off by the moored boats at the end, Keep on past them and you can turn at the very end to come back and moor by the last bridge.
There will be 4 parts to the BCN bits but I should warn you that the BCN is addictive.
We first travelled on it in 1982, going around the Northern reaches. After a while you will want to cruise every last mile of them, and there are about 100 miles to choose from. Despite being built unashamedly for industrial use there are many parts that are surprisingly rural. You can see signs of previous use all over, bridges carrying the towpath over a now non-existent canal, a length of piling in an otherwise stone faced canal edge, junctions with in-filled branches.
The BCN Society run Explorer Cruise every year where a number of boats accompanied by an experienced BCN-er cruise as a group around the system for a few days. Or, if you feel up to it, there is the BCN Challenge where boats compete to see who can accumulate the most points over a 24 hour period by visiting the lesser used parts. The society has its headquarters in the old pump house at the top of the Titford Locks in Oldbury and hold monthly meetings as well as running the popular annual rally at Pelsall (see the Northern Bits) and the Bonfire Rally in November at the Engine Arm, Smethwick (see the Middle Bits Part 1)
If you want to know where all those arms went to or what business’ occupied the site then try to get a copy of ‘Birmingham Canal Navigations – A Cruising & Walking Guide’ published in 1984 by the IWA. ‘The Other 60 Miles’ by Richard Chester-Brown covers all those parts of the BCN now lost to our use, although one day….
We left the Old Main Line at Smethwick but if we continued up the locks instead and onto the Wolverhampton level we shortly make an intimate acquaintance with the M5. The motorway builders elected to follow the canal route for the next mile or so with the motorway either above or to one side. To do this they have altered to canal a bit and you now have a concrete lined channel with some rather awkward bends. The land under the motorway is rather sterile but there are still some sights to look at. There are still a couple of original bridges in its shadow and you cross the New Main Line on the Steward Aqueduct. Look behind you here to see one canal crossing the other, the railway above both of them and the motorway higher still. If you are lucky you may also have a jet taking off from Birmingham Airport.
Just before the aqueduct are Spon Lane Locks. This is part of Brindleys original canal taking boats to the Wednesbury Old Canal. The New Main Line now joins these locks at the bottom. Just after the aqueduct is the junction with the Titford Canal. Climbing these locks takes you to the highest part of the BCN. The Titford ends in a couple of large pools under the motorway and is part of the feeder to Rotton Park Reservoir. The pumphouse at the top is now home of the BCNS.
Immediately after the junction was the site of Thomas Claytons yard. Claytons specialised in collecting waste products from the various gas works around the Midlands. Several of their boats are still extant, all being named after rivers.
The motorway now leaves us in peace and you arrive at Oldbury. There are moorings here to enable to you visit the large Sainsburys nearby. The stubs of old basins opposite were the home of Les Allen. You can see his boats all over the country, usually identified by having ‘Oldbury’ somewhere on them. The transport company that now own the land famously filled in one of the basins a few years ago without permission. It was too late to dig it back out so another bit of history is lost.
Next up is the junction with the Brades branch where a staircase pair and a single take you back to the main line. You then cross the Netherton Tunnel Branch on Tividale Aqueduct before passing through a housing development called Tividale Quays. There are extensive moorings here but I have never seen a boat here. It looks one of those places where you would be asked to move on if you tried it.
Another mile or so brings you to the beginning of the Dudley Canal. You can’t take your boat through the tunnel but there are very pleasant moorings and a very clean sanitary station. The Black Country Living Museum is well worth a visit as is a trip into the tunnel. The BCLM has a recreation of a Victorian fish and chip shop though they are no longer wrapped in old newspapers, and a reconstruction of The Bottle & Glass pub selling excellent real ale – no lager as it wasn’t around in Victorian times although the prices are distinctly 21st century.
Passing the end of the Dudley Canal you have some new CRT moorings in Tipton. Tipton is worth exploring. The first bridge you come to after the Dudley junction used to have toll house built against it. You can still see the outline amongst the weeds. The house here bears a BCN number plate above the door. The toll point was here because it was the junction with the Tipton & Toll End Communication Canal. although long infilled, you can still walk the route as far as the New Main Line, the path passing through one of the lock chambers.
At Factory Junction the New Main Line joins and we now follow the Brindley route for about 1/2 mile to Bloomfield Junction where the old route went off to the right. You can just make out the site by the difference in the canal edging. Telfords new line charges straight ahead through the short Coseley Tunnel to Deepfields Junction where you rejoin the original route. You can still travel part of this old loop as far as the CRT workshops at Bradley. I don’t think it is something you would want to do twice!
The remainder of the route to Wolverhampton is all Brindleys and you shortly pass through Bilston, where the mighty Bilston or Spring Vale Steelworks once stood. As you approach Wolverhampton, Chillington Steel Terminal is on the right. It has been unused for years and is now listed but is slowly rusting into oblivion. There are then two short arms on the left. The first, Minerva Wharf, is now the home of the City Council where they operate a boat collecting rubbish from the water. The second is Wulfrana Coal Company but is not accessible by boat.
Passing Horseley Fields Junction where the Wyrley & Essington Canal goes off to the right (see BCN – The Northern Bits) you pass through Wolverhampton Tunnel. This is not part of the original route but is a diversion built in 1850 to allow the construction of the LNWR station. The arm that now houses the sanitary station is part of this original route. There are plans to redevelop the station but I am unsure what affect this will have on the canal. There is plenty of mooring here. On the towpath outside the arm, directly opposite are very safe moorings but there is no access to the outside world, or through the bridge to the moorings above the top lock.
And now you descend the Wolverhampton 21. I like this flight. Quick and easy to use, you start in the city and end in the country. When first built there were only 20 locks but the last one was considered too deep at 10 foot and too wasteful of water so the current lock 20 was added in 1784. You will see that this lock has a single leaf bottom gate whereas all the others have a pair of mitred gates.
The junction at the bottom is called Aldersley and used to have two toll houses, one BCN and one S & W. Turn left for Stourport or right for Great Haywood or the Shropshire Union.
I’ve always liked Birmingham and have cruised through it most years since 1982. When we first came it was a fairly secret world, cut off from the rest of the city. Over time, new access points have been made, opening up the towpaths to all, buildings have gone and more have come. Sometimes I would like it to be back as it was but on balance I’d rather have the vibrant buzz that the canal now has.
The original canal from Birmingham to Wolverhampton was built by Brindley in 1772 following the 453 ft contour. Being the M6 of its day it was extremely busy and in 1824 Telford was commissioned to build a new canal to lessen the strain on the old one. The result was a straight, wide, deep canal that ran from Birmingham to Deepfields Junction near Bilston. Towpaths on both sides meant that two way traffic was easy with no messing about with the ropes when boats crossed. This new canal cut through the route of the old in several places making several loops which continued in use to serve the various industries that lined its banks. As some traffics declined so some branches became disused and were eventually filled in and built over.
Many boaters are happy to get from Birmingham to Wolverhampton as quickly as possible and use the New Main Line for this. But this means missing out on much of the older canal with all its history.
From Old Turn Junction in Birmingham the New Main Line runs straight ahead but going through the bridge to the left takes you onto the first of the Brindley Loops known as Oozells Street Loop because before Brindley Place was built there was a road of that name. This takes you on a curve past Sherborne Wharf to Ladywood Junction. Make sure you blow your horn when approaching the bridge halfway round. One of the trip bosats msay be coming the other way! As you rejoin the Main Line there is a horseshoe shaped building opposite that was once a stables. A few years ago it become the ‘Fiddle & Bone’ public house and a regular live jazz venue but when the apartments opposite were built, the residents complained about the noise and the place closed down.
A few hundred yards on a towpath bridge marks the entrance to Monument Lane rail & canal interchange basin. I always think it would make a good site for residential moorings but for the moment it is a perfect place to wind the boat.
Next up is Ickneild Port Loop on your left whilst the main line continues straight ahead. The loop takes past the old BW maintenance yard which sat at the bottom of the embankment of Rotton Park Reservoir, now known as Edgbaston Reservoir. The water for this comes from the Titford Canal a few miles away at Oldbury. The loop crosses the main line at right angles to the Soho or Winson Green Loop. This is somewhat longer than the other two and takes you past the end of the Birmingham Heath Branch, now residential moorings, past the walls of Winson Green Prison to rejoin the main line at Winson Green Junction.
Turning right brings you to an island in the middle of the canal. There are several of these across the BCN and were toll points. Each of them used to have an attractive, hexagonal toll house in the middle and a small swing bridge to allow access. Boats were gauged here. That is to say, measurements were taken which showed the tonnage of the load being carried to allow the correct toll to be charged.
You will see the entrance to the Cape Arm on the left but the entire route lies inside the GKN works and there is no access. On your right you just see the remaining buildings of the Boulton & Watt Foundry covered by a huge scaffold and tarpaulin roof.
The canal divides at Smethwick Junction with its two magnificent Horseley Iron Works bridges. You will see these bridges all over the BCN (there are also some on the Northern Oxford) and they were made at Tipton, a few miles further on. You can continue straight on, through another toll island and under the beautiful Engine Arm Aqueduct for another 5 or 6 miles to the 3 locks at Tipton which will take you up to the 473 ft Wolverhampton level. Go off to the right, up the 3 Smethwick locks and you are at the entrance to the Engine Arm. This takes you across the New Main Line, round a tight bend to a single visitor mooring and a winding hole. Most of the arm is now residential moorings. As originally built by Brindley another 3 locks took you up to the 491 ft summit level. Being quite short this was heavy on water and led to long delays so in 1786 Smeaton cut a lower, and longer summit level and duplicated the remaining 3 locks. At the existing top lock you can see the outline of the second lock. A replica hexagonal toll house has been built here although photographs show the original was rectangular.
Both Old and New lines go through deep cuttings and through short tunnels constructed to take an M5 link road over the canals. They are surprisingly rural with yellow gorse, lupins, foxgloves and daisies growing up the sides. Unfortunately, the New Main Line tunnel blocks the views the view of the Galton Bridge, an monument to cast iron. Just after the tunnel on the Old Main Line you pass the site of the Sandwell Colliery loading staithe. They only were demolished a few years ago but an A board shows how they looked.
The West Coast Railway now accomanpys The New Main Line, passing under the old canal and the M5 by the remains of Chances Glassworks. Spon Lane Locks, the oldest on the BCN, provide another link to the old line, an part of which you now follow to Pudding Green Junction where the Wednesbury Old Canal goes off to the right. From here the canal runs as straight as an arrow, past the Brades link and the Netherton Canal Branch. Passing the junction with the now in-filled Toll End & Tipton Green Canal and Caggys Boatyard you come to the 3 Factory Locks which take you up to the Wolverhampton Level and back onto the Old Main Line. On your left by the topo lock is the old gauging station. Locally listed but no one knows what to do with it so it ius quietly mouldering away.
As this is getting rather long I’ll post this bit now and then add another post with the Old Main Line and into Wolverhampton.
As our cruising around Birmingham involves back and forth along several of the same bits, I thought that firstly I would split it into 3 or 4 sections and rather than an account of our daily activities it would be more like a travel guide with a few personal bits thrown in.
Travelling towards Birmingham is very familiar territory, having hired from Alvechurch many times since the 80s. Much has changed and yet it is still the same. On the Stratford Canal, there used to be a swing bridge at Tunnel Lane. There us no sign or Blue Plaque to say but this site was famous as where LTC Rolt insisted on the disused lift bridge being raised so he could navigate through, the canal not being officially abandoned. This the Great Western Railway duly did, using a force of gangers and the lift bridge was eventually replaced by a swing bridge. The swing bridge still operated in the 80s and at weekends usually had a gang of small boys who would open it for you in exchange for a handful of coins. When we passed this way a few years ago the bridge was left open and now has gone completely, just the narrows and mooring bollards to show where it was.
Kings Norton Junction looks a lovely spot to moor with its perfect junction house, complete with original toll charges on the board above the door but unfortunately it is not considered ‘safe’. The first time we passed there a boat called ‘Muskrat’ was moored there. Passing the other way about 10 days later there were 3 boys on the deck who ran off as we moored for lunch. Walking back I could see a broken window and paint sprayed over the paintwork. After lunch I noticed the boys were back so I called the Police and CRT. When we came back a few days later I was glad to see that ‘Muskrat’ had been towed to Lyons Boatyard.
The Worcester & Birmingham was originally built to take 14ft wide boats so there is no need to slow down through the bridge holes. At Bournville are some secure moorings to allow you to visit Cadbury World. I’ve not been but others have said how good it is. Besides, I don’t think either I or Jeannette could be treustyed with all that chocolate. Opposite Bournville station the housing lining the canal used to be Cadburys Wharf although it was already disused when I first passed it. The houses are now well established a look as if they have always been there.
The next location is Selly Oak. The site of the junction with the Dudley Canal can still be seen here. This area is called Battery Park after the Birmingham Battery Company whose large site is now occupied by Sainsburys. They are relocating the store to across the route of the canal. The original plans allowed for the restoration of the canal and then the idea was dropped. After many protestations the canal route will now be protected. You then come to the new aqueduct built to allow the Selly Oak bypass to go under the canal. This has been named the Aeriel Aqueduct after the old motorcycle works that stood nearby. Crossing the aqueduct gives one a good view of the unusual buildings of the QE hospital that is often in the news.
The canal runs parallel with the busy railway for all this stretch. As you near the city centre, there used to be the Davenport Brewery on the right. I recall this having a pipe about a foot above the water level that belched out blasts of steam across the canal. Housing now occupies the site as it does on the Granville Street Wharf next to the unusual Cube.
Opposite the Cube is Holliday Steet or Corporation Wharf. This has now been completely redeveloped but only the facade of the original building remains. There are three 14 day moorings here with a sanitary station in the middle. Unfortunately, a boat was moored s o as to obstruct the water point which meant if we had moored on the only other space, only short boats would have been able to use the facilities. The Birmingham Registrar Office is here and the moored boats are often used as a backdrop to the wedding photographs.
We moored around the corner, opposite the Premier Inn. We spent last winter cruising around the Black Country and had moored ,many times in the city centre. All very quiet. What a difference in the summer. People everywhere and, being the weekend, late into the evening. We were woken at 5.30am by raucous conversation. I went into the back end and was surprised to find these revellers were on our back deck. I am sure that the site of a 66 year old naked body rising through the hatch was a great shock but they had the grace to say sorry before they dispersed. That was the end of sleep however but at least we got to the shops and market before the rain came down.
We left Stratford in the sunshine, planning to stop near the Park & Ride where we expected to find Tom & Christine moored. Unfortunately they had the same idea and had started down the canal the other way. Isn’t communication wonderful! After a hurried conversation we moored below the Wilmcote flight and after lunch cycled down to meet them just before the bottom lock into Stratford. After they had moored we joined t hem onboard for a cold drink before returning home.
The 7th was Joanie Ms 6th birthday and after a celebration breakfast we started up the Wilmcote flight with the assistance of a volunteer lockie. We moored at Wilmcote for lunch, intending to stay the night but it was quite a dull mooring, with trees obscuring the sun so we decided to continue. Just at the end of the moored boats was a fender maker and after another shouted conversation we decided to treat Joanie M with a birthday present. A new bow fender. The old one had always hung a bit lop sided so for £50 including fitting, it now looks great. Crossing the aqueduct at Brearley/Edstone is not my cup of tea. As I have got older I seem to suffer a little from vertigo and an aqueduct that seems to have nothing to stop the boat from going over the side is a bit dis-concerting. An AW hire boat was waiting for us to cross but unfortunately went aground. We left them thrashing the engine in forward. You like to shout ‘that’s not the way to do it’ but most words get lost in the general engine noise.
Wotten Wawen was our next night stop, opposite the AW hire base. A bit upsetting to see how few boats are out on hire but I supposed it made the mooring quieter. There is a well stocked shop at Wotton Wawen so I was up early on the Saturday to get a Daily Telegraph. I find many small shops don’t have large stocks of papers so the earlier the better, not that I needed to worry. They had a stack about 2 feet high.
We moored again at Lowsonford in company with a boat named ‘Ami Bovard’ (it took me a long time to get the name!) who we had last seen in Stratford. We didn’t move on Sunday but stayed to enjoy the sun with a walk across to Shrewley on the Grand Union and along the canal to Turners Green before walking back down the Stratford and home. We only saw one moving boat on the two mile stretch we walked and at Rowington embankment, a very popular mooring spot because of its views, again only one boat. To the Fleur de Lys on return for an excellent pint of Hook Norton Lion in the sun.
Next day was Kingswood Junction before heading up the Lapworth flight, again assisted by volunteer lockies. We stopped at Hockley Heath for a couple of days as it is a convenient place to get a bus to Solihull (John Lewis, M & S, Lakeland, etc) and to meet up with Ann & Alan who we first met on the Caen flight of the K & A and have kept in touch with ever since. We filled with diesel at Lyons Boatyard before arriving at Yardley Wood to fill the water tank and meet my sister-in-law who lives nearby. Just as the tank was filled the Nb ‘Michaelmas’ arrived who we spent some time with last year on the Ashby, walking the route of the infilled canal together to Measham.
This is obviously our time to meet old friends as n ext week we are due to have lunch with Rolly and Paul & Christine. More about that next time when I tell you about the delights of Birmingham and going into the drydock.
My last post had us stuck at Bidford on Avon waiting for the river level to subside. It peaked on the Thursday night but remained at that level for most of the Friday. The owners of the hire boat moored in front arrived to take it back to Evesham, which must have been an interesting, and fast, journey but we were surprised at the arrival of two boats up from Evesham. One was a Valley Cruisers hire boat who had instructed it to be left at the boatyard opposite and the other was a private boat, this being as far as they were going, not wanting to pass through the bridge until the level dropped. They brought news of a Viking Afloat boat that had gone onto the weir at Harvington Lock, one of the many weirs on the Avon being unprotected.
The river dropped some 12 inches overnight and the gauge showed about 2 inches of Amber so we left for Stratford. Hard going in places, especially through the bridges and narrower sections but we arrived at Stratford with no problems. The last lock is called Trinity after the nearby church from which the bells were pealing to welcome us – not really, it was the Coronation Peal! The river above the lock was a mass of swans, geese, rowing boats, canoes, motor cruisers with trip boats trying to thread their way through. The normal rules of keeping to the right don’t seem to apply here. We moored on the river opposite the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, paying £5 a night for the privilege.
I had booked tickets online for ‘As You Like It’ at the theatre so I walked over to the box office to collect them. On getting back to the boat I then found I had messed up and they were for Monday week so another trip to the box office to get the date changed.
The bandstand was only a few yards away and on the Sunday we were treated to the Stratford Concert Band. Not, unfortunately a brass band, but still a great day, sitting on the grass, eating ice cream and listening to music.
Monday was spent rubbing down some rust patches on the roof. Most of them emanate from the screw holes of the Houdini hatches. I will have to remove the hatches at some time. Not a job I relish. We removed one a couple of years ago. Several of the brass screws broke and I had to drill them out and re-tap them. I replaced them with stainless steel screws to prevent them snapping again. If we could be guaranteed about 10 days of no rain then I’ll get down to it.
‘As You Like It’ was great. Although in modern(ish) dress and stageing, the words were Shakespeares. The theatre was rebuilt a couple of years ago making an ugly building even uglier! The effect inside however is like the Globe in London with the stage surrounded by the audience so you really feel part of the play. We have been to more live theatre in the 6 years we have been cruising than in our previous 40 years of married life!
Tuesday was another hot day and after the usual trip to Sainsburys, M & S, etc. Jeannette decided to have her haircut. A few minutes late I saw her walking back across the park accompanied by Tom & Christine who we last saw in Limehouse in 2009, sharing the locks up the River Lee. We first met them on the Great Ouse in 2008 and have stayed in touch ever since. One of the great things about CCing is that you meet new friends every year and when you next meet up, maybe one or two years later, you have much to talk about. We knew they were nearby from our email exchanges. They had moored at Wilmcote and taken the sight-seeing bus to Stratford. When it stopped by the theatre they spotted ‘Joanie M’ and jumped off to surprise us. We sat on the grass over a cup of tea and spent the afternoon chatting.
We moved off the river into the basin on Wednesday and moored on an empty pontoon, next to the scruffiest boat with a licence dated 12/12 and a Patrol Notice stuck to the front. He left his engine running for about an hour whilst he left the boat before he returned and left only to moor around the corner. Our prescriptions had arrived at the Post Office so tomorrow we shall leave and moor near Tom & Christine.