On Board
Narrowboat "FRILFORD"
(British Waterways No. 500645)

 

Chapter 29 – Long Days Skirting Birmingham

I was longer in Ellesmere early in 2006 than I had meant. British Waterways’ stoppage programme had had a lock closed until March but what really held me up was that I was doing a bit of property dealing. I managed to find a buyer for my one-bed flat in Henley on Thames and did a private deal with a friend of mine to purchase her two-bed flat in Henley which already was let to a hotel chain in town by the same company and person, my friend Christina, who managed the flat I’d just sold. Property deals never go as quickly as one wants, but actually the sale went well and the purchase was proceeding smoothly but would be a few weeks away yet, so by the second week in April I was ready to get going.

John and Elizabeth, my American friends of Llangollen Canal fame, together with the wonderful Wes and Sharon, were due to journey into Birmingham for a curry. John had had a Balti curry at some stage in the UK and enjoyed it. He knew Birmingham was a centre for Balti and, using the Internet, had already identified a curry house somewhere a bit off the beaten track in Birmingham to which he wished us all to go. He and Elizabeth were renting a boat from near Atherstone, Wes and Sharon had their boat in the area and they were all looking to me to join them for the trip.

Thus as I left Blackwater Meadow Marina at Ellesmere at 1115 hrs on 13th April I had a mission. I like a mission. It is good to float about on The Cut with no particular purpose, but I have come to realise that, as well as that, I enjoy having a purpose: I enjoy the getting from A to B and seeing progress along the way. Not for me the stopping for breakfast, pausing for a coffee mid morning, a spot of lunch somewhere (perhaps at that pub just round the corner), a cup of tea and a biscuit mid-afternoon, then a stop early evening for sundowners before preparing a leisurely dinner. Oh, I can do that, and do when I am with others, or a version of it anyway, but when I am on my own I keep going, and enjoy the progress made when I look at it when I do eventually stop in the evening.

I made a modest start on that day. The weather was poor, overcast and blowing somewhat, and I had only got as far as Ellesmere Tunnel before I had to pull over whilst two other boats got in a bit of a tangle at either end, but thereafter the steady rhythm of my navigating what by now were familiar waters set in. I worked the various lift bridges on my own and by mid-afternoon was at the staircase locks at Grindley Brook. “See you later,” called the lockkeeper, for whom FRILFORD had become a reasonably familiar sight. “Not for some time,” I called back, “I’m off to Birmingham for a curry then we’ll have to see after that…!”

Povey’s Lock, Willymoor Lock, Quoisley Lock and Marbury Lock followed in good order, although the gusty conditions made boat handling a bit tricky. I helped a singlehander lock up through Quoisley Lock before I went down. “Tricky conditions…” we agreed, “you going far?” “Birmingham for a curry then we’ll see…” I replied again. “Long way for a curry,” he commented; “still you need a reason to go into Birmingham; I’ve only done it the once: that’ll do me” he went on, slightly darkly.

By 1830 hrs I was tied up on the line a mile or so from the Wrenbury Lift Bridge. I pulled the engine stop plunger on my engine and nothing happened. I pulled again and this time a foot of cable followed it out of its housing. The engine continued to tick over. I opened the engine hatch and looked in. There were a couple of washers and a nut and bolt in the bilge. I recovered them, stopped the engine by hand and was about to effect a repair when my leg rubbed against the hot engine. “Tomorrow morning,” I thought, “I fix that tomorrow morning.”

I’m no mechanic but I’m not a complete fool either. Plunging my head down into the cool engine bay of the next morning I could see a rod and a sort of pulley thing and a couple of holes that looked like they could take the nut, bolt and washers. Needless to say one really wanted three hands to make the repair which I only achieved after having dropped the various bits into the bilge a couple of times. However I did get it back together and it worked rather well. A small achievement, but an achievement none the less, and I set off that morning with a slight spring in my helming (if one can have such a thing).

Somebody was on hand to work Wrenbury Lift Bridge, which was good. It is an electro-hydraulic ‘stopping traffic’ type bridge. Only a small one but that otherwise-deserted country lane seems to fill with cars every time someone opens the bridge.

At Badderley Locks I helped a singlehander called Jane to lock down and it was later, at Swanley Locks that I encountered the ‘there’s-another-singlehander-in-front-of-you-I-had-to-help-her-too’ woman (“Thanks for your help, Madam [grumpy Old Cow!]”). At Hurleston Locks, a little further on, I chatted with Linda, the British Waterways lockkeeper there. She does not really know me but she knows my friends Bruce and Eve so I was known by association. I managed to make a bit of a hash of locking down Hurleston (the locks are a bit tricky being very narrow and trapping one or two ‘fat’ boats, and the pounds take a bit of doing too). Anyway I slipped Linda a bottle of red wine to thank her for her help, which she seemed pleased to accept.

At 1240 hrs I found myself out of the Hurleston Bottom Lock, out onto the Shropshire Union Canal Main Line (the “Shroppie”) and turning south towards Birmingham. This was new water for me. I had been at Hurleston Bottom Lock before, with my cousin Christopher, at 1140 hrs on 11th September the previous year (as noted in Logbook 2!) but we had come from the north and turned into the Llangollen Canal. For the first time in seven months, almost to the day, I was off the Llangollen Canal. I’ve never been under house arrest but at that moment I think I felt a bit like being released from some sort of incarceration. No disrespect to the Llangollen Canal; it had given me some very good times and some safe moorings, and I would be back, but for now I was off..!

I passed through Nantwich at around lunchtime and was at the bottom of the two Hatch Green Locks by 1400 hrs. There were boats everywhere. As I arrived a very attractive woman singlehander was manoevering a good looking boat round milling hire boats and making her way up The Cut. Our eyes met and we exchanged muted but maybe-conspiratorial greetings. There’s something about being a singlehander which couples and families do not understand. I don’t expect them to.

There was a delay. A hotel boat with hotel butty (engineless barge) in tow was making its way down the locks. Only one boat could get in the locks at a time, so the engine unit went first, then waited at the bottom of the lock whilst the crew, and one or two of the hotel guests it seemed, manhandled the butty through the short pound from the previous lock and into the next lock. All this took time but it was quite interesting watching the whole procedure unfold and there were a number of us off the various boats waiting to go through the locks to lend a hand etc. However, the whole thing was ruined by the attitude of the man handling the engine unit. I suppose he was the owner of the set-up, I don’t know. What I do know is that he completely ignored those of us around and made no effort whatsoever to comment (comment only, no-one was looking for an apology for there was nothing to apologise for) on the amount of time it was taking or the palaver involved in getting the two parts of his hotel down through the locks. When they eventually departed, with said man still looking straight ahead in denial, one of the female crew half-smiled and mouthed a ‘thank you’ at me as I lined FRILFORD up to enter the now-vacated bottom lock. I think she’d already had a long day and it was to get a lot longer yet.

The main feature of the ‘Shroppie’ at this point are the Audlem Locks. There are fifteen of them and carry the canal some 90 feet from the dairylands of southern Cheshire to long wooded cuts (one haunted apparently) on the journey to Market Drayton, Norbury Junction and beyond. “Over two hours of energetic navigating…” is how Nicholson’s describes Audlem Locks. That’s right! They are not difficult, except for Lock 12 under the bridge where the bywash comes round the side of the lock in a foaming torrent and one’s boat slams into the large log let into the lock approach wall for that very purpose, but there were not many people around that day and I did most of them on my own. It was a somewhat weary fellow, me, who eventually tied FRILFORD at the top of the flight on a very attractive wooded mooring at 1830 hrs that evening. The flight had taken me some three hours – or nearly half way across the Atlantic (what?!)

The next day was Easter Saturday and I wanted to get somewhere where I could get to church on Easter Sunday. I am not a bible-thumping Christian but I do have a comfortable relationship with God and I wanted to take Holy Communion at Easter. For various reasonably good reasons I had not been to church at all over Christmas (a first, I think) and it is important to get one’s card ‘punched’ on the big occasions if one wants to stay in the fraternity, as it were. I spotted Church Eaton, a village a mile or so to the east of the Shroppie, with a church, St. Editha’s, which is mentioned in Nicholson’s for its Norman structure and its fine east window, by bridge 25. That was ten locks and twenty miles away from my present position. I could make that.

And make it I did. I got away from the top of Audlem by 0950 hrs was through the five locks at Adderley by 1100 hrs, through five Tyrley Locks by 1310 hrs, past the old Cadbury factory at 1500 hrs, through Norbury Junction at 1625 hrs, through the Cowley Tunnel at Gnosall sometime after that (not recorded in my logbook for some reason) and tied up by bridge 25, near Church Eaton, by 1820 hrs. It had been a good day!

Having secured FRILFORD I walked the mile or so into the village of Church Eaton. I was still wearing my canal gear. Not scruffy, but a bit shabby and a bit muddy, as one would expect working locks and conning FRILFORD singlehanded. One or two of the locals gave me some suspicious looks, especially when I appeared to be casing the joint that was the church. I was, but not to nick the silver or the lead off the roof! Walking back from the village a couple rather pointedly walked their dogs behind me, apparently following me back to the canal for I’d no sooner walked through the wicket gate leading to the towpath than I noticed they turned and walked back towards the village.

The next day, showered, shaved, in jacket and tie and with polished shoes, I walked back into the village. I was made very welcome at the church and, post-communion, stayed behind with some of the congregation for coffee and a biscuit. I had to smile; there was the couple who ‘walked me out of town’ the previous evening. I was asked by people who I was and where I’d come from and I told a bit of my story and that I was on a narrowboat now moored at bridge 25. “I walked in last evening to check the time of the service today,” I told them, “I think you followed me out of the village when walking your dogs,” I suggested to that couple. “Good Lord,” they laughed, “was that you…?” “Yes,” I replied, “I scrubbed up a bit to come here today!” Everyone was most kind and hoped that I’d return there one day. I did – on 15th October on my way back to Ellesmere and, again, I was made most welcome. I think I’ll go there again sometime.

On the way back from church and dodging around the terrible mobile phone signal in the area I managed to have a snatched conversation with John and Elizabeth. They were in the UK and about to get on their hire boat. They were to meet Wes and Sharon at the bottom of the Atherstone Flight, by bridge 48, on the afternoon of 18th April. Today, Easter Sunday, was the 16th April. I didn’t know quite how far away bridge 48 at the bottom of Atherstone Flight was, but I knew it was a long way. And which way to go? Up the Wolverhampton Flight (21 locks), through the middle of Birmingham and out the other side, or north on the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, round the top and down the other side on the Trent and Mersey and Coventry Canals?

I changed out of my church garb and got away from my Church Eaton by about 1230 hrs. I was through Wheaton Aston Lock an hour or so later and on the British Waterways water point before Autherley Junction a bit after 1600 hrs. I was into the Autherley Stop Lock, with its six inches of rise!, at 1630 hrs and was out onto the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal at Autherley Junction by 1640 hrs. Then, and only then, I decided to go north. I’m glad I did.

The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal winds its way around Wolverhampton and through some surprisingly attractive countryside. I was making for a mooring at the top of the Gailey Locks, about eight miles ahead of me. My logbook records very little but I remember passing through a very narrow wooded cutting, passing under the M54 motorway, past a highly aromatic sewerage farm, round some meanders, past the Hatherton Branch and on round a few more bends to the moorings above Gailey. I wanted to watch something on TV that night. It is not like me to plan to watch something on TV but that night I wanted to. I needed a spot clear of trees so my dish could see the satellite. I got there too late. There was a good break in the trees opposite part of the moorings but the two boats already there had their dishes trained through the gap and there was no room for me. I moored elsewhere, under the trees. The programme was something to do with the Queen and Andrew Marr (more likely Andrew Marr about the Queen, but there we are…!), but I did not watch it. I planned the next day instead.

The next day was to be a bit of a push. Through the various locks, twelve of them, between me and Great Hayward Junction on the Trent and Mersey Canal, then on, if possible, through Rugeley and a couple of locks to Fradley Junction. From there I’d go on to the Coventry Canal, and an eventual rendezvous with John, Elizabeth, Wes and Sharon (the JEWS – no they are not Jewish as far as I know: that just happens to be the acronym of their names!) the following day.

The next day I got there. I decided on an early start so was moving and at Gailey Top Lock by 0800 hrs. Thereafter came Brick Kiln Lock, Boggs Lock, Rodbaston Lock, Otherton Lock, Filance Lock, Penkridge Lock, Longford Lock, Paul Gate Lock, Shutt Hill Lock and Deptmore Lock. Some time after Deptmore Lock I found myself behind a very slow moving boat indeed. I don’t mind this, of course, we’ve all got the same right to be there, and when I say slow I mean a boat doing 2 mph as opposed to about 3.5 mph. The difference is nothing really. Except that, somehow, it is, when one is on The Cut. I started to get a bit peeved, not because of the speed but because the couple on board looked behind several times and saw me there. I’d come up behind them earlier when they’d pulled away from the bank after what was probably the sort of coffee break that ‘normal’ boaters have. They could have let me though. They could have acknowledged my being there. As it was I came to the conclusion FRILFORD and I were made of glass and it was not their fault that they could not see me.

Eventually we got to Tixall Lock, the last one before the lovely Tixall Wide and Great Hayward Junction. It took them an age to get through the lock. I helped them and they smiled a bit but I still got the impression that I was indeed nothing more than an impression. Was I really there? A really helpful couple of lads who were working on a narrowboat shell nearby helped my lock through Tixell Lock. “On your own? Jump on – we’ll do this for you. Could use a few minutes break…” There are all sorts on The Cut and one takes the rough with the smooth, the bland with the special. Thanks chaps…!

Tixall Wide is more of a lake than a bit of canal and is flanked by many moorers. One has to respect moored boats and not pass them too quickly, but with lake-like water sliding beneath her and around her prop, it was moment before FRILFORD, with no change to throttle settings, moved from 3 mph to 6 mph! I throttled back so as not to disturb the families and couples in their ‘normal’ sedentary boating. There was much lunching and picnicking going on, despite the weather.

Great Hayward Junction! I’d been here before, at 1445 hrs on 28th May 2005, in fact. Then I was pushing north, for Stone, Stoke on Trent, the Macclesfield Canal and so on. This time I was pushing south, through Rugeley.

I don’t know what it is about Rugeley and its environs but I remember being depressed by it all when going north the previous May. This day I got depressed about it all over again. The weather didn’t help. It had been raining on and off all day, with glimpses of clear sky enough to make one think that the later day would be better. Not where Rugeley was concerned and the rain came down steadily. Not in some powerful torrent which makes one say “wow” and about which one can tell tall stories later on. This stuff was just unremitting drizzle and no part of me remained dry.

To salve the Rugeley experience this is a section of canal without locks so one can make good progress and seek fairer parts. For there are much fairer parts to the east of Rugeley. Armitage and Handsacre give way to delightful open countryside as the canal wends its way towards Frankton Junction. I pushed on through the wet, thinking that I was alone out there. However, a couple on a boat that had been moored and I had passed earlier on were still following me some way back. As I got to the last lock I was planning to do that night, Woodend Lock to the west of Fradley Junction, they came up behind me and helped me through. We all agreed that we must be mad navigating on a day like this and it turned out that, like me, they were on a bit of a mission to get their boat, for it was their boat, to some place on the Coventry Canal in no time soon. I told them what I was doing and we all laughed. “Not exactly the spirit of The Cut is it…” we all agreed, but then, to a certain extent it is, actually. The Cut was created to move good from A to B in a timely manner and with as little delay as possible and those who lived and worked on the Painted Boats of The Cut did just that, and only that. They moved from A to B as efficiently as possible. Just as we were doing.

I wrote up my logbook that night. It had been a long day. 25.7 miles over 10 hours and 47 minutes under way passing through 15 locks! Through pretty foul weather to boot… Madness in canal holiday terms, but not bad in passage-making terms. I did not consider that I was on holiday. Quite what I was on I am not sure, but not on holiday.

The next day I was through Shade House Lock and Middle Lock (boats coming the other way helped) and onto the Coventry Canal by just before 0900 hrs. I gave the Swan pub (the ‘Mucky Duck’), famous along the entire length of The Cut and reputed to be one of the most photographed pubs in Britain, hardly a glance. I’d hardly given it a glance when I passed it the first time at 1600 hrs on 27th May ’05. Things would be different if I were with the love of my life. We’d drift along, taking coffee, lunch and drinks breaks, getting up late, finishing early and sometimes giving ourselves up to the pleasures of Swan-like pubs with no thoughts of being somewhere else, but I was on my own and on my way to meet the JEWS. I was on a mission.

The Coventry Canal is a long sweep south-east with but two locks at Tamworth before my rendezvous point with John, Elizabeth, Wes and Sharon at Bradley Green Bridge (bridge 48). My logbook shows the weather as being very windy but otherwise not too bad. I remember it differently and my memories are backed up by the pages of my Nicholson Guide which are, despite my best efforts to dry them carefully, crinkled and stuck together. It rained again. Not all the time but enough to wet me through all over again. I have great wet weather gear on board – my Musto Heavy Weather kit from the British Steel Challenge Round the World Yacht Race of 1992-93. I resist getting into it, however, as it is cumbersome when working locks. I wore it that day but shunned the leggings, so all the water poured off the jacket and soaked my trousers and boots. Ah well.

By mid afternoon I was getting a bit fed up with it all, so it was fortunate that I got to where I was going soon thereafter. By 1545 hrs I had ‘winded’ FRILFORD in the winding hole next to Bradley Green Bridge (48) at the bottom of the Atherstone Flight and was tied up on the line waiting for John, Elizabeth, Wes and Sharon.

I only had an hour to wait. A familiar double act, John dressed in black at the helm and Elizabeth in yellow ochre overcoat and black rain hat at his side, as always, standing at the stern of 60-odd foot of very nice hire boat, appeared under the bridge at about 1645 hrs. Wes and Sharon were a bit delayed but by 1900 hrs they had their boat Simba Dada together with FRILFORD and the Boland hire boat. It was a happy reunion and drinks, food and tall stories ensued.

119.9 miles and 66 locks, in 49 hours 12 minutes time underway, over five and a half days, is what it had taken me to get there. No-one could quite believe it. I could hardly believe it myself. At one level it had been crazy, but we all seemed more than pleased to see each other and were looking forward to our trip into Birmingham for the Balti curry that John so wanted, so it was all worth it.

The next day we set off for the big city!