If we had a penny from everyone who told us that Birmingham has more canal than Venice, we’d be very happy. I wonder how many Venetian’s would claim something different. I think the truth depends upon where you draw the boundary line. Certainly the Birmingham Canal Network has well over 100 navigable miles, with about 35miles within the city itself. We were currently moored on the Old Line, built by Brindley c1770. It follows the contours and for the commercial barges has time consuming locks, but we were enjoying our journey so with the sun shining we set off down the 3 Smethwick locks.
Under Popes Bridge. We had to wonder who this warning sign was aimed at, or perhaps it’s an instruction
And shortly after we merged the New Main line.
As the sun was shining we decided on a short detour around the Soho Loop, which served the prison, lunatic asylum and sanitorium. Thankfully we weren’t detained although it was slow going, shallow and full of debris. I don’t think we’ll bother with any of the other loops on this trip.
We had also lost the sun, which doesn’t make for enjoyable cruising. We were unsure what mooring would be available in the centre of town, and whether it would be noisy or safe.
But we struck gold and spotted the rings at Ladywood wharf, right on the edge of the central hub. We had arrived. The middle of the Midlands March.
Having escaped the scumbags disturbing the tranquillity on board Firecrest and travelled along the M5 at 2.6 mph, we found ourselves briefly cruising along another surprisingly quiet and peaceful stretch. But although we had blue sky it was still quite chilly. We had earmarked the old Pump House as a place to moor.
Nowadays, it houses the Galton Valley Heritage centre, but in its heyday it was a pump house., Brindley’s original old main line(c1769) was 18 feet higher as the canal climbed up the hill and then back down again, thus requiring locks both up and down and 2 steam engines to pump water back up to the summit. However the amount of traffic transporting coal was sufficient to warrant a new cutting to be built at the lower level which in 1829 became part of Telfords efficient straighter and wider and lockless, New Main Line. Steam powered pumps continued to used on the old line up until c1930. During WWII two ex submarine diesel pumps were installed as the canal was part of the fire fighting water supply for the essential factory’s in Birmingham, thankfully they weren’t actually needed and the building fell into disrepair until the 80s when work began to restore it as a heritage centre.
Unfortunately although there are mooring rings, the centre is currently closed and there was a lot of fast food takeaway trash next to the bin and bench indicating a congregating place for thoughtless people. And we didn’t want to risk a repeat of our Oldbury experience. Quite odd standing on a Towpath looking down onto another canal.
We only needed to cruise a short distance before we arrived at the Engine Arm junction
The short branch takes the old line over the new line on an aqueduct onto what is now mainly residential moorings, but must have served a wharf at some point in the past. The aqueduct itself is a beautiful iron structure
We took advantage of this open quiet mooring and whilst Eric got on with some DIY on the roof,
I took advantage of some Seville oranges and made some marmalade.
Much as I love visiting Mum, it was lovely to be back on board Firecrest, until we settled down for tea. Someone was banging on the back of the boat…. huh no one there. Kids mucking about but after 3 hours the game was wearing thin, every 20 minutes or so, bang bang bang. We could, perhaps should, have ignored it, but what if it really was someone needing help, or what if they decided to get braver with their dares and did something that caused damage. We probably should have called 101, the non emergency police number, but it must have been a school night because they stopped at 9pm. We slept fitfully but awoke to sunshine and on inspection, no damage to our precious home. We had always planned to move on, but it irked that the scumbags might have thought they’d won and scared us off. They didn’t.
We had studied our map to see that James Brindley was way marking for future transport needs. The M5 motorway was to be built directly over the canal for the next mile or so.
We are used to seeing some incongruous things on the canal, but this really was weird, the noise was phenomenal, quite unlike when we cruise from side to side underneath a motorway
the amount of scaffolding did make us worry for our safety. With more “road works” going on but these weren’t causing a logistics nightmare.
probably a good job because the next thing we saw was the DPD headquarters. And oh boy was it huge. The loading bays were numbered, about 230 canal side and possibly the similar on the other side.
But we still passing under some reassuringly familiar cute little bridges
Some not so cute causing us to duck
And then we wondered if we’d reached canal spaghetti junction, as the “old line” passed under the train line, over the “new line” with the M5 towering above us all.
There are several junction branches for boats to cross from the old (c1770s) to the new (c1820s)
But we stayed on our chosen route and shortly said goodbye to our motorway canopy to return to more familiar bridges and tunnels
And what a difference, back out in the countryside again
Having ground to a halt in the ice we decided that Dudley Port wasn’t too bad a place to moor, except that every time a train went past we lost TV signal. And what we saw floating past the boat wasn’t all that inspiring either, we counted at least a dozen used syringes in this one debris island.
But at least the ice was melting and the titanic was still afloat, so we set off to complete the next two miles of our aborted trip to Oldbury.
A work boat had broken enough ice for us to cruise without concern along the Birmingham Canal Navigation (BCN) New Main Line, past Dunkirk Stop Island and turning right onto the Gower branch.
We reached Brades Locks, only to find the pond drained, fortunately the CRT team were already on site letting water down the staircase locks. Though unlike most of the team, I can’t say I was very impressed with these guys, as soon as there was enough water to traverse the pond, they left, leaving all the paddles raised, and me needing to set the locks. Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by too many helpful people, perhaps they had an urgent job to attend to, perhaps they were just cold and miserable. But not to worry, we were also cold but cheerful so got on with it. We turned left onto the BCN Old Line for the last mile to Oldbury, where there are mooring bollards and a Sainsbury’s only 5 minutes walk. It doesn’t qualify as a pretty mooring but it’s adequate, And I liked the Bridge is called Whimsey Bridge.
And one of its claims to fame is that it’s where John Judge lived, and he wrote Its a long, long way to Tipperary.
Oldbury town is part of Dudley and Sandwell which has a railway station and a direct like up to the Lake District. So knowing that Eric could look after himself, I took advantage to hop on a train to spend a few days with Mum. We’re not sure why there is a peacock outside the station but he’s very impressive.
And when I stood on Platform 2 I could look back to the Turners Hill transmitters, that we had walked up to from the Bumble Hole.
after a few days counting the sheep, no Herdwick lambs till March or April I’m back on Firecrest
2 miles and 3 locks by boat, and about 250 miles by train
Time to move on, we had unexpectedly stayed nearly 14 days at the Bumble Hole but despite the early warning…
The ice had almost all gone by 11 and we made the decision to go
Our real need to move was that we were running low on water so we crossed over to the water point outside the Bumble Hole visitor centre. Whilst we were filling up we realised there was an angry mob gathering, but no not angry at all, the lovely team of volunteers who look after this site so brilliantly. We had chatted several times during our visit, both about the area and our journey, we had even been allowed a sneek peek inside the visitor centre as it was being prepared for re-opening this week. Its well worth stopping of to have a look as its full of photos and artefacts from the days gone by. And I think they do refreshments as well. They had just returned from their daily litter pick so posed for a photo.
We really had enjoyed our stay here. Lots of friendly people, beautiful scenery and good weather. We even had a visit from our friends who live in Worcestershire. But now that we had untied the ropes it was time to go. We could have turned south at Windmill End Junction to complete the Dudley 2 navigation at Hawne Basin. But it would have meant going through Gosty tunnel which is notoriously shallow. So much so that the marina will send a search party if you don’t emerge.
So we returned to Plan A to continue our Midlands March and set off through the tunnel
The Netherton tunnel was built at the end of the great canal age, to relieve the congestion caused by the narrow Dudley tunnel. It is unusually wide and has a Towpath each side. It also had the luxury of gas lighting. It took us 45 minutes to cruise the 2768m (1.7miles) and when we emerged another 15 minutes to reach the Birmingham main line canal.
This is when we realised we should have taken note of that red sky in the morning. The ice on the Main Line was still thick. We had planned to get to Oldbury, but instead it took us over half an hour to get around the corner and moor up. Eric stood on the bow smashing the ice to create a channel while I inched us forward. We’ll try not to make that mistake again. We might have only moved at a snails pace but I was too concerned to take any photos so you’ll have to use your imagination
Many canal societies celebrate their heritage with accessible art work, they take a pride in unique or original mile markers. Dudley 2 canal is no different. The iconic Cobb Engine House can be seen regularly along the canal.
I first noticed them at Blowers Green
But as always, canals are full of unexpected surprises, and by the time I’d realised we were being shown the history of this area I was too late to capture the whole trail. We did however see enough to whet our appetite. Why was there a man flushing the chain, not only was coal dug out of the ground in the Black country, but in the mid 1800’s Doulton took advantage of the ready supply of clay, good land to build a factory and a canal to transport the raw materials, fuel and finished goods.
Of course it wasn’t only toilets that were made in the Black country, and canals weren’t the only transport system. As the coopers sculpture shows, that a man could move a much heavier burden if it were encased in a barrel and rolled rather than carried.
Although much of the heavy industry of the area has gone, leaving a deprived community with high unemployment, some companies are still going, albeit as a more environmentally friendly concern.
Of course where there is industry, there’s a labour force, who will need somewhere to drink. I can only assume that the Fox and Goose bridge got it’s name from a local hostelry, although try as we might, we couldn’t find it.
And no canal is complete without a community around it. The people who built the Black Country have been celebrated through the sculptures. Eliza Tinsley was a widowed with 5 children, but she took on the management of her husband’s company and went on to employ 4000 people, making nails chains and anchors in her foundry. Although the company is no longer in British ownership, it is still manufacturing and it’s headquarters in nearby Wednesbury.
However Eliza wasn’t responsible for one of Netherton’s greatest claims to fame, as the Hingley Sole Works were commissioned to built the world’s largest anchor for the Titanic. It was so big that it required 20 horses to transport it to Dudley where it was taken by train to Belfast.
Of course not everyone appreciated the heritage of the buildings around the canal as this graffiti artist defaced the tollman’s house
Life wasn’t all hard work and no play because occasionally the circus would come to town, and the elephants were allowed to play in the canal
Once we had decided to stay put and explore the area we walked back along the canal looking for more of these intriguing pieces of art, but we were only able to go back as far as Primrose Hill
But we continued to meet some interesting local people. Unusually for such a built up area, even when we were on the streets as opposed to the Towpath, we were often greeted with a friendly “morning”. We were too late to say hello to Robert Wintour the Staffordshire man who also holed up around here, in Rowley Regis. However as he and his brother had been part of the gunpowder plot they didn’t leave the area quite so happily as they were hung drawn and quartered.
Whilst we were walking around the Bumble Hole we came across more evidence of gallows, this time in the form of a crane used by Harris’s boat yard. Sadly being made of wood, it rotted and collapsed a few years ago so we couldn’t see the original gallows crane.
The artist responsible for all these fascinating sculptures is a local man called Luke Perry. There are over 30 along the Dudley 2 canal, starting at Blowers green and ending at Hawne Basin, Halesowen. They celebrate the community and heritage of the Black country. Although we saw most of them, and I took a lot of photos, I have included some photos taken from the Dudley Public Art (DPA) website to help showcase how special they are.
We hadn’t expected to find quite such a gem of a mooring in the middle of a nature reserve, in the middle of the Black Country. So much so that we both agreed it needed further exploration. First we had to discover what is the Bumble Hole. Nowadays it is a small lake that gives it’s name to a nature reserve but 300 years ago, it was a clay pit.
However a map from the 1780’s show the Bumble Hole was the name of a house built next to the brook that was purloined to build the contour canal.
Bumble means murmuring water, and Hole refers to the hollow next to the ford crossing the track, (which became Northfield Road). There was a windmill along this branch which gave rise to this conglomeration of canal arms being known as the Windmill End junction.
In front of the windmill is Harris’s Boatyard, which built and serviced the many boats used for transporting goods to and fro during the industrial revolution. But now it is a quiet residential mooring. The land has alongside the Bumble Hole has been reclaimed and turned into a nature reserve.
Besides the canals, all that’s left of the coal mining, quarries and foundries that scarred this landscape are the occasional red brick foundations that can be seen in the ground, ponds and lakes that had been pits, and the Cobb’s Engine house. All taken care of by the Bumble hole conservation group.
The Cobb’s Engine House housed one of James Watts beam engines, used to pump an average of 1.67 million litres (367 500 gallons) of water every single day out of the mines and into the canal. Sadly it’s only the brickwork that remains now, but we were able to walk around and continue up the hill to look back to our mooring , (which we can’t actually see from here)
But we knew we were standing over the Netherton Tunnel. Once we’d started walking up the hill we carried on, out of the nature reserve, across the Dudley golf club
past Turners Hill transmitter site.
Until we’d reached the summit. And with the greens of the golf course and the nature reserve to the west behind us,
we could see over to the west, the modern sprawl of Birmingham, which is where we will be cruising through over the coming month.
Our walk gave us quite some cause to contemplate, how lucky we are to no longer be shrouded in pollution, and to have these pockets of beauty amidst such a densely populated area, yet whilst we shuddered at the thought of what it was like 300 years ago, what would life be like now if we hadn’t had the industrial revolution. And what must we do to nurture our planet and society for the good of all. No time for complacency.
After the icy winds and bleakness, we woke to a glorious blue sky. What a difference a day makes.
It was a bit of an emotional tussle for me, sticking to our decision to avoid any crowded environment, not to be sucked into the retail complex, just for a browse of course, but the thought of our days cruise was more tempting and off we set.
The canal was still passing through some scruffy backwaters,
Until we came to the junction and lock at Blowers Green
This marks the division from the Dudley 1 and Dudley 2 canals. And the start of some interesting canal art, combining history and pride in the locality .
If we had continued up the flight we would have had to go through the Dudley 1 tunnel, but it wasn’t clear if we would be able to transit unescorted at this time of year. It is a narrow tunnel with poor ventilation and requires a booked passage. Admittedly we didn’t research the possibilities as there is a clear and easy alternative going via the Netherton tunnel on the Dudley 2 canal. So we turned right.
What a surprise. We were now in the heart of the Black Country and had expected more backwaters and graffiti, however we found ourselves cruising through some peaceful quiet countryside, the Saltwell nature reserve, and past Netherton reservoir.
Aside from our current knowledge about coal usage, Its hard to imagine just how all pervasive and destructive the mining industry was on the landscape. We assume all this green space are areas of reclaimed land from the intense mining activity that prompted the region to be known as Black Country.
No wonder there were so canals around here, we passed by a disused shortcut that had linked the Dudley 1 and 2
Our journey continued under the aptly named high bridge.
Where the road had previously passed over a tunnel, a narrow hard tunnel for the boaters and leggers, hence it’s uncovering.
We passed through more wharfs and boat yards, and signs commemorating the local industrial heritage. Until we arrived at the southern portal of the Netherton Tunnel at the Bumblehole, Windmill End. Lots of mooring, walking and peace. We think we shall stay here a while and explore.
As we feared the canal was frozen over when we woke, but when I gingerly leaned out the side hatch and poked it, it was obvious, we’d be skating on thin ice, which was thawing rapidly
So when we saw the door of opportunity floating towards us we set off. Turning immediately right onto the Stourbridge Extension canal.
Past Delph wharf, which, as the notice says, offered hard standing for boats of all sizes
Under Black Delph bridge, which marks the start (or end) of the Dudley No 1 canal, part of the Birmingham Canal Navigation and the start (or end) of the Delph flight of 8 locks. As luck would have it, as I set the first lock, we struck gold, not one but 3 CRT gems. Two of whom were volockies, who helped us up the flight in under an hour.
And we were mightily glad we made good speed because as we emerged from lock 8 (or was it lock 1) there were snow flurries in the air
And 5 minutes later, we were cruising past Merry Hill, the huge retail complex, but although there was lots of mooring, it was very exposed.
So we rounded the corner to moor at the Waterfront Basin, by the time we finished tying up it was almost blizzard like.
We hadn’t intended to go further, so we battoned down the hatches and snuggled up to keep warm, we could have ventured over the bridge to enjoy the delights of Wetherspoons and the shops.
But the thought of catching pneumonia appealed even less than catching that other nasty bug doing the rounds. It did look nice at night though.