Journeys on the BCN

by Tony Clayton

2 - Exploring the Stourbridge Arm and Dudley Tunnel. October-November 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 there was a rally at Park Head to celebrate the Tunnel Reopening at Dudley, known to everyone at the time as TRAD.

In order to encourage navigation of the Dudley and Stourbridge canals, the TRAD committee decided to award a plaque to anyone who could demonstrate that they had walked or navigated the entire length of the Stourbridge and Dudley canals during TRAD year (1973).

As we had navigated all except Dudley Tunnel, Parkhead Locks and the Stourbridge Arm that summer, we decided that we should complete the missing sections.

The main problem was that the Stourbridge Arm could hardly be described as navigable, and Dudley Tunnel was a trifle small, and we couldn't use an engine in it anyway. The prospect of legging a cruiser through was not very enticing.

On the 29th October I took a canoe, named 'Rumbletub V', licensed it at Double Pennant's boatyard, and launched it at Junction Road Bridge on the Stourbridge Arm, and paddled towards the junction with the Main Line. The idea was that the family should walk the towpath while I attempted to canoe to the end.

The canal was clear and reasonably deep as I paddled towards the junction, with overhanging branches being the main obstruction for larger craft. At the junction I paddled up to the aqueduct before turning and heading back down the arm.

When I reached Junction Road Bridge again the way ahead reminded me of the approach to Gosty Hill Tunnel on our earlier trip: duckweed, floating rubbish, and wooden rods that had been speared into the bed of the canal from the garage on the off-side. Just beyond was the first weed-block, with just enough channel for the canoe to get through.

A second weed-block preceded the next bridge, and then there was a delightful section with leaves from the trees covering the surface of the water. Meanwhile Hazel was finding the towpath hard going, with brambles at just the wrong height for John, who was not quite three at the time.

The next weed-block was more severe, with no channel for several feet, so it was hard work fighting through. There were no more weed-blocks, but the floating debris increased, especially by the narrows near a steel-works.

The final bridge under the road to the basin had been stanked off, although at the time you could still see through to the basin. In addition a willow tree obstructed the approach, but I got through so that the canoe touched the piling.

A shout brought several puzzled faces peering over the fence. Their astonishment at seeing a canoeist afloat amongst a considerable amount of weed and rubbish was entertaining. One agreed to witness my presence there, and so I returned towards Junction Road Bridge.

The return journey was less fraught as I had at last got the hang of paddling in a straight line. A kingfisher flew ahead of me for several yards. On arrival at the bridge I loaded up the canoe and went to fetch the family who were waiting at the garage, explaining what that nutcase was doing canoeing in a rubbish-strewn ditch.

When we received our plaque I learnt that I was one of only three who had navigated the arm. One other had taken a small dinghy along, while a friend of mine had bowhauled his cruiser to the end and back.

This left the Dudley Tunnel to do. The Staffs & Worcs CS organised a trip on November 18th and we joined them. The boat was simply an empty day-boat, and we went aground several times as we were bow-hauled towards the tunnel. I have recorded the following brief comments on our journey:

The tunnels were fascinating, with their different shapes, especially in the unlined portions. The most interesting features were in the first few hundred yards. There was then a long stretch of more monotonous tunnel, before three unlined sections and the lowest and most restricted part of the tunnel. The temperature dropped noticeably as we approached Park Head, and we were frozen stiff by the time we had walked down the locks to the bus for our return journey. 'Pensax' was heading down the flight.

Afterwards we walked the section from Coombeswood basin to the site of Fordrove Bridge, after which the canal had been filled in.

1 - On the way to Stratford and back, August 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 - 2
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v14 25th May 2015

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