Sunday, 11 July 2010

Wandering round Birmingham

Old Main Line leaves New at Smethwick Locks

They say that Birmingham has more miles of canals than Venice. I don't know whether 'they' are right but there are certainly plenty in the Birmingham Canal Navigations and today we've been exploring some of them.
The BCN started when canal building pioneer James Brindley built his Main Line through the city. Brindley always tried keep things simple in his canals, following the natural contours to minimise the need for locks and tunnels. The result was a snake-like waterway whose route was often much longer than any crow would opt to fly.Fifty odd years later along came Thomas Telford, with more engineering expertise at his disposal, and he took a ruler to Brindley's route, straightening it up with cuttings and aqueducts, to make it far shorter and quicker.So today we have Brindley's Old Main Line and Telford's New Main Line, running almost side by side, with the old route weaving backwards and forwards across the new one. Crossing the New Main Line and, below, an
old loop goes back to natureOff these are numerous more little arms and loops, some still navigable, others long gone.
We started out on the shared route from central Birmingham, veered off to explore the Soho Loop, passing decaying industry as well as Winson Green prison, and finally left the New for the Old up Smethwich Locks where the water was an evil, dense black oily liquid as bad as anything BP has created in the Gulf of Mexico. From the top we could look down on the new route below. We even crossed it by a short aqueduct to squeeze through the tiny bridge hole into the short dead end Engine Arm (right) - once a feeder waterway into the system and named after the pumping engine which pumped the water supply in, but now lined with moored boats tucked among industrial buildings, and ending in a smart new block of 'facilities'.
But soon industry gave way to remarkably rural surroundings.
We moored by the huge chimney of Smethwick Pumphouse (below) for lunch and to listen to the start of the British GP.
Then we moved off on a route which now wove for a mile or more in and out of the huge concrete legs of the M5 motorway above.

Another fork now and we were heading left toward Dudley. Soon the canal's character changed again too, opening out into a wide, sun-lit waterway lined with water lily pads and passing housing estates.
Then, just as everything was going so well, we ground to a near halt, inching to the junction with the arm to Dudley where a visit to the weed hatch revealed that I had six feet of hefty half inch thick blue nylon rope round the prop - as well as a miscellany of electrical cable, plastic bag and weed. All of which took half an hour to hack free.
From there it was a short distance to our destination at the visitor moorings by the Black Country Museums. Here there was just one other boat – and amazingly it was from March in the Middle Level, and regular visitors to Bill Fen. Small world.

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