Monday, December 20, 2010

Sandstone, Physios and Déjà Vu!

It was back on 9th October that we arrived in Stourport from the River Severn, so you can tell how behind this blog is! In case you wonder where we are NOW, please just click on the 'Where Zindagi is Now' link. We expect to be here near Blisworth for a month or two, so hopefully that will give us a chance to get you up to date!

We have enthused before about the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, especially this southern part. Just a few weeks earlier, we had made our way down to the edge of Wolverhampton on the northern section, and here we were heading north to the same destination! Val's appointment at Shrewsbury Hospital Fracture Clinic was booked for the 19th, so we had time for a relaxed cruise up through pleasant countryside, following the seam of red sandstone like this cliff at Caldwall Lock on the outskirts of Kidderminster. 

Other characteristics of this canal are its lock cottages and the frequent use of round weirs.  This one is at Debdale Lock, where we noted the rock-carved stable in February 2008

Whittington Lock near Kinver shows off its pretty cottage.

We soon came to the Bratch Locks near Wombourne, and were helped up them by the young lock-keeper. Seems like we may have seen his father when we first came this way in 1976! Since then, the octagonal lock office has lost its layers of white paint and been returned to the original brick. These locks are fascinatingly different from any others we know. Though they look like (and were originally designed as) a set of 'staircase' locks, they have TWO sets of gates between each lock chamber, but impossibly close together, just a few feet! The secret is in the large 'side pounds', where water is stored, which are connected by channels to the space between the gates. Hard to explain, quite like the arrangement at Caen Locks (Devizes) on the Kennet and Avon (which are also not staircase locks), but contracted into shorter spacing between locks. A bit daunting for the newcomer (like us in 1976), but OK when you understand how they work!

Predictably, we arrived back near Wolverhampton (and so within reach of Shrewsbury) a day or two earlier than necessary, so we simply 'mooched' on a little further up the Staffs & Worcs before returning to our rendezvous with Adam for a lift to Shrewsbury.

Val's arm came out of plaster on 19th October and the medics were pleased with the healing process, but of course then the physios needed to help her to get it mobile again, so we couldn't go away for a while longer! They wanted to see her again a week later, so we took another little trip up the Shropshire Union, this time going as far as Goldstone Bridge before turning back to Wheaton Aston. Here's Boat Inn Bridge at Gnosall Heath.

The next week, the physios were happy with Val's progress, though they still wanted her to come back after another 2 weeks, but that would give us plenty of time to get on our way to our intended winter mooring at Blisworth. So, guess what? Up the Wolverhampton flight for the fourth time, just 5 weeks after we last went up – and we have never been DOWN these locks, only up them!
Our route was then an exact copy of the last time. We stopped overnight in the same place at the top of Wolverhampton Locks, and again in Gas Street Basin, for the third time in exactly the same spot. On the way, Birmingham's Main Line treated us to its own display of autumn colours.

Friday, December 17, 2010

South West On The Severn

Coming down the Severn from Worcester, we were exploring one of the few remaining parts of the English waterways system which we hadn't visited – apart from the disconnected bits! The Severn has a bit of a reputation for strong flows after heavy rain, but the levels were OK and there was no immediate prospect of HEAVY rain, just the persistent drizzly stuff.

We left Worcester's Diglis Basin after filling up with water and getting an early lunch, down through the wide locks and out onto the river, then almost immediately into our first Severn river lock, also called Diglis Lock. The lock-
keeper 'did the honours' for us and asked where we were planning to stop that night. When we told him, he said, "I'll see you at Upper Lode Lock tomorrow, then."

An uneventful 2½ hour trip down as far as Upton-on-Severn, where we found space for the night on the mooring pontoon, and were rewarded with beautiful, slightly misty light the next morning.

Spiders' webs in the nearby field were suitably adorned with water droplets too!

Setting off in the morning, we were down in Tewkesbury before 11:30, going under Mythe Bridge and then past the entrance to the Stratford Avon. That's another waterway we haven't visited yet. We had wondered about tackling it this year, but decided to leave it until we can enjoy it in sunnier weather! (So it's pencilled in for 2011)

Just a few minutes later, we were in Upper Lode Lock, where the same lock-keeper greeted us and also gave us a leaflet about the approach to Gloucester – special precautions needed. We had heard about them before, and had plenty of time to read the leaflet over the next 14 miles or so. About 2½ miles north of Gloucester, the Severn divides into two channels, with boats taking the narrower East Channel – and that's where the fun begins!

The unusual feature of Gloucester Lock is that you come DOWNstream on the river and then the lock takes you UP to the level of the Docks and the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal. In a more normal situation, boats coming downstream would pull into a short length of canal leading to the lock, while the river pours over a weir to a LOWER level, where boats arrive having gone DOWN the lock.

As the previous picture shows, at Gloucester the lock looms high ahead with no approach canal, while the river flows vigorously off to the right – and you have to wait for the lock-keeper to open the lock! That's where the chains on the long wall are absolutely vital; you have to hang onto those (preferably with the engine in reverse) until the lock is ready, the signal changes to green, and you enter the lock quite quickly to avoid being pulled past by the river current. Not as scary as it may sound, but you need to have some idea what you are doing! As this picture shows, we made it OK without a problem and were soon on our way up into . . .

 . . . Gloucester's historic Dock basin, surrounded by tall former warehouses which are now business premises, flats, a waterways museum and Council offices, not to mention British Waterways offices and a specialist in wooden-hull boats!

We were just in time to witness the arrival of the former lightship 'Sula', which had been towed up from Sharpness and was about to start a new life as an 'alternative therapy studio', moored just outside the docks.

A couple of days later, David and Mary joined us for a few days, and we set off down the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal. No locks, but quite a few movable bridges – all operated for us by bridge-keepers, so very leisurely travel! Talking of which, we met up several times with the 'Edward Elgar' cruise ship, which we had already met further up the river near Tewkesbury. The weather was fairly bleak and grey, so the view down the estuary to the two Severn road bridges did not look specially inviting! It is possible to take narrowboats down the estuary, into the Avon at Avonmouth and then up to Bristol, but you need a pilot and good weather. We hadn't planned to do that trip this time, and simply turned round at Sharpness and headed back to Gloucester.

David and Mary headed back to Devon and we planned our return upstream. Apparently, while we had been down to Sharpness, the Severn had been in flood and was only just returning to navigable condition. The lock-keeper told us that, if the level was down enough, we could leave through the lock at 8 am the next morning, and that the incoming tide would help us upstream.

All was OK, and we left with another narrowboat as scheduled. The tide had not started rising yet, though, so we were battling against the river flow UP the narrow East Channel, plus we also met the 'Edward Elgar' again, coming downstream. Several miles upstream, at about 10 am, we suddenly found ourselves accelerating as the tide reached us and took us nicely up to Upper Lode Lock just on the high tide time. The levels above and below the lock and weir were the same and we could almost have cruised straight through!

Upstream to Worcester again, but not to turn off the way we came! We came under the new Diglis footbridge, through the lock and past the entrance to Diglis Basin, mooring up next to the racecourse. The next morning it was Saturday, and the river filled up with rowing boats!

On our way upstream, we thought we might just visit the Droitwich Barge Canal and go up into Droitwich itself. Dave had walked into the town from the other end on our way down, and the waterways press was full of the fact that the Barge Canal had been restored and re-opened, so we were pleased to see Hawford Lock apparently ready to welcome us – only to find that the top gates were padlocked shut! The story goes that yes, the canal was restored and yes, some boats had been up to Droitwich but no, we couldn't go in as the necessary Health & Safety signage was not in place. No notice explaining anything, we just met someone who knew. After all the razzmatazz, rather an own goal, British Waterways!

And so to Stourport! We had been here before, but only via the canal, so it was nice to come up the two pairs of staircase locks and into the upper basin.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Tackling Tardebigge!

Our original plan after visiting Adam and Rachel (and taking the balloon flight) had been to go up into Birmingham and then down the Worcester & Birmingham Canal to Worcester, which goes down the longest flight of narrow locks on the whole system – 30 locks in a little over 2 miles, with another 6 in the next mile! Oddly enough, it was part of the (over ambitious) route we had planned to take on our first ever canal trip in 1976 – thwarted by the effects of drought closing this canal! Now we were taking it on with Val's left arm in plaster – was this crazy too?

The first test of that came with the need to climb the 21 locks up to the centre of Wolverhampton, and it went quite well. Val was not totally incapacitated and could handle the boat in the locks, though Dave had to take it on from one to the next. We began to develop a modified lock-working system. If you look very carefully at this photo, you may be able to see Val waving her purple-plastered arm as we work up the Wolverhampton flight!

From the very pleasant visitor moorings at the top of the flight (and right next to the centre of Wolverhampton), the canal follows Brindley's 'Wolverhampton Level' all the way into Birmingham – the route we followed the first time we came this way. Last time, at the end of 2008, we took the very circuitous route via the Wyrley & Essington and other less used canals. This time, as time was limited, we opted for Telford's New Main Line, which cuts off 7 miles of Brindley's original route.

This route took us down the 3 Factory Locks at Tipton Green, a route we had not followed before, where we spotted an ingenious solution to the old problem of passing a footbridge without disconnecting your horse from your boat. We hadn't seen this option before!

We passed the junction for Netherton Tunnel, where we had turned (back in early 2008) to take the Black Country route via Dudley and Stourbridge to the Staffs. & Worcs. Canal. Then past this interesting spot, where the old Wolverhampton Level crosses the newer Main Line on an aqueduct, the railway runs alongside the Main line and crosses the Wolverhampton Level, and the M5 motorway sails high above them all.

And so to the bustling heart of Birmingham's Brindley Place – and just round the corner to Gas Street Basin, an amazingly pleasant place to moor overnight. This must have been our third visit.

It was here that the old 'Worcester Bar' used to separate the newer Worcester and Birmingham Canal from the older Birmingham Canal, and goods had to be transhipped across from boats on one side to the other. The bar remains, but a 'stop lock' was built in 1815 to join the two systems, though its gates have long since been removed. The bridge over it is a modern copy of a typical local canal bridge – apparently there used to be just a swinging plank bridge over the stop lock!

Out of Birmingham, then, on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. We had turned east at King's Norton Junction on our way down south in April 2007, but now we were heading south and west into new territory for us. (We did come a short distance down this canal in 1986, our last hire-boat holiday).

9 miles, 3 tunnels but 0 locks from Kings Norton, we came to the top of the Tardebigge flight, went down one lock and enjoyed the moorings there for a day before setting off down the remaining 29. It was NOT a marathon, NOT a struggle at all – just easy locks in pleasant countryside – and Val was developing the knack of controlling the throttle lever with her elbow!

On our way down Tardebigge, we had discovered that our super Sterling battery charging system had developed a fault, but the address we had for them was in Worcester, so Dave emailed them for advice. By then, we were on the edge of Droitwich, and it turned out that they are now based there, so Dave uninstalled the unit, walked (a few miles!) to their factory, where he was promptly given a replacement unit. Then back, refit the unit, and off we could go – thanks, Sterling! Meanwhile, an opportunity to look at the restoration work on the Droitwich Junction Canal. Not very much more work to do before there is a link from Hanbury Junction down to Droitwich, then on from there to the Severn via the newly-restored Droitwich Barge Canal. The picture is the view through the junction bridge at Hanbury.

Our way down to Worcester passed through more 'quiet' but pretty countryside, including Church Farm at Oddingley, before we started making our way round the suburbs and then into the heart of the city.

Through Worcester to the Severn, where the signpost at the river's edge showed us where we had come from, where we were going next, and also our planned return route . . .

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Going Up? Not Just Yet!

Back in January, we had a surprise email, telling us that our 'kids' had given us an unusual present – a balloon flight – exciting! The main questions had been when and where to take it, and we had opted for late summer or autumn, near Shrewsbury. We eventually finalised the date for early morning on 5th September, subject, of course, to satisfactory weather conditions.

We left Kidsgrove on 28th August, joining the Trent & Mersey and almost immediately plunging into Harecastle Tunnel, on the tomato-soup-coloured water caused by local iron ore. We remember this well from our second canal holiday, back in 1978, though we have travelled through this 1¾ mile tunnel a few times since then.

Then on through Stoke-on-Trent and down to Stone, where we enjoyed lunch in the Star Inn and then locked down next to it.

Not long before we reached Great Haywood and turned off onto the Staffs. & Worcs., which would take us in the right direction. Through Gailey, its distinctive Round House commanding a good view of the canal above and below the lock.

We found a good spot to moor, not far from Wolverhampton, where Adam could come and collect us the night before the balloon flight and contacted the company on the afternoon of the 4th September, as required. Unfortunately, the flight had to be postponed due to strong winds, and the next available date was 21st September, so we booked for then. We would be able to take a short trip in Zindagi for a couple of weeks and come back for the flight.

Adam and Rachel invited us to come over for the weekend anyway and came to collect us. While we were in Shrewsbury, we took the opportunity to do some supermarket shopping, and Adam took Val in their VW camper van. Unfortunately, as she was getting back into the VW, she slipped and fell on her wrist. We went out to lunch as planned, but a visit to A & E in the afternoon revealed that Val had in fact broken her radius bone. They plastered her arm and wanted to see her again the next day. Needless to say, the balloon trip has been postponed until Val's arm is healed!

Without dragging the story out too long, Val had to go back a third time after another week, when they put her arm in a lightweight resin cast, and again a week later, when they said 'all doing OK – see you in 4 weeks' ! For the first week, we took a short trip up the Shropshire Union, and spotted this kingfisher near Brewood.

After that, we stayed at Adam & Rachel's for 10 days, house-sitting for them for a week while they were on holiday, so it worked out quite well, especially as we had the use of their car as well. We drove out to some land-locked parts of the Montgomery Canal, including the picturesque Brithdir Lock.

Once we had the OK to 'disappear' for 4 weeks, we decided to carry on cruising more or less as we had originally planned, so we set off again . . .

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Mills, Hills and Stately Homes

Having spent several weeks on the Rochdale, and months leading up to that on the Trent and connecting waterways, we found the constant bustle of narrowboats at Marple quite a novel experience, seeing more boats in one hour than we were used to seeing in several days. 

The Macclesfield Canal is justifiably popular. It runs through lovely countryside, passes some enormous old mills and concentrates all its locks into one flight – plus it has its own distinctive style of 'turnover' bridges, or 'snake' bridges as they seem to call them here. This is the one right at the junction with the Peak Forest Canal. Turn left under this one and you are right at the top of the Marple flight of locks – which we had just come up.


Goyt Mill dominates the canal as it leaves southwards. Once a busy cotton mill, it now houses a wide variety of enterprises, from a children's soft play centre to a saddlery – and many more!

In Bollington, both the Adelphi and Clarence Mills (photo) have been adapted in the same way, but don't get the idea that this canal is all old industrial buildings!

Looking back northwards, we could still see the Pennines, and a ridge of hills to the east followed us down towards Bosley Locks and beyond . . .

. . . and of course there were more 'snake' bridges . . .

. . . and the opportunity for a good chat with other boaters as the locks were emptying!

Mow Cop was the last big hill on the east of us as we approached Kidsgrove and Stoke on Trent. Rising to about 1100 feet above sea level, and so about 700 feet above the canal level, it looked like it was worth a visit, so we started walking up to see how far we would get.

We reached the top and spent a little while looking at the 'Old Man O' Mow' (a 65ft gritstone pillar) as well as the 'castle', a folly built in 1754. Then back down the hill – by a slightly more gradual route!


Our activities the next day were slightly less strenuous! We moved the boat on about half a mile and moored up opposite Ramsdell Hall, right on the canalside.

Then we walked over the fields to Little Moreton Hall, an amazing Tudor timbered house (we have lots more photos!), and enjoyed a fascinating tour before walking back to the boat and moving on towards Kidsgrove and the Trent and Mersey Canal.


Through the shallow (1') Hall Green Lock, we chugged on and moored on the aqueduct which takes the Macclesfield Canal over the locks of the Trent & Mersey as it rises below.

(We were here on 27th August)