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Bill Kennedy

12 weeks on the cut

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Chapter 4 – Week 3 Trent and Mersey/Staffordshire and Worcestshire Canal/ Birmingham Canal Navigation/Grand Union Canal

 

Saturday May 15

The Trent and Mersey

 

We woke to our first morning of glorious sunshine. Stone certainly has been kind to us. Bill is on the roof and “out the back” mopping and polishing the brass – doing all the boy things. There is a strange fastidiousness among the males of the canal boating fraternity. They clean and polish their boats all the time. I’m sure they must be the men who have sheds at home and rush around fixing things all day (and then ask their wives what’s for tea, so I’m not complaining.). Saw a man yesterday scrubbing the entire roof of his boat with a Scothbrite abrasive pad and soapy water. The boat was 70 foot long and 7 foot wide so you work it out. He apologised and said his boat should have been in dry dock being painted this weekend - no wonder if he scratches its paintwork regularly with a scratchy pad. Some of the residential boats, particularly the big 70 footers, actually have the rear third to one quarter of the boat converted to a workshop/shed. The Scotchbrite fanatic towed a small butty, a powerless narrowboat - that was his shed.

 

Stone declares itself the birthplace of the Trent and Mersey canal and when we return to Brewood we will have completed the Chester run, the trip to Ellesmere Port and the Four Counties ring. Next will be the Oxford –Thames -Grand Union ring, the largest of our proposed travels that will take us down to London and back. We expect, on our current traveling rates that this will take us four to five weeks, depending on how much time we take in sight-seeing.

 

Leaving Stone, we travelled through some picture postcard beautiful countryside - no doubt about it, sunshine puts a whole new complexion on things. We passed the medieval (and possibly Roman) town of Salt. You can tell you’re in ancient towns when they’re called by names like Salt and Stone. Outlying villages have names like Aston-by-Stone and Weston-on-Trent. All day we caught glimpses of rivers that ran beside the canal - the Trent for most of the journey, then the Penk and the Sow. After turning south west at Great Hayward Junction we traversed the Tixall Wide, a manmade broadening of the canal that was a lake-like compromise between the canal company and the landowner whose land it traversed. It is a favourite mooring and boats get there before midday to ensure a spot for the evening, the folk we met at Harecastle tunnel among them. They recommended we visit nearby Shugborough Hall, the home of Lord Lichfield. We strolled the gardens and visited the National Trust shop but as himself was in residence, did not like to go into the house.

 

Tixall lock is a beautifully kept lock with manicured lawns, an inspiring garden and paddle winches that were very girl friendly. There was a chap working in the garden and he stopped what he was doing and helped me through the lock. As he was a keen gardener I decided to give him one of my cards for being so kind. He thanked me then took it to his boat nearby. His wife then popped her head out of the boat, also thanked me and said she was going to send it to her sister-in-law in Australia. We both laughed when I told her where we came from.

 

Today was a traveling day (eight hours running time) to compensate for our rest day in Stone and tomorrow will be much the same as we need to be back in Brewood tomorrow night so that first thing Monday morning the men can service the engine and do a few things like correct the list of the boat with some ballast (hope that doesn’t increase our risk of running aground.). As we sit here in the gloaming, moored across from the Stafford Boat Club, having a wine and cheese and nibbles, preparing to cook our fresh salmon and asparagus with salad, followed by fresh strawberries, we muse about what the poor folk are doing tonight.

 

Sunday May 16

A Glorious English Summer’s Day

 

What a day - splendid sunshine all day – and, being a Sunday, the entire population was out to enjoy it. People waved and greeted us with “beautiful day isn’t it” at every turn. Bill’s favourite people, the fishermen, were present in their hundreds, lining the banks of the canal and slowing us to tick-over speed, sitting at regular (?measured) intervals along the towpath on their curious little gadget man boxes.

 

We paused for lunch on an idyllic wood lined embankment just past the Gailey top lock. There we sat in dappled sunshine eating a blissful meal of great cheese, wine olives etc, feeling no pain. I made a mental note not to have wine in the middle of the day after falling down the front stairs and landing on the stove (luckily, not on.).

 

We made our way back to Brewood, passing through all sorts of country. New industrial areas now leave a nature strip between their factories and the canal, thus reserving an attractive green corridor. New housing areas treat the canal like a stream at the bottom of their garden and beautify it. Heritage areas preserve it but enhancement projects are at a minimum. As anywhere else in the world, older high density residential areas are where you see the sadness - graffiti on the ancient walls and bridges, packaging debris in the canal, vandalism, evidence of apathy and crime (shopping trolleys and yesterday even a motorbike). The joy is in passing through the countryside and seeing the wild life in its habitat and the green fields meeting the canal as if it were a river. In controlling the urban sprawl, Britain has been extremely wise.

 

Monday May 17

Brewood Dry Dock

 

We woke to another fine and beautiful day but an enforced day of repairs, rejuvenation and replenishment for the boat.

 

At 6.30pm so we retired to the pub as is our new want. Dinner there was a bit of a Fawlty Towers exercise. Bill decided he’d have the steak and ale pie and I, the cod ’n chips as he’d had both before and said they were good. The lass who doubled for Manuel with her heavy mid country accent (we were saying “que” to her and she to us. - I could just hear her thinking, where the hell are these people from and what kind of language are they speaking?) brought Bill a huge plate of chips and a steak and kidney stew that overflowed the plate. He looked aghast at the big chunks of kidney floating in it and paled visibly (you guessed it, he hates all offal meats). Bill, who has never sent back a meal in his life, was moved to ask in his gentlest manner what had become of his steak and ale pie to which the lass replied she didn’t think they had any left. Interestingly I heard her say the exact same thing to the couple at the next table twenty minutes later but the item remained on the menu board all evening. John Cleese could have done wonders with the moment. I then felt moved to compensate for my disappointment at the fish by having a pudding and settled on the fudge cake. Manuella retired to the kitchen only to return a moment later. “Don’t tell me said I with a grin, the fudge cake is off”. “No”, she said quite seriously, “I couldn’t find it”, then added reassuringly, “but it was there this morning”. I sighed a long sigh and settled for the apple and blueberry tart.

 

When a group of young local lassies came in we moved up closer to another couple to make room and we recognized that we were both boaters and a two hour conversation ensued with Anne and Phil, who, as it happened, are moored across the canal from us. They have just been to Birmingham and are on their way to Llanglollen tomorrow. They gave us lots of advice on where to moor in Birmingham and forewarned us about the state of the canals in this big city. They have retired, sold their house and are building a new investment/holiday house in Spain, meanwhile living on their boat. It is interesting to see the changes in the lives of retirees around the world and to observe the life choices they are all making.

 

Tuesday May 18

Trial by Lock

 

We cruised out of Brewood, fully serviced, refueled, pumped out and equipped at 10am, to the waves of the three guys from the yard, William, John and Trevor. As we passed the boat of Ann and Phil, our pub friends from last night, they came up on deck and, as I gave them one of my little wild flower cards they handed us a note with their name and phone number on it - it seemed strange but delightful, looking at it, for people our age to have no fixed abode.

 

It was another beautiful day as we made our way back through the glades of the canal, sunshine glinting through the tall woods lining the embankments. Saw moorhens and chicks in nests at the water’s edge and squirrels playing in the trees overhead. We travelled back to Autherley Junction and thence, in new territory, to Aldersley Junction. From here we began our ascent of twenty-one locks, referred to locally as “the 21”, into Wolverhampton. We were expecting a busy time with boats everywhere but to our amazement, did not pass a single solitary boat on the entire flight. To make matters worse, every lock was set against us on the 132ft that the flight rises. We decided at 2.30pm, at lock 10, that some lunch was in order so we paused by what we realised a moment later, was a garbage disposal centre, but were too tired to care. Because this is an area where vandals (euphemistically called bandits) often strike, for example by throwing bricks at boats from overhead bridges, we chose our pull up at this site because we were between bridges. Bill stayed on the rear deck and I scurried down to make a hasty sandwich. It must have seemed a long time to him because he called down “we don’t want a bloody feast” (he was a little hot and titchy), to which I retorted “don’t worry boy, you’re not getting one.”(snappish).

 

We didn’t quite share the lock work as every time we saw youths about, Bill did the land work and I stayed in the pound keeping the boat idling and in alignment with the lock (some of the time.). Not quite sure what I’d have been able to do to help him from the middle of the pound. Three times during our four hour ascent, city crime wardens cycled by in groups of three - all very reassuring. We saw them stop and talk to a teenage girl who was sitting staring pensively into the canal, but having reassured themselves she meant no self harm (either that or she told them to bugger off), they went on their way. On “the 21” we struck the water conservation locked paddles, as the local youth apparently take great delight in opening them and draining pounds.

 

Having finally arrived at the top, we made our way though the industrial areas of Wolverhampton (unbridled joy-not) to the town of Tipton, the nearest settlement to the Black Country Museum, our destination for the morrow. Now I don’t want to be critical of their marketing department, but you could not say their signage caters for the boating community. Following our map faithfully, we at last arrived at our destination, heralded by a sign the size of a laptop at the entrance. Bill confessed later that as we entered the last narrow section of canal he thought we were entering a drain. We arrived, totally done in, outside the entrance to the museum (which had locked up for the night at 5pm) and moored illegally.

 

Wednesday May 19

History and a very special meeting

 

We woke before the world as usual and re-evaluated our illegal mooring situation adjacent to a facilities point and our need to be facing in the opposite direction when we came to leave the museum. We “walked” the boat forward, filled our water tank then performed the tricky manoeuvre of turning around in the fairly tight space of the barred entry to the museum’s wharf. This was achieved by walking the boat’s stern as far back into this barred entrance as possible, including my walking up over a bridge then dropping the rope down to Bill when I’d taken it as far as I could then he made the rest of the turn and voila we were facing the way we wanted, feeling very proud of ourselves. An experienced boater would just have shaken his head at our antics.

 

The Black Country Museum was a work in progress as all living museums are, but what they have achieved so far is fantastic. They collect donated significant heritage buildings, take them apart brick by brick and then re-erect them at the site so each building can take five years to construct. Perhaps the most significant building is the one housing a replica of the first steam engine built locally in 1712 which really facilitated the manufacturing era. The site had a mine (we didn’t bother to go down as we had done this in Wales and were unsure of the time demands of the rest of the day), lime kilns, a wharf, a village with a variety of houses and shops, a beautiful stone school, a church, a fairground (of the era), a forge and animals. It was manned by informants in period dress who obviously enjoyed their work and the numerous groups of school children were enthralled by it all. They were the pupils of a conventional class of the time and it was a flash back to hear them reciting their “times” tables and working on slates (hell, we’re old.). I bought a crystal glass from the glass engraver to drink my Chivas from (tastes better.) and an ammonite fossil from the area (always wanted one). We put in a most pleasant morning there, concluding with cod ‘n chips in a butcher’s paper cone from the fish ‘n chip shop in the museum (concession to history, health regulations and the queue usually stretching down the street was the modern cooker) and then departed for Birmingham.

 

The canal to Birmingham, while it may only have had three locks, had hazards of other sorts, of the submerged variety. I came to christen these “speed bumps”. They are usually directly under the mid point of the arch of a bridge and represent something (possibly plural), large and metallic from the nasty grinding sound as the hull of a fifteen ton steel boat pulverizes it and rides up over it. We even saw a half submerged dinghy which looked like it had been cast asunder from its host vessel somewhere. There were strange man made islands in the middle of the canal, probably old toll gate sites, which left only a very tight passage either side. Sadly these were very badly silted up and getting through them was like ploughing through treacle. The poor old engine sounded like it was haemorrhaging internally but despite the smell of oil, the temperature did not rise and we got through, arriving in the city at 6pm.

 

Now let me say Birmingham can be justly proud of the Gas Street Basin/ Brindley Place development and its integration with the existing part of the city centre and the canal system. It’s very much “café society” territory but obviously used and enjoyed by the young of the city who live (if they’re lucky), work or visit there.

 

We secured one of the few moorings remaining and went off to meet Maki, the rendezvous courtesy of mobile phones. Bill saw her coming first. She hasn’t changed and, though now 31and it is 12 years since she lived with us, is the same delightful person, with a smile that lights up her face. We went back to the boat, chatted about where we’d been, then went out for a pleasant Indian meal. Maki filled us in on what she’s been doing (currently translating English to Japanese for a Japanese software company). She has completed a Masters in Communication and has aspirations of working for a specific Japanese magazine. We are hoping she can join us en route to Oxford for the Bank Holiday weekend in ten days time and spent time plotting the logistics of this. The bottle of white I’d shared with Maki then caught up with me and she made her way to her bus stop and home, with reassuring text messages along the way

 

Thursday May 20

Bravo Birmingham

 

We were so pleasantly surprised by our initial evening impressions of Birmingham that we decided to spend a rest day here. This is the city I thought I’d like to be out of the fastest but it is an ugly duckling that has become a swan in the past two years. It seems to have preserved the best of its historic buildings, treasured and celebrated its origins and is forging forwards to present an ideal inner city environment to the rest of the world. Somehow it has woven all these aspects seamlessly together into the fabric of a vibrant city for the young employed. We have not seen its other face but the one it presents to the world is certainly impressive. Regulation and maintenance are present but not intimidating. Police patrols, litter wardens, security guards and waterways and street cleaners etc. say “no” to those that would undermine or deface the pleasant safe place that has been created.

 

Friday May 21

Leaving Birmingham

 

Setting off bright and early because we knew we had another challenging day of locks before us, we were away at 7am and the locks upon us as we rounded the first corner from our mooring. This was a flight of thirteen, the Farmers Bridge Locks which took us just under three hours to descend. Our luck with locks being as it is, all were set against us. They were tough beasties and I noted that the No2 lock gate weighed 2660kg (they all have their weights etched on the gate). Looking back at Birmingham as we descended, I was impressed that modern buildings sit side by side with old pubs and warehouses (many of these being converted for residential use, large tracts of green were left around tall apartment blocks and new construction to the very edge of the canal told us that canalside living is desirable in this city. One skyscraper unfortunately straddled the canal, virtually driving it underground and making it the antithesis of its treatment elsewhere.

 

We were travelling without map on deck at this stage so every corner brought the unexpected. After a two minute respite appeared another set of five locks into the Aston Science Park where new industry has enhanced the tow path surrounds and provided pleasant visitor moorings. However they are not likely to be utilised while the graffiti sends the message that mooring here alone is not a wise move. The exit from this was through a very crooked old tunnel and I feared for the life of our chimney stack, so low was the roof. I managed to scrape the end of the tiller on the wall of the tunnel in keeping hard right rudder to protect the chimney, only then to have grave fears that the entire boat was about to climb the right wall of the tunnel enhanced by the fact that my head was then contacting the roof- all a bit anxiety creating for a novice. At lock No6 on the Farmers Locks descent I remembered I had left the kettle on the stove and, while it still functions I’ll need to buy a new kettle at the next big town. At morning tea time a Canada goose spotted the last of the Montgommery cheese on biscuits sitting on a plate on the hatch cover and decided to fly in and try to steal it. Much flailing of arms and yelling - not at $30/kg you don’t, goose.

 

On the outskirts of Birmingham we passed through a veritable ghost town of wharves, factories and junctions, with not a soul around - eerie. Names like Tysley wharf, Bordesley Junction that were veritable hives of industry a century ago. A notice proclaimed that these were going to be the site of a “sensitive residential development”. If they do it as well as they have in the centre of the city it will be a worthwhile project.

 

Heading further south we entered a very long and naturally beautiful green corridor that should be a source of pride for the locals - not so, sadly. It was a silted up dumping ground for all manner of human detritus and every surface, even the trees, was the site of graffiti. If you don’t want it, chuck it in the canal - half a tree, a bit of old fence, a brick pallet, a fridge. I felt an immense sense of sadness about the fact that mankind can treat a beautiful, historical resource like this. The 1933 markings on the side of the canal proclaimed that it had been from 4’6” to 7’ deep but we’d have been lucky if it was two foot deep. It became a corridor of apprehension as we didn’t know if we would run aground at any moment. went forward to help balance weight and as you glide fairly noiselessly (apart from the clunks and scrapes on the bottom) through a place like this for a couple of hours if gives one plenty of time for thought and reflection. As we left the city confines and reached the open country our sense of contentment returned.

 

In a short while this reverie was shattered by the appearance of the worst set of locks we’ve yet encountered - the Knowle locks - great big double beasties with heavy paddle gear and gates that weigh over 3000kg. We got stuck on a ledge coming into the site and four men at a boat building wharf there came and watched us trying to get off but did nothing to help. I thought Bill might be moved to say something very terse but he keep his head and just smoked twice as much instead. For my contribution to the stressful day I managed to have the boat turn almost a full circle in the pound due to the wind and finally backed it into the bank and asked Bill to take over. Thought I’d rather just give myself a prolapse on the winches than be stuck in the middle of the pound and have to ask the “Deliverance Boys” at the wharf to rescue me. As we left, large volumes of water pouring over the final lock gate gave me as sense of déjà vu of the Northgate locks at Chester, but, in the vernacular, I didn’t give a stuff. We hightailed it to a pleasant mooring near a pub with the politically incorrect name of “The Black Boy”, but seeing it’s been called that since 1793, they’re allowed to keep it. We downed a bucket/pint respectively and retired to the boat, our jim-jams, made a curry and I fell into bed at 7.30, exhausted, having negotiated 31 locks in 14 miles.

 

 

Progress

This week Distance (miles) 70 Locks 74

Total Distance (miles) 201.5 Locks 181

 

 

The journey continues …….

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