27 Oct

Week 24 – Birmingham to The Cape Of Good Hope

Birmingham Weekend

Staff at Sherborne Marina had been keen to reassure us work on the site would stop by five o’clock on Friday evening and they were as good as their word. It was a bit of a shock for Jen, though, when it started again at eight o’clock on Saturday morning. We had hoped that they would not work at the weekends but it sounded as though the whole site had burst into life. In fact, when Bracken and I went for a walk, it turned out that the only activity was two guys and an angle grinder playing a symphony in concrete and steel. Unfortunately, they happened to be just twenty feet from the boat.

Jen & Sue went shopping and as expected they weren’t seen again until five o’clock, an hour or so after Jen’s partner Dave had arrived. In the morning I somehow managed to watch England in a quarter final of the Rugby World Cup, a game in which, for the first time, the team showed enough ability to spark some belief that they could be a winning side. Perhaps, after a pretty lacklustre lead-in, Eddie’s plan was really coming together and they would peak at the right time for a big finish?

The whole area by the canal outside the marina had been heaving all day on Saturday. With Legoland and the Sea Life Centre, as well as all the bars and cafes along and behind the waterfront, a lot of the crowd were parents with small children, many dressed up as, I was told, characters from Frozen because 100 years of Disney On Ice was also on at the Arena. We went over to the Malt House in the evening at about six thirty and the pub, which was busy at first, slowly emptied out. According to the barman this was normal on a Saturday night and their main business was during the day. It was fine weather throughout the day and even though it was getting colder we were able to sit outside on the terrace looking over the canal junction for an hour or so.

North And South

On Sunday morning nobody turned up for work so Jen got her lie-in before deciding to go for a run around the nearby Edgbaston Reservoir, if only to justify the full English breakfast Sue had prepared for her return.

Breakfast was essentially brunch so it was nearly noon when we got going. The first stop was to go up to the junction with the mainline and turn back in the opposite direction to our planned route in order to get to Sherborne Wharf canalside facilities and, at last, fill up with diesel. It still baffles me how this can be the only fuel point in so many miles given the amount of boats that clearly have moorings in the area as well as passing travellers.

There is a small brick shed on the towpath close by the Roundhouse, right next to The Distillery pub. There is a diesel pump, a pump out station and Elsan disposal as well as a gas cage and supplies of wood, coal and kindling. You sense that, now The Distillery is a fashionable and popular pub, there has been some tension between that and Sherborne Wharf. You have to let them know if you want to stop for fuel and they send someone round to open up. If you need a pump out there are very strictly limited times when you can get it done. It has to be before noon or after four o’clock to protect the olfactory sensibilities of the lunchtime trade.

A Narrowboat Moored at the Fuel Point & Pump-Out

Having warned them we were on our way round there was someone at the fuel hut waiting for us. She was a pleasant, friendly woman who told us that, while she and her partner live on their boat all year round, they had just returned from a trip to France the day before, during which they had purchased a gîte with a view to moving out there. I don’t know where she stood on Brexit itself as, at this point, asking anyone that can only open the door for potential discord and hostility. What I have found is that, even if they have diametrically opposing views on Europe, any two people can find instant agreement and harmony in their being heartily sick of the whole business, disgusted by the inability of our politicians of any stripe to grow up and find a way forward together and massively embarrassed at the laughing stock we have made of ourselves in Europe and all around the world. This was true again this morning so we parted on good terms and can wish them well on what sounds like an exciting venture.

As we were now facing the wrong way it was tempting to attempt a turn in the entrance to the marina just a few yards further up the canal. Discretion took the better part of valour, however, as that entrance has an extremely tight angle coming our way. A much larger and more convenient winding hole is formed by the Icknield Port Loop at Rotton Park Junction just half a mile further on. Jen & Dave had taken Bracken for a walk and re-joined us as we were fuelling up and enjoyed a brief cruise in some quite pleasant sunshine as we turned and headed back into the centre to drop them back at Brindley Wharf so they could drive home.

Braving Bournville

We carried on through Gas Street Basin to leave the BCN and pick up the Worcester & Birmingham Canal at Worcester Bar, with a ninety degree right hand turn almost immediately after that. As we headed down the next stretch towards Edgbaston Tunnel we passed a small army of teenagers in Hi-Vis armed with magnets. Rather than being locked in a fierce free-for-all, no-holds-barred, magnet fishing competition they all appeared to be under supervision by CRT on an organised Sunday afternoon clean up squad to drag the countless bits of random metal out of the bottom of the canal. Not only was it highly commendable but they all actually seemed to be enjoying themselves as well.

Worcester & Birmingham Working Party

Shortly after the short tunnel you pass through a University area and then into Selly Oak. As you approach a bend and a bridge, ahead, there is a huge new Sainsbury’s on the towpath side of the canal with a convenient wharf right outside it. Of course, there are no mooring rings or bollards to tie up to, no Armco to hook onto and no way to drive mooring pins into the hard concrete surface. Moving on under the bridge there is a mooring but with room for only one long boat or the two floating sheds that were already tied up there. Supplies were needed so there was no choice but to pull in and stand there like a lemon, holding the centre line, while Sue walked back to the supermarket and got what we needed as quickly as possible.

From here there are a couple of miles past Cadbury’s through the notorious Bournville area before you reach King’s Norton Junction. On hire boats in the past we have been warned that you should never stop moving passing through Bournville, never moor there overnight and keep one eye out for any activity on the bridges. On this run, certainly, we didn’t see any threat and, compared to past trips through, it looked as though the area was better kept and less run-down than previously. We even saw a secure mooring for visitors close to the station there. Nonetheless, it is all very built up and not a particularly pleasant landscape for mooring. The urban sprawl continues round the turn into the Stratford Upon Avon Canal at King’s Norton and we had already decided that the first point where we would be happy to stop for the night was about three miles further on from there, at Warstock.

A couple of hundred yards after you have made the turn into the Stratford Upon Avon canal you pass through a Guillotine Stop Lock. These are quite rare and apparently more common in East Anglia. The gates at each end of the lock are designed to be lifted vertically (like a guillotine blade) to allow the boat to pass underneath Once again the main purpose of a stop lock was to prevent water flowing from one canal to the other, whichever happened to be higher at the time, while each canal was under a separate commercial ownership. Since the canals were nationalised in 1948 this is no longer an issue and the gates are permanently locked open. This design seems to be more complicated and need more maintenance when in use but requires less space and does not need room for the gates to swing open. This sample seems to also use less space by being extremely narrow and we lost another fender on our way through.

Guillotine Lock No. 1 Towards Kings Norton Junction

There were no more obstacles on our route except Brandwood Tunnel, only 350 yards long and suitably straight, before reaching our intended mooring. Warstock may be on the outskirts of the Birmingham conurbation but it is no rural idyll. The mooring, right opposite a bus station yard, is just before a bridge which carries a busy road across to several parades of shops that include a large Co-op supermarket and a huge MacDonald’s “Drive Thru”. Nonetheless, it did have a couple of water points. It was already well past four o’clock and getting colder with a threat of rain so a good time to moor up for the night.

Power Pressure

For the next day we planned to go only as far as the Wharf Tavern, Hockley Heath, a hugely unambitious six or seven miles with no locks or any other obstacles. It would provide a good jumping off point for us to head down thirteen locks on the Lapworth flight on Tuesday so we were anticipating a gentle and relaxing day of straight forward cruising. There was time to start the washing machine before we got going and Sue also decided to wash her hair before we started. This was fine, right up until the moment she turned on the hair dryer, following which all appliances using 230v mains power stopped working!

After a minute or two of confusion it was obvious that we had overloaded the inverter. Having worked out what had caused the problem I strode confidently to the services cupboard, aft, to reset the circuit breaker, which would obviously have tripped. Nothing happened. The power refused to flow, the inverter remained resolutely inoperative and no mains powered devices would work. As I had now exhausted my expertise in this field it was time to call Lenny the Electrician and ask what else to look for. To be fair, despite being initially unavailable, he came back pretty quickly and after a brief discussion identified that we had almost certainly overloaded the main fuse, which would need to be replaced. He managed to explain how to find it and what I must absolutely NOT do while trying to repair it, which was helpful. However, no repair was going to happen without a replacement 400 Amp MEGA fuse, which I could be fairly confident would not be available at your local convenience store. The mysteries and magic of electrickery continue to elude me so I chose not to explore the question of why all events surrounding the electrical system never seem to trip the relevant circuit breakers before burning out the fuses behind them.

In principle, this situation should not be a real disaster. The 12v system was intact and the most vital systems on board such as the water pump, lighting circuits, shower pump, central heating etc. all run from that. However, for reasons known only to Aintree but presumably having to do with cost, the mobile internet connection and WiFi, both televisions and the cooker are all mains powered as is, of course, the microwave. It would be nice, therefore, to get this resolved before nightfall.

The boatyard we had passed just half a mile back was closed on Mondays. The next one, five miles further on, didn’t have them in stock but could get one tomorrow afternoon. Swallow Cruisers had them on the shelf but they were a mile beyond our planned mooring. They were also closing at three o’clock and as it had already taken quite a while to get to this point it was gone noon before we were even setting out. Far from enjoying a leisurely cruise down to Hockley Heath, we were now in a race against time.

There were no shortcuts to be made going by road and the churned up state of the towpath meant that cycling there wasn’t really an option. In distance terms we calculated that we should be able to get to the mooring by about two thirty at normal cruising speed, but that would depend on how many stretches of moored boats we would have to slow to a crawl for. The whole trip became an exercise in calculating and recalculating whether we could make the mooring and walk on from there in time or exactly when it would become necessary for me to leave the boat before we got there, if it seemed I could walk faster than the boat could travel in order to get to the boatyard in time.

In the end I jumped off at the bridge before the Wharf Inn and legged it up to the boatyard, phoning them en route to confirm I was on the way. I got there a couple of minutes after three, grabbed the fuse and a spare to keep on board and headed back to where Sue was now moored up. Ten minutes later I hadn’t electrocuted myself or shorted out the new fuse, everything was back together, mains power was restored and we could relax at last, keeping the engine running so Sue could finish the washing, whilst taking care to switch nothing else on.

Easing Down To Hatton

Some time ago we had arranged to meet Mike & Lesley Fielding on Friday to help us down the Hatton Flight. We had allowed a little leeway for the unexpected but, as we had managed to keep to schedule all the way, we now needed to spin out the time a little or we would be there too early.

Tuesday’s plan covered a paltry two and a half miles but included two lift bridges and thirteen locks which would take an extra three hours or so to get through, leaving us two thirds of the way through Lapworth Locks at a handy mooring beside The Boot Inn. The guy at Swallow Cruisers, who had sold me the fuse, had warned me that they had a crane coming in first thing this morning. As we wanted to call in there for services we left it until about ten thirty before we got going. It had been dry overnight and, despite a dull start, by this time the weather was brightening up so we had a pleasant trip down. It was a nice sunny afternoon once we had moored up so a chance to sweep all the leaves off the roof, clean off the accumulated guano and do one or two other jobs on the outside of the boat. A trip to The Boot provided firm evidence that we were no longer in the north, with the price of a pint of beer soaring to five pounds ten rather than the four pounds or so we had got used to.

Wednesday’s hop was even shorter, two miles at most and only six locks on the way. From our overnight mooring the next few locks take you down to a junction where a strange triangular arrangement gives access to the Lapworth Link, a short, one furlong stretch of canal that connects the Stratford Upon Avon canal to the Grand Union at Kingswood Junction. You can take the right hand lock straight ahead to continue down the rest of the Lapworth locks and on to Stratford Upon Avon. If you choose the left hand lock it takes you on to the link and the junction with the Grand Union.

We turned right at the junction and moored up less than a mile further on, opposite the Tom O’ The Wood pub. Not as nice an afternoon as it was the day before but good enough for a walk along to the next bridge and up into Rowington for a fairly dry route back. As well as spotting a VR post box to photograph for Neil Payne, the route back to the pub brought us through a field alongside an area of goat enclosures. As we left it via a kissing gate Bracken let out an enormous howl and we thought one of us must have trodden on her paw somehow. It turned out that, as we were working the gate, she had been sniffing the wire separating us sheep from the goats and had had her first encounter with an electric fence. She didn’t seem to have been harmed at all but she was certainly thoughtful for a few minutes.

With heavy rain starting in the early evening and temptation close at hand we went across to the pub for a meal in the evening. Bracken was fairly co-operative, as long as her chew lasted, so we were able to have our dinner and a drink in warm, comfortable surroundings, rather than being forced to sit outside in the rain.

Thursday’s trip was another short one, maybe four miles with just one short tunnel on the way. This would put us at the top of the Hatton flight ready to start down the twenty-one locks on Friday morning and hopefully meet our helpers on the way down. We could easily have done this section the day before and just spent the day at Hatton Top and we soon wished that we had. Heavy rain followed us down all the way, so a damp, uncomfortable cruise. Any gaps between showers in the afternoon were very brief and it didn’t seem likely that the rain would clear tomorrow either.

Helpful “Harry Hudson”

We first noticed the “Harry Hudson”, an enormous Kate Boats hire craft as I took Bracken out for a walk on Thursday night, simply because it was tied up on a water point we planned to use just before the top lock. With a wet day and many, many locks in prospect we had decided to start the day with a full English breakfast at the café situated between that top lock and the next one down. As we left the premises we saw that “Harry Hudson” had left the water point, dropped through the first lock but was now tying up in the pound right outside the café. A group of rather elderly boaters were in the unsteady process of disembarking and heading inside. One of them did offer an explanation that they had a lady on board who couldn’t walk very far. We couldn’t help noticing that, despite the wheeled walker in the front cockpit, the lady in question was the first one through the café door entirely unaided.

We returned to our boat, moved on to the water point and then worked our way through the top lock and into the next one. By this time the crew of the “Harry Hudson” had finished their breakfast so, with some misgivings, we did the decent thing and waited in the rain while they got back aboard and came to join us in the lock.

At first one of the elderly gentlemen on board brought his walking stick up onto the lock side, closed the lock gates and went to help the youngest of their team, probably around fifty, open the paddles for the bottom gate. As we progressed down the locks the one man who had been doing anything disappeared into the boat and the younger woman continued to do her best, although it did seem that most of the work on both sides of each lock was being done by Bracken and I.

We were probably nearly half way down when Mike & Lesley arrived, after parking at the bottom and walking up. Ahead of us we had caught up with another boat that had an adult and two kids on board who seemed to be being taught how to work the locks. They didn’t seem to be in any hurry and the grown up kept having to get off to help the children work the gates and paddles, so Lesley actually spent most of the time helping them, in order to keep things moving.

Meanwhile Mike and I carried on working our locks behind. Shortly after their arrival the lady from “Harry Hudson” slipped on the wet grass and landed on her backside. Slightly embarrassing but no real harm done except a pair of wet trousers. It was with some surprise, therefore, that we gradually realised that, having gone back on board to clean up a bit, she wasn’t coming back out. She seemed to have taken Mike & Lesley’s arrival as a signal that her efforts were no longer required. Mike and I were left to close the gates for each lock as the boats left, fill the next lock and open both gates. Sue would bring our boat in, then “Harry Hudson” would pull over at the entrance landing, the woman would get off and close one gate behind them coming in. Their gung-ho helmsman liked to get up a bit of speed coming in and was undeterred by the hefty smack he delivered to our starboard quarter on one occasion. The woman would then leave Mike and I to open the paddles and the gates at the far end and hurry back on board before her boat dropped into the lock. With each passing lock Mike’s indignation rose another incredulous notch and the hints that perhaps this was not acceptable became broader and broader. Not as broad as their hide was thick, however, since they gave no acknowledgement and just carried on as before.

At last we cleared the final lock on the flight and carried on another mile, past the Saltisford Arm, to moor up just before Cape Top Lock and opposite the Cape Of Good Hope pub (not the famous headland eight thousand five hundred miles away). The rain had just about stopped for the moment and after four hours on the trip we were ready for the comfort of a warm, dry bar, a cold, wet pint and a spot of lunch.

As we crossed the lock to the pub “Harry Hudson” arrived and adopted their usual practice of never tying up more than ten steps from their destination, whether there was a mooring there or not. The infirm old lady routine had even less credibility this time as they were in the spillway for the lock and breasted up to two other boats they would have to cross in order to reach land. Still, the fire was going and there was a warm welcome inside so we could forget about this strange behaviour and relax.

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