Inner City Life

Exploring the Birmingham Canal Navigations (BCN) Part 2 – Titford Canal, Old Main Line, New Main Line, Gower Branch, Worcester & Birmingham, Birmingham and Fazeley

After a quiet night on the moorings above the Oldbury locks on the Titford Canal, Monday was – as the song goes – washing day. Praying that the promised good weather would materialise, I did a quick load and flung it out on the line with fingers crossed (Afterwards, obvs. Trying to put out washing with crossed fingers would be silly!). You’ll all no doubt be enormously glad to hear that the washing dried a treat!

Paul got chatting to a very nice chap (Phil) who moors nearby and who is a representative of the Birmingham Canal Navigations Society (BCNS) who presented us with a plaque for visiting Titford Pools. How lovely! We are not plaque collectors. Some boaters have them all proudly displayed on their boats, but it’s not really for us. Very nice to have though and we are very grateful to the BCNS.

By the way, I forgot to mention that we had seen a very striking statue at the entrance to Titford Pools. Research showed that it was created by local artist, Luke Perry and was to commemorate the miners of the old Nine Apostles coal mine, the location of which is under the statue. The statue is inscribed with the text “The Devil made coal. Made it black like his heart and hid it in the deepest recesses of the earth that he would drive man mad in the finding of it.” Very powerful.

We had a few days to kill this week as we needed to be at Engine Arm by no later than Friday evening. We decided to stay put for a couple of days to accommodate Paul’s work commitments. It also looked as if it was going to be hot. There is no shade to speak of on these canals and the sun beating down on you can be quite merciless. Decision made.

As we were staying put, I decided I’d book an Ocado slot to get us through this weekend and beyond. We’ve had a conflab and both agree that we’ve had our fill of Birmingham for the time being. We want a bit of rural, so we’d make some new plans with that in mind. We’ve explored the Eastern side of the BCN as far as possible. We’ll come back and finish it off another year.

While we were here, I became friendly with a little moorhen family. They have two chicks and are very keen to feed them up. One or other of them comes and hoots to let me know she’d like a spot of bread. Sadly I have run out of the food pellets I normally use, but I use seeded bread instead – it feels a bit more wholesome than white sliced – and they seem to like it. I will have got them hooked on Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Multiseed Wholemeal!

The only downside of this place is flies! I have never known so many. My brother, who reads too many crime novels, would say there is probably a cadaver nearby. Phil says there is a tip nearby and that the area is now renowned for flies. Either way, it’s flipping annoying! They are so incrediblly persistent. The Executioner fly killer has been in almost constant use.

I also took the opportunity to do a spot of baking. I made a banana loaf and a Victoria Sandwich. To be honest, it’s a bit hot for baking but I want to make use of all this free solar energy we are garnering! I use a very simple recipe for my Victoria Sandwich – no beating the sugar and butter together and watching it curdle when you add the eggs! It’s the saucepan method and could not be easier. I think anyone could make this cake, good baker or not.

RecipeSaucepan Victoria Sandwich

250g SR Flour

250g Caster Sugar

250g butter

4 eggs – beaten

Tsp vanilla essence*

  1. Slowly melt the block of butter in a saucepan and leave to cool.
  2. When cool, add the sugar and flour
  3. Stir in the beaten eggs and vanilla until all incorporated.

Bingo! Divide the mixture between two lined sandwich tins and cook on 180C for around 20-30 mins, The sides will be coming away from the tin when it’s done and the top should spring back when touched. Put on a cooling rack to cool.

When cool, sandwich together with jam or jam and buttercream. Or fresh cream and sliced strawberries. (This one needs finishing in one sitting. Not usually a problem!) Or whatever you fancy!

*By the way – you can use any flavouring instead of the Vanilla – Coffee, Chocolate, Lemon Zest etc.

Victoria Sandwich

By the time I had done baking, it had finally got to the point that the flies were really getting to us all – even the boys – and we decided to move off (Weds 22nd Jun) as soon as Paul finished work. There were plenty of hours of daylight so we’d be fine. We had to get water and dump the loo first, though.

Luckily, the sun had been obscured by a bit of cloud so it wasn’t so hot. We worked our way down the locks and turned back onto the main line. We passed the Gower branch where the only staircase lock on the entire BCN is located. This arm takes you down to the New Main Line – they run in parallel for quite a way. We rather fancied a crack at that on the way back through,

We also went over the Netherton branch on an aqueduct. We managed to get a glimpse of the tunnel mouth. And then we realised we had something round the screw. This was by far the worst we’d had so far and involved a sharp knife and a fair bit of swearing. Mainly plastic bags.

Netherton Tunnel portal

This stretch of the OML is quite weedy, deep and clear, meaning you can see the plastic bags lurking and waiting to hurl themselves round your prop! We also spotted some good sized fish – easily a foot long and quite dark in colour. Very fast and impossible to photograph.

The next stretch – where we planned to moor was the weediest we have yet seen, with hundreds of waterlilies. It looked more like an ornamental lake than a navigable waterway. There was a very narrow channel running down between the pads, but we needed to wind. This was pretty tricky and by the time we had turned, the water looked like mint sauce, where we had chopped up the plants. There were plenty of nice moorings, with rings, but it was almost impossible to get into the bank as the weed was so thick. We managed to get the bow in, and then Paul did one of his massive leaps with the bow rope.

With the bow secured, I had to get in close enough to allow me to throw the stern rope, so that he could try to pull us in to the bank. We had to moor with our stern hanging out a bit, but it’s a wide bit of canal and we almost never see any boats, so it would be fine.

The reason we had come this way was that Paul’s blood pressure is being a bit pesky. The NHS is pretty good, but one thing it doesn’t seem able to cope well with is itinerant people. We have been trying – unsuccessfully so far – to get him a blood test for our GP down in Fareham. We finally tried a local phlebotomy clinic for which you could book online appointments. Phew. An appointment for 1.30pm in Sedgely. Result. He went off in a taxi and returned triumphant. Phew. We can forget about it until Tuesday now.

Paul went back to work and, as there were no locks for quite a way, I was able to potter along until we got back to the Gower branch, where we would go down the Brades staircase plus one and along to the NML

The middle gate on the Brades staircase was very leaky and I reported it to CRT – just in case they were not aware. But we made short work of the locks and then it was a long slog back to Engine Arm, where we moored for the night, in full view of the beautiful aqueduct. It seemed pretty quiet so fingers crossed.

As you go down the locks, you can see tantalising glimpses of the Shri Venkateswara Hindu Temple. It’s pretty impressive and reckoned to be the largest of its kind in the UK and Europe. It was built on the site of Brades Hill Farm and opened in 2006. It’s a pretty impressive edifice. But not photographable as it’s surrounded by trees. Here’s a link to a good image.

We are taking part in a big (hopefully 70 boats as I write this) procession of boats through central Birmingham on Saturday morning. We were instructed to gather on Friday, ready for the off on Saturday. Somewhat disconcertingly, we were the only boat at the agreed meeting place, which was a bit of a worry – were we in the wrong place or just earlybirds? We’d surely find out tomorrow!

Just ahead of the Aqueduct is a BCN toll island – see pic below. They were used by the canal companies to assess how much to charge a laden boat for traversing that section. Building a canal was an expensive venture and this was how they recouped their money. It’s that old M6 Toll again! If you’re interested in the actual process, there’s more info on the BCNS website. The island below would originally have had a covered gantry to keep the gauger dry.

Smethihwick Toll Island

We got the bunting out and stuck it on again, ready for the procession on Saturday. That’ll surely make it rain!

We had a very peaceful night – possibly the quietest one since we left the Avon. There was more cleaning to do today – mainly by me as Paul was working – but he joined in as soon as he was able. And eventually we were joined by other boats, including our friend Phil from the Titford canal, and by early evening we were moored 2 or three deep. It was quite exciting. The old pumping house was open for a visit and there was a skipper’s briefing at 18:00, so that we all knew what was expected of us.

Saturday was forecast to be changeable. And it exceeded all expections! When the sun was out we fried and then there were short sharp deluges – including hail at one point. Definitely a case of four seasons in one day. Or at least three!

We were joined on board by renowned Canal vlogger David “Cruising the Cut” Johns. Actually our favourite of all the myriad of vloggers and an all round nice chap. But don’t tell him we said so! Here’s a link to his live recording as we processed through the city

We had a a great day – a lot of hanging around and queuing through pinch points – such as Worcester Bar in Gas Street basin. No not that kind of bar! It is where the BCN meets the Worcester and Birmingham canal. In the old days, when water was treasured, as was making money, the BCN company demanded a physical barrier, to prevent the Worcester and Birmingham Canal from benefiting from their water. The cargo that a boat was carrying actually had to be unloaded and loaded into another boat, until a lock was eventually added. Zero cooperation then!

There was also a bit of queuing at the winding point at The Vale, where we all had to do a turn to come back into town. But it was largely extremely good-natured, as we were all having fun, doing what we love. And we got another plaque for our participation. And a pennant. There had been a wide array of boats – around 80, we think – from historical to state of the art (us!). In fact we were the only Electric Serial Hybrid to take part, so we were flying the flag for a new kind of propulsion, too.

We dropped David off at Worcester Bar and pottered round to the Oozell Street loop where we were overjoyed to see that there was a space. Phew. And it would put is in a good position for an early start the next day. We had an early night and managed to sleep, despite the vibrant (aka noisy!) night-life scene in the area.

We were woken at 05:10 by somebody chatting very noisily and, as we were both awake, decided to get up. We made our silent way to the top of the Farmer’s Bridge flight of 13 locks, which are a renowned Birmingham feature as they take you down under all the high rise buildings. It feels like you are descending into Khazad-dûm! No dwarfs/dwarves to be seen though! Just a great deal of rubbish, sadly.

We polished them off smartly, with Paul operating the locks and lock-wheeling and then we tackled the Aston flight, with roles reversed. And we thoroughly enjoed it! It was a good work out and done in very good time. The “book” time is 5 hours and we were done well before 11, including a breakfast stop after Farmer’s Bridge. And it was so flipping windy! I can’t recall a time, in summer, when it has ever been so windy and it makes boating a tad tricky. Thank goodness for a bow thruster!

We arrived at where we had planned to stop for the night (Cuckoo Wharf) and met up with Rob and Caroline, from Ortomarine, whom we hadn’t seen since we left Droitwich in early May. We had a good catch up over a coffee and we took on some water veeeeerrrryy slooooowly – it took over an hour to get to 300 litres, at which point, we gave up. CRT state that you can only stay on the service moorings for 30 minutes, which is usually ample. But not in this case, that’s for sure!

We bid farewell to Rob and Caroline and decided that, as the day was young, we’d go a little further. And maybe do a few more locks? We’d pay for it the next day but what the heck! So we made our way down to the Salford Junction, under the start of Spaghetti Junction, passing the canal that we had emerged from a fortnight earlier, and onto the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, which leads to green fields and countryside.

We did not explore the whole of the BCN, as originally planned, largely because of the stoppage I mentioned last week. But we will be back to finish it off – probably next summer. The area we explored can be seen on the map below. There are many scare stories about the BCN – mainly about the rubbish – supermarket trolleys and the like. They are much improved since the late 70s and early 80s and certainly no worse than any other urban canal. Our advice would be to ignore the scare-mongering and cruise them. They are very rewarding and we have met some lovely people. Thanks to CRT, the IWA and the BCNS for their hard work in keeping these canals open. I only wish that people would care more for their environment and not use their canals as a rubbish tip. But we seem, as a society, not to care any more about littering.

Our Minworth mooring

And so it’s back to rural and greenery for a while, and some more pastures new for us over the forthcoming weeks. including the Ashby Canal and beyond.

BCN – Created with GIMP

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