Saturday, 28 April 2007

Going Loopy
When James Brindley built the BCN main line from Birmingham to Wolverhampton around 1769 it illustrated his established style of following contours wherever possible. It was an instant success and remained very profitable for decades. However sixty years later Thomas Telford was employed to straighten out the route. He accomplished this by making deep cuttings and reduced the distance by seven miles in the process. Brindley's route remained in use (as it does today) so that the capacity of the canal was doubled.

One of the consequences of Telford's short cut is that some of Brindley's canal remains as loops - Oozells Street, Icknield Port and Soho are three examples. We decided this morning to follow Brindley's route all the way to Wolverhampton, negotiating each of these loops in the process.
Oozells Street has been comprehensively redeveloped because of its proximity to Gas Street and is full of moored boats.
However Icknield Port Loop is a peaceful haven (there is no towpath) but may not avoid the developers for much longer.

Icknield Port Loop provides a feed for water from the reservoir

When we last visited the Soho Loop during a BCN Marathon in the 1990's (more of that another time) amongst the obstacles we had to negotiate was a partly submerged Mini in the middle of the canal. Happily the canal is much less congested now and even Winson Green prison seems to have had a facelift.
Mid afternoon we arrived at the entrance to Dudley tunnel which is unnavigable by powered craft but which provides the back door to the Black Country Museum. In the whole journey we met not a single boat.
Winson Green Prison

Friday, 27 April 2007

Back to Back Rock
We awoke this morning around 0700hours (7am in English time) and were surprised to hear teenage voices not far away. Lots of them. And obviously awake. Such a rare occurrence should be brought to the attention of the University sociology department, we thought. Over the next few hours the noise increased until around 10am when it was replaced by a muffled but substantial rhythmic rumbling. Having deciphered the appropriate question from our Brummie phrase book and put it to a local, we learned that the NIA was hosting an all-day rock concert to which we were not invited.
Feeling very offended we sought solace through a dose of NT culture. In the 1970's, the National Trust acquired the last remaining group of back to back houses in the centre of Birmingham and have carefully restored them to the decorative and furnishing conditions for certain points in their existence - 1840, 1870, 1930 and 1970. We were pleased that they had not re-created the smells of the times. Otherwise the guided tour and exhibition were interesting and educational.
Our plans for dinner were upset by the generator deciding not to behave and so we went to the Handmade Hamburger Restaurant. We discovered this place right next to our boat lest time we came to Birmingham and were impressed by being able to taste the meat in their hamburgers rather than a bagload of seasoning.
And as we lay in bed later, ten million teenagers spewed out of the NIA and, after milling around like the bath water trying to get down the plughole, they disappeared in much the same way, viz: with a vague gurgling sound and leaving a faint tide mark.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

The centre of the universe
To some this may be considered a bold claim but to those who have grown up with the various campaigns to retain our canal heritage Gas Street Basin in Birmingham is a strong contender for this title.
On the run in to Birmingham we were accompanied by Virgin trains from Bristol racing us and narrowly beating us. As Margaret drove us through the 2726 yard long Wast Hill Tunnel I comforted her with tales of previous passages. Around 1980, I recalled, Dave Franklin was driving a hire boat from Stratford-upon-Avon through this tunnel whilst Dirk and I sheltered from the dripping roof and ignored his complaints about the engine losing power. Until, that is, we emerged from the north portal in an all- enveloping cloud of steam and smoke. Somewhere under the deck where things technical reside a gasket had blown. The resulting visual and aural emissions matched the environmental pollution of the Torey Canyon. When the hire company asked us if we would be prepared to nurse the boa talong on until they could meet us with a replacement we did not realise that the deck would get so hot that our shoes stuck to it and that the management of local industrial plants would complain about the noise.

Margaret has long craved a visit to Cadbury World at Bournville. However when we parked Gecko alongside the factory and discovered the entry fee was £13 she decided there were better things to spend that sort of money on - chocolate, for instance. Further on we drove through the University of Birmingham where Marcus studied and we waved to Big Tom or whatever the tower is called. It did not acknowledge us despite having paid for a large slice of its upkeep through the tuition fees.

To those who remember the warehouses of Gas Street, the new pretty version does not have the same atmosphere. However, it has been revived quite spectacularly and now is awash with people and boats at all hours of the day. We moored directly outside the NIA as we had done in June last year.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

The end of the line
Taking the train in the opposite direction today we arrive at the end of this single-track line - Redditch. On the advice of Alan (he who skins rabbits on the towpath) we have come here to do our shopping. As we leave the station there is a shopping centre directly in front of us which also leads on to the town centre shops. What a find! All the shops we need, including five travel agents to get competitive quotes for our Colombia trip, and three charity shops adjacent to each other. After a very successful morning we decide to splash out on lunch and are delighted with yet another find. The Jade Palace is a Chinese restaurant working on the Eat as much as you like buffet principle. However this is not only superb value at £4.95 but remarkable in that you select the raw ingredients - meat and vegetables, hand them to the chef, choose the sauce and watch him cook it in front of you. The spectacle alone is almost worth them money. With flames three feet high and all the clattering that I associate with the local take-away, my pile of beef and assorted vegetables are transformed into a very creditable Szechuan style dish. After this I can even tackle Oxfam.
Tomorrow I think we will head in to Birmingham city centre.

Monday, 23 April 2007

To London to see the Mayor
Up early this morning to catch the train into Birmingham and thence to London. Whilst Margaret goes to Stanfords to look at maps of Colombia and Panama in preparation for our trip there in December, I pop in to Moorfields as I have some alien body in my eye which seems reluctant to leave me. Nothing remarkable - three hour's wait for a five minute inspection. I understand the principle of prioritizing urgent or critical cases but if they ran a parallel clinic for the non-critical cases they would clear the waiting rooms in no time. Whilst I was there the vast majority of cases were similar to mine but were interspersed with lengthy examinations of more serious conditions.
We met up at Wembley Park station to attend a citizenship ceremony. I think all citizens should be required to take an oath of allegiance (and get a medal) as do those currently who make the momentous step of relinquishing there nationality of birth to become British citizens.
After our friend Linda was confirmed British we went into London and met Marcus who was attending an exhibition at Olympia before his annual check up at Moorfields. Arrived bac at the boat just before ten pm.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Tardebigge or bust
Thirty six locks and two tunnels before lunch! Who needs a gym membership?
When there are so many locks to negotiate it is helpful if there is a constant flow of boats travelling in the opposite direction so that as one boat leaves a lock, the other enters. To take advantage of all the hire boats which start above the Tardebigge flight on a Saturday we chose that day to travel up the flight. Four and three-quarter hours later we reached the top having met only one boat (and not a hire boat!) So much for our smart thinking. It seems than boat hirers are not as stupid as we had thought - they all set off in the other direction which gave them an afternoon of lock-free boating to the centre of Birmingham.
About three locks up from the bottom is a lock cottage which the Landmark Trust has restored and is available for holidays. The view from the rear is very rural and is not interrupted by sweaty boaters trying to get to the pub before closing time.
We arrived at Alvechurch in the afternoon and will stay here for a few days. The railway station is right alongside the canal and we plan to visit London on St. George's Day to attend the citizenship ceremony of a friend.
The boat moored immediately in front of us is called Oh Jerusalem! and has stained glass in the front doors. Further round the corner there is a tiny narrowboat where the owner is skinning four rabbits he shot earlier in the day. That may account for the abundance of flies here.

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

To Worcester and beyond
This morning was clear and bright for our departure form the haven of Stourport Basin and adventure on the turbulent River Severn. We cut ourselves loose at 07.45 and descended the two pairs of staircase locks, and entered the river at 08.30. The waster was as calm as the canal which pleased me no end and we opened up the throttle for the first time in five months heading downstream for Worcester. The three locks between Stourport and Worcester are all larger than anything encountered on the canals but are operated by lock keepers. We passed through each one on our own and arrived in Worcester before noon having seen one other narrowboat, a plastic launch (or yoghurt pot) and a man rowing.

Here we climbed the two large locks into Diglis Basin and the start of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal.
From here to the centre of Birmingham is only 24 miles.

And 56 locks.
The Tardebigge flight of 36 locks is generally considered to be the longest flight in Britain but we are in no hurry to tackle it yet. So we pottered up through Worcester and moored up for the night opposite a sports centre. Not often do we get a football match to watch from the boat at eventide.

Waiting on the River Severn below Diglis Locks

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Winter in Stourport-on-Severn
After our first season on Gecko we arrived in Stourport at the beginning of November 2006 to rest up for the winter. Time to replenish the coffers, scrape off the barnacles and to touch up the scrapes on the paintwork.

2006 had been a busy year. Our first venue was Marsworth at the end of May where we visited the Wendover Arm canal festival. We, in turn, were visited by hordes of friends from the area which really set us up for the year.
Our next appointment was Colne in Lancs to attend Doug's wedding to Gemma on August 19. We managed to take Gecko to a point on the Leeds-Liverpool canal within four miles of Doug's house .
We also made two trips to Stourport for work to be done on Gecko, one involved being lifted out of the water for a week in the hottest week in July. A steel tube is not the most comfortable place to live in a heatwave!
Our arrival at York Street lock in Stourport we were greeted by friends who had arrived before us with their boats and with whom we were to share a mooring until the end of March. All this greeting was observed by a group of German tourists who assumed they were witnessing the return of local celebrities. And who were we to gainsay that belief?

For most of our stay in Stourport, Margaret worked at two nurseries in Bath and we met up at weekends either in Bath or Stourport. Meanwhile I kept Gecko warm for Margaret's return.

As you can see from the photographs, the weather in Stourport is not always sunny.
48 hours after it rains in North Wales the river in Stourport responds adn sometimes it is quite dramatic. Here the river is 15ft above normal and the lock which usually takes you down to the river is submerged.

Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund, British Waterways has been restoring much of the canal basin in Stourport and has even dug out one of the basins which had been filled in 80 years ago
This might seem like a wholly laudable project but at least one old basin was reburied complete with the remains of old boats because its restoration would have reduced the development value of the land.

However tomorrow we are heading down the River Severn to Worcester to start our 2007 season. and it hasn't been raining in Wales for two weeks!