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
I’ve been planning several posts about my recent narrowboat holiday, but have been struggling to find the time to write them! Today, I’m determined to start, not only because that whole week provided some wonderful experiences that I’d like to share, but also because I want to celebrate a brief meeting with an extraordinary volunteer.
The background circumstances of our meeting were inauspicious, but it might never have taken place without them. It was a baking hot Thursday afternoon and our boat (endearingly named ‘Short-toed Eagle’) was approaching Birmingham City Centre, gradually being steered by my husband up the thirteen Farmer’s Bridge Locks, the final steep (eighty feet) flight into the city’s heart, while I manipulated the lock-gates; not far into the flight, we heard an explosive argument taking place, just out of sight, on the towpath. I should explain that this particular section of the BCN (Birmingham Canal Navigations) is a very public place to be negotiating locks, as office and shop workers take their lunches here and joggers, cyclists and families compete for space on the restored towpath. We were accompanied some of the way by a group of locals on bikes, who watched the whole process of ‘locking up’ several times over, but didn’t volunteer (sadly, for moving the gates is a hard job on a hot day!) to help!
This lock flight, as I hope you can see from the photographs, is an astonishing blend of old and new, for it passes through (and under!) the commercial centre of Birmingham.
Anyway, back to the ‘tiff’: The vocabulary of the two participants was ferocious but limited. ‘**** you!’ bellowed one. ‘**** off!’ screamed the other. After a few minutes, a couple in their early twenties strode into view: she, tanned with dark hair, wearing a short but chic black dress accompanied by stiletto heels; he, less surprisingly, perhaps, sporting a baggy T-shirt, jeans and baseball cap. The tirade continued. Sixteen or so rounds of expletives were spat back and forth with very little sub-text, ricocheting off the walls of the tall buildings around the canal. Eventually it became clear that he wanted to borrow her mobile phone to get a score from his dealer and she wasn’t having it (although she actually seemed higher on something than he was).
Their mood was volatile, so I thought it best to be discreet; as they passed me, I focused on trying to shift the paddles on my lock-gate, the ratchets of which were ancient and troublesome. As I was leaning my full weight on my windlass, I became aware of a man standing beside me. I looked up to see an athletic and well-preserved gentleman in his sixties. He offered to help. I saw that he was also carrying a windlass, and thought that he must have come from a boat further up.
He was very anxious to tell me that the incident that I’d just witnessed was not typical and that the towpaths were safe places. He was obviously quite proud of the local canal complex and even more of Birmingham itself. He told me that his name was Michael Payne and that since his retirement he had worked a few shifts each week as a volunteer for the Canals and Rivers Trust. I asked him if he also had a boat and he replied that he had a part-share in one, which was currently moored at Royston in Leicestershire.
Michael was a mine of information. As we worked our way up the remaining locks in the flight, he pointed out to me an offshoot of the canal that had been buried in the 1950s and rediscovered during excavations for a new office block and showed me an impressive building that had once housed a large coffee-importing business in Birmingham. This had been abandoned decades ago and opened up only recently, when the copper industrial coffee-grinding machinery had been found there, still intact. He said that all this has been restored and the building will shortly be opened as a museum dedicated to coffee. I was fascinated by this story and wondered under what circumstances a building could be left like this. Did no-one own it? Had all the owners died? Why hadn’t the machinery been sold off when it ceased trading? Perhaps the answers will come from the museum itself.
Michael’s shift was due to end, but he said that he’d carry on helping me until we reached the top of the flight. I was grateful, as all the lock mechanisms were misshapen, old and extremely unyielding. My husband, who was joining in the conversation from the narrowboat, told him that I was a crime fiction writer (not sparing my blushes!) and Michael said that he was a big Donna Leon fan. Apparently he and his wife have visited Venice several times, where they’ve joined the walking tours that are arranged to allow devotees to follow in Inspector Brunetti’s footsteps.
I thought that this was a very intriguing idea. Should I myself organise walking tours in order to introduce my readers to the Spalding (and South Lincolnshire) of DI Yates? I’m not sure, however, that it would help me to curry favour with my Fenland friends and fans who have been so hospitable and generous with their support since DI Yates was born! On the whole, I think I’d sooner organise a walking tour of the Farmer’s Bridge Flight, but I’d have to engage Michael to lead it.
If you’re reading this, Michael, may I just say that it was a great pleasure to meet you and to have the benefit of your conversation for an hour or two. We owe you a very great debt of gratitude for your skilful management of the (to me) troublesome ratchets of the Farmer’s Bridge flight. And if there ever is a DI Yates walking tour of Spalding, I shall make sure that you hear of it.
[Thanks to my husband for all the pictures, which he managed with his camera in one hand and the tiller in the other!]
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James