Last Summer Jane Cumberlidge headed out on the waterways of England's second city. In spite of appalling weather, her trip was far from a washout.
Cruising from Alvechurch Jane hired Whistling Heron from Alvechurch Marina run by Darren and his team. The 58ft Heron Class layout was extremely comfortable for the two of us and there's a wide choice of boats to suit all crews. Alvechurch is a handy and attractive starting point for a range of cruises.
From Alvechurch the full Warwickshire Ring is hard work for a week's hire but our short version was relaxing and enjoyable, with a fine mix of city sights and rural reaches in just over 45 miles and 49 locks.
Our most fascinating cruise this year was sparked by an invitation to a family celebration at Birmingham University. What better way to arrive for a lunch at the heart of the English waterways than by boat?
Looking at nearby hire companies we chose Alvechurch on the Worcester & Birmingham canal as a perfect place to start. The West Midlands in early July should be pleasantly sunny, we mused. But this was the long, wet summer of 2012, with red alert flood warnings and monsoon forecasts. We drove up towards Alvechurch in torrential rain and heavy spray.
As we arrived the clouds were breaking and late summer lit up the marina. Our boat Whistling Heron was immaculate and homely, with fresh flowers and a tea tray on the table to welcome us. Once our gear was abroad, a bottle of Cotes du Rhone and a relaxing supper lifted the whole mood of the day.
A knock on the stern doors next morning signalled the arrival of cheery team member John Gant, who familiarised us with the boat before we set off. Anyone new to hiring narrowboats would be completely reassured by John’s clear, comprehensive run down.
Our early dry spell gave way to showers and I was getting fairly wet on the helm as we approached Wast Hill Tunnel, which cuts a mile and a half under the limestone ridge separating rural Worcestershire from cosmopolitan Birmingham. Inside, the tunnel was soon just as wet as outside and it’s impossible to avoid the drippy bits in this long, spooky passage. When another boat approached I could hear the crews’ voices echoing eerily from a long way off and wondered how we’d squeeze past. But light finally did appear at the end and we emerged into a damp, jungly stretch before mooring alongside a pleasant quay at King’s Norton.
INTO THE SUBURBS
After lunch we started edging into Birmingham’s industrial suburbs, a real heritage tour past some of the warehouses and machine shops which once served the city’s motor industry. The old Longbridge Rootes-BMC site wasn’t far away and this backdoor into Brum is steeped in nostalgia. Some unexpectedly attractive reaches had boats moored next to quiet, tucked away houses.
We passed Bournville village, the heartland of English chocolate with its rows of terrace cottages built a century ago for Cadbury’s factory workers. Soon, the railway joined us alongside, crossing the canal between Bournville and Birmingham University. A new aqueduct gives wonderful views of the University clock tower and domes of the main hall. As we were due at a family lunch on campus next day, we started looking for a quiet spot for the night. This canal stretch through Edgbaston is not far from Birmingham centre, yet feels amazingly calm and rural. We moored just before a footbridge and a leafy winding hole. The bridge led across to a landscaped park of university halls of residence, a short stroll from our lunch venue. Our bank side berth was near Birmingham’s glorious Botanical gardens and along Edgbaston Park Road we found Winterbourne house, an Edwardian Arts and Crafts property with seven more acres of exotic planting.
The family gathering was great fun and the next day was still dry with glimpses of sun through the trees. We pressed on towards the city and stopped for water by the ‘Mailbox’ building in the heart of Birmingham’s most inspired redevelopment area. The carefully restored quays, colourful moored boats and imaginative mix of new and old buildings create an enticing city focus with attractive waterside restaurants and some traditional pubs.
In Birmingham’s industrial heyday, Gas Street Basin was a much larger expanse packed with working boats, many bringing coal into the city. We chatted to a passing local in his 70s whose uncle had been an ostler here, managing the huge numbers of horses needed to haul the boats.
This part of the waterways has many cruising options and with limited time we planned a ring down the Grand Union to Kingswood Junction, then back up the Stratford Canal to re-join the Worcester & Birmingham at King’s Norton. However we met several retired couples spending most of the summer afloat, covering long distances in a month or two.
Leaving Gas Street basin we eased through narrow Worcester Bar and hung a right at the ‘roundabout’ onto the Birmingham & Fazeley, setting off down Farmer’s Bridge flight with a weak sun cheering the scene. Peter was helming and I was getting into the rhythm of paddles and gates when I spotted another boat following us some locks back. With their large crew, there seemed to be some competitive locking going on. Fortunately, about halfway down, we met a boat coming up, so the next few locks were set in our favour and we had a buffer against pursuers.
After turning right as Aston Junction, the cut leading to the Ashted flight was pleasantly sleepy, past a warren of workshops and old factories, some derelict, some still in use. Then came a dramatic sense of rejuvenation as we passed an enormous sigh on a large building, showing ambitious plans for the new Birmingham Eastside development. This massive regeneration project aims to transform a previously neglected area of the city centre into a learning and technology quarter, with a new campus for Aston University.
The Digbeth Branch crept quietly past this grand endeavour without been noticed. As we passed Typhoo Basin and then Bordesley Junction, an intense wetting mizzle settled in and the first three locks of the Camp Hill flight were a gloomy prospect. As it was late afternoon I wondered where we’d find a quiet mooring for the night as the roar of traffic here was pretty continuous. Waiting for Lock 53 to fill, we chatted with two friendly policemen who recommended carrying on until the city was left behind.
Yet it’s amazing how a couple more locks and a bend or tow can completely change the atmosphere. Curving away from the hectic dual-carriageway, we found a peaceful berth at the BW (or should that now be CRT) service point at the top of the Camp Hill flight. There was no traffic noise, the nearby railway wasn’t too busy and we had showers, a water tap and rubbish point to hand.
We were now in the 11-mile summit pound and early next morning were under way through old commercial areas with overgrown wharves. After Small Heath we passed the Ackers Trust basin, once the site of the Birmingham Small Arms Company, while at Tyseley we passed Birmingham Railway museum, set in an old Great Western steam shed. Then the canal skirted the prosperous Solihull suburbs almost unseen through wooden cuttings. Beyond Solihull we reached countryside again near the oddly named village of Catherine-de-Barnes.
The Catherine-de-Barnes moorings were full, because the boat Inn and Longfellows restaurant make this a popular lunchtime stop, so we pressed on to the leafy basin just above Knowle locks. Knowle is a traditional Warwickshire village, with excellent shops, various interesting places to eat and a fine 15th century parish church next to a magnificently preserved half-timbered house.
Next morning we started down the Knowle flight in company with a Canadian family aboard a similar boat. The upper locks have open views across rolling farmland and it was great to be afloat in this very English landscape. The Knowle flight has large side ponds to ensure there’s always enough water – not a problem in the summer of 2012. Grand vistas can also mean cross-winds as you line up for locks. Waiting in the ponds for upcoming boats, it was tricky holding Whistling Heron against a stiff south-westerly with a clear run across the Cuttle Brook. The canal was more sheltered at the bottom of the flight, where we moored for a pub lunch at the hospitable Heron’s Nest.
Arriving at Kingswood Junction in the late afternoon, there seemed no point in rushing to start the Lapworth flight, so we moored opposite a restful looking farm and strolled around the junction to stretch our legs.
Watching boats negotiate the tight turn under the bridge from the Grand Union is a popular spectator sport and it was a warm evening to stand and stare. Passing under the Oxford to Birmingham railway you enter the charming Stratford Canal, with its distinctive barrel roofed cottages and split iron bridges. Many boats were heading north up the ~Stratford Canal or crossing to the Grand Union. Fewer were turning down towards Stratford itself, as the swollen River Avon was still closed to navigation.
NORTH STRATFORD CANAL
Next morning we were underway early as the sunshine was too good to miss. Peter tuned under the bridge like a seasoned hand and I hoped off to set the first lock, disturbing a disgruntled flock of geese. Nobody was a foot in the snug marina, which looked an excellent spot to keep a boat with lots of interesting cruising close to hand.
Joining the Lapworth flight at Lock 20 is less daunting that starting at the bottom, but we still had a fair haul ahead. Peter took over the leg-work and we were soon in the groove with a good rhythm going. About half way up another boat started following us, with an active German family on board. With more hands they were making better time than us, and the father started shutting our top gates as I pulled out so that Peter didn’t have to walk back down. We made an efficient European team, but above Lock 6 we stopped for coffee and the cheerful Germans pressed on ahead.
After the final four locks, I went ashore with a windlass to open a quaint-looking lifting bridge. I’m not particularly weak, but this bridge was incredibly hard work and I was winding for ages just to get is started.
Finally, the span was high enough for Peter to squeeze through and I went through the whole process again to let it down.
Near Bridge 25 we met a BW workboat with its legs out, dredging branches and tree trunks from the canal. The driver waited till we’d passed and then continued his deft handling of the grab. After passing under the roaring M42, I saw a sign by Bridge 20 saying “100 yards to Wedges Bakery and general store” – worth remembering.
In the straight reach approaching Earlswood, boats were moored both sides and we pulled in while someone crept down towards us. Earlswood Motor yacht club is a popular spot and the nearby feeder canal was also full of moorings. Beyond Earlswood the canal meanders through quite a deep cutting and, after all the rain, the towpath was a quagmire. Dog-walkers in willies were plodging along with very muddy hounds.
Emerging into open countryside again we arrived at the Shirley lifting bridge. It was great fun stopping the traffic here, reminding me of bridges in Holland where boats seem to have priority over cars. At least this bridge was electric and, once I inserted the key and held the button down, everything happened automatically.
We were now back in Birmingham suburbs, though the canal still felt pleasantly isolated from cars and crowds. Leaving this wooded section we passed a manicured golf course before entering a cutting leading to Brandwood Tunnel, only 352 yards long so you can see the far end all the way through. After the tunnel we passed through famous guillotine stop lock which originally prevented water from the Worcester & Birmingham Canal from being used by the Stratford – or was it the other way round?
We’d come full circle to King’s Norton Junction opposite its elegant Junction House, with a historic list of toll fees painted above the front door. Somehow, I seemed to be on the helm again as we reached Wast Hill Tunnel, with Peter snug below with a mug of tea and slice of cake. This second passage was still pretty damp, but quicker in the late afternoon as we didn’t meet a single boat. As it was Friday the moorings at Hopwood were full, so we pottered on towards on towards Bittell and found a deserted stretch of bank for the night.
Next morning it was only a short run across Bittell Reservoir and back under the M42 to Alvechurch. Once the fuel tank was topped up, we moored Whistling Heron for the last time and lingered in warm sunshine chatting with Darren who runs this friendly base so efficiently.
We’d had a really enjoyable week despite the weather, met lots of interesting people and visited some fascinating places – rural and industrial – that you can only reach by canal. There’s really no better way of getting to know this part of England and we were understandably reluctant to swap these soothing waterways for the M5.
Waterways World February 2013.