Easy as BCN - Silver Propeller Challenge
Sue O'Hare continues her Silver Propeller explorations by taking on the Birmingham Canal Navigations.
At the heart of the waterways network, the Birmingham Canal Navigations are made up of many miles of both busy inner-city and surprisingly bucolic passages. The central areas of Birmingham and the through-routes of the BCN are well known, but the Silver Propeller Challenge includes six lesser-used locations. Visiting these would make a substantial dent in the target of 20 sites and also provide a huge amount of historic, architectural and scenic interest in both urban and rural surroundings.
Four of the locations are clustered in the south of the system around the Stourbridge and Dudley No 1 and No 2 Canals and the Old Main Line. The other two are further north and are connected by the Wyrley & Essington Canal.
Walsall Town Basin
The Walsall Canal runs south for 8 miles from Birchills Junction on the Wyrley & Essington Canal to Ryders Green Junction on the Wednesbury Old Canal, which in turn joins the New Main Line of the BCN at Pudding Green Junction. It is also connected to the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal at Salford Junction by the Tame Valley Canal. Commercial traffic to Walsall Gasworks survived until 1966 and the canal is still industrial and relatively little used by boats, but urban regeneration has rapidly changed the environment. The short Walsall Town Arm leading to the Town Wharf has been comprehensively redeveloped and provides moorings by the New Art Gallery. Also close by is Walsall Arboretum, home until 2008 of the annual Walsall Illuminations which was once the biggest lights show after Blackpool and attracted 250,000 people from across the Midlands.
Photo: Walsall Town Basin. Photo by Angela Acott
The Leather Museum marks Walsall's importance as a centre for leather goods, especially saddle making. A statue of an Anglican nun called Sister Dora remembers her success in reducing the local death rate from industrial accidents. The museum dedicated to Three Men in a Boat author and former resident Jerome K. Jerome has closed, but his birthplace in Bradford Street is now owned by a firm of solicitors keen to maintain the connection.
The Wyrley & Essington Canal linked the Birmingham Canal at Horseley Fields, Wolverhampton, to the Coventry Canal at Huddlesford near Lichfield. It was primarily a contour canal (hence its modern nickname 'Curly Wyrley') but the final 7 miles to Huddlesford had 30 locks. It developed into an important northern route through the BCN with a comprehensive system of branches.
Today it is relatively little used and most of the branches have gone, including the link to the Coventry Canal – although this is being actively restored by the Lichfield & Hatherton Canals Restoration Trust as part of a through-route between the Staffs & Worcs and Coventry canals.
The Cannock Extension Canal (see top photo) joins the Wyrley & Essington at Pelsall Junction. It was probably the last narrow canal of a significant length to be built, opened in 1863 and running northwards for 5 miles without locks to Hednesford at the foot of Cannock Chase. A junction at Bridgtown led to the Hatherton branch of the Staffs & Worcs through 13 locks, again now under restoration.
The Cannock Extension was known for the 'Black Country Tide', a small bore caused by the simultaneous movement of convoys of narrowboats converging on Pelsall Junction from east and west and turning up the Extension. Now, only the first 1½ miles are navigable; it's completely rural until the terminus at the historic boat-building centre at Norton Canes Docks, just before the crossings of the A5 Watling Street and the M6 Toll. The canal has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is home to one of the country's largest populations of the protected floating water plantain.
Three of the Silver Propeller Challenge locations can be accessed from the Stourbridge or Dudley canals, while the fourth at Titford Pools is geographically close but requires a diversion onto the Old Main Line.
The Stourbridge and Dudley canals, part of the Stourport Ring cruising route, are the result of a long-standing desire to exploit the mineral resources in the area. After an early attempt at making the River Stour navigable, two canals were built to link the coal mines at Dudley with the glass works at Stourbridge and onwards to the Staffs & Worcs Canal. The Stourbridge Canal joined the Staffs & Worcs at Stourton Junction with Stourbridge and Black Delph, where it met the Dudley Canal. The first short section of the Dudley Canal was initially linked to the Birmingham Canal through Dudley Tunnel and then to the Worcester & Birmingham Canal through Lapal Tunnel. The Stourbridge Canal remained independent and profitable right up to nationalisation in 1948, while the Dudley canals became part of the BCN and were developed further, particularly through the building of Netherton Tunnel on a parallel line to the Dudley Tunnel and with a much higher capacity.
Taking the attractive and rural Stourbridge Canal from Stourton Junction, the first Silver Propeller Challenge location to be reached is the Fens Branch. There is much of interest on the way, including a possible detour along the Stourbridge Town Arm to the restored Bonded Warehouse, the venue for the 1962 IWA National Rally and the start of restoration work, and now the headquarters of the Stourbridge Navigation Trust. Continuing up the Stourbridge Sixteen locks, landmarks include Dadford's Shed (a timber warehouse formerly used for transhipment) and Red House Cone, one of only a few glass-making cones left in the world and open to visitors.
The Fens Branch leaves at Leys Junction at the top of the flight and was built as a navigable feeder to the reservoirs in Pensnett known as the Fens Pools. As collieries and ironworks grew the Stourbridge Extension Canal was built from the branch at Brockmoor Junction towards coal and ironstone deposits.
The junction is now effectively the head of navigation on the Fens Branch and there are visitor moorings. Walking further along the branch leads to the Wide Waters section and the three pools, now a local nature reserve on the site of tramways which connected the canal with collieries and main railway lines.
Southern portal of the Dudley Tunnel (above Park Head Locks)
Continuing from Leys Junction, the Stourbridge Canal makes an end-on junction with the Dudley No 1 Canal at the bottom of Delph Locks. This is a spectacular flight of eight locks (originally nine), with overflow weirs on the offside creating cascading waterfalls when the water level is high.
In complete contrast the canal next passes through the Merry Hill shopping centre on the site of the former Round Oak Steelworks, with plenty of mooring space. Next comes Blowers Green Lock, the deepest on the BCN at 12ft and overlooked by Blowers Green Pumphouse. The Pumphouse was built in the early 1890s to raise the water levels between Birmingham and Wolverhampton and now provides services for boaters. It was recently offered for sale by Canal & River Trust but a successful campaign was mounted by IWA and others to have the sale withdrawn.
Immediately above the lock is Park Head Junction with the Dudley No 2 Canal, followed by the three Park Head Locks which climb to the southern portal of Dudley Tunnel and the now-unnavigable Pensnett Canal and Grazebrook Arm.
Dudley Tunnel is 3,154 yards long, with an additional system of underground waterways running into basins and natural caverns in the limestone. It leads to Tipton Junction on the Birmingham Canal Old Main Line. It is low and narrow and engines are not permitted, but passage is possible for boats which fit within the restricted gauge through the Dudley Canal & Tunnel Trust, which will supervise legging or provide a free towing service. Alternatively the trust runs underground boat trips from the Black Country Museum at the far end.
Coombeswood, or Hawne, Basin is the current limit of navigation at the eastern end of the Dudley No 2 Canal, which originally connected with the Worcester & Birmingham Canal at Selly Oak. From Park Head Junction the canal skirts the 600ft Netherton Hill. There are views over the southern parts of the Black Country towards the Clent Hills, and an anchor on the wharf at Primrose Bridge marks Netherton's tradition of anchor and chain making.
Photo: Coombeswood Basin at the terminus of the Dudley No.2 Canal.
At Windmill End Junction a branch leads through Netherton Tunnel to the New Main Line of the BCN, while local colour is added by the remains of Cobb's Engine House and the evocatively named Bumblehole Branch and Boshboil Arm. The narrow, low 577-yard Gosty Hill Tunnel leads to the site of the huge Coombeswood Tube Works, which remarkably was served by commercial traffic until 1969. The canal terminates in the former railway interchange basin at Hawne, now run by the Coombeswood Canal Trust with a thriving residential community and facilities for visiting boaters.
The canal used to continue through the even more notorious Lapal Tunnel, narrow and rocky and the longest on the BCN at 3,795 yards. An innovative system of pumping was developed to create a current to help boats pass, halving the transit time to two hours, but the tunnel was closed in 1917 after subsidence. The Lapal Canal Trust is working to restore the link to Selly Oak, intending to bypass the tunnel with a new route through the Woodgate Valley.
The Titford Canal leaves the Old Main Line at Oldbury Junction beneath the M5. At the top of six locks, often known as the Crow (after a local industrialist and benefactor), is the restored Titford Pumphouse, the headquarters of the BCN Society and with moorings and facilities. This summit level at 511ft is now the highest navigable part of the BCN.
The canal passes the Wolverhampton & Dudley Brewery's Langley Maltings, a large and handsome complex which sadly has been badly damaged by fire, as well as the distinctive Langley Forge. It terminates in the wide expanse of Titford Pools, built by James Brindley as a reservoir for the Birmingham Canal. The later history of the pools includes the suicide in 1889 of two young lovers, the reputed presence of the Titford Monster as a stunt for the 1938 Oldbury Carnival, use as a pleasure park up to World War II, and then as a venue for early boat rallies. Today an elevated section of the M5 strides across the pools on concrete columns, but they are still a haven for wildlife and a worthwhile challenge for boaters.
- BCN Society, offering guidance on moorings and facilities and plaques for reaching Titford Pools
- Dudley Canal & Tunnel Trust, including information on boat trips and passage through Dudley Tunnel
- IWA Birmingham, Black Country & Worcestershire Branch
We'd love to hear from you while you're on the way to meeting the challenge. You can post your pictures to our UK waterways Flickr group, or tag your images on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook with #silverpropeller.
Read Down the Drains - Silver Propeller Challenge or find out more about the Silver Propeller Challenge.
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