Norbury Wharf, Blacking the Boat and Covid-19

  We stayed in Walsall Town Arm Basin for three nights in the end, and it was really quite nice (apart from a stabbing right outside the boat! The stabbing was concerning, obviously, but we felt quite safe as there were Police Officers outside the boat for the next 24 hours protecting the crime scene.) The other issue was the loud music from the pub until 12.30 a.m. on the Saturday night. It was very quiet in the mornings, though, and the pub closed on the Sunday evening so it was quiet then, too. We had no problems with raucous youths – in fact everyone we met was very friendly – one lady even thanked me for talking to her!!! There was a beautiful and huge Arboretum a short walk away from the Basin, which was definitely Walsall’s silver lining and is well worth a visit!! There was also a good shopping centre there so we stocked up on our Poundland and Wilko essentials as well as a Tesco shop.  

We moved on Monday 16th March, making our way up the 8 locks of the Walsall flight then turning, half a mile further on, back onto the Wyrley and Essington Canal. Thankfully, the last section of the Walsall Canal was so much nicer than the southern stretch! I would recommend that anyone who wants to go into the Town Arm goes in from the north via the Walsall Locks – so much nicer! I would happily do that section again. We continued our journey for about another 3 miles and moored again on the good secure moorings we’d used previously at Lane Head. Rhys and Ash came to visit for the last time before we planned to head off further north, bringing the last tranche of parcels we’d had delivered to them. Tony and I now essentially both have our wedding outfits – I need shoes and bag and something to adorn me Barnet (look it up if you don’t know cockney rhyming slang!) and Tony needs a shirt and tie, but we’ve got the main bits sorted, thank goodness. (Unfortunately, the wedding has now been postponed) We went to a pub with Rhys and Ash and had a lovely roast, returning home to find Boris recommending that we now stay away from pubs! Oh well…..It was a good meal to have as our last supper. 🍽️🙄

On Tuesday, we carried on along the Wyrley and Essington Canal, turning left at the junction and heading back down the Birmingham Main Line, Wolverhampton Level. This was because we wanted to visit the Wednesbury Oak Loop, sometimes called the Bradley Arm, and we had a spare day in which to do it and also unsure when or if we would be passing this way again to do it at another time. The Arm is one of the Silver Propeller Challenge destinations, but Tony also fancied visiting the Bradley Workshop, which still makes lock gates using traditional methods and using traditional materials. We moored at Coseley, just at the end of the Arm.

We decided to stay put on Wednesday, as the weather was not too good. We’d both walked to the end of the arm on separate walks with Sal, but the sign outside the workshop didn’t give any details of opening hours, or any other information. We phoned the Canal and River Trust to try to find out more information, but unfortunately, it was a bit like pulling teeth! The first person we spoke to didn’t even know where the Birmingham Main Line was, much less the Bradley Arm! After two phone calls and an online Live Chat, we did manage to find out that we could cruise to the end and turn, but we were unable to ascertain whether we could visit the workshop.

So, on Thursday 19th, even though the weather wasn’t too good, we set off and turned up the Arm. The Arm is very attractive, bordered along most of its length with nice housing and had a good feel to it. Unfortunately, it is very shallow and weedy – not the floating red weed we had experienced of late, but long trailing fronds of weed that grab your prop and hang onto it! It was quite hard going and everyone we met was surprised to see a boat – as was a yellow Labrador who let us know in no uncertain terms that we were on his patch! It took us two hours to reach the end, just less than two miles, having lost steering at several points and having to deploy the barge pole. We were thankful to see the end and managed to turn the boat without too much of a problem, mooring up to two brand new CRT work boats to stop for lunch. There was no evidence that the workshop was open to visitors, so we decided, particularly in the current climate, to give it a miss. There were lots of newly completed lock gates and lock bars in the yard, which was interesting to see. Tony checked the weed hatch before we set off again and it was clogged with crap, which would have contributed a lot to our slow progress, so our cruise back down the Arm was much quicker, with the cleared prop, and because we knew where the shallow parts were and how to negotiate round them. We did the return trip in 40 minutes. It was well worth the trip, even with the problems encountered. It did feel like a Challenge, though! We turned out of the Arm and returned back up the way we’d come, past the junction with the Wyrley and Essington Canal and a little further and into the Broad Street Basin, although there was very little mooring here. We were technically on a water point, but bearing in mind we were moving off first thing in the morning and that we’d seen no other boat moving for days, we figured we’d be OK there overnight. 

We left Broad Street Basin early on Friday 20th (well, early for us!) and started the arduous task of working the 21 locks of the Wolverhampton Flight. We got into a good rhythm – Tony filled the first lock and opened the gate, then walked onto the next lock to fill it, I steered the boat into the lock, got off and closed the gate and paddles by which time Tony had walked back to open the bottom paddles and gates. I steered out, he shut the gates behind me then walked ahead again to open the gate for the next now-full lock. The locks were close together, so this system worked well, although it did mean that Tony walked about 4 miles to-ing and fro-ing. I did both of Sal’s walks, though, to make up for it! We stopped for lunch in a lock mid-way. It was an unexpectedly attractive flight of locks, the last few were quite rural and the area quite pretty. Straight after the last lock, we turned right on to the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, but only for about half a mile before we then turned onto the Shropshire Union Canal, passing through the stop lock at Autherley Junction. We moored up in a lovely spot just up from the junction. I could feel myself relaxing almost straight away – I quite like the experience of the urban canals but I am always a little on edge; being back out in the countryside felt good! We weren’t exactly in the middle of nowhere, we were still on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, but the houses were not right on the canalside, so it felt more rural. We stayed there for two nights. There were some lovely dog walks round a large park area to one side of the canal. There was also a Morrisons, so we managed to get a reasonable shop done, although a lot of the shelves were empty! I was unable to get any Bacardi and was wondering whether people were using it to sanitise their hands instead of hand gel!!!

On Sunday, a beautiful day for cruising, we traveled for 8 miles – and it was glorious! The “Shroppie” is absolutely gorgeous! We moored at Wheaton Aston overnight and then, on Monday, we cruised the last 7.5 miles to get to our destination of Norbury Junction. In these weird and troubled times, I felt so lucky – this way of life is definitely succour for the soul!!

We were due to have the hull painted on our boat on Wednesday 25th, and when we arrived at Norbury Junction on Monday 23rd, things were continuing as nearly normal, but with Boris’s announcement on the evening of the 23rd, everything changed. The blacking of the hull was immediately cancelled, quite rightly, but over the following few days, the managers of the Wharf had meetings with the staff to work out how they could provide a basic service to boaters. There are lots of permanent residential moorings here so they felt they needed to stay open as much as possible for the supply of gas, coal, diesel and pump out services for their residential boats, as well as any passing craft that needed services. In addition, as we and one other boat had already arrived at the Wharf in readiness for hull blacking, they decided to open the dry dock, but on a reduced schedule, so they booked us in to go in on Monday, 30th. Two of the staff members live on boats at the Wharf, so there was no unnecessary travel involved and there is little risk of passing or catching a virus when painting a boat when the occupants are safely tucked up inside! So, on Monday 30th, we vacated our boat whilst they manoeuvred it into the dock. I was exceptionally pleased that they did it and not us!! The water was drained and the boat settled on the podiums and the walkway was put in place. We were then able to board the boat again. Sal had to be persuaded to cross the walkway, it’s been a long time since she’s crossed a gangplank, never mind an 18″ wide, high-in-the-air bridge, but having done it once, she now crosses it like a pro! I don’t like it much either! It’s very high up – I feel quite odd when outside as you are normally only a step down to the water level – we are now about 8 feet up in the air!!! They advised us to leave the boat whilst it was jet washed as it’s apparently quite noisy, so we all went on our daily exercise jaunt for a couple of hours (and a lovely walk it was, too, and we didn’t see another soul!) 

We had spent the previous intervening days just whiling away the time and, of course, the weather had been glorious; Tony continued to take Sal for her morning walk and me doing the afternoon walk. Tony had a trip to the nearest village shop on the bike, about 3 miles away, but had a blow out of the back tyre, so had to walk back with the shopping! With the bike now out of action, we decided we needed to have a trip in the boat – to walk was about a 6 mile round trip, carrying shopping on the way back, too. We needed to stock up in readiness for being in the dry dock, so, on Saturday, we went to Gnosall. We managed to get a good few bits (still a mile’s walk from the canal) then cruised on down another couple of miles in order to turn the boat to come back, stopping at Gnosall again to moor overnight, and then returned to Norbury Junction on Sunday.

We have now been told to not move the boat other than for essential journeys – to fill with water, empty waste tanks, or to buy supplies and food, so once we are out of the dry dock, we are planning on moving to a better location where there is a shop within walking distance, as well as a water point, so we don’t have to move the boat each time we need to buy food. We will probably retrace our steps, as we have heard from passing boaters that Market Drayton, the nearest big town in a northerly direction, is rammed with boats. We think that going back to Autherley Junction would be a good plan, there’s a water point and a Morrisons, so we should be OK there for a few weeks. We’ll see how we get on!