Saturday, December 03, 2011

Birmingham to Blisworth – via Bosworth!

This year, we seem to have specialised in having the blog running absolutely ages behind real events - apologies again!

For your information, at the beginning of November we moved into our winter mooring at Blisworth Marina, near Northampton. We like it here, and have been back every winter since 2008/9!

However, the blog last left readers on the outskirts of Birmingham in early August, so we shall try to get you up to date in the next few episodes . . .

Leaving the relative tranquility of the moorings at Star City, we were only a few hundred yards from one of the busiest motorway junctions in the country. Officially called Gravelly Hill, it is known to all as Spaghetti Junction. What many people don't know is that under the road junction is a much older canal junction, now dwarfed by all the roads and swamped by the traffic noise.

We have been through Salford Junction 3 times now. First in 1986 (!!), when we took our last family hireboat holiday. We had come through Birmingham and down the Aston Locks, emerging from the canal on the left just beyond the signpost. Then in 2008, when we had done our devious route via the Wyrley and Essington Canal ('The Curly Wyrley'), we came down from Perry Barr (straight ahead under the low bridge). This time, having come down 'the bottom road', we came out at the far left of this picture and took a wide sweeping turn to our right – we had joined the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal again!

We have shown you this odd 'folly' bridge before, but it's still unique – the elaborate Drayton Manor footbridge, with spiral staircases up inside each of the towers and a walkway over the canal. There's a less decorative but very practical swing bridge just next to it, for wheeled traffic! We were approaching Fazeley, where the Birmingham and Fazeley joins the Coventry Canal.

Suddenly, after Fazeley, the canal got busy! We had to wait in a queue to start up the Glascote locks, and the queue went on forming behind us as we entered the bottom lock.

Skirting round the edges of Tamworth and through Polesworth village, we came to Atherstone and its seven locks, raising us 80 feet – our last locks for several days! One of the locks has a workable side pond, so we made use of the new skills we had picked up in Droitwich! Here is the old Watling Street bridge, but the A5 goes over a new one now!

Just a couple of miles south-west of Atherstone, we passed the British Waterways yard at Hartshill, looking somehow timeless in the changing world around it. Solid and elegant industrial buildings!

After plunging through Nuneaton's suburbs, we turned off at Marston Junction, where the Ashby Canal starts its 22-mile lock-free journey eastwards and northwards. The junction itself (like so many canal junctions) seemed quiet and remote after the suburban bustle, and the Ashby, with its stone bridges, fields and farming villages, is very different from the Coventry!

The Ashby Canal passes close to the site of the Battle of Bosworth (1485) and we took the opportunity to walk up to the centre on Ambion Hill and look around the area. On the hill, a copy of Richard III's flag flies, complete with his Boar symbol. (Henry Tudor's symbol was a dragon).

What's this picture of reeds by the canal? Look carefully, and you may see a water vole just making landfall. Not a good picture, but it's rare enough to see these little creatures, let alone get a picture! Back in the 1970s and 80s, when we first went canal boating, we used to see them quite often. Not now, since there are so many mink around, largely 'thanks' to animal liberationists some years back!

Late August, and the berries of Black Bryony were already turning from green to orange and red.

We had enjoyed our week on the Ashby Canal, but rejoined the Coventry, skirted Bedworth and then turned 180 degrees left under the bridge at Hawkesbury Junction on the edge of Coventry, where the northern section of the Oxford Canal joins.

Near Newbold-on-Avon, the cast-iron bridge to the right takes the towpath over a short cul-de-sac which used to be part of the canal's old and very windy route. The bridge beyond leads the canal along the 'new' straightened route of 1828.

Passing underneath part of Newbold is the short Newbold Tunnel, unusual in having a towpath and even more so for being lit with an interesting range of coloured lights!

And so back to Blisworth at the end of August, where we saw our little unknown duck again. We have since discovered that it is a Ringed Teal, fairly uncommon in the UK but regularly seen on the Continent. (Thanks, Olly!)

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Discovering Side Ponds . . . and Avoiding Riots!

It was late July and we were heading up the Severn from Tewkesbury. You may remember that we came this way last year and tried to get into the Droitwich Barge Canal. After all the 'hype' and razzmatazz in the boating press about the Barge Canal having been restored, it turned out that it had been open for special visitors for a day or two, and then firmly closed again!

So here was Hawford Lock again – but this time it was open, and we knew that not only could we take the boat up into Droitwich, but also that the narrow Junction Canal had also been restored and reopened and we could go up to Hanbury Junction on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal – just so long as the boat could get under the low-headroom tunnel under the M5!

The Barge Canal was quiet and almost river-like as it passed under the historic Linacre Bridge, one of the few remaining examples of James Brindley's original structures on the canal, dating from about 1770.

Like on most rivers, though, mooring places were hard to find! We got just about close enough to the bank above Mildenham Mill Lock and tied up among the reeds!

At Ladywood Top Lock we met the gentleman who lived in the Lock Cottage and had a chat. He and his wife had been actively involved in the early days of the restoration and had used the canal from here up to Droitwich for many years.

At Droitwich itself, a lovely welcoming canal basin, with free moorings on floating pontoons, in Vines Park but secure behind locked access gates.

Only a short walk into the town centre for essential shopping, and we passed this tile mural which celebrates Droitwich's long history as a salt town.

The Barge Canal passes through the park to join the River Salwarpe and then enters the first of several new narrow locks, into the repositioned section of the Droitwich Junction Canal (the old line has been built over).

When the M5 motorway was built, only a very low and narrow tunnel was left for the (then derelict) canal. It was tight - but we got through OK with the rooftop salad garden brushing the top of the tunnel!

Then through some more new locks: one single narrow lock and a 'staircase' of two. Nicely built, and the surroundings should soon begin to look a little more natural.

The top three locks form the original Hanbury Flight, and have been beautifully restored . . .

 . . . including the side ponds! Here is Tom, the local lock-keeper, operating the side paddles. We had not seen side ponds in action before, and they are a very ingenious but simple way of saving almost half a lockful of water every time a boat comes through. Thanks to Tom's instruction, Dave has started looking out for operational side ponds on the rest of the system – there are not many of them!

Up on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, we passed through Astwood Lane Lock and enjoyed the lovely garden and the lock cottage there – always a real picture, and their runner beans were very tasty too!

The next day, Janet came and joined us again and we decided to go back down to Droitwich with her, so here are Janet and Val working on a lock gate together at the same lock.

Back down through one of the swing bridges in Vines Park. We spent the next morning in Droitwich before heading back up again!

Just above Hanbury Junction, the damson trees were so full of fruit that we just had to stop and pick some, despite the rain! Val had plenty for jam and Janet took lots away with her, too.

A really sunny day to make our way up the Tardebigge flight. From Stoke Works up to just below the top lock there are 35 locks in just under 4 miles. It sounds like a marathon, but we had a very enjoyable day and made it in less than 5½ hours travelling time – we stopped halfway for a lunch break!

Just as we had decided to go through Birmingham and out to the north-east of it, news broke of the riots! We waited in the quiet outskirts for a day and then chugged through a strangely deserted city centre,

then out of Birmingham via a route which was part familiar and part unknown to us, down the Farmers Bridge flight of 13 locks, the Digbeth flight of 6 and then left at Bordesley Junction and down 'the bottom road', the old working boatmen's name for the Saltley Cut, an almost forgotten part of the Grand Union Canal, with its five Garrison locks.

Just before this (far from scenic!) canal arrived below Spaghetti Junction, we found some useful visitor moorings on a pontoon next to the 'Star City' entertainment centre. Surprisingly quiet, in spite of the nearby casino, cinemas, bowling and restaurants!

Friday, September 30, 2011

To Stratford and the Avon!

Just about the only part of the UK waterways system that we had not yet visited was the Warwickshire Avon, from Stratford to Tewkesbury. We had thought about nipping in at Tewkesbury when we were going up the Severn in early October last year, but decided to try to get there in the summer months, and pencilled it in for 2011. So, after a couple of weeks in Blisworth, we set off in early July.

We needed to take a familiar route to get there. Up the Grand Union to Norton Junction, on to Braunston and Napton and then DOWN the Stockton locks before going UP the (in)famous flight of 21 at Hatton near Warwick again. Here we are, going down the Stockton flight . . .

 . . . and sharing a lock about halfway up the Hatton flight – see some of the others in the distance! We were really glad to find another couple going up at the same time as us – sharing the work is easier and faster!

We had an unusual welcome as we started down the narrow locks on the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal. The gentleman with the alpenhorn said that he was from the Swiss Midlands but had lived in the English Midlands for many years. He liked to play the horn here as the lock and the landscape gave him good resonance!

Narrow locks, split footbridges and barrel-roofed lock cottages – with those three factors together, we couldn't be anywhere else but on the Stratford! One story is that the barrel roof design resulted from using the timber formers (which had been used to construct the canal road bridges) as the main roof timbers when they came to build the cottages. The split footbridges allowed the tow rope to slip through without having to detach the horse from the boat.

All along this canal, the purple loosestrife and meadowsweet seemed to combine in colourful bunches along the banks, often interspersed with teasels in flower – this was mid-July.

Another welcome sight, a stoat on the towpath. We have seen a few of these on our travels and they always seem so active – and playful!

And so to Stratford! The day after we arrived and moored on the river, there was a 'Fun Regatta', including this crew dressed up as bees!

Before going down the river, we decided to explore as far as we could go upstream. Under the Clopton Bridge (15th century) and north-east, we had about 1½ miles of river before the last place wide enough to turn around Zindagi's 57feet. By then, it was getting a little shallow as well!

Then downstream the next day and into our first Avon lock, with its unusual steel framework – to resist distortion by 'high ground pressures', apparently.

Lunchtime at Luddington. A quiet spot with a few moored boats, the lock and a gloriously tumbling weir.

The river at Bidford-on-Avon. The bridge dates from 1482.

It looks like a lighthouse and it's even nicknamed 'The Offenham Light', but it's actually a flood-proof lock-keeper's hut at Offenham Lock. A reminder that the Avon is prone to sudden floods after heavy rain. Fortunately we avoided any of that!

We enjoyed a walk around Evesham, doing a little shopping and looking at some old buildings. Here at the market place is Booth Hall (late 15th-C) with the bell tower of the town hall.

As we chugged on downstream, we passed Chadbury and reached Fladbury with its mill between the weir and the lock. Seems like the Avon was once well supplied with water-mills!

Then, as we came close to Wyre Piddle, we were met by a solitary black swan, apparently nicknamed 'Boris' (as we found out later).

For the last few days we had seen Bredon Hill looming up to the south of us and the Malvern Hills over to the west. We took the opportunity to moor at Great Comberton and walk up Bredon Hill, where we could look over the plain to the Malverns.

Downstream from Great Comberton, we passed under Eckington Bridge, which dates from the 1500s and is still in constant use for all sorts of road traffic . . .

 . . . and then on to Bredon village with its line of boats that we had often seen from the M5 motorway.

Tewkesbury is where the Avon flows into the Severn – in two channels! This is the 'Mill Avon', with the old mill on the right, and a few boats moored (they can't go any further downstream) . . .

 . . . so we came down Avon Lock and into the short reach leading into the Severn.

Dateline: July 28th – sorry we are still 'blogging' so far behind!