Friday 22 June

Before we left the museum arm we topped up with water and then headed right for Birmingham along the Wolverhampton Level.

This was our first journey along the entire length of this stretch of canal as before we’ve only joined it from the Gower Branch before heading West.

The water was crystal clear for the first few miles and it was wonderful to see fish of different sizes swimming amongst the plants.  However, as we got closer to Birmingham the water got cloudier until eventually it was impossible to see below the water.

The M5 was built over the canal and towers over the water on huge pillars.  It’s probably just as well that the motorists above don’t appreciate how much scaffolding is holding it up underneath at the moment.

It appears that the motorway is suffering from concrete cancer i.e. where the steel reinforcement rusts causing the concrete face to blow off.

Once clear of the motorway we came first to Smethick Pump House  that sits between the Birmingham and Wolverhampton Levels.   We visited the pump house a few years ago when it was open to the public for a day.  After that we came to Smethick Locks.

At the locks we noticed that the pound between the first and second lock was extremely how. In fact there was insufficient water for us to float over the bottom cill of the first lock and I had to let a lot of water through to refill the pound so that Blackbird could reach the second lock.

After that we passed through the other two locks without incident.

Our friends Pip and Mick, on NB Oleanna, had been in touch last night to say that they’d reached Birmingham.  Last night moorings were full but today there was plenty of space and we up right behind them.   It was nice to be greeted first by a cheery wave and then with hugs and kisses.

Andy and Mandy arrived about half an hour after us and they moored opposite.

We’re planning a meal out together this evening so we can have a good chat without six adults squeezing into the cozy confines of a narrowboat.

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Thursday 21 June

A good undisturbed night’s sleep was had by all.

The longest day and the sun is shining.

We’d planned to visit the Black Country Museum; we’d visited before in 2010 and had thoroughly enjoyed it then and we were looking forward to another fun day today.

One of the boats from the museum’s arm came past us at 8am.  We decided to head in as we needed to fill with water at the facilities block there. We passed another boat leaving as we were heading in so by the time we’d filled with water there was sufficient room for both boats.

There was a bit of a breeze so we winded with me ashore hanging on to the bow rope while Storm powered the boat round and then at the mid-point I pulled on the rope to assist with the turn.  It saves a lot of engine revving when its windy.   Who needs bow thrusters?!

Andy & Mandy soon joined us and we headed into the museum shortly after it opened.  It might be the longest day today but the hours passed very quickly and we left the museum just as it was closing having had a wonderful and informative day.

The Trap Maker

The Chain Maker

The volunteers, all dressed in period costume, are  happy to  share their fascinating experiences and stories about the lives and times of the people who once lived and worked in the workshops and houses on the site.

We had the obligatory fish and chips for lunch which are the best we’ve tasted and they were even able to provide a gluten free batter for Mandy.  Excellent value for money and a brilliant day out.    We’ve got tickets that allow us to visit again within 12 months.  I just wish we lived a bit nearer because I’m not sure another visit would enable us to see all the sights and take in all the information available as it is such a vast place.  We went down the coal mine this time too.

Wednesday 20 June

The ambitious target destination for today was The Black Country Museum at Dudley (13 miles and 21 locks).

We headed off earlier than our friends, Andy & Mandy, and enjoyed a leisurely cruise to the end of the Shroppie in sunshine.  After that we turned towards Stourport and then towards Wolverhampton.  We arrived at the bottom of the 21 locks  five minutes too late as we ended up following a boat up and had we been earlier it would have saved us having to empty every lock except one as we only passed one boat coming down the flight.

 

One boat down!

Top Lock, Wolverhampton

Storm volunteered to do the locks this morning.  Fine by me.  We’d cleared the locks by 1pm and while Storm had a cold drink and a rest I went off with windlass and vandal key in hand back down the locks to help Andy and Mandy who were still working their way up the flight.

Andy

Mandy

They were in a queue of four boats coming up the locks and it required us to think a bit more about water conservation to ensure that there was sufficient water in the pounds between locks to make sure everyone remained afloat as some of these were looking quite low.

Once both boats were through we motored on in convoy towards Dudley.  We thought we’d picked up something round our prop as we seemed to be needing extra revs to make headway.  However, Andy was complaining about the same thing and he decided that it was due to the canal being deeper than we were used to and there being a bit of a flow on the canal.  Our prop was clear and so was theirs.

We finally made it to Dudley but were warned off going into the arm near the museum because there were a lot of boats there so we moored up just outside beside a small park with a statue of William Parry, The Tipton Slasher.  Had we made the right choice to moor here?

In the evening we set off on foot to find the basin and investigate how likely it would be to get into the arm in the morning.  We made a note of the boats moored and planned to watch out in the morning to see if any came passed us.

Tuesday 19 June

At 5am this morning sleep evaded us and having tried for an hour to fall back to sleep we relented and had a cuppa in bed before getting up.

We needed to fill up our water tank and so pulled the boat forward to the tap long before anyone else was about.  The pressure was poor and after 3/4 hr we gave up and decided we would manage with whatever water we had.  In the intervening time we’d had a bowl of porridge and another cuppa and were ready for the off.

We also need diesel.  Bretton Wharf didn’t open until 9.30am and we didn’t really want to wait around that long.  Having dipped the tank we reckoned that we had enough fuel to get to Norbury Junction but that we would be pushing it to get to the cheaper diesel at Wheaton Ashton.  We decided that if the diesel at Norbury was extortionate, we would just get a few litres there and then fill up later with cheaper fuel.  Norbury however were quite reasonable and so we filled up there and also treated ourselves to a new ash boat pole as our old pine pole broke recently, thankfully not causing any damage to man as it collapsed.

21 miles and 6 locks to Brewood was our target destination today where we planned to catch up with friends, Andy and Mandy, who left our mooring last week and who’d been enjoying a leisurely cruise towards Birmingham.  Had our car not let us down last week we’d been planning to travel in tandem with them for two weeks but now we’re going to spend the rest of this week with them before we each go our separate ways.

Tyrley Wharf

At Tyrley Locks we saw our first CRT volunteers of this trip and they helped us up through the flight of five locks in record time.    A couple of locks here have very strong by-washes that make entering the lock without making contact with the lock walls almost impossible, because they force the boat off course just as you’ve lined it up perfectly for the lock.  Added to that there is a ledge under the water close to the tow path edge that you need to avoid getting caught on.  A bit of a nightmare for the inexperienced.

After the locks we entered the very narrow and overgrown Woodeaves Cutting; this time we had an uneventful trip through as last time we had to cut our way out after a tree fell across the canal.

From here we had a 17 mile lock free pound to travel along, interrupted only by several miles of moored boats that we had to pass at tickover.

The Shroppie is a very picturesque canal with views over Shropshire to the Wrekin and some beautiful canal bridges, wharfs, towns and villages along the way.

A changeover bridge – needed when horse needed to change to the tow path on the other side

The Wrekin

We reached Brewood at 6pm and after a bite to eat we joined Andy and Mandy in the Bridge Inn and had a lovely evening hearing about their foraging exploits and admiring the fascinating photographs of the insects and beetles they’d discovered among the grasses of the towpath.

Monday 18 June

We were awake early and although we didn’t have far to travel this morning, we decided to head off rather than have a lie in.  This canal is busier than we’ve seen it before and this may be due to the Middlewich Branch breach which means that boaters are having to travel up and down this canal rather than being to do the four counties ring or it may just be that we’re used to cruising this canal in the colder months.

Today we were heading for Market Drayton to meet friends for lunch.  Seven locks and five miles ahead of us.  To calculate roughly how long this should take, we add the number of miles to the number of locks and divide by 4 which gives us the estimated hours.    Three hours maximum!

Storm pulled some muscles in his back recently and although he’s much improved, he knew he’d done the 13 narrow locks yesterday and so I offered to do the locks this morning while he steered.

In the past I’ve been quite happy to jump across the gates of narrow locks but recently I’ve lost my nerve and so I’ve taken to walking round which means operating the locks takes a few seconds longer.

Unfortunately we were out too early to be able to shop at the cake stall at Audlem Top Lock or at the meat shop at Adderley Top Lock as the shelves hadn’t yet been restocked.

At one of the locks today there was a boat moored on the lock landing in a short pound above one of the locks and the lock was set ready for that boat to come down the lock as the gate was open and one of the ground paddles was raised, but there was no sign of anyone.   I checked the boat and the only body aboard was the cat.   I looked around and couldn’t see anyone so I closed the gate and lowered the paddle and emptied the lock full of water.

Just as we were leaving the lock, a guy appeared on the tow path and apologised for mooring in the pound.  He explained that he’d intended to use the lock but had then moored and gone back to assist his mate on the boat behind.   I was just relieved to see him as it is unusual to see a boat moored in such a place with no-one around and I’d been mindful that single handers sometimes encounter difficulties.

Anyway we continued on our way.  Once clear of the locks our progress along the canal was interrupted by moored boats enjoying the open countryside. who were leaving gaps of about 200 metres between boats.

Our friends Pip and Mick have adopted the term ‘gitgaps’ to describe the annoying gaps between boats at designated moorings where people refuse to share mooring rings with the boat in front.   Had they done so it would mean that there would be room for another boat to moor.

The 200m gaps today were too big to be ‘gitgaps’ but they were annoying and certainly ‘tickover teasers’.   We arrived into Market Drayton in good time though and well within the estimated three hours allowed.  With spare time available we decided to scrub the roof of the boat which was badly needed after months of neglect.

We got changed afterwards before heading out to meet up with our friends Nikki and Sarah who were coming to pick us up and take us to the Red Lion Inn in the town.  Since we explored Market Drayton previously this pub has undergone major refurbishment and a new building has been erected to house the Joules Brewery which has moved from Stone near Stoke on Trent to its new home here.

Nikki’s Mum had recommended that we try the Red Lion and we can certainly recommend it for its food in particular.  The portions were very generous, the food tasty and reasonably priced, although Storm noticed that they had run out of plates!

We had a great time catching up on each others news.  Nikki and Sarah are now living permanently in Shropshire having previously lived a nomadic life working as stage managers and it was nice to see them enjoying a very different pace of life and looking forward to their next adventure in their new home.

Having eaten too much, the thought of continuing our journey this afternoon was forgotten, and so we returned to the boat to set up the TV ready for the England v Tunisia World Cup match and to rest our eye lids which suddenly seemed quite heavy!

Sunday, 17 June

Whoop, whoop – we’re back on board!

This is our first cruise this year, other than to the winding hole.  However, this may be our last cruise as we’ve put the boat up for sale.  www.apolloduck.net/569368.   This isn’t a decision we’ve taking lightly though as we’ve absolutely loved our time on the water.

We should have begun this cruise last Monday but our plans went awry when we had a problem with our car that took two weeks to fix.

Anyway, it feels really good to be back on board.  Everything familiar and where it should be!

We’re heading for London ultimately, providing we don’t encounter any set backs.  Our journey will be interrupted from time to time with other commitments but I’m sure we’ll get there and back this year (unless someone buys the boat en route).

Last night we invited our friend and mooring neighbour, John to join us for a meal on board to say a huge ‘thank you’ to him for looking after our boat while we’ve been away.  After a fun and entertaining evening we had an early night and this morning we rose early to try to make up for lost time.

We were away by 7.30 am and crept out quietly passed our 160 neighbours before opening up the throttle a bit to head south and out beyond Barbridge, Nantwich and Audlem.

Toll Booth

Nantwich Aqueduct

Lock Keeper’s Cottage, Audlem

1 of 15 locks of the Audlem Flight

We’ve travelled this route along the Shropshire Union many times and have become familiar with the sights.  Today we’ve covered 20 miles and climbed up through 21 locks, mooring for the night just after Bagley Lane Bridge.     We haven’t broken any records or speed limits and have passed all moored boats at tickover.  Not a bad first day though.

The Canal River Trust’s new logo is very much in evidence but I wish someone would explain to me how changing a logo is going to better inform the nation’s public about the extensive network of waterways and the facilities available if they’re not yet aware of the canal system.   I read that changing the logo has no cost implications  but it must have.   I look forward to being educated!

Tuesday 19 September

There was mist rising from the canal when we woke this morning and there was a chill in the air, but the sky was blue and by mid morning the sun was out and we were very warm.  The forecast for the rest of the day was good too.

We’d decided that from now on we would try to cover as many miles as possible and that at some point today we would be saying cheerio to Pip, Mick and Tillly with whom we’ve enjoyed six weeks of fun exploring the Lancaster Canal, with plenty of wine, beer and chilled medication along the way.

Both boats left the outskirts of Burscough once Mick had returned from the shop with milk for us and a few other items for them.  I walked Max to the first of today’s swing bridges.  The bridge opened automatically when the key of power was inserted into the console, but I had to manually close the barriers at each end once the console lights blinked at me.

Having waved both boats through I closed the bridge and reopened the barriers, retrieved my key and climbed back on board.   We passed through Parbold ignoring the chilled medication cafe, as it was too early, and instead carried on to Appley Bridge lock.

Here Pip said that this was going to be our last shared lock together as they’d decided to moor just the other side of Appley Bridge and before Dean Lock.   We said our goodbyes and promised that we would stay in touch and share other journeys together in the future.

Cheerio … almost

We pulled away from the lock first and waved to them as we headed out of sight.  However, they’d forgotten that there was another swing bridge before their desired mooring and so we waved them through Finch Mill pedestrian swing bridge that has a key of a power to undo the break on the bridge but after that it requires muscle to push it open and then pull it closed.

After that we followed behind them for a little while but then they pulled in in open countryside and we slowed down as we passed to say another ‘goodbye’ before we headed off towards Dean Lock at Gathurst where the M6 towers overhead.

Dean Locks

M6 towering over Dean Locks

With just one boat in the lock, I only opened one gate and one paddle at the next three locks so filling the locks took slightly longer.

We passed the Crooke Hall Inn pub from where this cruise began six weeks ago and on through Ell Meadow Lock.

 

 

As we pulled up at Pagefield Lock a boat was just about to pull away and the skipper came back to ask which way we were heading after Wigan.

Wigan Pier

When I said we were heading for Leigh, he asked if we’d like him to wait for us.  “Yes please”, and so we shared the last four locks of the day.

The excitement wasn’t over though.  At Henhurst Lock we had to wait for two boats to lock out and as they did, one of the skippers was frantically looking around.  I tried to see what he was looking for and then I noticed a large greyhound cowering under the road bridge below the lock.  The bridge is fenced off from the road and lock side to discourage rough sleepers finding their way under the bridge. The only way to reach the dog was to climb across the railings from the canal and risk falling in but you couldn’t rescue the dog that way.  The only way to rescue it was by boat.   The guy could have taken his boat back down the lock but we offered to help instead.  With Max inside ours and the doors closed, we headed under the bridge and the dog’s owner, climbed across the railings.  Thankfully he didn’t fall in.  He lifted his dog onto our front deck and stood with him while we entered and rose up in the lock.  That was our good deed for the day and I think they were both relieved and very grateful.

We continued on our way.  We’d planned to try to reach Plank Lane Lift Bridge at least today.

Looking back at Plank Lane Lift Bridge

They operate restrictions here at rush hour and as we pulled up it was 5.15pm and we weren’t allowed to open the bridge until 6pm.   We had a cup  of tea, laid the fire and prepared dinner.   As Radio 4 sounded the 6pm pips, I turned the key of power in the console, stopping traffic in both directions.  By now there were four boats heading for Leigh and by the time we’d all passed under the bridge there were long lines of traffic stretching away into the distance.  Thankfully no-one tooted or appeared irate this time.  A lot of boaters get grief here.

The Plank Lane Rush Hour Four

We’d decided to carry on until dusk and, having passed through Leigh, we finally stopped near the mining museum at Astley Green having done about 20 miles, eight locks and 3 bridges.

Failing Light

For the next two or three days we’re going to be getting up early and travelling late to get back to our permanent mooring.   Then once we’ve checked in with the grandchildren for a couple of days we’re heading back home to Yorkshire.   This isn’t the end of our canal journey but it is the end of our continual cruising and living aboard and this will be our last blog posting for a while.  If you’d like to journey with us in the future, then please feel free to ‘follow’ and you’ll receive an email the next time we write about our travels.  We hope you’ve enjoyed Blackbird’s story so far and thank you for your interest.