The Stourport Ring
The Stourport Ring is a connected series of canals forming a circuit around Worcestershire, The Black Country and Birmingham in the Midlands of England. The ring is 74 miles, includes 105 locks and two of the longest navigable tunnels in the country. Hydra is a 70 foot traditional steel hulled narrowboat which has been hired to complete the ten day journey around the loop. I joined the boat in late October 2017 for the chance to experience a few days of life on and along the Black Country canals.
'Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.'
Ratty, The Wind in the Willows
Cruising leisurely along the Worcester Canal, we are approaching Birmingham's city centre as dusk settles. Hydra cleaves a course through dark waters flecked with burnished autumn leaves. Weeping willows dip the waters surface. Waterfowl dart among the reeds. We glide beneath low bridges, vaguely aware of rush hour traffic in the streets above.
Suddenly the canal opens wide and the view changes dramatically. Office and apartment blocks, hotels, shopping centers and giant cranes cram the sky line. Ahead is the Mail Box, a contemporary architectural landmark overlooking a tricky 90 degree bend set in the canal. Two short and deafening blasts issue from the boats horn warning oncoming vessels of our approach. A strong and sudden gust of wind funnels up from a side street catching Hydra's long beam, forcing us off course. Skipper throws the engine into full revs fighting to regain control. After a tense few minutes we finally get traction and Hydra's bow noses round the sharp turn. Rounding the turn the wind drops and we are back again in calm waters.
It is now the blue hour and despite Storm Brian passing overhead the night sky is a deep cobalt hue. City lights shimmer in the rippling waters. We glide through a narrow channel and enter Gas Street Basin, the historic heart of Birmingham's canal navigation. Here are glimpses of the City's industrial heritage in the the few remaining canal warehouses and wharves. A pretty flotilla of painted narrow boats are moored within the basin. On we motor beneath Broad Street and past Brindley Place, the quays brimming with restaurants and bars. Bearing left at Old Turn Junction we merge into the New Line canal and seek out a quiet mooring space for the night.
Shadows of early morning joggers and dog walkers flit back and forth along the tow path beside my cabin window. After a large Full English breakfast; rashers, sausages, fried eggs, fried bread and lashings of coffee, I set out to explore the city. From the serenity and leisure of the canal, the sights and sounds of urban life are a surprise. I make a few quick snaps with my retro Diana camera and jog back to Hydra, keen to get underway and continue our canal adventure.
Casting off, we motor out along the New Line Canal, the city recedes in our wake. In no particular hurry we decide to make a short D-tour down along the Soho Loop. The moment we have made the tight turn into this canal spur we realise we have made a grave mistake! Seated along the towpath is a seemingly endless row of fishermen, their enormous eight meter rods extended across the waters. Unable to alter course we are obliged to run the gauntlet. Our momentum forces each angler to hastily withdraw their rods from our path. The men are quite irate at our intrusion, many direct insults our way. The next few miles are tortuous. Eventually we pass the last of them only to find ourselves motoring through the grounds of a notorious prison followed by a psychiatric hospital.
Linking back with the New Line Canal we are exhausted from such a traumatic start to the days boating and agree that stopping for elevenses might restore us. There is a great sense of freedom in being able to pull up randomly in the course of a journey. All we need is a grassy bank into which we can hammer a set of stakes and secure the boats mooring lines, mean while the kettle whistles into life.
Tea and biscuits downed, we pull up stakes and continue our journey. Our course runs straight, transporting us deeper into the Black Country. In this immediate world we are surrounded by tranquility and nature; ducks, coots, moorhens, flocks of Canada geese, enormous herons poised for a catch. Beyond the canal banks stretch endless rows of factories and warehouses. During the industrial revolution of the 19th century this region was one of the most industrialised parts of the UK. The canal network was constructed for the purpose of servicing the many foundries, mines, factories and brickworks. Between 1768 - 1863, over 180 miles of canals planned by the engineers Brindley, Smeaton and Telford. Hundreds of barges worked these canals every day, supplying raw materials from the mines to the foundries, and transporting finished goods onward to London, Liverpool and Manchester. Transport along the canal declined from the early 1900's in favour of the faster alternatives of rail and road. Today, boating along the canals is once again on the increase as more people are drawn to experience the beauty, history and solitude of its environment.
At two we decide to stop for lunch. It proves more difficult this time to find a successful mooring. With each attempt to make landfall Hydra runs aground. Finally, on the fourth attempt, we have success and settle down to sausage and pickle sandwiches washed down with more strong tea.
Ahead lies a significant landmark in our journey, the Netherton Tunnel. Constructed in the 1850's by itinerant Irish navvies, it is almost two miles long, linking the New Line to the Dudley Canal. The Netherton Tunnel runs parallel to the older Dudley Tunnel and was built to relieve congestion in the Dudley. The Dudley Tunnel could only facilitate one boat at a time to pass through its length. To delay matters further each cargo boat had to be 'legged' or walked through by its crew. As canal traffic grew in the 1800's boats would often have to wait several days to get through. The Netherton is wider and can accommodate boats traveling in either direction at the same time. It has a tow-path on either side allowing boats to be pulled by horses. Ventilation shafts were built into the tunnel allowing diesel operated boats to navigate its length. Nine men died and eighteen were seriously injured during its construction, a sobering fact as we make our approach.
I am mildly apprehensive about the experience, will it be claustrophobic and oppressive inside? What happens if we meet another boat midway? Might there Trolls lurking inside?
Darkness descends and with it a damp chill as we disappear into the tunnel and under the Rowley Hills. Straining into the blackness I can just make out the exit at the far end, a tiny pin prick of light in the distance. Sound is amplified within this curved brick passage so it is easy for the crew to converse between bow and stern. The engine is a steady strum and water swooshes as the tiller is jogged to and fro correcting our course.
A feeling of awe and wonder overcomes any issues of apprehension. After fifteen minutes we are deep inside a hill, above us sits many tonnes of earth, trees, slag heaps, fields, roads and villages. I crane my head back and look up through the ventilation shafts catching glimpses of the sky far above. By the dim light of the boats navigation lamp curious details catch my eye, the quantity of glow sticks which litter the tow path, daubs of graffiti "No Love" scribbled on the walls. A pedestrian traveling in our direction out walks us. Water slicks down the walls and the uneven path is filled with long puddles. For a long time a light approaches us, increasing in size and strength the closer it comes. Peering into its glare it is impossible to tell what the source of light could be. Only as it is directly upon us do we realise it is just a cyclist on the towpath. The mind can play tricks down here. Forty minutes after entering the tunnel we emerge blinking into Bumble Hole.
With the place to ourselves we drift from bank to bank searching for the perfect mooring. We are in the heart of Black County now. Coal mining once dominated and it is said that the region provided the inspiration for Tolkien's Mordor. A visitor to the area in 1862 described it as "black by day and red by night". I try to image an apocalyptic landscape, scorched and blackened with belching dust and smoke from the collieries and foundries. Today it resembles the Shire, leafy and green complete with the occasional hoot of a Tawney owl. Settling down for the night, the idyll is shattered by a group of youths firing off a string of bangers in the shrubbery beside us, or perhaps they were mischievous hobbits . . .
Another massive fry up kickstarts the day; sausages, rashers, eggs and crisp fried bread. We drift down the Dudley for a short distance, cruising past quirky live-aboard types, their cabin roofs cluttered with bushels of firewood, pot plants, satellite dishes and other paraphernalia. A quick shop is in order before the journey proper continues. Essentials such as Tiffin, fudge, Banks ale, grainy mature cheddar and pickle are required. Above canal level we are confronted with a perpetual stream of cars, and the artificial sounds and smells of urban life. Loitering around the supermarket I note the subtle differences between our two societies from discrepancies in the price of goods, to everyday human mannerisms. With bulging bags of groceries we return hastily to the sanctuary of canal life.
Groceries stowed, we cast off and resume our journey. Today we will encounter locks for the first time on the journey. Leaving Dudley town behind, the canal narrows, twists and meanders. It makes a change from the New Line of yesterday with its long straight runs. Here on the Dudley, you have to more alert, ready to slow down and pull in when a boat approaches from the opposite direction. Trees and reeds dip low on the banks. There is more wilderness here, but, oddly, less wildlife.
In anticipation of long lazy hours of nothingness I had brought along a book to keep me occupied. Instead, I am completely absorbed with our passage. Perhaps because we are moving at such a slow pace, almost four miles per hour, there is more time to observe and engage with our surroundings. Along the canal bank we see into semi suburban back gardens and factory yards. Some residents take advantage of the canal environment, building smart pontoons furnished with barbecues and chimineas. For others it is a forgotten place of tangled briers, lopsided sheds and tired garden furniture. Many turn their backs entirely on the canal, constructing wooden shuttering or high concrete walls to block the water out. There is history in these factory buildings, the anchors and chains for the Titanic were forged here, so too was the casing for infamous WWII Bouncing Bomb.
We arrive at Park Head junction just in time for elevenses and to contemplate our first lock. This wharf is well serviced by the Canal and River Trust. We find a functioning fresh water tap and a handy place to dispose of rubbish. Another boat happens to be on its way up through the lock and I take the opportunity to watch the process. A woman is at the tiller while her partner works the windless. Their boat is part work boat and part accommodation. The paint work is bright and cheerful. The crew look so confident and I'm envious of the woman's deftness in handling the long boat through the lock.
I shouldn't be too surprised that women are entirely capable of managing such vessels. During World War II women volunteered to operate canal barges ferrying vital supplies across the countries canal network. They were know as the 'Idle Women'. a bit of a misnomer as the work they did was heavy and physically demanding. The nickname is adapted from the initials IW (Inland Waterways).
The narrow boat pulls in beside us and we chat while they wait their turn to avail of fresh drinking water. They don't appear to have a built in water tank as I notice them line up a selection of large Jerry cans. The man carriers two portable loos to the pump out station. Their facilities must be quite stark in comparison to our luxury craft - en suite bathrooms, heated towel rails, WiFi, LED lights and hot running water.
The lock chamber is full, ready for us to motor into and get on with the operation of descending to the lower canal level. Skipper steers Hydra into the chamber while the crew is dispatched ashore on windless duty. We are equipped with lock keys, for winding the slice gates and a set of 'handcuff keys', for releasing a pin in the lock, a type of anti-vandal device. With a crew member positioned on either side of the two lock gates our first task is to unlock the windless using the handcuff keys. Then we attach our lock keys to the windless, rotating the keys arm to raise the sluice gate. Once raised the water gushes out of the chamber into the lower canal, allowing the water level inside the lock to drop, and with it the boat. As the chamber empties a chilly, weedy smells wafts up. When the water in the lock chamber is level with the water in the canal below, we open the gates.
It requires a degree of force to open a lock gate. Foot grips (scorchers) are set in the ground and these are helpful to brace your feet against. Gates open, Hydra exits out onto the lower canal level. Back at the lock, we close the gates, achieving a neat miter. Then we lower the sluices and reset the locks, leaving it ready for the next vessel. With a quick trot downhill we rejoin the boat.
Motoring on we make an advanced decision to stop for lunch at one. A large steak pie is retrieved and put into the oven to simmer away while we continue along the canal. Our lunch stop 'The Waterfront' turns out to be a disappointingly grim edifice. A failed complex of vacant shops, offices and apartments. In the large marina numerous boats are moored for the winter season. They provide the only splash of colour in this gray space. We make Hydra fast against the quay and settle down to lunch; piping hot pie, cheese, pickle and ale.
After lunch we cast off and have a short passage before we arrive at our first flight of locks. Rounding a bend in the canal we come out high above another enormous shopping centre 'Merry Hill'. Hundreds of cars are parked below us. Large signs advertise the presence of well know retail stores within. The canal skirts around this retail mammoth and we leave the frantic shoppers in our wake. At last we arrive at Delph Flight, a sequence of eight locks which will drop us down to Black Delph Junction. Standing at the top of the flight it is a dramatic view downwards.
The first lock is ready for us to enter. Skipper motors Hydra into the lock chamber while the crew manage the gates. A surprise is in store as we spy not one but two other boats coming up the flight of locks towards us. Uncertain of the etiquette when meeting other boats mid flight, we head down to greet the on coming crews. They are volunteers with the Dudley Canal Trust returning from a boating rally downstream. One of their boats is a traditional Butty Boat, an open hulled cargo vessel. Along the open canal stretches it is towed by the proceeding motorised boat, but through the locks it must be pulled by the crew.
We are invited aboard the butty for a tour of its living quarters, a tiny space roughly 6 square meters at the boats stern. There's a small cast iron stove for heating and cooking, a large iron kettle for boiling water. A table which also doubles as a bed and a series of dresser drawers in which the children slept at night. A copper basin for washing and a pan for toilet and slopping out. The space is decorated in old black and white photographs, lacework and brass trinkets. While utterly charming it would have been extremely cramped and confining for a large live-aboard family.
With Hydra and her skipper waiting patiently in a "pond", a small holding area beside the lock, we make way for the Butty Boat and her crew to pass. Ahead the route is clear and the next seven locks come in quick succession. Ashore, the crew is kept busy; winding, unwinding, pushing, pulling, locking and unlocking. We arrive at the bottom of the flight tired yet pleased with our achievement.
Mutterings are made about a visit to a nearby pub in search of a phantom brew. We make fast to the quayside at Black Delph Junction and ascend to street level. Vainly we try to cross a busy main road and wait for a break in traffic. Still waiting after ten minutes we give up and turn back. In the dropping light we weave our way past Silver End. We pass endless rows of newly built terraced and detached brick houses. Hybrid SUV's are hooked up to recharging stations in driveways. As our boat is level with kitchen windows, we are voyeurs looking in at family life settling in for the evening.
Lays Junction is where we hope to find a mooring for the night. We are alone in this faintly desolate spot, no other boats, no cyclists or pedestrians commuting on home from work. A high cement block wall covered in graffiti is an uncompromising barrier between the canal and the world beyond. A solitary street light casts an eerie orange haze on the towpath. Fireworks explode in the sky above. We find some old iron mooring rings through which to loop Hydra's lines. A short dark walk down the towpath should lead us to the Samson and Lion. A sign outside the pub boasts a skittle alley which lures in the weary crew. The barmaid seems surprised that a group of adults is requesting skittles, with a slight scowl she delivers the disappointing news that there is no longer skittles. Somewhat dejected we settle instead for a few glasses of locally brewed ale. The pub dog, a small pug like mutt with bulging eyes and a faux diamante collar settles on the window seat beside us.
We are woken early by the shrill call of a nervous coot paddling around the boats hull. I am stiff this morning, the previous days exercise has woken little used muscles. A hearty breakfast is required as ahead of us are sixteen locks. Eggs over easy, sausages, rashers and not one but two slices of fried bread slathered in marmalade. Thus filled we make to cast off for the days adventures.
The first lock is directly in front of our nights mooring. It needs to be filled before we can open the gate and let the boat into the chamber. The windless is stiff and unyielding. A man walking a dog stops to watch my miserable effort. "Looks like sumun' forgot t' hav' their Weetabix this maun' ", he comments in broad Black County Spake. I daren't tell him about my enormous fry up! With a bit more effort and grunt the sluice finally rises and the lock fills with a mighty roar of water. Its barely ten minutes into the day and I'm already breaking a sweat.
As the morning passes, we steadily descend the long flight of locks. Adjusting to the rhythm of the process now, it take us between 10 and 15 minutes to pass through each lock. The scenery here is interesting and pretty enough. We have left the heavy industrial sights behind. Along this stretch are charming lock keeper cottages, Victorian pubs, boat houses and tall brick warehouses. Passing old Dadford's Shed and the air is permeated with epoxy resin fumes. It sparks in me distant memories of years spent on the yacht racing circuit. This area is famed for its glass blowing heritage and somewhere, around lock twelve, is a museum which will tell us about this history. Our goal to arrive in time for lunch and a tour of Red House Cone, a giant bottle shaped kiln, the last surviving one of its kind in the country.
Winching, winding, pushing and pulling we arrive at the twelfth lock at exactly noon, mooring beneath the towering Red House kiln. Alighting onto the towpath I step straight into a fresh dog turd. I search frantically for a clean patch of grass to clean my shoes but it appears we have landed in a veritable mine field of dog pooh, every square foot is covered in the offensive stuff.
Surprisingly, the museum tour is free and, even better, we learn that there is a live demonstration of glass blowing just about to start. The demonstration is so enthralling that we lose all track of time. It is after three when we get back to Hydra. There are still four more locks to complete the flight and a few miles stretch of open canal before we reach our nights mooring.
Exiting our final lock for the day we congratulate ourselves on a satisfying days teamwork. Having spent much of the day on dry land, the crew is now back onboard. At Wordsley Junction to turn a sharp left. Here we leave the Dudley and travel along the Stourbridge Canal, a short spur which takes us into Stourbridge town. It is a narrow two mile stretch, a towpath for pedestrians and cyclists on one side while the other is banded with aging, dilapidated warehouses. Suburban back gardens spill higgle-piggle down a steep bank into the water. It seems like a good place to catch a fleeting glimpse of a kingfisher. The bank is high and muddy, perfect for building burrows. I sit in the bow and wait in hopeful anticipation of spying an iridescent blue flash of this furtive bird.
Darkness envelopes us as we pull into Stourbridge. The wharf boasts full boating facilities; water, pump-out, fuel, supplies, but we are unable to access as the marina is already crowded. Heavy rain sets in as we trudge back from a supermarket, running the gauntlet of drunkards that inhabit the quay. Several large, filthy boxer type dogs roam about. We skuttle on, light the stove and batten down the hatches for the night.
Morning dawns bright and the crew is cheerful in anticipation of the day ahead. Following the all important fry-up, our first task is to turn Hydra back around the way we came. We reverse a short distance to a Winding Hole. Winding Holes purpose built widenings along the canal to allow boats to turn in order to change direction. It requires quite a bit of skill on the skippers part managing tiller and engine to accomplish this. The crew sits in the bow and tries to fend off the hard dense shrubbery which threatens to engulf us. Once Hydra has turned we retrace our route back to Wordsley Junction.
Somewhere along the way an enormous branch manages to snag on Hydra's bow just below the water line. As we cruise along it gathers up more branch like debris. At Wordsley Junction I hop ashore and manage to wiggle the offending branch from the bow. Free at last we bear continue westwards along the Stourpourt canal. Today promises open vistas, pastures, woodland, rocky outcrops and the occasional lock.
There are no locks for the first few miles so I have a go at steering along the straighter reaches. I spent several years helming on ocean racing yachts and it was a task I always enjoyed, getting the feel of the boat, adjusting the tiller to maximise the vessels speed and progress. Steering a canal boat is a different but no less absorbing experience. Despite the slow pace, the vessels course must be constantly corrected, navigating around tight bends, beneath extremely low bridges, pulling over to let other boats pass demands concentration. However, it is still possible to enjoy a hot cuppa and a fist full of biscuits.
We motor on through Primrose Hill where meadows are filled with grazing horses and the occasional herd of goats. A cyclist peddling past shouts over at me, "Go on then, show us your best Titanic". I cast wide my arms and give my best Kate Winslet impersonation. Holding the infamous pose my sun glasses fly off my head and I laugh out loud. Its been a while since I felt quite as happy as this.
Along the journey we pass several boats which have run aground close to the canal banks. We offer help but there is not much to do in this situation other than rev the boats engine back and forth until you eventually squirm free. We encounter much more boating traffic than in previous days. There are queues to pass through locks and under bridges, queues for drinking water too. Novice boating families are getting into trouble at locks and banks. Lots of boating dogs too, small terriers sporting life jackets trot back and forth on cabin roofs. Larger mutts peer anxiously out of the bow or stern compartments. Later in the morning we cruise into Stourton Junction which bring us to the end of the Stourbridge Canal and out on to the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal line (commonly know as Staffs & Worcs).
With eight miles to cover in order to reach our destination, Kidderminster, we cruise steadily on. The voyage is punctuated at intervals by lock work as we continue to descend towards the River Severn. The Staffs & Worcs canal unfurls in long meandering stretches, pretty countryside feasts the eyes. Occasionally the bank is faced with high cliffs of sandstone rock. Hidden in the woods, in these parts, is a labyrinth of man made caves which were used to store munitions during the wars. Rumour has it that the caves have been selected as a possible bunker headquarters for government officials in the event of nuclear war.
Enormous beech, oak and sweet chestnut trees skirt the waters edge. Turning leaves blaze orange, yellow, russet and gold. On a hill in the distance is a spectacular plantation of Scotts Pine trees, their red/gray trunks gleaming in the clear autumnal light. We stop for a boatman's lunch at Kinver; sausage, cheese and crisp sandwiches all washed down with Banks, the local ale. We still have another four miles to go on this last leg and the light is already beginning to fall. With this sense of urgency we crank up the engine and Hydra reaches dizzying speed of five miles an hour. The villages of Caunsall and Cookley flash by in a blur.
Wolverley Lock, our last lock of the day, coasts into view. For me it is also the last lock on this voyage. I take a final go on the tiller, coaxing Hydra into the waiting chamber. It is satisfying work keeping this big beast in check, nudging the engine forward so that our stern does not get stuck on the sill at the rear of the lock gate. not too much revs that we end up ramming the gates in front. As the chamber empties the noise of rushing water intensifies and the stones walls are revealed slimy and slick.
Holding the boat against the quay while the crew hops back onboard a strong overflow catches Hydra's beam and forces us into the opposite bank. The gushing water keeps us pinned. We scrape ungainly through dense branches and some choice language is exchanged between skipper and crew. The drama escalates when a stiff laurel scoops up our boat hook and tosses it into the canal. An impulsive and daring retrieval of the boat hook is quickly executed. Back on course again, such excitement calls for strong tea and Jaffa cakes.
At twilight we arrive into Kidderminster finding refuge for the night on a bank along with several other boaters. In the morning I will be all packed up, reluctantly facing into a journey homeward bound. The remaining crew will continue the voyage, passing down the mighty River Severn, taking on the Tardebigge flight of thirty locks and so completing the Stourport Ring. Over a feast of battered cod and chips and more ale it is time to reflect on a epic few days boating. There are heroic deeds and minor misadventures to retell, marathon breakfasts, doomed quests for phantom beer and skittles and failed kingfisher vigils. But mostly it is chance to recall memories of a journey on and through a part of the UK's extraordinary industrial heritage.