|We had a lovely stay in the Fens Branch, on our very peaceful mooring. We enjoyed a couple of woodland walks around the nature reserve, too. On one occasion, Sal was sniffing in the undergrowth so didn’t see a couple of Muntjac deer crossing the path ahead of us, for which I was very grateful as she would’ve dragged me after them! She did pick up their scent as we walked past and she was VERY animated about that! She enjoyed the walk generally – lots of squirrels and interesting things to sniff! We were fascinated, but also a bit horrified, to hear a fox fight in the undergrowth right outside the boat late one evening. They were really going for it – I shouted to them but they didn’t even stop to listen – they ignored me completely and carried on with their altercation! ?
We left the Fens Branch on Saturday 13th November, Tony walking with Sal for the first couple of miles, stopping for coffee at the bottom of the Delph flight of 8 locks. It is here that the Stourbridge Canal becomes the Dudley No 1 Canal, the Stourbridge Canal now completed and ticked off the list. We passed some fishermen who asked me to go as fast as possible – the water was too clear so the fish weren’t biting and they wanted a bit of “colour” in it! It’s the first time we’ve ever been asked to go fast – fishermen usually like boats to pass at tickover speed. We went up through the first lock, after coffee, and it was a very impressive vista up the hill – each lock had a long, flat but steep bywash beside it – it was quite attractive and the first time we’d seen anything like it. There were a couple of volunteers just going off duty but, just as we were about to go into the third lock, one of them returned with his grandchildren. He lived very close and asked the girls if they’d like to go and help a boat up through the locks – they both loved the canals as much as their grandad, so were delighted. Tony even gave them a ride on the boat, but the little one (4 years old) was a bit frightened so got off after the first lock. The other older girl (6) stayed on and even had a go at steering between locks. She talked ten-to-the-dozen to Tony! Their grandad was a big help and saved me a lot of to-ing and fro-ing across the top lock gate! When we got to the top, we waved them goodbye, giving the girls some sweets to thank them for their help! We moored up after another mile or so in the Waterfront section of the Merry Hill complex. This was an attractive and bustling area, with restaurants, bars and hotels, with offices above. It was surprisingly quiet until the evening when it got very busy and noisy – but we had expected it so not a surprise or a problem. Although we love peaceful countryside moorings, it’s also nice to be in the centre of the action sometimes. I did go to bed with my fingers in my ears, though – the nightclub opposite had a function going on until 2 a.m. – 90s technobeats!!
On Sunday, 14th, we decided to have a trip up to the southern portal of the Dudley Tunnel, another Silver Propeller Challenge location. (We can’t go through the tunnel in our boat – there is restricted headroom plus diesel engines are not allowed.) We had previously planned to visit and moor there as part of our continuing journey but I had walked up there on Saturday afternoon with Sal and a local man had advised against mooring there overnight. There was also work being done in the area on the bridge over the locks and we had been warned that we may not be able to go up through the three locks to the tunnel entrance due to the work schedule and Health and Safety, so as it was a Sunday, and therefore not a working day, we thought it was an ideal time to go. We’d also booked a Tesco delivery to the car park adjacent to our mooring at the Waterfront, but couldn’t get a slot until Monday, so a trip out on Sunday fitted in well with that, too. We cruised the 1 ½ miles and worked four locks, then moored in the basin at the top for lunch, after taking our photos for the Challenge. We were very surprised, whilst moored up, to see a group of paddle boarders, complete with hard hats and head torches, emerging from the tunnel! Their escort boat arrived shortly after, too, but that turned and returned back through the tunnel. Not sure I would fancy paddle boarding through there – it’s 1.8 miles long – in the dark and with low headroom!!? (I don’t fancy paddle boarding anywhere, but you know what I mean!) After lunch, we turned the boat, descended through the four locks again and returned back to the Waterfront. It was very much quieter than the previous evening!
On Monday, whilst we waited for the shopping to arrive, we compiled a long list of jobs that needed doing and got cracking. We did really well, between us, and ticked a lot of things off! It always feels good to put a line through an item on a list!
On Tuesday, 16th, November we set off for a walk-and-go, cruising back up towards the Dudley Tunnel again, but this time turning away from the tunnel at the junction. This is where the Dudley No 1 Canal morphs into the Dudley No 2 Canal. We cruised for a further 2 ½ miles and moored in the gorgeous but slightly amusingly named Bumblehole. There is a nature reserve here and the entrance to the other tunnel, Netherton Tunnel, which is traversable by narrowboat and the route to take to get back onto the Birmingham Main Line Canals. There is also the short arm that goes to Hawne Basin from this junction, yet another Silver Propeller Challenge location! Sal and I had a beautiful walk in the afternoon – the views were stunning over the Black Country as you climbed up and over the tunnel, seeing all the glorious autumnal colours at the height of their display – and Sal enjoyed it for the abundance of squirrels!
We had another day on the moorings at Bumblehole on Wednesday, 17th, continuing with our list of jobs. I also popped to Lidl to stock up on our Lidl favourites.??
On Thursday, we prepared the boat for our upcoming trip to Hawne Basin. You have to go through Gosty Hill Tunnel to get there, and although nice and straight, it is very narrow with low headroom in a couple of places. Consequently, we had to empty and remove the top box from the roof, and lower the solar panels down. Once everything was stowed away, we set off and cruised 2 miles to the tunnel and then a further mile, once through it, to Hawne Basin. The tunnel was exceptionally interesting – although narrow, with only a few inches to spare on either side of the boat, it was cathedral-like in its height for the majority of its length – only a short, low section at either end. There are stories (true, we are told!) of boats getting wedged in the tunnel due to logs getting trapped between the boat and the wall – the longest a boat had been trapped is 26 hours – so far!! Having phoned previously to ask if they were open for diesel sales, the lady at Hawne Basin advised us to phone as we entered the tunnel, so that they knew we were in there. If you don’t turn up, they send someone to help!! We managed to get through with absolutely no dramas – in fact the turn to get into the basin itself was more troublesome than the tunnel – a very narrow, low entrance! We pulled up onto the service wharf and bought the diesel and some smokeless fuel. The Basin was a surprise – what a little gem of a place!! As a visitor, they allow you to moor for 7 days free of charge and the supplies – diesel, gas and coal etc are so cheap! We had asked if we could stay for one night. Whilst chatting with the lady, she said that there was a vacancy for the dry dock on 31st December – that made us think!! We looked at our itinerary and the stoppages and decided that we should take the slot. We were also able to moor the boat there over Christmas whilst we visited the family, so it all fitted in perfectly. We grabbed the slot, and paid our deposit. We reversed into our mooring for the night, not quite believing how lucky we’d been. It had all fallen into place and a very big tick off the list – organising the blacking is normally a bit of a pain as you have to predict where you’re going to be in several month’s time, find an available blacking slot, then make sure you’re in the right area at the right time! It’s quite common to have to book a blacking slot many months in advance, so to get one within a few weeks was a big bonus! They also allow a whole week for each slot, so plenty of time for the paint to cure properly, even in December.
On Friday, 19th, we prepared the boat again for our return trip through Gosty Hill Tunnel, arriving back at Bumblehole to moor overnight again. We set about cancelling our existing Christmas mooring and the hire car, and rebooking a new car.
On Saturday, we made our way round to the Black Country Living Museum and the north portal of the Dudley Tunnel, cruising through the long, but wide and straight Netherton Tunnel, emerging on the Birmingham Canal Navigation Main Line. We turned and went down the Gower Branch, which we hadn’t previously navigated, going through Brades Locks at the end of the Branch, and then turned onto the BCN Wolverhampton Level, again, new to us. We cruised a pleasant stretch of about two miles and turned into the short branch to the Museum. There are secure moorings here, as well as the Dudley Tunnel Trust, running boat trips through the Tunnel. We had arranged to meet Anne and Steve, part of the “Fluffing About Gang”, from July 2020, when we were all waiting to get into Wales to visit Llangollen. Anne and Steve were already there, and we spent a thoroughly lovely evening chatting and catching up with each other’s journeys.
On Sunday, 21st November, after waving Anne and Steve off, we decided to have some lunch in the Gongoozlers Café and to investigate the tunnel tours they offer. Having learnt that they close on Mondays and Tuesdays, as does the Museum, we booked a short tunnel trip for 2 pm and headed up to the café for our lunch. Unfortunately, Sal wasn’t allowed, even though she is a boat dog and well used to travelling in tunnels, so she had to stay on the boat. The trip (and the lunch) were very good and the tunnel was interesting and surprising in many respects. It’s not so much a single tunnel but a collection of tunnels, basins and caverns which are all linked and relics of long-gone mining days. The trip went through several of these tunnels, basins and caverns, and the lighting and displays in some of the caverns made for an enjoyable trip. They are getting ready for the Christmas special events, lots of lights, trees, snowmen etc and a HUGE Santa! Other special events such as concerts and pantomimes occur in the larger caverns and you can even get married in there, if that floats your boat!! It was an unexpectedly enjoyable afternoon!
We spent 8 nights in total on our lovely, secure moorings at the Black Country Living Museum/Dudley Canal Trust. We continued with our list of jobs, adding others to it, too – there are always things to add to the “To-Do” list! A couple of boats came and went to use the service station but other than those, we had the place to ourselves! It is a very quiet mooring in terms of towpath walkers – only visitors to the museum have access during museum opening hours, but a large road runs alongside the car park/moorings and there must be some very sick and accident prone people in Dudley as there was a constant stream of ambulances hurtling past! I had a trip on the bus to Merry Hill one day to renew our Three broadband contract on one of the Black Friday deals – a good deal it was, too! Although the signal there was very good, the new router seemed to improve it even further – can’t complain about that! On Thursday, Tony visited the museum – dogs are not allowed and I’m not really a museum person, so I stayed on the boat with Sal. He enjoyed his day out! We were planning to move on Saturday, 27th, but Storm Arwen put a temporary stop to that. We woke up to snow on Saturday morning and we also had some shenanigans during the night at 1.00.a.m. – something clonked the boat – a good, hard thump at that! Tony went out, was looking up and down the boat and could see nothing, so assumed one of the logs on the roof had rolled, although he couldn’t see anything that had dislodged. He went to get back on the boat, slightly mystified, only to spot that the old and built-like-a-tank workboat (black so he hadn’t spotted it when he’d first gone out!) which was moored opposite us had broken free of its moorings and had blown across the canal, crashing into us! I had to get dressed and go outside, too; it was freezing cold and blowing a hooley! The boat was still tied on at one end, so had just swung across the arm, bumping us as it went, so we tied it off on our side to stabilise it, Tony then got onto it, made his way along it, clambering over the spars as he went (it’s an old, open, cargo carrying boat, so no cabin, just an empty hull, really). He took a rope attached to the front, and climbed off on the other side. I then released the rope from my side, Tony pulled it back over and re-tied it. The only thing then, though, was that he had to go out of the gate on the other side, walk up and round over the road and into the car park gate on this side, opening and closing the two padlocks as he went, with now cold and wet hands! (After museum closing hours there is no way to get from one side of the moorings to the other as they swing the connecting bridge out of the way.) A restorative cup of tea and all was good again. Sal was a little unsettled due to the wind, though, so was on the bed for most of the night, too! On Saturday, the museum was closed due to the weather, so the car park gates were locked. Consequently, it was like having a huge, private, secure garden, so Sal and I only stayed within the boundary of the museum area and she had an off-lead experience – and loved it! Lots of snuffling under things and a bit of digging as well as lots of chasing sticks! She is so rarely off-lead, as we generally walk in an unknown area each day, so it was a real treat for her.
On Sunday, we had a cold and frosty start, but set off towards Titford Pools – I had my Covid booster jab booked in the area for Monday. We didn’t get very far before we had to stop to clear the prop – a small piece of tarpaulin was halting our progress. Tony was very grateful for the elbow length pond gloves – the water was a tad chilly! Where we were moored at the BCLM/Canal Trust there was no ice on the water, so we were surprised to come across patches of floating ice, in shady parts. We were breaking through as we went but it wasn’t that thick, only a couple of mm – it had only been freezing for a few hours. It wasn’t a problem but it made amazing sounds as it cracked and moved! We got to the bottom of the Oldbury flight of 6 locks without further problems, stopping for a quick coffee before we went up the flight. The ice was quite thick there, though, so Tony walked up to make sure we would have no problems going up in the locks with the ice, but it was clear, apart from that bottom pound. We got to the top of the flight and reversed back into the Tat Bank arm and moored outside the Titford Pumphouse, another secure mooring accessed by a CRT key. I had previously contacted the Birmingham Canal Navigation Society (the Pumphouse is their HQ) and asked about mooring here – technically it is a CRT service point, but we were told it would be fine to moor there at this time of year. Sal and I walked down to Titford Pools in the afternoon – what a gorgeous spot! We walked back to the boat in another snow shower, the snow settling again. Tony had been speaking to a permanently moored boater and they were very welcoming and confirmed that it was perfectly ok for us to stay for a few nights – perfect!
The snow was still laying on Monday 29th, so after Tony’s walk with Sal, he concluded, as the canal was quite iced over by then, that we’d be better to stay on the mooring and just walk to the vaccination centre. We met another of the moorers, Phil, who gave us a private tour of the Pumphouse, plus our plaque for visiting the Pools (even though we hadn’t yet, but he trusted us that we were intending to), after which we walked down the arm to Langley village so that I could have my jab. They were also giving flu jabs to anyone that needed one, so I had a jab in both arms. ? After getting a couple of bits from the small supermarket in the high street, we returned to the boat.
On Tuesday, 30th, the snow and ice had melted. Tony helped Phil down the locks as he was going to Birmingham for a few days, then we set off for our journey to Titford Pools, another Silver Propeller Challenge location – our 19th. Again, it WAS a bit of a challenge! Although the Pools themselves have recently been dredged, allowing for easy cruising, the canal leading to the Pools is notoriously shallow and we grounded out more than once, and had to get off the boat to pull it along. At one point, we were royally stuck so Tony was on the towpath with the bargepole, trying to push the boat out into deeper water. He was a little over enthusiastic, though, he pushed a little too hard – and went in!!! He likes to give me exciting things to write about!! As it was only shallow, he only went waist deep before he found his footing and stood up again and, very fortunately, two young chaps were on hand and hauled him out again. There were no injuries other than to his phone, which apparently didn’t like its impromptu dip! The bargepole was floating on the water, so I knelt on the back deck and managed to fish it out, fortunately! I threw him the stern line, he pulled the boat back in and jumped on, I jumped off. A hot shower and change of clothes and he was sorted – I carried on pulling the boat along whilst he showered. That wasn’t the end of our problems, though! At the last bridge before the Pools themselves, we got stuck in the mud again, so with both of us pushing and pulling we managed to get through. We did lose the boat hook in our efforts – it slipped off the roof as we were flinging the ropes around. Unfortunately, it sank, and being made of aluminium, we wouldn’t have been able to find it with our magnet. We had a lovely trip round the Pools, which nearly made up for the troubles to get there – an expensive trip, though, in terms of damaged phone and lost boat hook! We moored as best we could – about 2′ out from the bank and I went to Aldi to get a few day’s supplies. We returned to the Pumphouse to moor overnight again without any troubles at all – we knew where the shallow parts were so we were able to avoid them!
We had an early start on Wednesday, 1st December, and worked the 6 locks from the Titford Canal to get back onto the main BCN. Tony went ahead and set all the locks – a couple of the pounds were quite low so he let some water down first. We knocked off all six locks in 42 minutes – not bad going! They are all very shallow though, you feel as though you are steering through custard! You can smell tar in the area of the bottom two locks; there used to be a tar producing factory there and as you travel and disturb the mud, the oil from the tar still bubbles up to the surface! We stopped for a quick coffee at the bottom of the flight, then returned the four miles to the moorings at the BCLM/ Dudley Canal Trust. We were due our Boat Safety Scheme inspection, so had arranged it for it to be done there on Friday 3rd Dec, as it has good access.
Tony spent all day on Thursday, 2nd December getting the boat ready for our Boat Safety Scheme inspection – there wasn’t a lot to do but he wanted to go through the checklist to make sure we complied. I spent the day cleaning in order to present a nice looking boat to the inspector. A clean and tidy boat implies a well maintained boat? Well, that was the theory!
On Friday, the boat inspector, David, duly arrived at lunchtime. I took Sal out whilst he did the inspection, three people and a dog on the boat is one person and a dog too many! Sal and I returned from our walk to find David gone – he had deemed our boat safe and it had passed the inspection.? They had had a joke in my absence about our oven – it had to be checked for correct operation and had he still been there when I got back from the walk, they were going to tell me that it had failed because the oven wasn’t clean! The one thing I didn’t clean on the Thursday was the oven!! (It is on our “list” but it’s a job neither of us relish so it only makes it to the top of the list when it can no longer be ignored!! ?)I had managed to get an appointment for a haircut in the late afternoon, my last cut hadn’t been the best one I’d ever had so I’d been waiting for it to grow a bit so that it could be tidied up! It was, happily, a much better cut this time!
On Saturday, some friends from Hordle arrived, Caroline and Richard, popping in to see us before visiting relatives in the area. The time passed very quickly as we were chatting and catching up on all the news – and it was SO lovely to see them!
We had planned to stay at the BCLM moorings for only one more night, Sunday 5th, but the weather was absolutely foul on Monday and Tuesday, 6th and 7th, rainy and very windy, so we decided to stay where we were! Tony had his Covid booster jab booked for Monday, and we had planned to cruise there and then beyond, but fortunately, he was able to get a bus virtually door-to-door, so that was that excursion sorted!
On Wednesday, 8th December, we set off early, heading to Gas Street Basin, in Birmingham. We cruised the Wolverhampton Level again as it is more picturesque than the Birmingham Level Main Line. We spotted a fuel boat so stopped and bought some coal – a fortuitous meeting! We also stopped en route so that I could pick up a couple of Click and Collect orders – Christmas gifts – and I also spent a bit of time looking in a couple of shops at one of the collection sites. We were soon on our way again and arrived in the Basin just as it was starting to get dark. I enjoyed the journey – we had cruised it before but it’s an interesting stretch – part of it directly below the M5, where it is like a secret space; if you were traveling on the M5, you wouldn’t know the canal was even there! Other parts are quite rural, then there’s a long straight stretch that takes you into the heart of Birmingham. Our preferred mooring was taken in the Basin so we went on the mooring directly outside the restaurant on the other side. As it was a Wednesday evening, though, it wasn’t very busy, so it was OK and quite quiet. We did have a problem, though! Tony lit the fire and whether it was due to the wind direction, or whether it was because we were close to the building, we don’t know, but the smoke from the fire kept back-draughting down the chimney and filling the boat! We were waving cushions and tea towels at the smoke detectors as they were constantly going off! We had all the windows open (which kind of negates having the fire going!!) but eventually, once the fire got going properly, it was a little better. However, the CO alarms both went off in the middle of the night – this, we think, was due to the downdraught again, but as the fire was now going nicely, it was releasing CO into the boat rather than smoke. Obviously, that is quite dangerous, so the only way we could stop it was to damp the fire right down and open all the windows again! Chilly!!! Still, better to be chilly than dead! What a night!
On Thursday, we had a Tesco delivery due in the early afternoon so, in the morning, I walked up to the German Christmas Market to have a look around. It’s not really Tony’s thing and we weren’t sure whether we could take Sal, so they both stayed on the boat. It was nice to have a look around and there were a lot of stalls, but there wasn’t a huge variety. They were mostly gluhwein or frankfurter stalls – I’m not fond of frankfurters and it was a bit early for gluhwein, so the only thing I bought was a tub of churros. It all looked very festive though! My walk did remind me just how lovely that part of Birmingham is – the mix of the old and new architecture makes for a very attractive city centre. There were loads of tourists and I can see why they would flock to Birmingham!
Back at the boat, we had had no repeats of the smoke/CO problems throughout the day, so were absolutely dismayed when the wind got up again during the evening. The smoke started to billow out into the boat again and then, just as we were about to go to bed, the CO alarms started to go off again. So, all the windows were opened again to clear the air. We let the fire go out and went to bed. The alarms didn’t stop, though!! We think the downdraught was releasing the CO from the hot embers and ashes in the stove, even though Tony had emptied as much ash as possible. All through the night, the alarms randomly went off, so we ended up opening all the windows, and leaving them open. We finally slept for a couple of hours! What a night – again!!
It was, unsurprisingly, freezing cold in the boat on Friday morning, having had all the windows open for half the night and no fire going!!! We had even turned off the Eberspacher, our diesel heater, as there was another boat breasted up to us, he’d arrived late in the day with no mooring available so we’d offered for him to breast up with us. The Eberspacher is noisy and we didn’t want to disturb Ben next to us, so we’d stopped it from coming on automatically – we have it programmed to come on early each morning during the winter. We didn’t want another night like that, so, even though it was still quite windy, we decided that we needed to move away from the mooring – we needed a good night’s sleep!! We had never experienced these problems with the stove and the downdraught before, and we had been in many windy situations before now! We concluded that it must simply be the topography of the mooring. We set off, leaving Ben to move into our spot, and cruised the four miles to Bournville, mooring up to visit the shop at Cadbury World – more Christmas present shopping! We had intended to continue on for another few miles, but one of the secure moorings was free, so we decided to stay at Bournville for a couple of nights instead. We got settled on the mooring, then Tony, with some trepidation, lit the fire. No smoke billowing into the boat this time – huge relief! We had no further problems with the stove and no alarms going off, either – phew! We had a lovely night’s sleep, too!
So, now we while away the remaining days before Christmas. We decided to cruise the Worcester and Birmingham Canal for a short distance, but only as far as the top of the famous Tardebigge flight – there are 30 locks in the main flight so you don’t want to go down those to just turn round and go back up again, which we would have to do at this time of year to avoid the rivers – and to get to our Christmas mooring on time. There are a couple of towns we can visit and then we will then return the same way, through Birmingham and the Netherton Tunnel again and then down to our Christmas mooring in Hawne Basin.