Living for the City

Exploring the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN) Part 1 – Grand Union, Tame Valley, Rushall, Daw End, New Main Line, Old Main Line, Titford Canals

You left us at the top of the Perry Barr flight on the Tame Valley Canal. A delightful mooring which I was quite sad to leave. But that’s what we do. We find somewhere nice and then we move on in search of somewhere else nice!

The BCN is not without its challenges, one of which is the need to find a “safe” mooring each night. This is particularly onerous for us because of Paul’s work commitments. It’s do-able but it involves a bit of planning. Today’s plan (13th June) involved me taking us along the very pleasant Tame Valley Canal to its junction with the Rushall Canal, where we would turn right. I would then take us to the bottom of the Rushall Locks – a flight of 9 (or 7 + 2) and wait there until he had finished for the day.There is a safe mooring at the top of the locks.

We thoroughly enjoyed the secretive Tame Valley canal – straight as an arrow , with some high embankments. It was interesting to note how green and leafy this part of the Birmingham Metropolitan Area is. And there is plenty of wildlife. But once again, it really does feel like we are the only folk on the move. We did not see a boat all day Sunday or Monday.

Both the Tame Valley and the Rushall were quite weedy but we don’t seem to be doing too badly for trips down the weed hatch. If you notice vibration on the tiller and that the boat is making slower progress through the water, it’s an indication of weed (or worse!) round the propeller. If you’re lucky , a sharp burst of astern is enough to dislodge it, otherwise it’s a trip down the ‘ole! We wonder if we make fewer visits “down under” than some boats because we have a smaller propeller (13″ x 9″)?


Being an electric boat, we also use another method of checking for weed. We cruise along at around 800rpm and 28-30 Amps. Using the very clever gauge on Ortomarine’s “Ortomate” system, we can monitor this. After a while, if there is weed and suchlike in the cut, you can see the current that you are using steadily rise, as it builds up on the prop. Once it gets to about 40A, we do a burst of astern and like magic, the current drops back to its normal position. Handy.

We left Perry Barr just after lunch (13th June) and I carried out the planned trip and arrived at the bottom lock about 15:00. We pulled over and moored up on the lock moorings – there were no other boats about, so we would not be inconveniencing anyone. Sadly it was a bit shady and also overcast, so the solar would not be great.

Once Paul finished for the day we tackled the locks. These locks were nicknamed ” The Ganzies” by the old boaters, because of their exposed nature, making them prone to wind and thus a bit chilly. The word “ganzey ” is dialect for jumper – specifically a Guernsey style, which they wore to keep out the cold. A traditional Guernsey is made from worsted wool, which is not only warm but also waterproof. It actually formed part of the naval rating uniform of the 19th-century Royal Navy.

The locks were nice, and being in a close flight, we made good progress although some of the pounds were really quite low (shallow) and I had to steer a very straight line down the centre of the channel or risk going aground. As there was no obvious reason for the low pounds, I reported it to CRT. Low pounds are very often caused by inexperienced or absent minded or (dare I say it?) lazy boaters leaving paddles open. This was clearly not the case here, as our progress was, again, a matter of marvel for the locals, who came out to take photos and videos, and it was fairly obvious that the locks were rarely used. One had so many plants growing on the inside walls, it resembled one of the “turf-sided locks” that you may recall from the Kennet and Avon last summer!

We enjoyed our passage, though, and soon arrived at Longwood Junction, where the Rushall Canal meets the Daw End Branch of the Wyrley & Essington Canal. It’s a lovely spot and we had a very pleasant night. We got chatting to a few of the boaters – it’s where you pick up scraps of useful info – also known as the “Towpath Telegraph”!

We were thinking of having a run down the Walsall canal after this, but having already been warned it’s a slog by one boater, we now got a first hand account from the chap moored next to us. He described it as a bit grim – you’d really have to want to do it. He had cruised it at very slow/tickover speed and still picked up stuff on his prop. And I guess this is one of the reasons why canals fall into disuse? People hear scare stories and avoid them. Then they get weedier still. And I guess it has dampened our enthusiasm somewhat – we will probably give it a go, but not in the next week or so as we have family coming.

We had a slow start to the day (14th June) and did not set off until around lunchtime. The Daw End Branch canal is pretty rural as it makes its winding way to Brownhills, a former Staffordshire mining town. It is part of the Wyrley and Essington Canal – also known as the Curly Wyrley and you can see why in the pic below. Rushall (on the right) – like an arrow – Daw End (above the Rushall) wiggly as anything!!

We only went as far as the Daw End winding hole in the end, as poor old Paul was missing everything. We decided that we’d save it for when we can do the canal in full. There is currently a very long term stoppage (5 months) for a bridge repair/rebuild near the top end, which prevents us from doing the entire length.

We winded and made our way back towards Longwood, where we had moored the previous night. We had a fancy for the moorings with rings we’d seen by the Park Lime Pits. It was very shallow and we could not get any closer in than around 30″ from the bank. After a little debate, we decided that we were both able to leap that far and that there would definitely be no other boats so we would not be a hazard, We’d moor away from the bank. Sadly no solar, once again. Tch! But leafy and pretty so a good compromise. I absolutely refuse to live my life as a slave to solar yield!

We spent most of Wednesday (15th) there, as it was very quiet and really quite pleasant. I moved the boat back down to Longmoor in the late afternoon, where we planned to meet my brother, Bruce, the next day. I used the opportunity to do a quick Deliveroo order from Sainsbury’s. I have to say I’m pretty impressed! Everything I wanted within an hour. Very handy in times of emergency.

Once Paul finished work, we gave the boat a deep clean indoors – steps out, furniture out. The works. It fairly sparkled by the time we finished. And we were knackered! A pizza and salad for tea and we were pretty much done for the day. It was a warm night and we slept with the bow doors wide open, as we often do on hot nights.

We arose, showered and generally made final preps ready for the arrival. Poor Bruce has just had Covid and is still feeling the exhaustion that often accompanies it. Nothing loath, we set him to work on the 9 locks back down the the Tame Valley canal, in the heat of the midday sun!

We made our way back to Rushall Junction and this time turned right onto the Tame Valley Canal. Straight as an arrow, this canal, accompanied along part of its length by the omnipresent M6, led us down to Ocker Hill junction and onto the Walsall canal. We turned left and then, immediately right into the narrow, and very tight turn in to the Ocker Hill Tunnel Branch. Here there are some CRT Residential moorings and a couple of visitor moorings. It’s very safe, but not abundantly attractive, with some friendly residents, who gave us some good advice about the locks we would be tackling the next day.

Friday (17th Jun) was going to be hot, so they said. They were not wrong! We had the 8 Ryders Green locks to get though and it was nice to have a third man on our team, which makes the locks a little less onerous. We remembered the advice about supermarket trolleys in the first pound, being near a branch of ASDA that did not use coin operated trollies. They suggested that one of the crew walk along, slightly ahead of the boat to spot for jettisoned trollies. We did spot one, but it was near the side, so did not really bother us. They had also warned that the pounds could be quite low and progress might be slow. It wasn’t too bad and we’d finished them by 11 am.

The Wednesbury Old Canal (or the short tail that is left of it) came in over our left shoulder and we might have given that a visit but our fellow Ortomariners; Russel and Helen Green had tried last week and reported 5 trips down the weed hatch. It was too hot for all that bother! By now, I had resorted to using the big umbrella we carry for rainy times as a parasol. Little did I know then, that the very next day it would be pressed into it’s more common use!

At the next junction, (Pudding Green) we joined the New Main Line (NML) canal, which would take us straight into the very heart of Birmingham. We passed the Spon Lame Branch which takes you up 3 locks to the Old Main Line (OML) and shortly after this, had another brush with a motorway – this time the M5. Once again it’s quite an exciting place to be – although a little alarming to see how decrepit some of the vast concrete piers look!

We then pressed on to the Engine Arm Junction where we had a grand view of the elegant Telford-built Aqueduct, which carries the Engine Arm branch over the New Main Line. It’s reputed to be his favourite bridge – and he built a few! It’s a great example of Canal Gothic with its almost church-like decoration. An unusual triumph of form and utility!

Engine Arm Aqueduct by Telford

It was so hot, we were slugging cold drinks like crazy and made a stop at a handy very-nearly-canal side Lidl to top up – although it must be said it was a pretty lack lustre selection! As we neared the canal mecca that is Gas Street Basin, we passed several of the loops that adorn the New Main line and vowed to visit them next week. And finally we arrived at the Oozell’s Street Loop, where we had moored on our last visit to the town centre. Luckily there was a space and we gratefully moored up. And opened as many orifices as we could on the boat to let the breeze, which had been – at times – very gusty indeed through.

It’s never a quiet mooring initially but I awoke at 3 am for a visit to the loo and you could have heard a pin drop. All the revellers had clearly gone home for the night. Thank goodness!

Going through a city or indeed a massive conurbation such is this, is a journey of contrasts – old and new, man-made and natural. As I’ve said before, it’s not without it’s difficulties, but by and large it’s well worth the effort.

Saturday was the day when our son and daughter-in-law were scheduled to bring their niece, 4 year old Florence, for a day on the boat. It was also Beth’s birthday and Fathers’ Day the next day, so the perfect time for a visit and it was also the first time we would have seen them since the wedding back at the beginning of May. However, it turned out that Saturday was also the day when it was scheduled to rain heavily pretty much all day. A quick conflab on the phone on Friday and it was agreed. It was a waste of petrol and time to come and sit on a boat all day in the rain. We’d have to re-schedule. Massively disappointing all round, but it could not be helped.

It was going to be pretty bad for all of us being cooped up all day. Bruce suggested a trip to the cinema so I volunteered to stay behind with the boys, while they went to see the new Top Gun film. I’m not bothered about seeing it and was quite happy to catch up on some of my TV progs and work on this blog.

I had a very peaceful couple of hours before they returned. They had enjoyed the film and Paul had been particularly impressed with the cinema – one of the Everyman chain, where you can order food ans drink from the comfort of your settee!

George and Beth had finally got access to their wedding photos and we spent a while looking at those and then settled down to a new episode of Pistol – the mini-series based on Steve “Jonesy” Jones’ “Lonely Boy – Tales from a Sex Pistol” memoir. It seems to have mixed reviews, but we are thoroughly enjoying it and taking it as a tribute rather than a slavish re-telling of their story. Great casting.

We went to bed fairly early, as Bruce was leaving early to get back to London to see his kids for Father’s Day. We read for a while and were just dropping off to sleep when we heard what sounded like a bow-thruster being deployed. Paul flung on his clothes and popped out to find that the boat moored in front of us had been set adrift by some passers by. He helped them get back to shore.They had been in no danger and it was an annoying inconvenience more than anything. We moor in such a way that makes that a little more difficult for those bent on tom-foolery like that. Well – we’ve never had it happen yet!

Bruce apparently slept through all the kerfuffle and got up as planned. We joined him to say farewell. He was gone before 08:30 and we had our breakfast and discussed what we’d do for the next week We like to have a rough plan which we more often than not change as circumstances and fancies dictate.

Bye bye bruv

We decided that we’d use today (19th June) to take a trip to a less cruised section of the BCN – the Titford Canal. This canal terminates in a couple of lakes called The Titford Pools. We knew very little about them, so it was time to find out more! We made our way back along the NML to Smethwick and then up the three very pretty Smethwick locks onto the OML – a slightly more meandering route than the NML (which was why the New line was built – straight and direct). At the top lock there is a cute octagonal Toll House (yes – even in those days there was no such thing as a free lunch!) and a sharp left turn onto the Engine Arm , which took us over the NML on the very aqueduct we had gone under on Friday. It’s like the canal equivalent of Spaghetti Junction!

We went down the short branch to water and deal with the toilet. A very friendly moorer there suggested the best tap to use and we were soon on our way again. The OML is a much more canal-like canal than the NML, which is very utilitarian and straight.

We continued along the OML, always flirting with the M5 as we weaved our way under it until we reached Spon Lane Junction, where we turned left and over the NML once again. Eventually we reached the junction with the Titford Canal and branched off, up the six Titford or Oldbury locks to the summit. The boaters gave this flight of locks the nickname “The Crow” because they ran alongside a chemical works owned by a chap called Jim Crow. These locks raise the canal to its 511 feet (156m) summit , which is the second highest navigable canal in England (the Rochdale canal summit – over 600 feet (180m)- being the highest).

We made our way along to the pools, passing the very sad Langley Maltings – still in operation until 200,6 but badly damaged by fire in 2009. And then – with some trepidation – turned into the big pool, which is bordered by the M5. We met a very nice chap who told us that it was perfectly safe and also that we could get to the smaller pool via a small cut – see the map below. We did a pirouette, because why wouldn’t you? and made our way through to the small pool. CRT in partnership with other organisations has recently used a £3,000,000 EU grant to regenerate the area, including carrying out a great deal of dredging. It is very pleasant, with lots of waterfowl – including the biggest coot family I have ever seen. They usually have one or two – this was a 6 chick family!

Titford Pool

It seemed pretty quiet and we thought about mooring there overnight but were warned off by a very nice family we met. Such a shame. Instead we spent the night at the top of the locks, by the old Pumping Engine House which is the HQ of the BCNS. And there ends another week on this unique set of Navigations , which we are enjoying exploring – although slightly missing the peace and tranquility of more rural canals.

And to close – I’m very grateful to Debby on Narrowboat Chuffed for solving the “little yellow flower” mystery. And it’s called Black Medic (I’m humming a Little Mix song now) – also known as nonesuch/hop clover/yellow trefoil – and it has medicinal uses. It’s full of protein and good for digestion and as a mild laxative, So now we all know! It is related to clover and, viewed closely, actually does resemble a tiny yellow clover. Thank Debby.

Black Medidc – Medicago lupulina

2 Replies to “Living for the City”

  1. Thank you Kay a really interesting journey on the Birmingham Canal. Ron told me that when he joined the Royal Navy in 1966 he was issued with a Guernsey Sweater, apparently it was very itchy and you had to wear a vest underneath x

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *