There & Halfway Back Again
On Saturday 5th October we left the Shropshire Union at Autherley Junction and headed south. We joined the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal and would be travelling around twenty five miles to its end at Stourport On Severn before turning round and coming half that distance back again to take the Stourbridge Canal towards Birmingham.
At the junction, still on the Shropshire Union, is a stop lock so shallow, just four inches, that it is hard to tell by eye whether you will be going up or down. It is a lock added to address the concern of Thomas Telford that the canal it is about to meet would steal the Shropshire Union’s water. Now, of course, it is completely irrelevant but still you have to go through the process of raising and lowering the paddles and working the gates.
Having made the turn we planned to stop almost immediately at Oxley Marine for diesel and other services. Oxley Marine is not a slick operation but it got the job done. The sanitary station was a manhole round the corner, water was available from a rain butt with a watering can and and it was clear that, on a Saturday lunchtime, faffing around with tax and splits was not expected to be something we would want to indulge in, 80 pence a litre would be fine and of course, cash only, no cards.
Our planned stop for the night was just above Bratch Locks and with the stop lock on the Shroppie that would be seven locks today. As we moved on we began to learn that the Staffs & Worcs locks, while certainly not unique were definitely “special”. The spindles for the paddles are placed so close to the balance beam that you can’t use a long throw windlass to wind them or you will crack your knuckles. People who know about physics and stuff will probably chip in with gabble about “mechanical advantage” and the like. All I know is it is a lot harder to work a lock when the handle is only six inches from the spindle. Another “feature” is that many of the locks have a bridge right beside them. However, there is no access from the lock to the bridge. The only way from one side of the lock to the other is to creep across the platforms on the lock gates. Not a big deal but tricky with a windlass in one hand and a dog in the other.
Some days you just can’t get a break and everything seems against you. The days when everything falls into place and lands butter side up seem to be far less common but Sunday was one such. After a really wet night we woke to a dry morning with a little bit of blue sky, By the time we got moving it had turned into a really nice dry, bright, sunny day.
We were immediately into Bratch Locks, which are three locks so close together they look like a staircase and there are complicated instructions on how to negotiate them safely, with parts of the structure painted in red and others in blue to aid the explanation. First piece of luck for the day was that a lock keeper was on duty so we didn’t have to try and work all this out for ourselves, we just let him tell us what to do.
While we were at Wheaton Aston a chap moored outside the pub opposite had told us that a new Sainsbury’s had opened up at a place called Wombourne, so that was our next stop. Another stroke of luck to find the mooring right beside the bridge for the supermarket vacant and waiting for us. They even had a special offer on Scotch, so two trips were required.
We had another six locks to do before arriving at our planned mooring site above Greensforge Lock. This had been chosen as it was a 48 hour mooring right by a full set of services and a pub, as well as road access. We could sit here all day on Monday so that Dave from Aintree Boats could do his worst and we could leave on Tuesday fully supplied. You never know quite what you are going to find in reality but we got there at about two thirty, after a pleasant cruise in the sunshine, to find that the, very short, visitor mooring was free and right by the services building, so we were close enough to fill the water tank as often as we wanted without even moving onto the water point.
As we hadn’t yet had anything to eat, the ideal would be to get lunch in the pub beside the lock. Being a Sunday, in many places you would find that they were fully booked, only did roast dinners on a Sunday, didn’t allow dogs on the premises, stopped serving food at 14:00 etc. Not a bit of it! They had a very busy clientele, a relaxed attitude, an efficient approach to get everyone served and a special Sunday A La Carte menu that included snacks as well as main meals. To top it all they were cheap as chips, so we had some of those with our ‘red hot wings’. After a busy morning it was very nice to sit outside in the sunshine enjoying a pint or two over lunch. Even Bracken co-operated by concentrating on her chew rather than on barking at our food.
Monday morning and up early (for us) because Dave was coming. Except by nine o’clock we received a text telling us that he wasn’t. He’d been watching the weather and as he needed a clear day to seal the windows he won’t be coming today. To be fair the forecast for the day was foul but we hadn’t been aware that the visit was weather dependent in the first place.
Now we had to decide whether to stay here today, as planned, or move on because he wasn’t coming. As the weather was supposed to be very bad we stayed, only to see it dry up about ten o’clock and be dull, damp but broadly dry all day. Being right by the water point we got some washing done and we did manage to get in a couple of walks from the boat during the day. Before dinner we took Bracken over to The Navigation for a drink. She was pretty good inside, given the right incentive. Some of the locals, mostly the same people that we had seen in there the day before, made a lot of fuss of her. One of them, who fancied himself a dog handler, decided to take hold of her chew. He was happy enough with the growling that ensued but went a bit pale when he realised that, in trying keep hold of it, she also had one of his fingers! Luckily I had a piece of sausage to distract her with and he was able to withdraw unharmed. He may be a bit less gung ho in future.
Chimney Disaster Averted
The lower section of the Shropshire Union was built by Thomas Telford and runs in a ruthless straight line through the landscape. It is pleasant to cruise on but this presumably reflects it having been built much later in the canal age and a recognition that, in the long term, speedy transit for goods and materials was more important in the economics of the canal than initial construction costs.
The Staffordshire & Worcestershire was one of James Brindley’s, completed much earlier and based on managing the construction outlay by following the contours. We were soon made aware of this as we travelled south by the more convoluted course of the canal and many bends. Another feature that points to the era in which it was built is the height of the bridges and the angle of approach. We have not had to worry about this for some time and now found ourselves getting caught out by how low the bridge holes were. Having been forced to fire up the wood burner as we approached the end of the Shroppie we still had the chimney on. Arriving at Dunsley Tunnel, with Bracken and I walking on the towpath, I could see this was going to be a problem. It is only twenty one metres long but so low that it would be sure to knock the chimney straight off the roof. I flagged Sue down and she just managed to back off before the entrance so that I could get the chimney down and the stopper back on to stop rain going down the flue.
Engine Trouble (But Not Ours)
Shortly after leaving Greensforge we came to Rocky Lock and at first we thought we were in luck as a boat was coming up, which would make our passage faster. It turned out that the boat in the lock was towing a really old traditional workboat behind it. They told us it was eighty six years old and weighed twenty four tonnes. It had thrown a crankshaft through the engine casing and now they needed to get it to a place where they could have the roof over the engine lifted off.
First they had to get the lead boat through, then shut the gates and empty the lock again, then haul the second boat in by hand, refill the lock, open the top gate and re-attach the tow to move out of the way. Far from being through this one quickly, then, it took twice as long.
We carried on past the junction for Stourbridge and Birmingham, down through Kinver and another short tunnel at Cookley, this one sixty five metres long, to moor just beyond before Debdale Lock. The rain really chucked it down just as we reached the tunnel but it lasted no more than ten minutes before we could get tied up and start drying out.
There wasn’t much to see in Cookley, which seems to sit mainly above and away from the canal cutting. It seemed quite a well-off place, however, and had a fantastic sports and recreation area which then led into a belt of common land and a path back down to the canal level. A great place for Bracken to have a run and chase rabbits.
Wednesday, 9th October, was a largely bright and sunny day and we had a good run down to Stourport On Severn, via yet another supermarket stop at Tesco, right beside the canal in Kidderminster.
We managed to moor just above the basin in Stourport and went to have a look around the place. Somewhere in our guides it said that Stourport could not make up its mind if it was a seaside town or a riverside town and we would have to agree. Stroll down past the basin to the locks and it feels like a riverside embankment with a nice path along it and big park area. Just the other side of the entrance off the river to the canal is a classic, small seaside town amusement park with the usual dilapidated rides, looking a bit forlorn in the deserted autumn. The size of the car parking available gives a bit of a hint as to how much busier this place must be in summer.
Coming back up the High Street there are two or three amusement arcades, fish & chips shops and stores selling fishing nets and kiss-me-quick hats. Even in the basin there is a sense of duality with plenty of narrow boats on private moorings but they are dwarfed by a selection of huge Tupperware cruisers that are clearly built to cruise the tidal Severn and beyond to the open sea.
One curious sight down there was an opening, off the water and through a bridge, into a large area of mooring laid out with pontoons, each provided with water and electricity. There was space for quite a few boats and it had obviously been incorporated into the new development of flats that surrounded it. It was completely empty and the entrance was blocked off in a very permanent looking way. It would be ideal for boaters to be able to moor in there, as space here is at something of a premium. If it isn’t for visitors and it isn’t being used by the residents why did they build it in the first place?
The hot news of the day was a text from Dave at Aintree Boats confirming that he would be with us on Friday 18th October. Fingers crossed!
We had allowed the possibility of staying an extra night here but based on what we saw we decided we would move on the next day. First we had the interesting challenge of renewing Bracken’s medication. We had been in touch with our vet and they had sent us a prescription by email, but how to fill it? We could order it online but wouldn’t get it in time. Pets At Home don’t supply medicines, even in their veterinary practice. We rang a local vet and they were very helpful. They didn’t have it in stock but could order it and have it there early the next morning – this was about five o’clock in the afternoon. They would have to see Bracken first, even though we had a written prescription but if we came over now they could do that and then place the order. We were only ten minutes walk away, the vet saw her in about another ten minutes and we picked up the medication the next morning before nine o’clock, a brilliant service. What’s more, having seen the price of the drugs, the vet told the receptionist not to charge for his consultation. Very kind, especially when you consider that our own vet, who already had all the facts on their system and only had to press a button, still charged us £15 to send the written prescription by email.
With that sorted we headed back up the canal the way we had come. For the night we had decided to moor at Pratt’s Wharf, about as close to the nearest town of Kidderminster as we wanted to get for an overnight stay. There was no mooring as such but it was a good spot where the canal widens past the abandoned wharf so we had some sun. The area around it is Wilden Marsh Nature Reserve so it should have been pretty peaceful. We couldn’t see the industrial plant on the other side of the canal and beyond the River Stour that had activity going on all night but it didn’t disturb us that much.
No-one had a good word to say about Kidderminster. There were several negative comments when we asked about mooring, there are no services of any kind, which seems odd for such a big town and a search for any kind of town trail or heritage guide had drawn a complete blank. What any query about Kidderminster will throw up is every major retail store you can think of. The plan for Friday was to move up to the mooring by Tesco, which puts you as close as possible to B&Q and then to go through the lock in the town and moor again outside Sainsbury’s, which is in a retail park with Halfords, Pets At Home, PC World and several others. I must say that, having passed through the town on the canal twice and walked through part of it today, it didn’t seem as black as it was painted. The people were friendly and there were no obvious signs of unusual vandalism or delinquency.
Having last refuelled as we came onto the Staffs & Worcs we had been looking ahead to when we might next be able to get diesel, only to find that we were in a bit of a desert. As far as we could tell we would not be able to refuel until we reached the centre of Birmingham. It was quite likely that what we had could last until then but it would be helpful to have some margin of error. A solution seemed to be to get a 20 litre jerry can and fill it at the Sainsbury’s petrol station. It would be road diesel at the normal price for private cars etc. with no distinction between domestic use or propulsion but it would provide peace of mind. Halfords had the jerry cans in stock so we could click and collect there. We would need to use the fuel fairly soon as it does deteriorate but once the can was empty it would still be valuable piece of equipment to have on board. If we hit a similar problem in future we would have the extra option of walking to the nearest petrol station to get us out of trouble.
The day went well, by and large. As we finished near to Tesco the heavens opened in an absolute deluge but that gave us time to have lunch and an hour later it had stopped, rather to our surprise. By the time we got through the lock and up to the visitor mooring by Sainsbury’s we were in pleasant autumn sunshine. Based on previous reviews of mooring overnight here we had determined that we would finish our errands and move on a bit further to spend the night just below Wolverley Lock. As we settled down for the evening we had a message from the boiler makers confirming that they had now received the pipe layouts from Aintree Boats and would be reviewing them in the next few days. Good to hear that gradual progress was being made, rather than the problem being quietly kicked into the long grass.
Kinver & The Rock Houses
The plan for Saturday was to moor in Kinver, described by everyone as a very charming, pretty village. We would have a short cruise to get there and spend the lunchtime and afternoon having a look around the place and stay there for the night. There was the issue that all the mooring actually above Kinver Lock is private for its entire length but we could stop short on some twenty four hour visitor moorings below the lock. The village itself seemed to be a little way away from the canal in any case.
We tied up and walked into the village and found ourselves underwhelmed. Reports of Kinver’s attractions are as overblown as those on the horrors of Kidderminster. We wandered through the High Street and explored a small alley containing a handful of shops and then realised that was about it. They did have a disproportionately large number of tea shops and cafes so, a little bewildered, we chose one with some seating outside and ordered some lunch while we decided what to do next. Kinver also seemed to have a decent mobile signal so we were able to do a little research into a brown sign we had seen on our walk round. Kinver Edge is owned by the National Trust. It is a high point with plenty of woodland and heath around it and the property also contains the Rock Houses; homes hewn from the sandstone of this high bluff in which people were still living well into the twentieth century. This seemed a good way of making use of the afternoon and giving Bracken some exercise so we set off after lunch, following the signs uphill.
Rock Houses At Kinver Edge
It was a bit of a climb here and there but, accompanied by some pleasant sunshine, it was a good place to spend the afternoon. As well as a good walk and a spectacular panoramic view we visited the Rock Houses and learnt a bit about them. There are records of people living there from the eighteenth century but they are believed to have been inhabited long before that. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the growth of industry in the area attracted workers who couldn’t find or afford accommodation elsewhere, as well as agricultural labourers. Some homes were owned by the occupiers but most were rented out by the people who employed them or owned the land they worked.
The houses were carved out of the easily worked sandstone so, if an extra room were required, they just dug a bit deeper. They had water from a well and eventually gas. They never did get electricity but the houses were fully occupied into the 1930’s and there were some still living there in the 1950’s. In the early twentieth century they were a major tourist attraction with visitors coming from far and wide on the Kinver light railway to see them and to take refreshment at the tea room the families set up to exploit their curiosity. The absence of mains sewage was the factor that finally saw them declared unfit for habitation and abandoned. The National Trust is working on a programme of restoration and, of course, has set up its own tea room.
Back on the boat we might have hoped to watch England play France in the Rugby World Cup but the game had been cancelled by Typhoon Hagibis. It is a shame that we didn’t get the chance to watch what is usually a gripping contest. On the plus side, points put England through to the quarter finals. The Scotland v Japan game would potentially suffer the same fate and if so the Scots would not be so lucky. Somehow it seemed typical that they were trying to change the rules and threatening to take legal action even before the event had occurred or a decision been taken. There was a time when we would never have imagined seeing such behaviour.