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Published: July 14th 2019
Some locks had lovely cottages and old buildings nearby. Sometimes we did not want to leave the lock, it was so pretty.
Time runs together on the Canal. It's hard to believe that hours go by, and then you can't believe it's only been five minutes since the last bridge. We are doing the Black Country Loop near Birmingham, in a counter-clockwise fashion, starting out of Barton Turns Marina (and ending there). Rather than give a mile by mile (there are 86), lock by lock (more than 100), pub by pub (yummy meat pies), or bridge by bridge (we stopped counting)... for the remainder of the canal trip, we will talk about interesting highlights.
We split out our time in Birmingham into a separate entry, after this one, since that was a short escape from normal Canal life.
We'll mention that Anne and Tony (mostly Anne) were sick during this part of the trip, so we may not be quite as exciting as normal. Also, Michelle has made it known for months that she intends to use this part of the trip to relax, read, draw, and be quiet and restful... She has had a very busy year and summer so far, so we agreed.
Tony also intends to do some writing and relaxing,
Oh, It's Sunday
Most everything in the small canal villages is closed on Sunday. Alas.
plus some walking next to the boat while Anne drives.
Tony ran the boat into a brick bridge! Keep in mind, running the boat into things is actually a standard operating procedure. Seriously. To moor the boat before a lock, we were told to drive the side of the bow of the boat (slowly) into the side of the canal, then run the engine with the tiller turned away from the shore so the back end ran into the side of the canal, then jump out and catch the boat with ropes. Also, coming into a lock, you are almost never straight, so you just basically bumper car your way in.
So, back to the bridge. There are a lot of low and skinny bridges. The one Tony hit was a standard height at the entrance, but the bottom of the arch was one foot lower on the far side. Tony had just done some fancy maneuvering around another boat, and was at a fine angle for the standard height, but not the lower height. He caused a shower of brick fragments to cover the bow of the boat, and some scraped paint (matching the already
A nice gift shop on the bottom.
scraped paint on the other side caused by a previous client). Tony feels OK about this, given that the brick was knocked out of an existing notch in the bridge where dozens of boats have already collided.
Going against the current is hard. The boat has to work more, so it starts complaining and getting hot. If you get slightly off center, the boat acts as a very large sail and pushes you into the shore, especially when turning. Occasionally there is an island in the middle of the canal with a boat-sized cut on each side for passage. Presumably this is to keep larger boats out of the channel. They could also have been a convenient place to do inspections, etc. The impact on us, in 2019, is that they reduce the canal to 2 boat widths (from approx 5), which increases the current in the cut by 5/2 (250%). We ran the already tired boat on maximum just to crawl through those cuts.
Bridges have interesting residents living in them. We are not talking about the human kind (those tend to be boring and... sleeping), but animal and insect life. Pigeons are
A small ring to leave your pets on whilst visiting the gift shop.
annoying, but sing to us as we go through. The most disturbing, though, are the spiders. On the rectangle bridges (the ones with straight walls, unlike the arch bridges), the spiders like to make webs across both corners along the length of the subway. They are not small webs, perhaps a triangle with a hypotenuse of two feet. The web is strong, and will jerk your head back if you run into it.
The first time Tony noticed the spiders was during a poorly executed starboard turn into the tunnel. We ran along the left edge, and suddenly, Tony yelped in excitement (might have been a scream in terror). He had collided with a half dozen webs and was frantically trying to pull them away from his head and out of his glasses. The boat veered left and we got stuck in some bushes for a short time.
In later tunnels, when we were more in the center, we were able to see the spiders. They were the size of a US quarter and about 1/2 inch thick with short legs. There are dozens of them on every (rectangular) bridge, and we are sure to steer carefully from
A Different View
All of the windows in the boat were at water level. Great views of the banks (and sometimes people's feet when moored).
There are four types of canal environments we have encountered.
First, the lovely countryside, with gardens (yards for Americans), cows, windmills, quaint abandoned buildings, rivers, and small villages. It is so pleasant on these stretches that we hardly remember to move faster when permitted, and find ourselves plodding along at 1mph enjoying the scenery. Many other boats are moored in these areas. We often pass people repairing their boats, walking their dogs, preparing food (bbq), sitting in makeshift patios (complete with plants taken from the roofs of their boat), and practicing their skills (we have seen Knitters, Woodworkers, Authors, Horticulturists, and Painters working on and selling their crafts along the canal.) This environment makes you feel that retiring and living on a boat is ideal.
Second, you have Industrial sections. These are full of trash, smells, tall fences on either side of the canal, abandoned buildings (not the quaint type), graffiti, unexpected obstructions in the water (road work barriers, metal building siding, traffic cones, buckets). There are plenty of people about walking or biking, but none really want to stop and chat. Also, there are no places to moor (not that
... and power lines, and trains, and cottages, and manor houses, and churches, and pubs, and... and... and.. so much to see.
you would want to). There are some interesting things in these areas, however. The canals were used for transporting goods from factories and processing centers to shipping yards. It is really obvious in the industrial centers that this was the canal's primary purpose. These areas are riddled with pullouts (that end in bricked up walls, but used to go to the older buildings behind the wall), footings from removed bridges, cross canals, tons of overpasses (unused now). You can see in the buildings (abandoned and those still in use) where windows and doorways have been bricked in, or turned into air vents. We can hear the humming of heavy machinery as we pass, and even occasionally see factory equipment through openings. Given the fore mentioned smell, however, we tried to speed through these areas as quickly as possible.
Third, you have the Suburbs. There are long (long) stretches of canal that are outside of the city and industrial sectors, but still within larger towns. In general, it seems that people are trying their best to ignore the canal, except as a convenient place for walking or biking. We passed by miles of complexes and neighborhoods with playgrounds,
It was part of a historic brick bridge. oops.
fields, parks, rows of houses, and community walking paths, all placed dozens of feet away from the canal with tall bushes growing in-between. We have been told that, for a long time, the canals in a large portion of the country were left abandoned and overgrown. It makes sense that some of these older communities would try to hide the nuisance and eyesore. Many newer projects in the suburb sections seem to be incorporating the canal, with benches and paths, and open canal access. One other, very important, thing to note. Nowhere in the Suburb section can you moor the boat, temporarily or overnight. The standard railing, which you can use the "C clamps" on is missing, with the sides either overgrown, or simply brick, and not enough space between the edge and the towpath to drive mooring stakes. The Suburbs just really don't want to acknowledge the existence of the canal.
Finally, you have the City Center. In Birmingham and London, we have seen the canal system fully incorporated into the design and life of the larger cities. Mooring sites are plentiful (especially if you want to pay). Bridges and walkways give easy access for boaters
Moored next to a busy path. Lots of walkers an bikers on one side, and kayaks on the other side.
to the city businesses. Cafes, Pubs, and many public places line the canal side, and are often canal themed (or at least named as such). City residents spend time by the canal, and appreciate and interact with the boaters. Many newer housing complexes are oriented around the canal, with balconies, private decks overlooking, and private mooring spots. The incorporation of the canal into city life seems to be spreading out from the center, which gives hope that the industrial areas can, eventually, be revitalized.
We have met some interesting people with interesting stories:
- A man set out to build his perfect canal boat. We heard about this from a Canal resident (retired since age 50, just turned 65, living on his boat for 3 years). The man studied the maximum length and width and height specs, plus general boat layout standards and built, by himself, the perfect canal boat. The pictures we saw looked like something out of a James Bond film. He built the entire thing in a field and had it craned onto a truck and craned into a boatyard to be launched. The boatyard people told him it could not go in
There's a Leak in my Lock
Locks were definitely not water tight.
the canal. Apparently, this man had never actually studied the canals or locks. While the boat would fit in the canal, and was the right length and width... the locks have oval shapes at the ends, and there is a cement sill at the bottom that you would high-side on if your boat was not the right shape... which his boat was not. So now, there is a giant, James Bond boat sitting in a field next to a boatyard next to a lock that can never actually be used in the canals for which it was built.
- A nice old woman who owns the Round House building and gift shop in Gailey, and who runs the store, is the wife of the last lock keeper at that location. The tall, round tower is high enough to see a distance down the canal in both directions so the lock keeper can arrange the water for the approaching boats, making the passage faster and more efficient.
- Locks used to charge a toll for passage. It was one of the ways that landowners could reimburse for the upkeep of the canal and the disruption
Yes... that's a house above the canal (tunnel portion)
of their land activities (Ranching, Farming, etc). One chap had a canal pass through is very flat land, but there was no lock. In order to help get toll money, he modified the canal and added a lock that dropped the water level 6 inches (the minimum required). This lock remains the shortest lock in all of the UK.
- A lady in Wolverhampton owns two boats, but doesn't get to take them out as often as she would like. She works all week and also studies in her spare time to learn Software (Python for now). She has always appreciated when people give her a hand on the locks, or go beyond their duties as boat captains and help clean up the shore. Therefore, she volunteers with the Canal and Waterways Trust several times a week to help boaters navigate the locks in Wolverhampton (20 of them) and generally maintain the canal in that area.
We made our way back to Barton Turns Marina, ate at our favorite Canal-side Pub (again).. The Swan.. and then moored just outside of the Marina where we had a relaxing evening.
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