09 June 2008

Pastures new

For me, breaking new ground is 95% excitement, 5% trepidation. Gentle trepidation, more nerves really, brought on by a rather natural fear of the unknown. I know, the canals are not exactly the Amazonian hinterland but even so, there’s always a little frisson when you come to the junction that takes you onto virgin territory. And so it was three years back when we cruised from Streethay to Stourport via Great Heywood and decided once there that we would not retrace our steps but return via the BCN – the Stourbridge and Dudley canals, the Birmingham Main Line and the Birmingham & Fazeley, to be precise. Well, the great thing about new ground of course is you often get very pleasant surprises.

Our run up from Stourton junction to Wordsley junction and the bottom of the Stourbridge 16 was on a par with anything I’ve done. It was the British countryside at its best, the autumn mist hanging low over the fields and slowly burning off to eventually reveal the 16 in all their workmanlike glory. We worked methodically up the flight, before turning right at Leys junction where we had our first taste of urban industrial skankiness. But as soon as we hit the Delph Nine – which are only eight these days – the canal once again opened up to reveal its deceptively green and spacious mien. We were given a hand up by a couple of friendly locals who hadn’t a clue what I was talking about when I said that I was heading off to Starbucks. The coffee imperialists haven’t got to everyone then...

But it’s true, dear reader, I was eyeing up a caffeine infusion courtesy of the green coffee goddess. Because once round the corner from the Delph, stretching out before us at the foot of the embankment lay the recumbent retail god they call Merry Hill in all its shining, shopping panoply. As soon as we were moored up, I was down that slope in a trice, my coffee antennae twitching furiously like divining rods until I clocked the reassuringly universal shop front that held my immediate salvation. I was gasping! I couldn’t resist a few sips on my way back, clutching a paper bag bulging with A’s ridiculous confection, some Rocky Road and a pain au raisin. We favour the low calorie option....not. (This little vignette says a lot about me. Afloat for ten days, faced with over 200 shops that would have most normal women reaching for their husband's credit card, and I go and get a coffee.)

That night we also took advantage of the proximity of a Pizza Hut for a good old blow out. Somehow we ended up with a bonus pizza which we couldn’t eat, so, naturally, we took it back for the dogs. I have to say that they were a tad perplexed as to how best to consume this parental offering, tending to just skim off the tasty topping rather than attacking the bland base. Which is just not on really...

The next day we had a very enjoyable meander along to Windmill End before plunging into the big bore of Netherton tunnel. Netherton is another of those ‘transportational’ tunnels – the place you exit into is nothing like the place you entered from. Gone were the green swards and gently rolling hills, a collective carapace nurtured to hide the scars of a mining past; they’d now been replaced by urban grit, railways and bricked up arms, straight as a die cuts and curling loops from another age. We saw one boat on the move all day and we loved every minute of it. Once into the city proper, we moored at the very beginning of the moorings on the main line, on the left, just back a bit from the main throng. This enabled us to give the dogs a walk back out of the city while putting us close enough for handy access to the city centre in the afternoon, the Chinese restaurant in the evening and the Costa Coffee in the morning. Don’t you love it when a plan comes together?

So come the next day I was suitably fortified with half a gallon of the hard stuff inside me as we started our descent down Farmer’s Bridge. And what a scintillating flight! It takes you right through the heart and bowels of the city in a closely-packed formation of beautifully engineered and maintained locks. When you get to the bottom, you’ve only got a small respite before the Aston locks are upon you, which while less memorable still offered up a pleasant road. And on and on, under Spaghetti Junction, double-checking which exit to take and then plopping along in a steady rhythm through the rather haunted decay of the Brum suburbs hugging the B&F. It was a dark and dour day and I can’t say the surroundings really improved our mood. The relentless oppression started to lift finally at Minworth and then the countryside came roaring back at Curdworth, silencing even the nearly M6 Toll road. Curdworth is probably one of the finest – but least travelled or appreciated – flights on the whole of the system. It is reminiscent of Atherstone but so much nicer as there is nothing to encroach upon you. When we went through, it was manicured to within an inch of its life and was a great credit to the lockie and local BW team. The mooring at the bottom by the delightful Kingsbury Water Park rounded off an epic day in an epic way, with acres of nature reserve and thousands of birds to enjoy.

I think the B&F is one the cut’s great secrets and lament the fact that we were not more adventurous earlier. For years, when we got to Fazeley and had a look down at the junction, we always thought it looked grotty and dismal and never bothered venturing down there. This trip showed us exactly what we’d been missing, so sod the nerves, if it’s new, I’ll have a go – you never know what you might find. Slough Arm anyone?

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