Journeys on the BCN

by Tony Clayton

6 - An Autumnal Trip - The Body, and Disaster in the Tunnel - October 1975

In October 1975 the halfterm of the school where I taught was a week out from the halfterm that the children had, so I decided to go on another exploration of the BCN with a colleague, Nic, to help out as crew, starting on Saturday 25th October, while Hazel looked after the children.

Day One

We set off at about 3 o'clock on a lovely sunny day from Norbury, with the autumn leaves at their best. A few boats were on the move, but certainly not as many as we normally saw in the summer months. Several kingfishers dashed ahead of us. A boat was coming down Wheaton Aston Lock, and nearly shut the gates on us. By the time we reached Chillington Wharf it was beginning to get dark, so we tied up for the night.

Day Two

The next day we were up early, setting off at about 7 o'clock. Before long we reached Autherley, where we rewatered, and headed for Aldersley Junction. Joy at meeting a boat coming down the bottom lock was short-lived, as we found the locks were all against us. We met another boat at Lock 15, and they informed us that someone else was ahead of us. Nic walked on ahead to ask for them to wait for us, and we joined them in Lock 11, ascending the remainder in their company. It took us 2h45m to ascend the flight.

At the top we stopped for coffee, and set off again. At Horseley Fields Junction Nic spotted something which on closer examination proved to be the body of an elderly woman floating face down. We moored up and tried to find a phonebox to ring the police.

"Where are you?" I was asked. My reply that we were at the junction of the BCN Main Line with the Wyrley and Essington Canal. "That's no good, I need a road name" came the reply. The box had been vandalised, with no indication of location, and I had to leave the operator waiting while I walked the 150 yards or so to the nearest road junction where there was a roadsign.

After a short wait a police car arrived with two constables. They joined me on the boat and we went across the canal to recover the body and pull it out onto the towpath. After a few questions a police sergeant and another constable arrived, and one of the first constables saluted the sergeant and started: "This gentleman here...", relating the circumstances of our discovery.

No sooner had he finished than two more police cars (containing an inspector, sergeant and two other officers) and an ambulance arrived. The first sergeant saluted the inspector and started: "This gentleman here...", relating yet again the circumstances of our discovery. After a short interrogation we were given permission to carry on with our journey.

The observation to one of the constables that we seemed to have at least half of Wolverhampton police force present prompted the comment "This doesn't happen every day, you know"!

We carried on along the Wyrley and Essington towards Bloxwich. We met another police constable walking along the towpath. "Just at the end there", I said. "Thank-you very much", came the reply. That made nine police officers in total. We learnt later that the poor lady had been discharged from a mental hospital a couple of days before.

The sun came out and the water was clear and deep. There was little rubbish until Devil's Elbow Bridge, where there was a tremendous collection of wood and weed which we poled through. We moored for lunch at Sneyd Junction before carrying on to Pratt's Bridge, where I hoped to fill up with petrol. It had run out of fuel, so I had to walk some way down the road.

The next five miles were very pleasant, with considerable improvements to the notorious tinker colony at Goscote. At Pelsall Junction we turned up towards Norton Canes where we had considerable difficulties with weed both when we turned and on our way back. The weed was like long tough string, and as soon as you cleared it the wind took you back into the weed bed again and we had to start again. Darkness fell and we moored for the night back at Pelsall Junction.

Norton Canes

Returning towards Pelsall Junction

Day Three

We set off at 7.30 a.m. and headed for Anglesey Basin. The water was still crystal clear and we entertained ourselves spotting various items of rubbish on the bottom. We moored at the intake and had a cup of coffee before having a look around.

Anglesey Basin

Moored in Anglesey Basin

A man from a nearby cottage proved to be very talkative, and on signing our log we found that he was a local councillor, J. Bartram. After deweeding the prop (the basin was full of weed) we headed back to Rushall Junction. The Daw End branch was deep, and we made good progress despite a stiff breeze. We took on water at the top of Rushall Locks and set off down the flight.

The weed in the long pound was not as bad as on our previous visit. The lengthsman gave us a hand through Locks 5 and 6; there were a number of small boys in attendance as well.

We encountered a lot of weed on the approach to Hill Farm Bridge, but the engine coped fairly well. It did not cope so well with a plastic bag on the Tame Valley, so we stopped for lunch. We were next to the M6 between Rushall Junction and the M5 Aqueduct.

Our journey along the Tame Valley was not very pleasant. The stop gates either side of the aqueduct were closed, and there was a lot of floating rubbish in it. The stretch past the housing estate was rubbish strewn to an extent that I have not seen equalled. A tree was in the narrows at Golds Hill Bridge, and I broke our long bargepole in trying to move it.

Our engine was playing up as well - it was a Crescent 25 and did not like having to potter along at slow speed. We spluttered on to Great Bridge and met a hire-boat coming out of the bottom lock, the only boat we saw moving all day. We just squeezed under the low bridge and moored while I phoned the BW Section Inspector to report the rubbish levels (I knew him quite well as he was an active member of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal Society).

We ate an ice-cream, and then worked our way steadily up the flight. It was sunset by the time we reached the top, and we pottered on to Pudding Green Junction, where we shot forward into the deeper water of the Main Line. We found a quiet and secluded mooring on the Gower Branch.

That night was particularly cold, and after supper a glass of whisky and hot-water bottle each provided some respite.

Day Four

It was a beautiful morning, with mist rising off the water and a slight ground frost. We were soon through the first lock, and approached the staircase through a dense fog patch. At the top we turned right to get petrol from a garage below the narrows a bit further on before turning back towards Oldbury.

Mist at Brades

Mist over the canal at Brades

It was very pleasant, sunny with a mist rising off the water. We turned right under the motorway and tried to get into the bottom lock of the Titford flight. Unfortunately, there was something behind the bottom gate which prevented it being opened fully, and we jammed. After a great deal of pulling and bouncing the gate we managed to get in. All the pounds were full so we made good progress up the flight. The sun was well up, and it became quite warm.

We carried on to Titford Pool and made several laps before heading under the motorway up the Portway Branch. We passed a BWB maintenance boat moored under the motorway, so we stopped for coffee, biscuits and a chat. The lengthsman, Sam Norman, signed the log. Two men were cutting undergrowth along the towpath, while three others were working on some piling.

Under the Motorway

BWB under the Motorway

On our return trip down the locks I was pulling the boat through the bridge below the first lock. It was being remade, and I caught the windscreen on some scaffolding, causing some minor damage - it had a kink in it for evermore! Some children joined us and helped us down the flight. The bottom lock was still a problem but we got through alright.

Titford Locks

Descending the Titford Flight

We next headed towards Spon Lane Junction and entered the top lock. We had to shift an oil drum and a crate out of the forebay, and then opened up all paddles at both ends of the lock as the pound below was extremely low. I went down to set the next lock, and by the time I returned the water had risen to a navigable level. More children appeared at this stage!

The second pound was low but reasonable. As we left the bottom lock a great procession of BWB boats came past, with Glyn Phillips, my Section Inspector friend, on the tug-boat. We had a chat then squeezed past the dredger, heading for Albion Junction. At Dudley Port Junction we turned left and headed for Netherton Tunnel, passing a boat filling up with water by the aqueduct where the Old Main Line crosses.

Spon Lane Bottom Lock

Descending Spon Lane Bottom Lock

The tunnel was clear, and visibility good - we could see the other end even before we entered. There were a couple of bumps on our way through and a bit of weed near the southern end, but otherwise we had an uneventful transit. We stopped for lunch just before Windmill End Junction.

After lunch we headed up the arm towards Coombeswood Basin. We passed a boat 'Bon Aventure' having weed problems, but other than a bit of weed and rubbish we had a smooth trip up to Gosty Hill Tunnel. In contrast to previous visits we encountered no floating debris in the tunnel at all.

In the steelworks there was a good deal of activity. Alan Smith, another S&WCS friend, was investigating a number of narrowboats, recording their BCN numbers. After a short chat we went on to the Basin where to our astonishment we found another boat, 'Drusilla', moored by the entrance. After circling around the basin we moored next to them and had quite a long chat. Ron Cousens and his wife made us very welcome, and he signed the log.

Eventually we decided that we had to get back, so we said goodbye and headed back towards the tunnel. Alan Smith was still busy, so we had another chat and helped him with the BCN numbers of a couple of boats moored on the opposite bank.

In the steelworks between Coombeswood Basin and Gosty Hill Tunnel

Nic asked if he could take the boat through the tunnel, to which I agreed. Soon after entering the engine oiled up. I changed the plug and then found that we had no drive to the propellor on restarting. Trying to remove a propellor in the dark of a tunnel is not to be undertaken lightly, so we had to pole out. The pole had been broken the day before, so we could not push off the bottom, which meant that I had to push off the roof. This was a filthy business as the cement fell down on us as we progressed slowly along. Furthermore, the height of the tunnel varies dramatically. In the high sections I could hardly reach the roof with our shortened pole, while the low sections left little clearance above the boat.

After what seemed an age we got out of the tunnel and investigated the propellor. To my surprise the shearpin was intact; it was clear that something more serious was wrong with the engine as whatever gear we were in, the engine did not rotate the prop. We later found that the main drive shaft had sheared!

The sun had set, and we decided that we would have to tow the boat to the Bumblehole Arm boatyard. Fortunately the engine had a rudder fitted so Nic could steer while I pulled on a long line, but it was quite dark by the time we arrived. The manager was most helpful, and we spent the night at the end of the Arm, drowning our sorrows at the nearby pub.

Next day we made our way home to Wellington by bus and train, collected the car and returned to collect the engine for repair.

1 - On the way to Stratford and back, August 1973
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

7 - Exploring Unvisited Branches, June 1977

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Journeys on the BCN - 6
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v3 25th May 2015

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