The Tunnel(s) of Love

A visit to the Dudley Tunnel, Netherton Tunnel and Gosty Hill Tunnel, via the Coseley Tunnel

We left Holly Hill Basin nice and early on Monday morning, so that we would get to our planned “mooring for the Queen’s Funeral” spot and it’s a blooming good job we did! The going was incredibly slow. Paul described it as a “war of attrition” – us v the weed/plastic! It was a bit of a slog to Wednesfield and we arrived only just in time.

It was a fitting service with beautiful music and the Westminster Choristers were in fine voice. I was moved to tears by the first hymn as it’s a particular favourite of mine. I am not at all religious but was brought up in times when we sang a hymn every morning in school assembly and went to Sunday School at the Church. Although – to my shame – I used to stop off at the sweet shop with my friend on the way to Sunday School and we’d spend half of the money given to us for the collection plate on penny sweets. In those days you could buy four Fruit Salad Chews for 1 penny! Half the money for us, half for God seemed fair at the time? But the upshot is – no – not a life of crime, a love of hymns. I love them – such wonderful tunes.

After the service at Westminster we carried on our way. We have avoided all TV coverage since the Queen’s death as the reportage overkill drives me bonkers. It’s just too much. I want plain facts and not speculation, thank you.

We turned left onto the Old Main LIne at Horseley Fields junction and made our way towards Dudley and our planned overnight moorings at the Dudley Tunnel. Going was only slightly better on the Main Line. And – to be honest – it’s not the most attractive bit of canal. We always try to engage with “youth” who are hanging out canalside and encountered a group of YAMs (Young Adolescent Males) at the bridge approaching Coseley Tunnel. We chatted as we approached and answered their questions (How fast does that goo?) but sadly they preferred to spit on us and throw stuff – luckily nothing hard. You win some, you lose some. Coseley Tunnel is a comparatively little’un at only 360 yards long (329 metres). It was opened in 1837 and built wide with a towpath either side to ensure no bottlenecks on this very busy stretch.

Eventually, we reached Factory Junction, where the 3 locks take you down onto the New Main Line, but we turned right onto the Dudley Tunnel Branch of the Old Main Line, where there are some nice, safe moorings, right by the HQ of the Dudley Canal and Tunnel Trust that we had visited last October with my brother. It’s very quiet and there were a couple of boats there when we arrived and another couple arrived after us, so safety in numbers too! We had hoped to make am unassisted passage through this tunnel earlier this year but – as you can see from the gauge in the pic – it just wasn’t happening!

Tuesday (20th Sept) feels like Monday this week. Or maybe Monday felt like Sunday? Whatever – we arose at crack dawn or shortly before. We wanted to get to Windmill End before Paul started work. Dawn was just pasting its sticky pink fingers across the sky as we made our way down to Factory Junction to join the New Main Line. We saw only a couple of early morning dog walkers. We were pretty confident that the folk on the other 5 boats moored at the Tunnel were still sleeping soundo and would be surprised to arise and find us gone. Stealth boating at its finest!

We polished off the locks in good time – luckily for us, they had all been in our favour and were waiting our arrival with open gates. Makes a nice change! As we came out of the bottom lock, the New Main LIne lay ahead, broad and straight as arrow, accompanied by the railway. By now, people were making their way to work by train and by towpath. The rest of the world was finally waking up.

We arrived at Dudley Port Junction and turned left onto the Netherton Tunnel Branch, where we saw a couple of very brave herons. It was interesting passing under the Tividale aqueduct from which we had taken photos earlier in the season and then we were into the tunnel. Netherton, at 1.7 miles (2.8 km) long was the very last canal tunnel to be built in England during the canal boom of the mid19th century. It used 27 million bricks and was built to relieve the bottleneck caused by the very narrow and much earlier Dudley Tunnel. It is the widest canal tunnel in England and has a towpath both sides and room for two boats to pass one another. The tunnel has 7 ventilation shafts and these are known affectionately by the locals as the Pepper Pots. There is a walk to view them all and images of them here.

It’s pretty wet in places and very dank and cold (as you might expect!) and was a relief to come out after about 50 minutes underground. We emerged into the bevy of bridges that is WIndmill End – a proper canal crossroads, with the short Boshboil Arm (which fell into disuse after the Tunnel was built, from what I can gather) going off to the right and the remainder of the Dudley No. 2 canal going off left, towards Hawne Basin. We had tied up, had breakfast and started work by 09:00. A good day’s cruising!

Looking back towards the tunnel

Goodness! What a lot of dog walkers patrol this stretch! It was literally a constant stream of people “tekkin’ the wammel up the cut” – as they say around these parts. And it may be a tad indelicate to mention it, but we could not help noticing that most of the male dogs were intact. This is unusual in our experience. There were also quite a few out of control and butch – lets be honest – downright scary dogs, most of whom were dragging their owners behind them. Mindful of the incident here back in 2020, when Bill had been attacked by one such dog – on a lead – we kept our boys on leads each time we went out.

it is a very nice area other than the dogs, though, with lots of places to walk – although you do have to dodge the goose s**t! Endless photo opps, too – from the trio of fine cast iron bridges and the old Pumping house to the Rowley hills, through which the tunnel bores. Back in the late 19th century, it would have been a classic Black Country scene – black by day and red (from the furnaces) by night. Heavy industry, blast furnaces and coal mining. There was even a railway station here but all traces have been eradicated and now the area is a nature reserve.

Autumnal sunshine

Whilst the Black Country is no longer black, it has a proud heritage and the Black Country dialect lives on, thank goodness. One famous dialect phrase ‘”Er would if ‘er could but ‘er caw so ‘er doe” translates as “She would if she could but she can’t, so she doesn’t.” Black Country Dialect 101! And – since 2010 – there has been a Black Country flag. The chain is a symbol of one of the industries the area is famous for – chain-making – and is somewhat controversial as people fear that it has slave trade connotations. Even today, chain-making is still carried out here.

Black Country Flag

Our next port of call, after a good night’s sleep was Hawne Basin – at the end of the Dudley No. 2 Canal. And to get there, another tunnel stood in our way – the Gosty or Gorsty Hill Tunnel. But there are sights to be seen along the way – most of which are related to mining – short arms and basins and the like. But the most impressive sight, marked by a plaque today, is the remains of the Stewarts and Lloyds tube-making works, as you emerge from the tunnel. I marvelled at the sheer number of bricks that must have been used to construct the abutment walls. There is a photo here of part of the site, now defunct, to give you some idea of the scale. The company made tubes and – during the wars – munitions, such as shell cases. The factory produced tubes for the P.L.U.T.O pipeline which  delivered petroleum products from the United Kingdom to the Allied Expeditionary Force in North West Europe, by means of a Pipe Line Under The Ocean in WW2.

But back to the tunnel. It is very narrow – in direct contrast with yesterday’s tunnel – and has no towpath. Boats were originally legged though and later towed through by tug. Legend has it that boaters used to set their engines and nip down for a brew, while their boat nudged its way through the narrow bore. It’s unusually high – to begin with – but there is a spot that is very low, these days enhanced by a picture of a vampire! It was built in 1881and is reasonably short at only 557 yards (509 m) and there is a ventilation shaft at one point, which emerges in the front garden of a house on Station Road, nearby!

We arrived at the basin, through a very narrow bridge at right angles to the cut – expertly navigated by Cap’n Sumps. We had a warm welcome and grabbed some diesel – only £1.10 per litre! – before moving onto our allotted space. The Basin is run by the Coombeswood Trust and seems very well organised and welcoming.

We discovered a natty little cafe – The Little Griddle -near the road entrance to the basin and gave them our custom on Thursday (22nd Sep) morning – egg and bacon butties. Yum! They had opened the business in February 2020 – not great timing – but they hung on by their fingernails. It was only right and proper that we supported them, don’t you think?

Paul was expecting a visit from one of Digital Yacht’s technology partners, whose office is pretty much on top of Gorsty HIll tunnel, in the afternoon, so I cooked a batch of “Sad Cakes”. These are legendary in my family and accompanied us on all road trips and picnics and camping and boating trips when we were young. I guess their real name is probably a Fruit Fairy Cake or a Queen Cake. A small cupcake with dried fruit in the batter. When my Mum made them, they always came out with flat tops – looking rather sad. Hence the name. Mine are true sad cakes too. I now use my saucepan Victoria Sandwich recipe and add fruit. Cooked in cake cases in a bun-tin, they are a lovely accompaniment to a nice strong cuppa!

We had just sat down after lunch when another boat turned up, intent on mooring in the very small gap between our boat and the next. It would be a tight squeeze and they bumped us several times. We realised that we would have to close our side doors and Paul asked the chap to hold off while he did so and, in trying to help and without any warning, he moved his boat, which squished Paul’s finger against the side of his boat. A very nasty cut/impact, which actually lifted the side door off its hinges by a half inch. Poor Paul. It looked very painful and bled quite a bit. I dressed it (a nice little twinset and pearls) and he took some painkillers. It will be uncomfortable for a few days. I think. Paul’s meeting went well, though, and I think the cakes were well received.

We needed to take on water and empty the loo before we left on Friday (23 Sep) so I moved the boat onto the service moorings and when done, I returned us to the lovely Windmill End. Back through the tunnel, which somehow looked narrower going that way, and on to the junction before turning left and popping us in the exact same spot we had vacated earlier in the week, where we settled for the night.

I had some bananas going over so whipped up a batch of banana pancakes to use them up on Saturday morning. They couldn’t be easier to make and use store cupboard ingredients. To be honest – I just mash the bananas (I had three) added a couple of eggs, a couple of tablespoons of flour and a teaspoon of baking powder (the latter is not essential but makes them fluffier) I also added a splash of milk to make a smooth batter. I then fried them using FryLight spray. If you want a pukka recipe, you can find one here. I served them with the Maple Syrup that our friend Sue had brought over from Canada for us. Delish!

We set off towards Primrose Hill, stopping at Bishton’s Bridge (A459) to pick up some ice at the handily located Aldi, and then pressed on towards Blowers Green. It was a beautiful sunny morning and we thoroughly enjoyed our trip. We went under Astle’s Bridge, which has a funny story, as you’ll see in the pic below. Whilst I generally abhor graffiti, the sheer doggedness and persistence here is to be noted. We stopped at Blowers Green for water and had lunch while we were waiting for it to fill. Once again, there were no other boats about.

At Blowers Green, if you turn right, you ascend the 3 very tidy Parkhead locks and if you were to turn left, you descend Blowers Green Lock – and join the Dudley Number 1 canal, which takes you to Merry Hill in Dudley. We were turning right. And assailing our nostrils was the smell of freshly baked bread from the Bakery that lies adjacent to the locks. It smelt wonderful.

The locks, which have a total rise of 20 feet, look very smart but it was sad to see the lock cottage standing empty and – it seemed – approaching dereliction. Although there were signs of recent work, so perhaps all is not yet lost? There is a Facebook Group – The Friends of Parkhead Locks – who keep an eye on things, clearing rubbish, weeding, reporting problems and the like. There are some great old photos on their page. Thank goodness for groups like these. They are so appreciated.

The second lock has Parkhead Viaduct over it. The current structure was built in 1880 but closed to railway traffic in 1993. It’s currently undergoing quite extensive refurbishment so that it can be reused by the Wednesbury to Brierley Hill extension of the West Midlands Metro tram network. It seems that the work will be completed in 2023, but for the time being it is wrapped in plastic and scaffolding.

We went up through the third lock and then on, via Parkhead Basin, to the South portal of the Dudley Tunnel. Another first ticked off! It’s very pleasant up here although those flipping Canada Geese have made the place their own with their splatterings. Hard to avoid underfoot.

In olden times, when you emerged from the Dudley tunnel here, there was a choice of three canals to greet you. To the left – the Grazebrook Arm, which served some of the foundries nearby, now derelict. In the middle, the end of the Dudley No 1 Canal, down through which we would return on Sunday and to the right, the Pensnett Branch, built to serve Lord Dudley’s collieries. There are some great pics from the 30s on the excellent Captain Ahab’s Watery Tales Blog here and here. And if you’re interested in canal history, there is a great video here, which shows the cottage in its prime and gives a lot of of info about the basin’s past.

We moored at the entrance to the old Gazebrook Arm, by a circular weir. There were a group of middle-aged men hanging around by the bridge and they assured us we’d be fine here. And we were! I drifted off to sleep that night with a smile on my face. No smut, please! There was an owl hooting nearby which always makes me happy.

We had an old friend visiting us on Sunday afternoon and the agreed rendezvous was The Waterfront at Merry Hill, where there were good moorings and plenty of parking, so we left Parkhead – another lovely spot, and made our way back down the three locks, Someone had clearly not kept an eye on the ovens as we came down the locks, for the smell was of burnt toast as we dropped down past the factory! This time, we went straight on to a fourth lock, Blowers Green Lock. It’s quite a deep one, at 12 feet, which makes it the deepest on the entire BCN. But it empties very fast. You plummet like a stone as the water whooshes out.

It was a reasonably short hop down to Merry Hill – about an hour. There are some handy CRT facilities which we took advantage of prior to our pal’s arrival. I have to say that what must have been built with such optimism a few years back now looks a bit beleaguered. It may have been a casualty of Covid but quite a few of the buildings now look empty.

We haven’t seen this friend – one Chris Fry for a good few years- too many. I worked with him on the 1981 Census but he left ONS and moved back to the Midlands, from whence he came, a good few years before I left. We have not exactly lost touch, as we chat from time to time on social media, and it seems ‘daft that we have not seen each other face to face. But that’s life. And he’s one of those treasured friends with whom the intervening years just fall away. It just doesn’t matter. He stayed for around three hours and we laughed and reminisced and caught up on each other’s family life as if we had only seen each other a couple of weeks ago. It was a real pleasure to see him and we vowed not to leave it so long again.

Me and me old mucker, Christopher Zeus Fry.

And that brings us to the end of Week 20! We have our “frequent flyers” joining us next weekend and a good few locks to do between now and then, starting on Tuesday. We will be doing the Delph Flight (8 locks) and the Stourbridge flight (of 16) before rejoining the Staff/Worcs and eventually going back up to where we left off to rejoin the BCN near Wolverhampton.

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