Thursday, 20 August 2015

Tunnels, Tardebigge and a tree-tache

Boating is never a speedy affair but we didn't make it far from Kinver before having to stop again. As we came round a bend near Caunsall we found 72' of ex-working boat stranded across the canal. A nearby boater explained that too many speeding boats had ripped the mooring pins out. David was dispatched with the long pole to push her back in to the bank. After some scavenging on the stricken boat for a spare pin we had her moored up again and were on our way.

Cookley Tunnel is only 65 yards long but we love the houses sat ontop of it. I wonder how many flower pots from the end garden have finished up in the canal below...

Kidderminster provides a handy shopping spot on the Staffs and Worcs with a choice of two canal-side supermarkets. If you don't need shopping, the view of the church is about the highlight!

We had an unusually long day to Stourport - which has a real seaside feel to it, complete with funfair and seagulls. The canal joins the river via two narrow staircase locks for narrowboats or two broad locks for fat boats so you have to watch where you're going to make sure you end up at the right set of locks.

These are the staircase locks, with the second set next to the arched roof of the dry dock.

The canal builders must've had a sense of humour as they built the two pairs of staircases offset from each other. Getting from one pair of staircase locks into the next must be one of the most awkward lock approaches on the system (Keadby and other tidal locks aside I suppose). Fortunately we made it perfectly due to no wind, no cross currents and, more importantly, nobody watching.

We had a good trip down the River Severn, the levels were low so we didn't break any speed records as we headed downstream to Worcester, passing the cathedral on the river bank before stopping for the night on the floating pontoons near Diglis lock.

That evening and the following morning it rained really heavily. The river had definitely come up, just nudging into the 'amber' on the level guage. After sitting tight for the morning's rain we made a move up into the Diglis canal basin to get off the river. This was a selfless act for the good of all river boaters as we have a history of making rivers flood when we go on them.... one of our boating friends nicknamed Dave 'Noah' for this talent.

Leaving Worcester the heavens opened again and we were drenched by the time we made it under the M5 to a pleasant if soggy mooring at Tibberton. So much for the summer!

The following day dawned bright and sunny and we had a pleasant cruise to the top of the Stoke flight. The Worcester and Birmingham is a narrow canal so it was a bit strange squeezing through two enormous widebeams at Hanbury Wharf. There is a broker here which cranes wide boats in to a narrow canal, presumably to then be craned out again when someone buys them.

The moorings at the top of the Stoke flight were pretty busy, the reason being that if you go beyond this point you then can't stop for another two miles and 30 locks. This is the bottom of the infamous Tardebigge flight, the longest flight of locks in the country. With this in mind we made an early start today, setting off at an almost unheard of time of 7:15.

This proved to be a good move as we *just* beat another couple of boats to the first lock, meaning most of the locks were empty for us (ready to go in) whilst they had to reset them behind us. No hard feelings we don't think and we worked quickly so as not to hold them up - the early bird caught the worm!

Despite its length, Tardebigge is a lovely flight - all the gates and paddle gear work well and the views as you climb just get better and better. This is the top lock, which is deeper than the rest at 11'.

The engineers of the Worcester & Birmingham obviously got bored of locks by the time they got to Tardebigge Top Lock, as a 600 yard tunnel lies just beyond, saving any more windlass wielding as it burrows under the hill.

Thanks to our early start it was barely coffee break time when we got to the summit level so we thought we'd better keep going. We passed through Alvechurch, having forgotten how pretty the canal round here is from when we did it last year. We particularly liked Lower Bittell Reservoir but unfortunately you can't really moor here as the towpath is so overgrown. The long term moorers on the otherside have got a great view all to themselves though.

After 38 lock-miles (our longest day ever I think...) we stopped at Hopwood. Progress for the last half-mile or so seemed to be really slow which we had thought was due to shallow water in a cutting. When we stopped, we discovered PM had acquired an enormous submerged tree-moustache which spanned most of the width of the canal! Here is the offending item when we'd dragged it out from under PM - we hadn't even noticed this but it's been a long day!

Birthday in Birmingham

From Nantwich we headed south on the Shroppie, with a short day to Audlem. We chose a lovely mooring on the aqueduct over the river Weaver instead of the moorings in the village, which are a bit busy and dark.

Next day, we made a slightly early start in a devious attempt to be first boat up the locks. This failed at the first lock as we could see someone in front had just beaten us up it. No matter, there were a few boats heading down already so we didn't have to reset a single lock all the way up to the ever-popular Shroppie Fly pub.

Beyond the pub the locks come thick and fast but we had a great run up the 15 lock flight, with just enough boats going in each direction. You can see in the photo below that the locks are all quite close together, which makes life easier.

The Shropshire Union is a relatively modern canal so uses a lot of 'high tech' cuttings and embankments to minimise the number of locks. The cuttings begin with a vengeance south of Audlem and some of them are impressively deep, meaning huge bridges are needed to allow roads to cross them. This is High Bridge in Grub Street cutting, complete with mini-telegraph pole!

We moored just after Brewood for our final night on the Shroppie so as to have a pleasant mooring whilst minimising the distance we had to travel the following day, which was to be our longest day of the trip this year at around 32 lock miles. Typically, it rained. A lot. This was the view as we set off heading for Autherley Junction.

Turning right at the junction we were briefly on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire canal, before we turned left at Aldersley Junction to begin the Wolverhampton flight of 21 locks. Sights of the Wolverhampton flight are few and far between so here's the bottom:

... and 21 locks later, here's the top - phew!

After some slow, weedy miles we stopped for the night at Tipton Green - there are decent, safe moorings on the offside here. The following day we followed the Birmingham Old Main Line which darts in and out of the shadow of the M5.

This is a fascinating stretch of canal with the contrast between the roaring, modern motorway overhead and the tranquil, old canal lying secretly underneath.

Birmingham famously has more miles of canal than Venice and this seems to be causing David some confusion as we cross the New Main Line at the point where road, railway and two canals fly over one another.

The Birmingham Canal Navigations, or BCN, must be the only part of the system where you could actually get lost. But maybe it wasn't just the map-reading that was causing David concern - Victoria's birthday was fast approaching so the annual one-man Great British Bake Off began as soon as we got to Birmingham. Here David can be seen surgically adjusting his bake by trimming off the burnt bits. Classy.

And here's the finished result - not the best cake in the world but, more importantly, baking done for another year!

Victoria's dad had obviously heard about the delicious baked goods on offer in Birmingham (or perhaps smelt the burning....) and came to visit the birthday girl for the day.

After a day of sightseeing and some dreaded but necessary shopping at the Bull Ring we set off, detouring through Gas Street Basin to turn round at the Mailbox before heading back the way we'd come along the New Main Line.

We've been to Birmingham several times now but never ventured down any of the BCN's wiggly bits. We don't plan to do any of the 'wilder' parts of the BCN but we did explore the Icknield Port loop, which runs past the bottom of Rotton Park Reservoir - actually nicer than it sounds.

The Icknield Port loop is very short and soon rejoins the Main Line, which we headed straight across to explore the Soho loop the other side.

Detours over, we headed back west but this time took the newer, more direct New Main Line. Here we are passing another boat at one of the BCN's many former toll islands. These are narrow parts of the canal which are a pain to us leisure boaters but were essential to collecting tolls in the canals' working days.

Soon we were back at the site of David's confused face above, although this time on the lower level of the New Main Line. The Old Line crosses on the arched bridge just infront of the motorway.

We left Birmingham via the enormous Netherton Tunnel to join the Dudley canals, which eventually led us to Merry Hill. The basin here is ironically not very merry in appearance, looking a little cold and like the hoped-for regeneration hasn't quite happened. Nevertheless, it's an OK place to moor but was full when we arrived so we moored on the embankment above the shopping centre.

Visiting Birmingham by boat inevitably involves a lot of locks up and a lot more back down again. Our first flight the following day was the Delph flight which looks like you're falling off a cliff from the top as it drops 85' in 8 tightly spaced locks.

Before the next flight of locks you get a short break, which is enlivened by a very low bridge...

... and in our case the prop-foul of the year so far (famous last words) when we picked up a large and very fluffy cushion which almost stalled the engine. David spent some time wrestling the cushion off the prop then hauling it out onto the bank, which wasn't made any easier by some nosy swans (his favourite) interfering. He then threw it back in the cut for the next unsuspecting boat to catch. Just kidding.

Minutes later we surfed over some large obstructions under the water - shopping trollies at a guess but who knows. It's a strange feeling when nearly 20 tons of narrowboat rises up out of the water as you grind over an unseen obstruction. Rubbish in the canal is clearly a bit of a problem on the Stourbridge! After that it was smooth-going down the 16 locks of the Stourbridge flight.... reach an amazingly rural mooring on the edge of Stourbridge, with only horses for company in the field opposite.

Today we've come down the remaining four locks of the Stourbridge canal to join the Staffordshire & Worcestershire canal (again), heading south through to a lovely mooring at Kinver today.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Which 'wich?

After a ridiculously busy return trip across the Middlewich arm - there were nine boats waiting at one lock! - we headed north from Middlewich, sharing the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin Big Lock with nb Dunnarunna.

The Trent & Mersey north of Middlewich is mostly really pretty, and dotted with 'flashes' which are big lakes caused by subsidence.

The stretch around Northwich has to be the exception to the 'really pretty' rule as the canal passes right through some still-active chemical works, complete with sounds, smells and steam.

Soon after this we arrived at Anderton and booked ourselves in for the Anderton boat lift which descends 50' down to the River Weaver below. First you cross a mini aqueduct to access the lift...

Then you get let into the caisson which contains the boats as they're lowered down to the level of the river. 50' feels pretty high as you peer down to the other caisson below, which is waiting to come up as you go down.

Next the caisson smoothly descends, giving you just enough time to imagine all the hard work 50' worth of locks would involve. Halfway down we waved at the trip boat which was on its way up.

And soon we were out onto the River Weaver, heading upstream into Northwich.

Northwich is undergoing a lot of redevelopment at the moment, which started with the development of Northwich Quay marina. This was being built when we were here two years ago so it was nice to see it completed and looking good.

We had a lazy morning in Northwich the next day before setting off to Vale Royal, which is a lovely peaceful mooring. From there, we headed upstream the next day passing some still-active salt works near Winsford.

Winsford bridge is the official limit of navigation but you can carry on a little further to reach Winsford bottom flash. This looks really inviting to explore as you head upstream but is apparently very shallow in places. We turned soon after taking this photo.

nb Leo were slightly braver and ventured further out into the flash, testing the depth with a pole at the front as they went. As they turned we did notice some sludgy brown spray from the prop, suggesting they'd maybe pushed their luck a bit far!

For some reason there is a water point near the entrance to the flash and we did try to get in to fill with water. Even though Pas Meche isn't especially deep we did go gently aground approaching the water point so decided to abandon the refilling to avoid beaching ourselves with a full water tank.

Instead, we headed downstream, back through Northwich and passed the Anderton lift again.

The locks downstream of Anderton are huge, our two boats felt tiny in Saltersford lock. Fortunately like all the Weaver locks they're manned so this is definitely the place to come for lazy boaters.

Huge locks are a hangover from the Weaver's commercial carrying days, as are the enormous swing bridges which cross the river. This is Acton swing bridge which rotates around a central island. They do still work even though the big ships no longer run on the Weaver.

Unless you're going out onto the Manchester Ship Canal, Weston Marsh is journey's end at the northern end of the Weaver. We passed a good mile of chemical works before arriving at Weston Marsh lock, where we moored for a look round this no-man's land between the river and the canal.

The lock is still operational in theory although we wondered how many boats a year actually pass through it as it looks pretty derelict.

We made it to the limit of navigation near Weston Point Docks, access to which is blocked by a low swing bridge which normal boaters cannot operate. Leo is winding (that's turning to landlubbers) at the junction with the disused Runcorn and Weston Canal.

We made it back to the Devil's Garden moorings (which are a lot nicer than they sound) for the night.

After a return trip to Northwich we called time on our Weaver jaunt and went back up the Anderton Lift. We really enjoyed the Weaver, it's a lovely varied river and about as tranquil as river cruising gets. We have met a few people who are scared of going on rivers but the Weaver has to be about the best place to start for nervous boaters.

After the Weaver we had planned to go into Manchester, from where Leo and us would go our separate ways. However, the Bridgewater Canal into Manchester is currently closed for several weeks so we had to rethink our plans. So, after a final meal at the Stanley Arms we said goodbye to Leo as they headed north towards Liverpool and we retraced our steps south to Middlewich.

Since then we've crossed back across the Middlewich Arm (for the third and surely last time this year....!) and rejoined the Shropshire Union canal, heading south this time. We found a perfectly sized mooring on Nantwich embankment last night.