Head northwest out of Birmingham City Centre towards Wolverhampton along Thomas Telford’s ‘new’ main line, a canal designed to replace James Brindley’s wandering minstrel of a waterway (he was a man who followed contours) with an uncompromisingly direct route to Tipton, and you are, before too long, faced with the choice of old or new. We once came from Wolverhampton on Telford’s route, which may have resolved the needs of the working boat traffic of his day in reducing distance by a third, overcoming dreadful congestion at locks and replacing worn-out towpaths, but the experience did nothing for me as a 21st century tourist boater looking for interest; the straight miles of tedious and unrewarding scrubland were about as delightful as a purposeful motorway drive compared to a romantic dalliance with a B road. I of course admit that each serves its turn, according to need. Chacun à son goût! Telford’s dramatic cutting through the Smethwick Summit, with the magnificent Galton Bridge bestriding it, is an astonishing engineering achievement which one can admire, and we did, that time, but this year we had no difficulty in pursuing our favourite right turn in celebration of Brindley along the ‘old’ main line.
Now you will have deduced that I am an incurably poetic soul, who hankers after historical roses, but, if that is the case, you’ve jumped right… to the wrong conclusion. The thing about this old Brindley canal is that it has become touched with modern magic, in the form of juicy juxtapositions of modes of transport (and other things), and I hope from our photographs that you will see what I mean.
Turning right at Smethwick Junction provided us with some welcome diversion from quite a long horizontal journey (from the King’s Norton Junction south of Birmingham) in the form of the three locks which take the boater up to a stretch of canal that is, for me, just wonderful. I don’t expect everyone to share my taste.
Passing the Grade II listed pumping house between the two main lines at Brasshouse Lane bridge (If you get the chance to go inside, you’ll find, as I did, a Victorian marvel of a machine on different levels, one of the original two which were capable of lifting 200 locks of water a day; it replaced the earlier pumping houses on the ‘Engine Arm’ of the canal.), the old line leads under the Summit Tunnel. Though it all seems very rural just here, the thundering traffic of an A road dual carriageway passes unseen over this concrete underpass! There’s your first juxtaposition!
A heron, cranking itself from the towpath and lifting itself high into the air above us, is proof of the richness of canals, supporting wildlife as they do here, in the most unpromising terrain of urban and industrial Birmingham.
And now we meet the majestic (Yes, I mean it!) M5, a contrast to this beautiful canal (Yes, I certainly mean it!), with a pleasant moment of inconsistency as four kayakers pass by. The skyline, too, has a splendid coherence here.
Up above, the juggernauts carry their loads in a roar, but we can barely hear them as our boat quietly transports us into a dream.
Wild life flourishes and Smethwick adds to the population of Canada geese, we note, as this crèche bobs by.
Straight lines and verticals abound in this motorway underworld, but our waterway winds deliciously, refusing to comply, and we wander willingly with it, from side to side.
I think that Brindley would have delighted in this, a towering sandwich of route ways. I should love to be able to show him and watch his reaction!
These colonnades may be formed from steel and concrete, but there is peace here for those of a contemplative frame of mind; the numbing noise of the carriageway above seems far away.
We’ve come up through Spon Lane locks before and marvelled at the contrast between the new and old main lines; we’re not at all tempted to lock down this flight of three, as we know how much more there is to see along this refurbished section of Brindley’s canal.
Three locks back at Smethwick Junction gave us this much height above Telford’s cut.
I’m rather sorry that it’s impossible to get all four levels of transport into one photograph from the vantage point of a narrowboat just here… and three must do.
For those of us who prefer the language of a bygone age of transport! Train station? Hah!
I wonder what Blakey Hall was like and whether the owner rode on horseback over this bridge. I love the whimsical shape in this, its contemporary context.
A sixty-eight foot narrowboat isn’t the easiest vessel to steer through tight spaces, but get the line right and you’re through.
Sorry, I couldn’t miss the opportunity for this pun. 😉
If you have an artistic eye, there’s plenty here to entertain it.
Hopkins’ “skate’s heel sweep[ing] smooth on a bow bend”? Perhaps, but in slow motion!
Modern canal bridge design, with a slight brickwork salute to the past.
Once again, there’s definitely a line to take to make the turn.
Telford wanted us to hold the tiller straight!
Here’s one we’re saving for the future: up to Titford Pool and back.
Graffiti interest? Well, of course!
And now we say goodbye to the M5, with sadness at the end of a romantic encounter. We’ve dillied and dallied all the way.
Thank you for joining me on this narrowboat ride. Perhaps you will admit to being at least surprised to find what lies beneath the M5, even if you can’t find it in you to love it as much as we do!
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James
10 thoughts on “Flirting with the M5 – in love with your hard shoulder… Feel my soft verges…”
Christina, I LOVED this! It reminded me of our barge holiday, which was round what i think was called the Leicester Ring, from Northampton, where we lived, up as far as Burton on Trent, and back again. I also had a heron moment!!!! I saw it up ahead but I don’t think I managed to get my disposable camera out in time (it was before digitals and camera phones!). You clearly feel the same as I do about it being a parallel world, in which we can see them and they can see us, but there seems to be an lovely, invisible wall between us. I think I must scan some of my old pics! Thanks for this x
There is definitely a parallel world, for the most part unnoticed by people in their workaday one; if ever there were a way of relaxing, this must be it: so much beauty and interest (even in what might conventionally be considered ugly!), as well as a pace of life so blissfully slow! Thank you for taking the trouble to visit and to comment in such a complimentary way, Terry. Thanks, too, for spreading it on Twitter. 🙂
William Least-Heat Moon
Right up your motorway, as it were.
Apt, Jack. However, I wasn’t searching for the soul of the nation; nor was I aiming to find myself in exploring these green byways. What I did discover was a rich history of place and people that I’d never have been interested in if I’d been hurtling down the highway to get from A to B. The irony is that getting to and from the boat hire marina involved quite a lot of motorway travel; without the M roads, I’d have had to set out hours earlier to reach the marina and, after the holiday, to have put up with a very late arrival home. I suppose we’re spoilt, in having the ability to suit ourselves as occasion demands. Why have I started humming ‘Like a rolling stone’? 😉
Oh Christina, you certainly know how to push my buttons. I LOVED this post. These are exactly the types of canals Koos and I savour…that secret world beneath and alongside and even sometimes above the thundering modern highways. Just gorgeous. The different levels of transport are fascinating; the architectural and juxtapositions are a form of art, and isn’t it wonderful to sneak your way through it all feeling no one can see or even be aware you are there. Wonderful! Thank you again!
Dare I say it? We prefer the industrial canals to the rural, which can be very monotonous at times. I know that you would like to barge through France, but we sat by the aqueduct in Moissac once, just next to the lock, to watch the eclusiere deliver the boats (no self-service!) and send them on their way, which was interesting enough, but lacked the fun of doing locks ourselves; not only that, as we watched the boats disappear into infinity between the lines of towpath trees, we decided that we wouldn’t hire there. Even with beautiful weather and food and wine, we’d have spent hour after remorseless hour chugging along the same scene. I’m sure there must be some interest, of course, in some particular locations, but the French canals seem like Telford gone mad. Narrowboating in the UK is our preference, anyway, and especially the canals with industrial heritage. That’s why we enjoyed Oude Haven so much – access to the Maas and the incredible variety of scene and activity. No prejudice here, then! 😉 Thank you very much for your enthusiastic response and for spreading this post on FB and Twitter. 🙂
Koos would agree with you completely, Christain. Me, I like both the miles of tranquillity and the industry. The peace of an empty canal is akin to the peace of a desert, something else I love 🙂
Believe me, I understand!
This is amazing. The things we miss just beneath our wheels! Fabulous photos, too.
Once you know what’s there, it’s like having been entrusted with a secret; oops, now I’ve blown it! You’re right, Jenny: it’s amazing. 🙂