Thursday, November 06, 2008

A Long Short Cut

Our route out of the east side of Birmingham started to veer northwards and we were soon heading almost due north towards Tamworth. Why were we going this way on our way south? As you know, we usually add together locks and miles and calculate our journeys in 'lock-miles'. If we had gone straight through Birmingham and down the Grand Union, we would have been going down the 21 broad locks at Hatton (near Warwick) and then up 20-odd locks a few miles later. The longer route, north via Tamworth and then south near Coventry and Rugby, certainly had more miles but also substantially less locks, so the 'lock-mile' total was lower. Added to that was the opportunity to explore in Birmingham and revisit parts of the Birmingham & Fazeley and Coventry Canals that we had not visited since 1986, plus all the locks were narrow ones. A detour? Not really – more of a short cut!

Our entry to Fazeley was under the curiously mediƦval-looking footbridge – spiral staicases each side, a simple walkway across. Next to it is a swing bridge which seems little used; probably only for access to the farmer's fields.

In the next few days, we (like most others in the UK) suffered a blast of wintry weather, when it was a real joy to get into the warmth after the afternoon's cruising had deteriorated into sleet and cold winds. We still enjoy the crisp winter light, especially in the mornings, but setting up the wind turbine and the TV aerial as the light begins to fail and in freezing conditions makes the boat's central heating and coal fire really welcoming!

Past the Alvecote boatyard where we hired a boat back in 1986 (now much expanded!) and on up the Atherstone locks – surprisingly attractive – before plodding through the edges of Nuneaton and Bedworth, where we found ourselves back on familiar territory again as we came to Marston Junction, where the pretty Ashby Canal branches off north-east.

The landscape round here tends to be a mixture of semi-industrial and nondescript edges of housing estates, but there were occasional highlights, especially as we approached Hawkesbury Junction with its iron bridges and quirky layout. Even Hawkesbury is surrounded by electricity stations, but we had a pleasant surprise to find 'Edna May' there with Steve and Lindsay on board. Since meeting them last year on the Stratford-on-Avon Canal, we seem to see each other quite often. The last time had been on the Llangollen only a few weeks ago. So, a slightly longer stop for a cuppa and chat before having lunch and heading south on the Oxford Canal.

Jeremy cycled out to see us at 'Stretton Stop' near Brinklow, stayed the night and cycled straight into work in Leamington the next morning. Good to see him and have the usual long chat into the night!

Only three locks between Hawkesbury and Braunston, then Braunston's own flight of six before plunging through the tunnel to Norton Junction, where we stopped for the night before going down the seven Buckby locks – the last ones before we reached Blisworth! Since Braunston, we were back in broad locks again, and some of those larger lock-gates were certainly heavy after the lighter ones on narrow locks! Coming down Buckby, it was good to be able to share locks with another boat – saves water and shares the work!

About 9 or 10 more miles brought us to Gayton Junction and Blisworth Marina. We had made informal arrangements by phone and email to stay here for 2 or 3 months this winter. When we arrived there was no-one around, so we moored up opposite the entrance ready to make contact the next day.
So here we are, static for the next couple of months, though we may take a few trips out and about. Quite strange not to be moving on – we are starting to get used to it!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The 'Curly Wyrley' Way Round Birmingham

Coming up the 21 Wolverhampton locks was not too bad at all! Last time we came this way was in April last year, when we came up the 21, stopped for lunch and then carried on right into Birmingham until eight at night! Needless to say, we took it a bit more leisurely this time, and simply stopped overnight in the pleasant little basin at the top of the locks. It looks idyllic and was really very quiet and secure, but is actually within easy walking distance of the city centre.

Besides, we had other ideas . . . we were not going to just plunge straight through on one of the 'main lines' from Wolverhampton to Birmingham. We had done that on our last two visits this way. This was time for a little more exploration.

The maps of the BCN (Birmingham Canal Navigations) show miles of little-used waterways in all directions around the city, and one that had taken our interest was the 'Wyrley and Essington' going around the north-east. Affectionately known as the 'Curly Wyrley', this has a reputation for being shallow and weedy but certainly not impassable, so we thought we would try it out!

So we turned off the main line at Horseley Fields Junction and set off northeasterly along the W & E. First stop was to find a Sainsburys to stock up on supplies. Fortunately our trusty 'First Mate Guides' cover even the deeper recesses of the BCN, so we knew there was one coming soon! We moored carefully out of the way of a bridge, so as not to block any other boats. No worries there, but we did find the 'weedy' reputation fulfilled very soon – here is a lump of floating pennywort AFTER we had got through it, and there were more. One disused side arm looked like a very lush field, no water visible! But the most it needed was Dave up the front with a boathook, pushing the thicker bits aside while Val revved the engine a little – being sure to slip into neutral when the propeller was near the weed, to avoid getting tangles! We plodded on . . .

We didn't see any other moving boats and hardly any boats at all until we arrived at Sneyd Junction, where we were made very welcome by Ralph who lives on board his boat there and acts as the warden of the mooring site. Like so much of this canal, here was a quiet little backwater, between the M6 motorway and Bloxwich suburbs, probably unknown to many people who live in the immediate area.

While we were up in this forgotten corner, there were two diversions to explore as well. The first was a dead straight canal known as the Cannock Extension which once connected with the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. We went up it, turned around, had lunch and came back down. Not exciting, perhaps, but interesting. Like this, the Anglesey branch once linked to working coalfields but now comes to a very scenic end at the foot of the Chasewater reservoir. Only the (fairly muffled) hum of the M6 Toll reminds you that you are not miles from anywhere! If you look carefully, you may just see Zindagi in front of the houses.
By the way, did you know that you can 'explore' our route (and any other part of the waterways system) by going to the map via the 'Where Zindagi is now' link and then just moving around on that. Don't be content with seeing where we are; you can look around the whole network!

From the northeasterly corner of the BCN, it was time to start heading south, so we left the Anglesey Branch and took the Daw End Branch to Longwood Junction. We were going to go on, but decided to stay there overnight as the rain was lashing down! So the next day (having passed through no locks since Wolverhampton) we started down the 9 locks of the Rushall Canal, cruised through leafy Walsall suburbs, joined the Tame Valley Canal, had lunch on a high embankment near Perry Barr, then down the 13 Perry Barr locks to Salford Junction, where two canals join from central Birmingham.
The whole junction is totally dwarfed by the whirling concrete lanes of 'Spaghetti Junction' above. Very few motorists will be aware of the canals below and, to the canal boater, the hectic rush of vehicles seems like a different world. The canal seems to slip quietly unnoticed below and gradually leaves the noise behind. By the time we reached Minworth, Birmingham was receding into the distance, though we still had a busy road beside us.