Travels of Joanie M – Life as a Continuous Cruiser – BCN The Middle Bit
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.