Week 23 – Stourbridge & The BCN

Stourport Town Arm Mooring

Stourton Junction

We don’t seem to hear much about the Stourbridge Canal. I’m not sure it features in many of the popular holiday ‘ring’ routes. There isn’t much in the way of recommended moorings along the way and there are quite a few warnings about stopping overnight. We had reports that it was very overgrown causing difficulties in navigating it and once you enter it you are firmly committed to a journey into the Black Country and the intricate labyrinth of canals, loops and backwaters of the BCN – Birmingham Canal Navigations. Most people are familiar with the big city and bright lights of Gas Street Basin and the re-vamped centre of Birmingham that lies at the end of this journey. On our last trip in this area, however, the route to get there was quite a post-industrial wasteland so we weren’t quite sure how much we would enjoy the trip.

On Sunday morning we woke to heavy rain that finally seemed to have stopped about ten o’clock. We set out from Kinver then and headed up the Staffs & Worcs for three more locks before the junction. We may have been foolish enough to mention that we have had surprisingly few problems with things stuck in the propeller on this trip. In the last lock, Stewponey, we hit double trouble.

First Sue lost reverse completely and we had to stop the engine and get the weed hatch open, at which point a heavy drizzle started. In the event, there was nothing wrapped around the prop, so we assumed that whatever was causing the problem initially must have been dislodged in the meantime. In trying to re-fit the weed hatch, however, I found that the hundreds of little square wood chippings, derived from some enthusiastic CRT maintenance upstream, were jamming in the lip of the hatch underwater and stopping it seating back in place. I had to pick each little piece out individually until we could lock it back down.

Engine started, back off the boat, lock gate open and Sue engaged forward gear. There was an almighty thud, the engine stopped and the silence was broken by the high pitched warning alarm from the ignition. Pulling the boat through the gates by hand we tied up and went back down the weed hatch again. This time there was certainly something there. The propeller was jammed rock solid by a large piece of wood. Thankfully, a few minutes of pushing and shoving managed to loosen it up and I began to pull it up through the hatch. It turned out to be a section of tree about three feet long and at least five inches thick. Clearly this was a branch that had been cut but then dodged the woodchipper and gone straight into the canal. It is bad enough having these problems but it is a bit rich when they are caused by CRT’s own maintenance efforts.

Stourton Junction is only just beyond Stewponey Lock so, with propulsion restored, we soon made the turn to arrive almost immediately at the foot of the first of the four locks of the Stourton flight at the start of the Stourbridge Canal. As we worked our way up the rain finally stopped and we arrived at the top in time for Sue to prepare a toasted cheese sandwich for a lunch we could have on the move.

Once you leave the locks behind it does feel like a bit of a backwater. There are more reed beds encroaching on the width of the canal than we had seen for a while and pretty much open country beyond the fringe of trees along the towpath. In the next couple of miles the only thing we passed of note was the Bell’s Mill Fishing lake with its heavily advertised café and tackle shop. Looking through a very serious-looking secure fence, that went on for ages, it is clearly a big operation.

The Town Arm

At this point, when you look at it on the map, you are passing through a sort of rural spearhead into the massive urban sprawl of the West Midlands with The Black Country to the north and eventually Birmingham itself to the east. Crossing an aqueduct over the River Stour, through the arch of the next bridge, you can see the gates of a lock blocking the route. Between the bridge and the lock is the junction with the Stourbridge Town Arm, heading off to the right just inside the outskirts of this conurbation.

Travelling down this arm you follow a properly made up and well used towpath beside some suburban housing estates. Lots of people were out walking and cycling on a Sunday afternoon. There are a few industrial units on the off side, most of which seem disused. For some reason, presumably to do with the nature of the ground and the relationship with the river alongside, as you get closer to the town at the end of the arm the building recedes and the canal seems to be going through more open country again.

The arm is just one and a quarter miles long ending at a canal basin and the Bonded Warehouse, with The Old Wharf Inn sitting on the main road just beyond. The Old Wharf Inn is a pleasant but unremarkable refurbished pub. The Bonded Warehouse was originally built in the eighteenth century and now has three stories. It has a particularly distinctive semi-circular east end to the building and it is owned and run by Stourbridge Navigation Trust who have restored and refurbished it, along with the canal company offices across the cobbled lane that leads down to them from the outside world. They run various events at the Bonded Warehouse as well as hiring it out for all kinds of functions.

The Trust also seems to run a secure mooring area in the narrow basin that houses a number of permanent moorers and also offers a safe haven to any visitors, when space allows. The Bonded Warehouse also boasts some basic services and it lies opposite a winding hole, the only way to turn and go back up the arm. We had tried to contact the secretary of the trust to book some secure mooring in the basin but it turned out they were on leave that week and no-one else could work the diary. Instead we tied up on some rings that were provided where the canal takes a sharp left turn about a quarter of a mile before the end of the arm.

Mooring In Stourbridge

We had received very little feedback on the town arm but what we had seen recommended not mooring any further up the branch and seemed to imply the area was quite dodgy. We didn’t find any reason for concern and with a lot of new development and a small, newly established, grassy park area just ahead of us it was even quite pleasant.

We were aware that there was an Open Weekend scheduled for 19th / 20th October which would include a rally of old canal boats but we had assumed that, a week earlier, we would not be caught up in it and would be well out of the way by the time it got going. It turned out that preparations were under way and the boats were already arriving. Several more appeared in the afternoon and into the evening. The last couple had nowhere to moor so one breasted up alongside a CRT work boat that was tied up round the bend and another reversed back up and positioned himself across the mouth of an abandoned backwater right on the bend itself.

Stourbridge Town

Monday morning brought some unwelcome news. My brother rang to let me know our Mother had passed away overnight. It was both unexpected and unsurprising. At the age of ninety-five she had become increasingly frail over quite a long time but these things still come as a shock. Given that we were a hundred and fifty miles away, with no car, there really wasn’t very much we could usefully do at this point, other than to keep in touch.

When looking at places we would pass through, Stourbridge had at least offered some sort of Town Trail available online to follow and there was supposed to be a Tourist Information Centre. We headed off to find that but drew a blank as the present occupiers of the building told us it had moved to different premises and then had closed down. The online trail could not be downloaded but had to be followed on the browser. Fortunately, mobile data seemed to be pretty good in the town so we traced the route as best we could on the phone.

Stourbridge has plenty of residential streets with long terraces dating from the nineteenth century and a very occasional corner shop. All the activity in the town is enclosed in a very fast, busy ring road with a heavy reliance on the underpass as a means of getting pedestrians from one side to the other. In this respect it is reminiscent of Wellesley Road in Croydon and the tunnels are every bit as attractive.

All the places thought worth mentioning at the time our guide was written are in this beleaguered enclave which, effectively, constitutes the original town. We covered the ground looking at the various sites briefly described, mainly civic or religious buildings with a bank or two thrown in. Much had changed from the original description but the main elements are still there.

We came away rather underwhelmed. Once inside the half dozen streets involved you can forget the traffic whirling round the outside and it is a nice enough place. We found an excellent French Deli for a baguette and a coffee where we could sit outside with Bracken. However, nothing really seized the imagination and the tour was over pretty briefly. Perhaps the unexpected rain half way round clouded our view, it certainly dampened our enthusiasm to follow other trails listed to explore, in more detail, the history of Stourbridge’s involvement in the glass industry and it’s association with locomotives. By mid-afternoon we returned to the boat to pick up mundane tasks like Tesco shopping, renewing our house insurance and to have a first think about funeral arrangements; all activities which felt better aligned to the afternoon’s weather.

Back Up The Junction

The End Of The Line . . . A Bit Congested!

To get back to the junction at the top of the Town Arm we needed to fill our water tank and then turn around, so on Tuesday morning we started off by breasting up to the boat that was moored directly on the water point just ahead of us and then went down to the very end and the winding hole at the Bonded Warehouse. As we entered the secure mooring area boats were double and triple breasted so it didn’t look as though there was much room for manoeuvre. The situation was further complicated as, while we were getting water, a horde of excited, chattering children had passed us heading in the same direction. By the time we got there they were getting settled into a few large canoes which was all happening right on the service dock and immediately opposite the turning point. It looked a bit risky for them (at 18 tonnes they probably weren’t much of a risk to our boat) but we didn’t have much choice so we made the turn, managed to avoid them and got moored up stern on at the end of the arm and had to walk across to use the services. Once we were finally ready to leave we were now, of course, some way behind the canoes which were being inexpertly paddled by the children who were far more interested in non-stop talking to one another than listening to the few adults in charge. Fortunately, I had spoken to one of the latter back at the Warehouse and agreed that if we blew the horn they would let us past and that more or less worked.

A Shoal Of Canoes Full Of Children . . . .
. . . . Blocking Access To The Bonded Warehouse Services

At the top of the arm there is very little space between the bridge from the left and the first of a long flight of sixteen locks to the right. Slap bang on the lock landing was the CRT work boat ‘Stour’ which, we came to realise, had been moored there solely to allow the crew to make themselves at home and brew up a cup of tea. Once again we had no choice but to moor alongside them and scramble across their boat to get on shore to work the lock. We had twenty four locks to get through today and this first flight lifts the canal nearly 150 feet altogether. We had some luck today, though, as we found most of the locks set in our favour, since boats were coming down for the Stourbridge Festival and we also got some help from a BCN volunteer.

On the way we passed the Red House Cone Glass Museum, the last of many such cones in the area and one of only four left in the country. Built in 1794 it was still producing glass in 1936.

The Red House Glass Cone

We also passed the rather congested Dadford’s Wharf, which houses a professional narrowboat painting service. It must be quite a juggling act to get that blue boat out!

At the top of the flight we took the junction to the right. To be honest, I had quite forgotten that we needed to do this and had to do the narrowboat equivalent of a frantic handbrake turn when I suddenly realised that the inviting passage straight ahead was actually the short dead end of the Fens Branch. For the moment we were still on the Stourbridge Canal but two serpentine miles further on we reached the foot of the Delph Locks and the start of the Birmingham Canal Navigations – the BCN.

Into The BCN

I’ve no idea if the old saw about Birmingham having more miles of canal than Venice is true or whether there is even any sensible comparison to be made. I am told that the Birmingham Canal Navigations totalled some one hundred and sixty miles of which 100 miles are now navigable again. It is a network of old contour channels, more modern straight cuts and endless loops, and wharves and backwaters that served the industrial powerhouse that once earned Birmingham the title of “Britain’s second city”. The BCN alone could provide the basis for a trip of several weeks in its own right. The names provide a sense that you are now travelling along something more than just another inland waterway.

BCN Dudley No.1 meets the Stourbridge Canal at Black Delph Bridge with eight locks arranged in a tight flight rising another eighty four feet to Ninelocks bridge. This somewhat confusing statement is explained by the fact that the middle seven locks of an original flight of nine were rebuilt in the mid-nineteenth century using only six locks to provide the same rise and fall. Of course, The Tenth Lock, a pub at the bottom of the flight, retains its name in order to further the confusion of the uninformed traveller.

Delph Locks From The Top

There were no boats coming down on this flight and all the locks were filled against us but they are so close together it helps to speed things up. Leaving the top lock it is barely half a mile to an area we had never heard of called ‘Merry Hill’, which we had been advised was a fairly safe and suitable place to moor. It turned out that this is the name given to a huge Retail Centre in Brierley Hill. The canal passes by on quite a high embankment and meets another part of the development, canalside, with a couple of pubs, Marstons and Wetherspoons, opposite a basin. The whole area has been landscaped and fitted with some mooring rings so we stopped a little way before the pubs. The basin had official offside mooring provided with a small marina but the banks were crowded with people fishing into the night, so we were probably a lot less disturbed where we stopped.

At this point we were heading to Birmingham to be in position on Thursday night to meet my brother John who would be visiting the NEC on Thursday afternoon, Dave from Aintree Boats for some more snagging on Friday and our daughter Jen would also be meeting us there on Friday night, ready for a full day’s shopping in central Birmingham on Saturday before her partner Dave joined us on Saturday evening. We only had to cover about three and a half miles, with one lock, to get to the Withymoor Island trust, just before the Netherton Tunnel, where we had booked a berth for Wednesday night in advance. From there it should only take half a day to get to the middle of the city on Thursday. After a bit of thought about various people finding us and our being able to stay in one place for the whole of our visit, we had decided to book a visitor mooring with Sherborne Marina. Their nightly charges were twice what we had paid anywhere else, with electricity on top at £7.50 a day (is that legal?) but they were also the only game in town and it would provide a degree of certainty and security as well as access to all services.

Withymoor Island

Since we only had a short trip on Wednesday and the morning forecast was poor we had decided to leave later in the morning. In the meantime, we thought we would treat ourselves to a Sausage & Egg McMuffin from the golden arches we could see across the retail park from our galley window. Sue volunteered to go for them but was gone rather longer than expected. She returned without the eagerly anticipated McMuffins as McDonalds till system was down nationwide and they were unable to take any orders, never mind process payments of any kind. This had only just happened so perhaps a grown-up would arrive there soon and put in some sophisticated replacement system like, say, a pad and pen. In the meantime, Sue had used her initiative and purchased a packet of muffins and some sausages to add to our eggs and make our own, far superior, McMuffins.

Leaving Merry Hill about 11:30 the weather was improving and by the time we had finished at the services here it was quite sunny and even warm. A mile or so later found us at Blowers Green Lock. The way north from here was impassable as the Parkhead Locks were closed for repairs. In any case they led only to the Dudley Tunnel. Due to the exceptionally low profile of the tunnel most boats will not fit through and passage has to be booked and supervised by the Dudley Canal Trust. At Blowers Green we had to stop to top up the water tank as, for some reason, the excellent modern services at Merry Hill did not include a canal side water point.

The route from there continues almost straight back on itself along the BCN Dudley No. 2 and then winds its way round to the Netherton Tunnel, which can accommodate almost any craft. Our stop for the night was pre-booked with the Withymoor Island Trust who had advised that they were happy for us to moor but we would have to breast up alongside Dave Dent’s boat. On the way there we pulled over for lunch just past Cattle Bridge and made use of a dry, sunny afternoon to chop some firewood and empty our new jerry-can into the diesel tank. We weren’t really close to empty but it is easier to carry the jerrycan empty and we knew that diesel shouldn’t just be stored indefinitely. We had no idea what happens if you do keep it too long but we had definitely both heard this so why take chances?

Rather than heading straight off, as we still had a few hours of daylight left we took a walk across Cattle Bridge and up to Saint Andrews church on top of Netherton Hill. Fifty metres above the level of the canal the hilltop gave a superb view back across Merry Hill, Brierley Hill and most of Dudley. Some wetland, some brown field clearance and acres of modern warehouses, old industrial sites and residential developments from every era. It might not be pretty but it is an impressive sight.

Returning to the boat we set off for Withymoor Island. Interestingly, this turned out to be neither in a place called Withymoor nor an island. It is just a section of the offside of the canal with private mooring and a service wharf for most things such as pump out, water and gas. There is also a very short arm as you approach, which at first we took to be our destination. As we tried to turn into it, however, we realised that there was a boom across it so presumably the boats in there are on residential moorings and never go anywhere. Having re-positioned ourselves back out in the channel again we identified what we thought must be Dave Dent’s boat. It was at the end and as it happens, the space behind it was just big enough for us to get into. Once I found Jackie, the caretaker, she confirmed it was OK to leave it there and we were settled for the night.

A Visit To Old Ma Pardoe

As well as identifying the Withymoor Island Trust as a safe place to moor and get services our guides made reference to the importance of visiting Ma Pardoe’s. It was already dark when we set out in search of this landmark, walking up the main A459 Halesowen Road into Netherton. On a junction at the top of the road we found the Old Swan Inn.

Doris Pardoe ran this pub for 53 years from 1931 until she died in 1984, hence the nickname “Old Ma Pardoe’s”. Stepping inside is to step back in time to a real old-fashioned pub, occupied by real old-fashioned, Black Country locals. One can only imagine that Doris never let anything change throughout her reign until, by the time she died, the place had become such an institution that no-one would dare to change it, if only in the name of conservation.

A real claim to fame, now, is that it is one of the few pubs that still brews their own beer on the premises. The bar is lined with many handpumps, none bearing any label or description. Only when asked will the barman point to a small blackboard, high above our heads, listing the beers on offer. Of course, we had heard of none of them. I knew far better than to ask if they did Peroni or San Miguel on draft and mentally threw a dart in the blackboard. I did pluck up the courage to ask for a glass of Merlot, for the lady, and as expected that was very much one size fits all, in the shape of a small, screw-top bottle. It never even occurred to me to offer anything but cold, hard cash in payment.

We took a seat and watched more customers arrive. They were all clearly daily regulars, familiar to one another and their dogs but they were not unfriendly and didn’t seem bothered by us. It was certainly worth the visit and rumour has it that the food there is good but we didn’t sample that. As Bracken was absorbed in her chew, I risked another spin of the wheel on the beer list and Sue had a second bottle of red wine before we headed back to the boat for dinner.

Netherton Tunnel & The New Main Line

The next morning was bright and clear but quite a bit colder and we set off on the last mile to Netherton Tunnel in brilliant sunshine. The area we went through did not look nearly as rough as expected and there were plenty of places we would probably have been happy to moor overnight without the need to book secure mooring had we known. Approaching the tunnel you get a good look at the ridge that made it necessary in the first place and you get a sense that on the other side lies a different land. Netherton Tunnel is very long and impressively straight. At three thousand and thirty-five yards or about one and three quarter miles it is longer than Harecastle Tunnel, where they made so much fuss about inspecting the boat and letting you through, but here the roof is consistently high and you can clearly see the light at the end of the tunnel even before you enter the south portal and it is difficult to believe that it will take you half an hour to reach it.

Why They Built A Tunnel

The ‘main’ route west out of Birmingham heads towards Wolverhampton and as you emerge on the other side of Netherton Tunnel you pass under BCN Old Main Line and continue straight on to a junction with BCN New Main Line. As the names suggest the former is the original route, winding its way around Oldbury with a flight of locks to negotiate to the Smethwick summit, while the latter is a more recent addition that spears its way through every obstacle, via some impressively brutal cuttings and the Galton Tunnel, passing under the Old Main Line once more along the way, into the heart of Birmingham. As well as being straight and devoid of time-consuming locks or movable bridges the New Main Line is very wide with a towpath on both sides, which are both well-used by pedestrians and cyclists alike.

An hour along this virtual motorway and you reach the junction where the channel is joined by the Old Main Line for the final run into the city centre. Just before you get there, at Ladywood Junction, BCN Oozells Street Loop forks to the right to form an arc of canal, at the apex of which is Sherborne Marina. This turned out to be a few pontoons on the way in, leading to a small basin lined with moored boats, including one which was in use as the office and one that had sunk and lay resting on the bottom half-submerged. The whole area was at the centre of a huge building site that had sprung up around it with the girder skeletons of new blocks of flats being hammered, welded and angle-ground by a whole orchestra of construction workers in high-vis and hard hats, all competing to make the most noise.

Sherborne ‘Marina’ Receiving Visitors

Having eventually attracted the attention of the marina staff they directed us to reverse up to a jetty used by their tourist trip boat to take on stores and pump out and moor stern on, alongside an unoccupied boat already there, at the point most directly beneath the current phase of the building. We were assured that the noise would stop strictly at 5 o’clock. Never let the word ‘marina’ fool you into picturing anything remotely glamorous!

John and Ali duly arrived from the NEC and managed to locate us by about three o’clock. It was nice to catch up with them but John and I spent a less than jolly hour talking about funeral arrangements before they had to get going again. Bracken and I explored the local neighbourhood, we sent our location details to Dave for his snagging visit the next day and we settled down for the night.

Dave found us OK and most of Friday was taken up with the snagging, which mainly consisted of addressing the issues of the sealant that had started breaking down around the windows. Having brought some better, clear sealant with him, for each window, portal and solar panel, Dave had to remove the old product, clear off the sticky mess left behind and reseal the unit with the new stuff. He obviously couldn’t do this with only the stern touching land so we had to take the boat out into the main loop and moor up alongside the towpath. Once he had done the first half, we had to go up to the junction and turn it around to moor up for the other side.

While he was working on this I fulfilled my role by going up to a nearby Costa to get some coffees. Once again the gremlins struck. As soon as I walked in they announced that they could only take cash payments as, like McDonalds before them, their till system had just gone down. At least here the manager was present and had had the wit to bring out a pen and paper on which to write the orders and record their cost and payment to enter into the system later. I happened to have some cash, not always a given these days, so we were good to go and the barista could roll up his sleeves and turn to.

We had the odd very short shower but not enough to interfere with the work but Dave didn’t finally finish until well into the afternoon and the sky was steadily darkening. We still had to bring the boat back in to the marina, turn it around in the basin and back on to the wharf we left that morning. As we were finishing this last manoeuvre we realised that a) the Sherborne trip boat had been left moored across our berth and b) it was already gone four o’clock and the office in the narrowboat should be officially closed.

Leaving Sue to use the engine and rudder to hold station I scrambled across the neighbouring boat to get to shore and sprint round to the office, where I found there was still someone there, relaxing over a cup of tea and having a natter with the driver of the trip boat. He was full of apologies, after all we had paid for the berth until Sunday, and came straight out to move the trip boat out of our way. I’m not sure what we would have done if they had shut up shop and things were left as they had been for the night. As all was well, however, and Sue was still in time to take Bracken up to meet Jen at New Street Station ready for the weekend.

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