From Stratford to Birmingham via Knowle
As I said previously, it was a real wrench leaving the lovely Avon behind. We had had a wonderful month but now it was time to – well – move on! Up the South Stratford canal, which has its terminus in Bancroft Basin in Stratford-upon-Avon.
You may recall we spent an enjoyable time on the North Stratford last summer? The South Stratford canal meets the North Stratford canal at Lapworth (Kingswood Junction) . It’s actually one canal split in half by its junction. Historically, the Southern part was managed by The National Trust but passed over to CRT in 1988.
We set off (6th Jun) – a new week and a new canal – to Old Nick anyway. We have been on it before but it was many years ago. And on one of the occasions it was with Sue and Paul. And here we were again!
You leave the basin under a very low bridge and very shortly, the first lock is upon you. The volunteer lock-keepers do a first class job of the garden at the lock, which is a riot of colour and filled with both decorative and edible plants. I noticed some Strawberries and Mint growing. Pimms anyone?
We got the bike off and I cycled from lock to lock, getting them ready and then moving on to the next while the crew dealt with the current lock. We were joined in one by a swan family (Ma, Pa and 3 cygnets) who, despite our best efforts were absolutely determined to go up in the lock with us. They had clearly done it before, though and came out unscathed.
The boys accompany me on my towpath rides and there was a point where I had to dismount, put the boys on their leads, and do a detour as there was a swan family sitting quite resolutely on the towpath. They are inclined to be aggressive when they have young so require a wide berth!
We ticked off lock after lock (a total of 18) on this very pretty canal, with its incredibly narrow split bridges and unique barrel-roofed lock-keepers cottages. One of them – although greatly extended – is up for sale at the moment. Your eyes will water at the unbelievable price!
One of the highlights of the day was going across the stunning Edstone Aqueduct, which at 475 feet (145 m) holds the record for being England’s longest cast iron aqueduct. Its trough is formed of 35 separate sections bolted together, and it sits on thirteen brick piers, creating 14 spans.
Even though it is dwarfed by its Welsh cousin, the famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, in Wales (1,008 feet or 307 metres long) it’s pretty near as impressive, in my book. And – unlike its cousin – the towpath is at the same height as the bottom of the trough, which is quite unusual. There’s a short video of us crossing the aqueduct here.
As it was Sue and Paul’s last night I had booked a table for dinner at the Navigation pub in Wotton Wawen. Or so I thought. We rocked up to the pub and it was very clearly closed. In what shall go down in the annals of time as “The Great Navigation Inn Cock-up” it transpired that I had actually booked a table at the Navigation Inn in Lapworth. Luckily Paul (Rogers) had popped back to Stratford to pick up their car, ready for their journey home the next day. A quick call to the pub and a somewhat tortuous car journey – thanks to Google – which kept trying to take us to the Boot Inn – and we arrived at the correct pub. We had a lovely meal and then it was home to Sue opening her birthday present (a few days early) and a final few rounds of The Game. We had played quite a few rounds during their stay, but not once did we manage to beat it! Next time!
The next morning (7th Jun) it was time for them to go and we sadly waved goodbye to them all until next time. I tried very hard to keep my cuddly Lulu-dog but it was not to be. As the weather looked fair, I did a couple of loads of washing and it was soon drying in the warmth and breeze. Our plan was for me to to move us on down to the next set of locks later in the day and then we would tackle some of them in the evening, when Paul finished work.
As I steered us along I was struck by the beauty and rural charm, of this canal, and at this time of year it’s at its best, Flowers everywhere on the bank, mainly yellow and white at present – buttercups, cow parsley, hogweed, white campion and clover, ox-eye daisies and clumps of yellow flag irises on the water margin. And then actually in the water the lovely native yellow water lily. Interesting to note that this humble little plant suffered at the hands of 18th century ‘lily-scrumpers’ who attempted to collect the lilies for garden ponds!
I also spotted a pretty little flower which I’ve seen many times on the side of locks, for which I don’t have a name. It has tiny yellow flowers – about the size of two match heads. Anyone?
We did a batch of 8 locks after work and were just pulling over by the Fleur de Lys pub in Lowsonford when it started to rain. Luckily it was only a short shower. It had been very tempting to go to the pub, which is famous for its pies – proper pies not the stupid “dish with a puff pastry lid” type. But we had food that needed using up, sadly. And then we had an early night as we planned one of our early starts the next day.
06:00? Wednesday? Time to get up. We wanted to get to the junction before Paul had to start work. Paul set off on the bike with the boys to set the next lock while I made my leisurely way to meet him, in the lovely warm sunshine. One thing to note about this canal. It seems that pretty much every one of the narrow bridges is set on a slight angle , testing a person’s steering capabilities to the max!
We settled into a nice routine and a good pace, without speeding. We have a good locking up routine for flights of narrow locks. The cyclist sets the lock, opens the gate and then the steerer enters the lock and the cyclist closes the gate(s). The cyclist then opens the paddles on both sides to fill the lock, while the steerer controls the boat – no need to rope up in narrow locks. Once the lock is full, the cyclist opens the gate(s) and the steerer sets the boat into forward motion, then hops off. They put the paddle down on their side, hop back on the boat and leave the lock, The cyclist then closes the gate and drops the paddle their side. And then its a case of repeat ad lib, ad nauseum.
It was by this method we climbed the hill, up the remaining 9 locks to arrive at Kingswood Junction. And Paul was at his desk by 08:15. Not bad at all! 34 locks and 25.5 miles – done in our spare time!
We spent the day and night at this spot and then, around 1:30 pm. I moved the boat on down (Thurs 11th) to The Kings Head pub, which we have visited a couple of times before. We had a table booked for dinner and also a cheeky grocery delivery.
It’s on quite a busy road ( A4141) and has a rather an impressive house number, being located at number 2,110 Warwick Road. But it’s really lovely and quiet at night. I wonder how many peaceful nights we’ll get in our 2nd city? Time will tell.
Before we moved off on Friday, I did another load of washing as the weather looked fair. Luckily, our line fits in the well deck, so we can cruise along with it blowing in the breeze. Handy.
As Paul was working, I moved the boat the short distance from the pub to the foot of Knowle locks – one of the Southerly access points to the Birmingham Canal Navigations (or BCN). We planned to go up the next day and spend the day and night at the bottom of the locks. It’s one of our happy places and we spent quite a few days there last year. It’s so peaceful but with easy access to water, refuse etc.
Once moored, I moved the washing line onto the bank to finish drying. I also decided to clean the roof, as birds, roosting in the trees at the Kings Head, had used it as a public convenience overnight. We were royally splattered and it sticks like – well, you know what – to a blanket. Some was so difficult, I had to liberally soak it before I could get it to budge! Yuk.
Roof gleaming, I eventually went indoors to do a bit of work on this blog and after a a little while, there was a massive gust of wind – and I mean freakishly massive – and the whole line full of dry washing just pitched into the cut! Paul had to help get it out and then it was a case of re-washing it all and pegging it out again. Annoying! Needless to say, the line was not put quite so near the edge that time! Lesson learnt!
Later in the afternoon, we went for a ride with the boys to the village of Knowle. It was a bit hectic – queues of cars and some frayed tempers (not ours!). And the bakery which I hoped to visit was closed. It’s a pretty village and there is clearly a fair bit of disposable income in the area, judging by the very swish bathroom and kitchen fitting shops!
We thought we’d console ourselves with a nice frappe from the Costa, but they were just closing too. We had to make do with an ice cream and a sit in the very pleasant churchyard, which has numerous benches! We liked the place, despite it being a bit disappointing that everything was closing. We should have gone earlier, but work got in the way. The village had a nice feel to it and a good array of independent shops. There’s also a reasonably sized Tesco. Handy for provisions.
It was a beautiful evening and we sat out on deck in the sunshine. The washing had (re)dried and all was well with the world.
The next morning, we were up at 8, had breakfast, got ready for the day and motored down to the water point to top up before heading up the Knowle flight – the last set of wide locks before Birmingham. While I was watering, Paul quickly nipped into the village to grab a few bits from the bakery. He came back with a sourdough loaf, some mini quiches and some Tartes au Citron. Yum.
He arrived back just as I’d put the hose away – perfect timing – and off we set. Luckily, the CRT Volunteer crew were there to see us on our way and we were very grateful for their help. They also dispensed some good advice regarding where to moor in Birmingham that night. We had thought that we’d probably stop at the top of the Camp Hill flight, but they advised that we press on to Star City, of which more later.
We had ALL the weather whilst going up the Knowle 5, ranging from bright, hot sunshine to stair-rods and it was also pretty gusty, which made getting into the locks sans bumps a bit tricky. I manage four out of five!
I have to say that having the help of volunteers is sheer luxury. We had a bit of a break from boating for a while after my Dad died and to come back to it, full time with volunteers is incredible. And they are always a jolly nice bunch. It’s a shame that there are no longer full-time paid lock-keepers these days, but these guys and gals do help your day along. Long may they volunteer.
It had been many years since Paul and I had come in to Birmingham this way and we thoroughly enjoyed watching the landscape changing from rural to urban. And the locks changing form wide to narrow! It ended up being a pretty long day. We went through the outskirts of Solihull, then through Olton, Acocks Green, Tyesley and Sparkbrook – home of the “Balti Triangle“!
The very new-looking Boater’s Facilities at the top of the Camp Hill flight of 6 locks was closed due to vandalism and was liberally daubed with graffiti – as is pretty much every flat, vertical surface around here. The vandalism is such a shame. I just don’t get it. Why on earth would you feel the need to spoil things for others? Anyway – we were going down the locks tonight, like it or not.
As we got to the bottom lock, we arrived at our first junction – Bordesley – a sharp right turn. This video shows what it looks like. Then it was a long straight, a set of 5 locks (the Garrison flight) before we arrived at our destination – Star City, in the Nechells area of Birmingham.
Star City is an entertainment complex that was built on the site of the old Nechell’s Power Station. It was opened by George Clooney. It has a bit of a reputation for car crime and violence which is encouraging! The CRT moorings are locked and supposedly secure, though, so that’s reassuring, Except, when we arrived, the gate – which is operated by means of a CRT key – was swinging open. And no sign of any lock. But we had no other option than to stay there as it was 7 pm and we’d been going for nearly 12 hours. As it turned out, we needn’t have worried. It was a very quiet night and we encountered no problems. It’s fair to say that a lock would not deter anyone who was determined
We started Sunday (12th Jun) in our time-honoured way, with eggs and a fairly slow start. We had a total of 13 locks to do and figured we had plenty of time to get to our planned overnight stop at the top of the Perry Barr flight of 11 locks.
We went to the end of the Grand Union and turned onto the Tame Valley Canal, one of the later additions to the Birmingham canal network. It is unusual in that it has a towpath either side, built to speed up transit. Think of it as the 19th Century equivalent of the M6 Toll! Being of late design, it is pretty straight and almost seems like a hidden way through the city. And perhaps it is, as we met a couple of different people who said that we were the first boat they’d seen for ages – one said 18 months. And I must admit, it did feel as if we were the only boaters left on earth. We did not see another boat all day.
Our first excitement of the day, though, was passing under the Gravelly HIll interchange – AKA Spaghetti Junction. It’s kind of weird under there, knowing that hundreds of vehicles are passing overhead, most of whom probably have no idea that there was even a waterway underneath, with boats passing under them.
As is expected (sadly) we had soon picked up some crud around our propeller and Paul had to go into the “weed-hatch” to disentangle it. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned the weed hatch before? Mainly because, so far in Old Nick’s life, it has barely been an issue. But it’s essentially a hatch, which is normally screwed firmly down, that leads to the outside underneath of the boat, just above the propeller, through which you can clear away any detritus that you may have picked up. Every boater will tell you a story of what they have found around their screw!
Most city canals have an issue with rubbish jettisoned into the canals. From supermarket trollies to plastic bags and drinks bottles. Even motor bikes and cars – I kid you not! It’s quite sad to see the nests built by urban swans, which often now incorporate plastic bags and twine in them, but it’s a fact of life. We seem to be a nation of litter louts. Sad face.
The Perry Bar flight, is rather nice and goes through a real mix of urban and seemingly quite rural stretches, And half way up the flight, you see the newly upgraded Alexander Stadium, all ready for the forthcoming Commonwealth Games which open in Birmingham at the end of this month. It seems unpopular with local people as they fear the traffic will be a nightmare.
We encountered our first “anti vandal keyed” locks” on this flight, too. These are special locks that make the misuse of locks – a pastime beloved of disenfranchised canalside dwelling youth – a tad more difficult. Every boat carries one, just in case. It has to be said that they also make operating the lock legitimately a tad more difficult, but better that, than finding a de-watered pound! Mind you, you can buy them for a tenner on Ebay – just don’t tell the yobbos!
We arrived at the top of the flight and the CRT facilities and moorings where we planned to spend the night. CRT tout it as a film location. We noticed one of the locals disposing of a large amount of rubbish in the Boaters’ Rubbish facility which is pretty annoying because CRT provide the facilities specifically for boaters and are not keen on others using them, as it costs them a pretty penny.
It looked pretty nice – although room only for one boat opposite the facilities in the sunshine (but more the other side – in the shade. And nestling underneath the busy A34. We hope it will be less busy at night! We’ll be in Birmingham for a few weeks as we explore its nooks and crannies, which we hope you’ll enjoy too!