Journeys on the BCN

by Tony Clayton

1 - The first trip, on our way to Stratford & back. August 1973

The following narratives describe my experiences navigating the canals of the Birmingham Area during the 1970's, and in particular the BCN and Stourbridge Canals.
Early in 1973 we bought a second-hand marine-ply cabin cruiser which we named 'Linton' after the church where Hazel and I were married in the Yorkshire Dales. We moored her at Norbury Junction on the old Newport Branch, and had one trip to Chester before our main summer holiday.

STRATFORD OR BUST was the title of the film we had seen on TV, so on 16th August 1973 we set off on a new journey, trying to emulate the adventures of our heroes.

We got into this cruising lark through helping a friend move his boat 'Ethelred', an old Shropshire Union Canal Company fly-boat formerly known as 'Shroppie Fly'. Sadly since that trip his boat had suffered vandalism and sunk at the top of the Wolverhampton flight. He raised it, only for it to sink again near Autherley in an inaccessible place from which it was never recovered. We passed the wreck on our way, and it was a very sad sight.

We met only five craft on our way down the S&W to Botterham, where we found a queue of four waiting to come up, as one of the paddles on the centre gates was slipping.

We arrived at Stourton Junction late in the afternoon, and turned into the Stourbridge Canal. The most noticeable thing about the canal was its air of dereliction, the canal being narrow, shallow and weedy. However, the locks were in good order despite being covered in duckweed, and we stopped for the night upstream of them just short of the next bridge. We picked up a bucket in one of the locks - it was in good condition and proved very useful.

Next day we set off at about 9 am. The stretch of water leading up to the Stourbridge 16 was one of the most beautiful that we had seen, with traces of mist rising off the water in the early morning sun.

After the S&W the water was amazingly clear, and the Stourbridge 16 was in reasonable order, although the top gate of Lock 13 would not shut properly. However, it did not prevent us getting through - we tried to prod around to clear the obstruction without success. Above Lock 12 Hazel and the children went shopping while the owner of the off-licence kindly helped me to fill my water-carriers up. The children got new fishing nets, and after that we seemed to be incessantly recovering them from the cut.

We stopped for lunch about half a mile after the flight having passed only one other boat on the move at Lock 2. The dragonflys were numerous, and several fish were sunning themselves in an old carry-cot near the far bank.

That afternoon got very hot, so we were glad to see the back of the Delph locks, which fortunately were in good order, but above that we encountered large quantities of oil, rubbish and weed, the former appearing to come from an adjacent iron works. We had to wait for a Matty boat to get out of the way there.

At Park Head we moored above Blowers Green Lock while I wandered up to Dudley Tunnel. Two passers-by advised us that the trip to Coombeswood Basin was worthwhile, although a little weedy.

Rubbish, weed and duckweed continued to dog us until Windmill End Junction, where we decided to try to make Coombeswood Basin. The rubbish got worse, and we picked up two plastic bags in rapid succession. At one bridge we hit something with the engine, and the duckweed parted to reveal concrete blocks so filling the canal that I swear I could have got across dry-shod in wellington boots! We later learnt that 50 tons of rubbish were dredged out of that bridge-hole.

The approach to Gosty Hill tunnel looked more like a rubbish-strewn lawn than a canal, the duckweed was so thick. A large raft of weed in the narrows by the tunnel entrance could only be passed by lifting the engine and pulling the boat over.

At this stage we thought that at least weed cannot grow in tunnels. I had forgotten that it can drift in! All was well for the first two-thirds of this, our first passage of a major narrow canal tunnel. Then we met the first sleeper, and the remainder of the tunnel was almost completely choked. We had little alternative but to battle on, and after a great deal of prodding, de-weeding and plastic bag removal we got through - and we knew we had to return in the morning. The family were fairly fraught by this stage.

The next section through Coombeswood steel-works was amazing. The canal was wide and clear, and enormous numbers of narrow-boats loaded with steel were moored all along through the works.

Coombeswood Steel Works

Passing through Coombeswood Steel Works

We carried on to Hawne Basin, going as far up the line to Lapal as we could, and then moored up for the night, wondering what adventures awaited us next day.

Blocked channel of Dudley No.2 line

The end of the line - just past the entrance to Hawne Basin
Note the gerbil who came with us - we had to jam his wheel to get any sleep at night!

Next morning we set off back, getting a workman at the steelworks to sign the log, as I was aiming to get a Silver Sword. The tunnel was not so bad, as I suspect we had pushed much of the rubbish out the day before. On our way to Windmill End we picked up a number of plastic bags, a lot of weed and a length of nylon rope.

Gosty Hill Tunnel Portal

The portal of Gosty Hill Tunnel on our way back

After Gosty Hill, Netherton Tunnel seemed child's play. We met the Matty boats pumping sludge on the Main Line. Shortly after we had to divert as the Main Line was closed due to improvements at Roebuck Lane, so we turned up the Gower Branch. The locks were quite clean in that there were only a couple of pieces of wood floating around them.

Brades Hall Staircase

Linton in the lower half of the Brades Staircase

We continued along under the M5 to Smethwick Locks, meeting the first moving pleasure boat for 24 hours. They warned us of rubbish at the locks, and we were not disappointed. 3 or 4 boats came up the locks while we had lunch. After that we went down, and the engine packed up in the second lock. We towed through the third and moored for repairs. A stuck needle valve was soon sorted.

We had got rather tired of the rubbish so we avoided the loops and went straight on to Gas Street, where we were able to take on water.

That was our first experience of the BCN. We continued on to Stratford, but that is another story.

Having been down to Stratford, at a time when the Upper Avon was not yet open, we returned via Kingswood Junction turning onto the Grand Union. We had had some adventures on our journey there: John (then 2 and a bit) fell into Lock 4 on the Northern Stratford; lock 27 had no balance beam on the top gate; other locks were a pig to work due to a lack of working paddles; a strong cross-wind made life awkward on Edstone Aqueduct; Joanne fell in on the Avon, when I found I had no reverse gear; we were nearly sunk in Stratford Wide Lock by a boat called 'The Blakey'; and we had problems with flat batteries!!!

Fiona completed the trio by falling in while we were moored up above Knowle Locks - then complained that she had only gone in up to her middle!!

We met one boat between Knowle and Camp Hill locks, and I commented that it was quite a pleasant run. Camp Hill flight had very nicely balanced gates (perhaps this was after Knowle). Halfway down we met a hire boat who had moored to go shopping and had been broken into. Nothing taken but a camera had been smashed.

Garrison Locks

Linton in one of the Garrison Locks

Garrison Locks were awkwardly spaced, and in those days the Nechells Stop Lock was gated, with large GU spindles at one end and small BCN spindles at the other! I gather that it is no longer operated.

We moored for the night by Witton Turnover Bridge on the Tame Valley, with a splendid view of Spaghetti Junction. It was surprisingly quiet except for the trains on the railway nearby.

Spaghetti Junction at Night

Linton below Spaghetti Junction at night

It was Bank Holiday weekend as we headed up the Perry Barr locks. They were all for us as a narrow-boat (Minnow) had come down the evening before, and the factories were all quiet. The pound between Locks 10 and 11 was very low, and we had to retrieve a football for some players in an adjacent field. The only real problem was at Lock 1 where a metal can had jammed in the top gate.

There was a lot of debris in the canal in the cuttings towards Newton Junction, where we turned up Rushall Locks. Being Bank Holiday, there were a lot of helpful spectators. The pound below the seventh lock was very low, needing water to be let down, and the next pound was very weedy. We met the first two moving boats of the day here.

At Catshill Junction we headed for Anglesey Basin, where we stopped just long enough for John to fall in again. We moored for the night about half a mile back down the canal.

Next day we took easy, as there was not enough time to tackle the Wolverhampton flight. At Pelsall Junction we turned up towards Norton Canes, which is an attractive straight stretch, if a little weedy if you got off the channel.

Near Sneyd there was an infamous gypsy camp, but fortunately it had come on to rain so there was no problem there. We did hit something under the adjacent bridge, and later got a piece of wood jammed on the prop, but otherwise no problems. We spent the night on the Bentley Canal just above the top lock. The six locks were still in working order, but had had the paddle gearing removed. There were a few narrow-boats tied up down the flight, which was clearly abandoned from the tail of the bottom lock.

Next day we went down the Wolverhampton flight in just under two and a half hours, meeting several boats on the way down.

Leaving Wolverhampton Bottom Lock

Linton leaving the Bottom Lock of the Wolverhampton Flight

After a good run back to Norbury our first major canal holiday was over. We had travelled just over 179 miles and gone through 208 locks (7 wide) using 18 gallons of petrol and taking 12 days.

The next trip to the BCN (well no, actually, it was the Stourbridge Arm) took place in a canoe the following October on the day after the Droitwich Dig.

2 - Stourbridge Arm & Dudley Tunnel, October 1973
3 - Return to Coombeswood, June 1974
4 - The Long Way Back from Leicester, August 1974
5 - Stourbridge Re-visited, May 1975
6 - An Autumnal Trip - The Body and the Tunnel, October 1975
7 - Exploring Unvisited Branches, June 1977

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Journeys on the BCN - 1
Copyright reserved by the author, Tony Clayton
v21 25th May 2015

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