“Smerrick” - One Small Step for Mankind

Cor! It’s been that cold round here even the sheep are hibernating. I just managed to snap a shot of one of ‘em emerging from his burrow to hunt for food in the mistaken belief that spring had turned up. I leaped over the fence just in time - his fangs were enormous.

Back in the wonderful world of coal-boating, I managed a mad four-day dash on Roach to make much needed coal deliveries to customers between our yard at Awbridge, and Tardebigge New Wharf on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. The Canal and River Trust had begrudgingly allowed a four-day window in the winter maintenance programme so that we could make make this trip. We had asked for a five day window, just to allow for problems, old age etc, but four was deemed the most that could possibly be allowed. This meant that I had four very long and intense days, but it did have its rewards - a good thirst was built up, and then slaked with some excellent beer in the company of Mr Wigley, Mr Russell and all the other beautiful people of Broad Street.

Another reward is the view towards Birmingham on a winters morning as the approach is made by canal from Smethwick. It’s quite attractive in an urban sort of way.

Speaking of Smethwick, or “Smerrick” in the local parlance, I recently dug out a photo from about twenty five years ago of Roach descending the locks there festooned with local passengers. My over-riding memory of this event is that not one of ‘em bought a ticket. I imagine that they are all respectable members of society now, having seen at first hand what becomes of folk who take no notice at school. That gate, incidentally,  is now in preservation at Kew Gardens.

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Back into present times. After working up Smethwick Locks, and after having to fill the pounds between them with water, it was back to the reason for the trip - coal deliveries, which meant a bit of smart reversing along the “Engine Arm” to the moorings there.

Like all canals everywhere, the cut through Smethwick could do with dredging. I expect that this will only happen when, or possibly if, Bill Gates leaves his entire fortune to the Canal & River Trust. Bizzarely, the Engine Arm, a dead end stretch of canal departing from the Old Main Line above Smethwick Locks is surprisingly deep, and presents no problems to Roach reversing along it. The engine arm passes over the New Main Line of the Birmingham Canal via a fine, cast iron aqueduct, designed, we are reliably informed, by Thomas Telford. It is believed that he specified “no fog”, but to no avail.


Here is a picture of Roach returning over the aquaduct heading towards the recent housing development which replaced a handsome factory with “EVER READY” emblazoned across it’s wall in contrasting brickwork. This from the days when business’s intended to be around for ever, rather than the two or three weeks expected these days. 

Thomas Telford was also responsible for the magnificent Galton Bridge a little further along the New Main Line canal, which is also constructed of cast iron. This bridge is a favourite spot for the odd scallywag to indulge in a spot of target practice on boats passing underneath, safe in the knowledge that, even if an irate boater caught up with them, a severe wheezing at would be all the boater would be capable of after such an ascent.


Passing further along towards Oldbury, an overwhelmingly massive work of art of the “Utilitarian” school has been installed on the canal through Smethwick and West Bromwich. It is very impressive, but It turns out that all this scaffolding is holding up the M5 motorway, or so it seems. I hope it works. Whilst they are at it, they might as well fill the spaces between the pillars with glazed panels, which would complete the weather-proofing of this canal, and make it a world-class destination for people hell-bent on “well-being”.



The conscientious reader of this rubbish will be aware that we do not pass along the Old Main Line of the Birmingham Canal very often, as the New Main Line is a more direct route between Tipton and Birmingham, albeit slightly less scenic. The New Main Line is currently closed whilst having new walls fitted to stop fish from escaping. I can’t see why they would want to escape, mind, as there are lots of interesting obstacles, provided free of charge by the local populace, for fish to amuse themselves swimming around. 

Our tame boatman, Pete, has since been out and about on Roach delivering much needed solid fuels to the freezing gentle-folk of Shropshire, Cheshire and Staffordshire. Here’s a picture of him turning up for duty. He lives for bad weather, the badder the better. 


Out with the Old…...

Well, we’ve had some snow then. You’d think that we’d never had any before. Just to prove that we have - here’s a picture taken in Gas Street Basin, Birmingham, around 1991.

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Roach is the middle boat, the others (for those of you who just have to know) are Cedar, Cyprus, Argon and Yeoford.


The recent snow did impact on us, though, and delayed our departure from Awbridge for a few days. It seems that our particular part of South Staffordshire, together with the adjoining part of Shropshire, had loads more snow than the rest of the country. We couldn’t get off the yard for two days, but luckily we had a crate of Bathams laid by for just such an emergency. 

The snow-scape did provide scope for some seasonal photos with the old Kodak Brownie, and, because I can, I include a couple for your delectation and enjoyment. The arty one is taken through the rather fine brickwork on Awbridge Bridge, the other is of Dimmingsdale Lock.


We finally managed to persuade Pete to board Roach and he set off for all points North. Obviously, it was chucking it down with rain when he set off - it is traditional with Pete, but he loves it, and wouldn’t have it any other way. We did manage to relieve him for a couple of days to allow him to dry out, but made him return when we got to Middlewich. This gave him the opportunity to ascend the Cheshire Locks, nick-named “Heartbreak Hill” in recent years by people for whom more than two locks in one day constitutes strenuous exercise. He got back to the yard in time for Christmas. Just.


The cold weather has ensured that we have been very busy delivering by road as well as by boat, and Jenny has been kept busy (and warm) bagging up on the yard. Here she is loading coal into the hopper with our JCB (Jenny’s Coal Brute). She is an able operator of this machine, and has perfected the “tongue-sticking-out-in-concentration” technique. 

Her enthusiasm for all things coal is a joy to behold, and this made my choice of Christmas gift for her extremely easy. She has had to wrap it herself though - in around 1200 individual parcels.

I have been delving into the “Plastic Bag of History” again, and found a few more interesting photos. The first shows Roach tied up at the bottom of the "Rochdale Nine Locks” in Manchester. This was taken in 1988 (I think), and there wasn’t a soul to be seen anywhere. I had a good night out in the pubs around Deansgate, and then a quiet nights sleep - I don’t imagine that would be possible nowadays.

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This next photo is of “Roach" tied outside of Dave Blowers’ “Stewponey" opposite Langley Maltings up “The Crow”, taken around 1990, I would guess. The maltings were still in use then, malting barley for Banks’s Brewery. I was lucky enough to be given a tour of the maltings as we were trying to interest them in buying their anthracite through us. The (six, I think) boilers were individualy hand fired, and each boiler had a small pile of anthracite by it, delivered by a wooden two-wheeled barrow. Even the wheels on these barrows were made of wood. We never got the job, which was a shame, but the maltings closed soon afterwards and then, as all buildings that the owners of wish to develop, suffered from a mysterious fire. The remains of the maltings are still there, but I imagine that total demolition will be the only viable option now. 

The reason we tied there was the “Bridge Inn” public house that housed the Holt, Plant & Deakin brewery (actually owned by Ansells, but nevertheless a welcome diversion). This pub was on the bridge behind the photographer (me!) and has sadly just been demolished. This pub was used regularly by Dave and myself, as was the “Crosswells” just down the road. Actually, Dave and I used most of the pubs in the Black Country regularly, and there are still lots of good ‘uns still extant.

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The final photo is of Vic Berry’s scrap-yard in Leicester, also taken around 1988, and shows how to neatly stack obsolete transportation artefacts. I was quite surprised that there was not a similar heap of old Grand Union boats there. 

Happy New Year to one and all.

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A Winter Miscellany


Having seen the pictures of Peter and Kirk enjoying themselves cavorting on the top planks of the Narrow Boat Trusts’ boats, Brighton and Nuneaton, in my previous blog post, our former advertising guru, Mr Langford, decided that he should take up the challenge. He donned his special “top-plank walking” hat, knitted from steel wool, which, even though he denies it, contains a gyroscope and a top of the range “sat-nav” system linked directly to his brain by a couple of loose strands of wool. It is a shame that unbeknownst to him, he was wearing it back-to-front which meant that he was unable to let go with both hands without falling over. Even with vociferous encouragement from the assembled onlookers, he refused to let go and fall in. No prizes for him, then.

Back to reality, and the latest news from the wonderful world of coal-boating.


After almost losing the sun in a load of airbourne Saharan sand recently, it looks like we might actually get a winter this year. A red sun is the harbinger of a dreadful winter, apparently.  We have already had a few frosts, and some customers have had actual snow falling. Whoopeee! It is surprising how much heat a coal man can generate by rubbing his hands together when cold weather is forecast. He can get even more excited when the orders come rolling in - get on the coal hotline now to avoid disappointment. All tastes catered for!


We’ve been out and about as usual this autumn, and we even made time to visit the Stourbridge gathering in October. This was the first time that Roach has appeared at this do, although we have attended over the years by public transport. It was decided that a bed on site would be better than taking a bus ride back to the yard whilst busting for the loo. Ian Braine joined us for the trip from Awbridge to Stourbridge just to keep his hand in. and was allowed to return Roach to Awbridge with just young George for company. This gave me time to head north to meet Dev at Yarwoods Basin.


I joined Dev Shep aboard his boat Effingham on the River Weaver in Northwich to finally deliver the coal that he had loaded earlier at Awbridge. This involved a short trip from Yarwoods Basin, then a gruelling couple of hours work hand-balling several tonnes of out of the boat and making the final delivery by the time honoured “wheel-barrow” method. Dev is very much the modern, or “Yoof”, boater, and is the epitome of cool with nonchalant attitude and "shades and hoodie” look. The picture below shows Effingham returning downstream towards Hunts Locks in Northwich. The boatyard on the left was Pimblotts, where some of the “Admiral” class narrow boats were built for the British Waterways fleet around 1960. These were among the last carrying narrow boats ever built. Effingham, as the name would suggest, is an “Admiral” class boat, and not a comment aimed at the Canal and River Trust. Effingham, however, was built just below Hunts Locks by Yarwoods. It seems that Pimblotts yard is next in line for housing development; we can hope for some fine, visionary and imaginative architecture, but I don’t suppose that’s what we will get. I’m not holding my breath.


Time now for a little lyrical waxing. The autumn colours have been pretty spectacular this year as shown in the following two photos. The first shows Roach above Debdale Lock on the Staffs & Worcs Canal just as the first autumnal colours were showing, and the other is taken in Grub Street Cutting on the Shropshire Union Canal as autumn is in full swing. Fol de lol de rol etc...


Enough of that nonsense, Fotherington-Thomas, and back to reality. 

Another recent trip saw Roach on the Severn again, this time just from Stourport to Worcester. We had to hang about above Lincomb Lock for a while, as the lock keeper could not get to the lock because there was a barge blocking the road! The lock cut was pretty much full, the crane barge was moored there together with the bottom-discharge barge, “Teme”. “Teme” is quite an unusual boat as it is hinged in the middle along its’ length which allows it to discharge dredged material into the Severn estuary. It has not performed this function in living memory, and is now only used as part of the maintenance fleet. It is also the noisiest vessel that I have ever heard moving; the steering cabin being mounted right on top of what essentially is a large outboard motor. The mere threat of being assigned to drive this vessel is used by CRT to keep their unruly staff in line.



After a pleasant overnight sojourn in Worcester, taking in the delights of “the Cardinals' Hat” and “The Plough”, and then snapping a couple of arty shots around Diglis Basin, I managed to get Roach stuck in Tolladine Lock on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. Well stuck. It needed three of us to free it, and not easily at that. We’ve never been stuck here before, and I’m sure that Roach has not spread, so it must be the lock structure that has moved. There is significant cracking to the brickwork on the off-side, and, presumably, this has moved the iron guard outwards into the channel.


It appears that Roach is not the only boat to have been caught out here, I believe that Gort was also stuck here for some time recently. It has been reported to the relevant authority, but as similar situations at Hurleston Bottom Lock and at Napton have been known about for many years with no resolution, I fully expect to be getting stuck here for a few more years yet.

And finally……

Here is a picture of die-hard boaters enjoying a conversation in Slaters Bar on a night out in Wolverhampton. There’s no hope.


Summertime (and the livin’s not easy).

September has been and gone, how time flies when you’re having fun (or being a coal-man). It has been a tremendously busy month for us, I’m now knackered.

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This year, it was the turn of Awbridge to host the Narrow Boat Trusts’ annual “Dance along the Top-Plank” competition. Minutes of mirth were had, and the highlight was Peter Lovett’s comedy impression entitled “I really don’t care to be here”. He managed a creditable second place in the end, even though he absolutely refused to fall in for the amusement of the massed onlookers. He lost points for this failure.


The eventual winner, Kirk Martin, erstwhile author of that fine tome “Crossing the Humber Without Getting Wet", never put a foot wrong on the top-planks. He was subsequently found to be wearing lead-weighted diving boots, which explained his slow progress and  seeming inability to fall over. This impressed the judging panel, and he was was given extra points for imaginative improvisation. He was also given hospital treatment for pulled knees, a seldom seen injury in these parts. In fact, the last time I saw pulled knees, they were being sold in a poulterers shop.

The Narrow Boat Trust boats, Nuneaton and Brighton, have been twice this summer to load coal for their customers down south, and both time been caught out by poorly publicised “Summer Stoppages”. Summer stoppages are a recent phenomenon, they are maintenance works carried out by the Canal & River Trust in the Summer months rather that over the winter months when this sort of work is expected to be carried out as boat movements are significantly lower. One of these stoppages was on the Leicester Section of the Grand Union Canal, during the week leading up to the highly publicised Foxton Vintage Festival - held at Foxton Locks on the Leicester Section and organised by - you’ve guessed it - Canal and River Trust! Nuneaton and Brighton were carrying, as part of their cargo, four tonnes of steam coal destined for the festival, and they only managed to get it there seemingly with some intervention from a higher authority.  Hopefully, this incident will focus the minds of the CRT works planners, and ensure that summer works will only be considered where there are easy alternative routes available. My preference would be NO summer works other than those that can be accommodated overnight as happened in recent years replacing lock gates on the Birmingham canals.



Our jaunt down to the Gloucester & Berkeley Canal with Ryan on Southern Cross is turning into an annual event, and was eagerly anticipated by the young tyro. I do understand his eagerness, the trip involves all aspects of canal boating, from the glorious scenery of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, particularly through Hyde and Kinver, to the might of the Severn and then the sheer scale of the Gloucester & Berkeley Ship Canal. Not that Ryan notices any of these delights, he just wants to “get ‘em ahead” as the old parlance has it. The Severn is certainly the place for gettin’ ‘em ahead.

The same old problems in the same old places keep us interested. Raking out the rubbish from Oldington Bridge on the way to Stourport is an annual event, this bridge-hole is generally famous for electrical goods and we have had a fair assortment over the years. This years' haul included a rather nice mud filled floodlight just to add variety. 



Stourport is always a delight, and we were delighted to see Pete and Julie on their boats, Bascote and Gosport, tied up on the Severn outside the Angel. It would have been rude not to stop and join them in a quick one (or two), particularly as they were on the way up to Awbridge to load Gosport for our next trip up North. We also learned, by calling in of course, that Rob, the landlord of the Rising Sun, is retiring. He has been landlord there ever since I started coal-boating in 1994, and has been a customer from the first trip. He informs me that he will still be making guest appearances behind the bar though, which means that I will still have to call in. And drink beer.

As mentioned earlier, the Severn is definitely the place for gettin’ ‘em ahead. Roach certainly likes the deep water, and even Southern Cross managed to cut a creditable dash.



After making deliveries at Worcester we carried on down past Upton-on-Severn where we saw that Graham Thompson’s boats are once again engaged in the carriage of gravel. This time they are loading at a site just north of Upton and carrying downstream to the existing unloading wharf at Ryall. They are not travelling a great distance, but nevertheless they are saving a lot of lorry miles on the surrounding roads. Long may it continue. Our journey continued in much the same vein as last years (see blog entry entitled Holiday Boating), except that we returned via the Worcester & Birmingham Canal and Wolverhampton Locks.


The return journey was pretty much routine, that is boating, locks, pub, boating locks, pub etc. You get the idea. Oh, and we delivered some coal. There are some further pictures of this trip in the gallery here.

As soon as we were back we just had time, in the company of Ryan and the Ivermees, to drink all the alcohol on our yard after a superb one course meal prepared by Jenny. Next morning, but not too early, we loaded Southern Cross up for Ryan’s own customers and off he went. Gosport and Roach were immediately afterwards loaded up and we were away up North through Stafford and Stoke-on-Trent to make our regular deliveries on the Macclesfield Canal. Below is a picture of Gosport exiting Harecastle Tunnel under tow from Roach. The cut around here is kept up to level by the Canal & River Trust disposing of their surplus tea, which accounts for the peculiar colour.



Thence up the Macc to the Peak Forest Canal, then back down and down the Cheshire Locks to Middlewich. The Macc and the Peak Forest Canal are both blessed with spectacular scenery and it is always a pleasure to boat up there. The Macc is one of those canals where boats jump out at you from behind bridges - by which I mean that plenty of oncoming boaters cut across corners so are not seen until the last minute. It’s a good job that Pete and Julie are both good boaters and alert to all possible disasters. I can report that all possible disasters were averted. 


Cheshire Locks are easy enough to work through as lots of them are paired, that is two locks side by side. It has to be remembered that some of these locks have one chamber that is narrower than usual. A bit of local knowledge is useful, although some of the extremely narrow ones have a small notice fastened to the beam informing the user of this situation. When traversing these locks, the village of Wheelock is eventually encountered. This has a public house in it’s midst, where beer was taken in the company of Pam and Malcolm from the yard at Malkins Bank, together with the MacDonalds of Elizabeth fame, and various other drinking types. Yet another excellent night out. There was even football on the telly!


Middlewich is a busy place for boats, being at the Junction of the Trent & Mersey Canal with the Wardle Canal. The Wardle Canal is about two feet long and turns into the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union Canal at Wardle Lock. I reckon that you could get £200 per day from Harry Hill just by filming the antics of boaters at this junction. There is a shallow arched bridge over the Wardle Canal, which is just below a deep lock with just enough room for one boat to wait, and no visibility around the junction for steerers. Great fun. Kings Lock Chandlery stocks coal supplied by ourselves and delivery by water is encouraged. There is a handy pub next door too.


Pete Hawker took over Roach at Nantwich for the return down the Shroppie, and I returned to the yard to make some road deliveries and load up the Narrow Boat Trust for their second run. 

As soon as Pete returned, Roach was loaded up again, as was Ian Braine’s Triumph. Triumph is a rather nice motor tug built by Ian utilising what was left of an old Birmingham day boat. We then set out to deliver to various points around the Black Country and Birmingham, including to Hawne Basin through Gosty Hill Tunnel - a route that Ian had last travelled as a small boy. This was an extremely intense trip, enjoyable but hard work, which was rewarded by drinks in such hostelries as The Fountain at Tipton, and Ma Pardoes at Netherton. We also went in a place called "The 1000 Trades" in the Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham and paid £4.50 for a pint of beer. Good beer, mind, but then it bloody well aught to be at that extortionate price. They let dogs in though! And Ian.



On our return we had a night tied up amidst the boats attending the Tipton Festival. Ian had his children with him so had to baby-sit, but I manfully went out on my own and found a whole pub full of nefarious characters, all of them intent on drinking too much. What could I do? I did what I could! 

We whizzed back down the Wolverhampton 21, George and Josie, Ian's youngsters doing a grand job of lock-wheeling. We also had our friend Richard in attendance. Many hands…. as they say. 

No time to rest, Lynx and Australia then arrived to load for Alvecote. Lawrence and I  loaded Australia the same afternoon, before repairing to the Bell for much needed rest and relaxation. And drink. Whilst loading Lynx the following morning, Dev and Rachel turned up on Effingham to load coal on our behalf for delivery to customers on the river Weaver. Luckily, they turned up with Andrew Haysome, the worlds tallest boatman, who just loves slinging bags of coal into boats. 

They all left the same day; peace at last.


Finally, on the last day of September, we sent Pete Hawker off again on Roach to start our latest trip up the Shropshire Union. It had to be Pete ‘cos it was raining stair-rods. We’ll relieve him when it stops. 

Summer, but not the First Time.


As usual, we have had a very intense summer so far. The Jules’ Fuels fleet, comprising Towcester, Bideford, Southern Cross, Cedar and Stanton have already been up to Awbridge to load solid fuels, together with Alan Buckle on his boat, Bletchley. Lawrence and Sarah have also been up to load Lynx with coal for the yard at Alvecote. We have managed to fit in the odd trip with Roach too.



The loading of all these boats was not without incident; young Dan - Jules Fuels' cabin boy - was made to perform acrobatics for the amusement of the other crew members and this resulted in him sustaining a broken elbow in the middle of his arm. We subsequently had a pleasant evening, together with the entire population of Dudley, enjoying the hospitality of the A & E Department at Russells Hall. The good news is that he can still use his ‘phone.


Judging has taken place to determine the  “Coal-boater of the Year”, and it turns out that the current holder of the title has not managed to retain it. The judges, including the incumbent, decided that he spent too much time in the pointless occupation of polishing things that were already way too shiny. The above picture shows the judging team, carrying out their duties in much the same manner as mystery shoppers. It is most probable that the members of the judging team are themselves mystified. A decision was finally reached, (after copious amounts of beer, obviously) and the accolade of “Coal-boater of the Year” once again went to the steerer of Southern Cross. By a suprise turn of events, this turned out to be Pete Hawker, as Ryan has now been demoted to deck-hand on the butty-boat Cedar. Here we see Pete aboard Southern Cross receiving the news of his victory in his usual ecstatic manner.



Mr Dimmock took the defeat very well as can be seen in this photograph taken moments after the announcement was made. 

Due to Pete Hawker taking up his prize of an unpaid holiday for one, Andrew Haysom was summoned to assist in the moving of Southern Cross and Cedar from Awbridge back to the vast, sprawling metropolis that is Stoke Bruerne. What with Andrew being over nine feet tall, Cedar did look very small with him steering. This is actually a very rare ‘photo of Andrew without his flat ‘at on.


Our own trip up to the Stratford Canal was intense too; we set off in sweltering heat early one Wednesday morning, only to find that there was a four-hour stoppage at Lock 19 on the Wolverhampton flight to replace a rotten paddle-stand. It would have been nice if the Canal & River Trust had issued a warning notice via their email alerting service (to which we are signed up), as we could have stayed in bed until a reasonable hour, but never mind - the good thing is that this work was being carried out within a week of the old paddle-stand failing, unlike the two years or more that it took to replace the same thing at Lock 20 recently. I used to really enjoy using the Wolverhampton 21 Locks, as they were reasonably well maintained, but recent works have not been up to previous standards. A typical example is the paddle gear re-fitted onto the new bottom gates of Lock 12, which is terribly jerky (and therefore liable to be injurious) to use, and has been since the work was completed last winter. This would be condemned in any other place of work under the auspices of Health & Safety. Mind you, at least it can be operated, albeit with care, unlike the paddle gear that was re-fitted on a couple of the locks on the Staffs & Worcs Canal after replacement  gates were installed this last winter too. These locks, including Awbridge Lock right by our yard, were un-useable as a standard size windlass would not pass over the balance beam because the paddle gear was fitted so badly.   This situation was remedied, as the following ‘photo shows, but not until a few weeks afterwards. Clearly, no-one thought to check that the gear was operable before they left the site. This tells you that the operation of paddles is not tested immediately work is completed. Basic methodology, I would have thought.


Anyway, back to our trip. Up the 21, then along to Factory Locks at Tipton with no more than the usual bumps and scrapes. Below the locks was a different story altogether. The Birmingham Level looked to be around four inches off, not an unusual occurrence in summer, but we use this canal regularly and know that it will be slow going. Bloody hell - it was slow going. This canal has got noticeably worse over the last few years, and in spite of some token spot-dredging by CRT, we still struggle in the same old places. The old gauging stops at Dunkirque and Bromford both brought us to a complete standstill. We got through them both eventually, with a combination of backing off and having a run at the obstacle, and heaving on ropes. Apparently, Bromford Stop has been spot dredged twice recently. No where near enough material was removed on either occasion - the surrounding silt, which is very soft and fluid (and incredibly foul smelling) simply oozes into the hole left by dredging. Whilst we are talking of these stop-places, it appears that CRT are abandoning one side of them by stealth by not attending to overgrowing vegetation. 

The whole length of canal from Tipton to Kings Norton on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal is in a dreadful state. The sheer amount of hard detritus that we hit / get stuck on / get thrown off course by, beggars belief. There are moves afoot to spot dredge some odd places on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, but this will only alleviate a very small part of the problem. The whole lot of this length of canal needs dredging properly NOW. We had to call on a following hire-boat to push us through and out of the Selly Oak railway narrows - once again, this is a location that has been spot-dredged twice recently, with the bare minimum of spoil removed and, once again no where near enough attention paid to the real problem.



Once we got round the junction at Kings Norton, we could see that a dredger was working away on the other side of the guillotine lock. Good news indeed. Now all we needed was to actually get through the lock - something that has been a major problem for years, even though the lock was drained for "major restoration work” a couple of years ago. No chance! Luckily, the dredger was being operated by Dai, a dour Welshman whom we have known for a long time. A rope was attached from Roach to the dredging hopper, and with the dredger pulling and Roach’s Lister pushing, we just managed to get through. Plain sailing from here then. No chance - immediately outside the lock we picked up a rucksack around the propellor - a rucksack with especially strengthened straps it seemed. We did get it off eventually, and left Dai to continue his digging. The canal was markedly improved from here to Lyons Boatyard. We shaved at least two hours off last years time to cover this couple of miles.


We still could not get near the jetty at Lyons though, and still had to employ the plank until we had off-loaded sufficient cargo to pull Roach in. Never mind, we’re used to it. And we get plenty of help here, too.


And we got to go for a curry and some beer later with Sarah and Gary. We had certainly earned it.

We had a couple of small drops to do beyond Lyons Boatyard, and I have to say that I’m glad we were nearly empty, as the canal soon reverts to dreadful. I have to say that boating with an empty boat is completely different to driving a loaded one. We barely registered all the obstacles on the way back to Birmingham, just a small jump as the rear of the boat catches. Even this, though, is doing the boat no good at all. Oh well - it’s never going to be perfect, but recognition of the scale of the problem by CRT would be a start.


What’s happenning next? Oh! The Narrowboat Trust pair, Nuneaton and Brighton are due tomorrow. Yet more work!

Get down Shep

I was sorry to hear of the passing of John Noakes last week. He came to our yard a few years back to do some filming for a DVD about the inland waterways, which was sold to raise money for the Cotswold Canals Trust. Like everyone else of my generation I grew up with him on Blue Peter, and he turned out to be exactly like he appeared on telly - a thoroughly nice bloke with no airs and graces; no “look at me - I’m a star” about him at all. He turned up at the yard dressed all in white - ideal for a coal yard - and wanted a go at bagging coal. We furnished him with a size twelve “Scubbin”, a very large fork to the layman, with which he proceeded to load a fork-full of finest house-coal into our scoop-scales. Unfortunately, he loaded the coal too far forward in the scoop which immediately tipped the coal back out, right down his front. White clothes - I arsk yer! It was a pleasure to meet you Sir.

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Incidentaly, the “Scubbin” he used is a piece of history in itself as it used to belong to “Caggy” Stevens. For those who don’t know, Alan “Caggy” Stevens was, among other things, the last horse boater on the Birmingham Canal Navigations.


There’s been plenty going on around here recently. We dry-docked Roach at Stourbridge in April, mainly to enable a hull survey to be carried out, but also to apply a further couple of coats of fancy, and fantastically expensive black paint to protect the hull from being eaten by our extremely predetory canal water. Stourbridge Dry-dock is a fine place to work on a boat, it is covered, clean, and has access platforms right around  the boat to enable ease of working on it. Mainly, though, Stourbridge has loads of fine hostelries for taking ones ease in after a hard days talking about boat maintenance.



The old girl did look better for a new coat of black, mind. This photo was taken by our esteemed Advertising Executive, Mr Langford, who had inadvertently stepped into the canal having been blinded by the dazzling new paint. I imagine that he has got himself out by now. Another shot from an unusual angle is this picture of our yard taken by me whilst hanging one-handed from a drone. It looks quite tidy from this angle.


We managed to find time to go on holiday last month, and headed north for a roam around. We ended up staying in Haltwhistle, Northumberland, where one of the pubs, the Railway Inn, has a landlord who is also the local coal-man. This, predictably, meant a few more pints and a long natter about our respective experiences in the industry. He also seemed to know a bit about football in spite of being a Newcastle United fan. A proper local pub.


Just to prove that we really were on holiday, here’s a picture of Jenny scampering along Hadrians Wall, and then here she is again, in pensive mood, looking out over the Solway Firth from the promenade at Silloth. Silloth is right at the end of “The Land that Time Forgot”. 



We ended up at the fashionable resort of Barrow-in-Furness, which is an interesting place while at the same time managing to be the epitome of dismal. The beaches and wildlife on Walney Island were fantastic though, well worth the effort of getting there. I’ve put a few of our holiday snaps in a gallery here if anyone is interested.

Bagging of summer-priced coal is now in full swing, ready for stocking up all our customers in time for the coldest winter ever (as forecast every year by most of the media on “slow news days”. I expect that they will be right one day). We are also awaiting the arrival any day now of the entire Grand Union fleet to load coal for Northamptonshire and beyond. This fleet includes the good ship "Southern Cross", captained by Skip Dimmock, who is busy lavishing the shiny bits of his boat with gallons of “Brasso” in the hope of retaining his “Coal-boater of the Year” title. We shall see. I’ve heard that the Judges need to see an improvement in his whisky intake before any consideration is given to his retention of the title.


And finally…..

Orders for Summer priced coal are now being taken - and we have the best prices on the cut. Help us to keep on carrying by canal, and ensure that fine sights like the one above are still to be seen. Call Jenny or John on 07885 284812 with your order now.

Riveting stuff

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The Canal and River Trust appear to have a problem. This is a problem that will strike a chord with most folk - lack of storage space. Apparently, the Trust have had numerous large bags of stone donated, and rather than politely refuse, they have accepted on the off-chance that they will “come in useful one day”. The major problem for the Trust is that all their storage facillities are filled to the rafters with nonsensical public relations signage; it seems that they got “a good price, Guv’nor” for ordering enough signs to last a thousand years. This good price clearly did not involve proof-reading. 

The solution to the storage problem was, according to an inside source, resolved in a massive brainstorming session held at an undisclosed location during discussions to consider how to sell yet more well-remunerated, high-level appointments to gullible, licence-paying customers.


“Put ‘em in the cut,” was the prize-winning suggestion, which was immediately implemented at several locations.. These  were then unveiled to the public as “visionary art installations designed to challenge the usual, one-dimensional, old-fashioned concept of canals as merely functional navigations”, as the official CRT Department of Spin press-release informed us.


The Trust has clearly been vindicated, as coach-loads of visitors have been observed “Oohing!" and "Aahing!” in astonishment at these sites. Some of these visitors have even been overheard exclaiming “What the f**k are those doing there? I’ve never seen anything so mentally stimulating in all my life!” 


Meanwhile, over at Dadfords Wharf on the Stourbridge Canal, the ex Stewarts & Lloyds tug “Bittell” has been removed from the water for the replacement of worn plates. This is a very nice tug, but definitely in need of the work being carried out. I was drafted in as “Head Second Riveting Assistant”, a grand title which turned out to be rather grander than the actual job merited.


Basically, I had to knock the hot rivets tightly into the pre-drilled holes from the inside with a heavy lump of metal, and act as an anvil for Ian Kemp to rivet the ends over on the outside of the vessel. I was duly praised for my anvil impression. John ‘Baldric” Sanderson had the task of heating the rivets up and offering them into the holes with the oldest pair of tongues in the world. I have a little experience of this work, as I performed a similar role when Roach was re-footed a few years ago, with the new plates riveted to the bottom angle and a new bottom-guard riveted on. 


In between all this work, coal has still been tipped on the yard, bagged, loaded into boats and delivered. It is relentless; it’s like painting the Forth Bridge - with a shovel. It is also daunting, holding a shovel whilst looking at twenty-nine tonnes of smokeless fuel needing to be put into bags. The different coloured bags and pallet wrappers that we use does present a cheerful view over the yard though. Enough to brighten anyone’s day.


On the boating front, I took Roach down the Severn to Worcester recently with coal aboard; a pretty swift trip as the river was rising quite rapidly. I was saddened to see that the huge, old conker tree by the Camp House Inn at Grimley had fallen over in the high winds. This tree must have been a few-hundred years old and was certainly iconic - a much overused word these days, but appropriate in this case. Luckily, it was too early for a pint as stopping would have been difficult. 


Pete took over Roach in Worcester, and was due to finish our deliveries by boating up to Hanbury Wharf, and then returning either via the Droitwich Canal, or back down through Worcester. He made it up to Hanbury, but subsequently discovered that the Severn was closed as the water levels had risen substantially. The alternative route up Tardebigge Locks was closed for maintenance work, but after a phone call to the CRT personnel working there, they agreed to allow us to pass through the works early in the morning. This was greatly appreciated - although it has to be acknowledged that the blokes on this length are always helpful - and Pete was able to proceed up the canal. A few locks from the top of Tardebigge flight, a large tree was encountered across the canal. Luckily, I had driven out to give Pete a hand up the locks, and we did manage to get by this obstruction, but it did need both of us to achieve this. The situation was a little strange as two other trees that had fallen down at the same time, and immediately adjacent to this one, had been removed by CRT’s contractor. Oh, well, as the song says, “Two out of three ain’t bad”.


Flooding is not always confined to rivers, here is a picture from our latest trip round the North. It shows Roach leaving the bottom of Jackson’s Lock having to run the gauntlet of a mini Niagara Falls. This water was cascading out from the blocked chamber on the weir stream. I’m glad that we were not heading the other way - all that water down the chimney would have been disastrous. 


To finish on a brighter note, here is a picture of Pete leaving the bottom lock of the Wolverhampton flight on his way back to Awbridge from Worcester, cheery smile and all. Looking forward to a pint, I expect.

It’s a Small World

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I had no sooner posted the last blog, when I got a message from the Chief Advertising Executive at Ryford Steam-Powered Advertising Inc - “That’s me and my dad on that boat passing your train of boats in Birmingham in the photo on your blog”. It was about twenty years later that we actually met. They still have the same boat, too, and even moor it right by our yard. 

I managed to get a very rare picture of him looking out over his very own piece of restored canal. Who knows, maybe one day coal will be delivered to Ryford by boat again. Here’s hoping. Actualy, here’s hoping that it’s us that can make that delivery before old age finally catches up.


In other news, I notice that the three narrow boats exhibited in the basin by Gloucester Waterways Museum have been removed from the water. It seems that only the FMC butty boat “Northwich” is to remain on view to the public - and that on dry land! The other two boats, “Wye” and “Oak”, both of which have had thousands of pounds of restoration work carried out on them over the years, are to be stored pending restoration! I do not expect them to see the light of day again. The same treatment has been meted out to some of the exhibit boats at Ellesmere Port Museum too.  Mind you, it’s not as though the boats at Gloucester have been looked after whilst on display, they have looked derelict for many years now. Boat people were generally very clean and fastidious in the way they kept their boats, and this should be reflected in the presentation of all exhibits. It seems to me that the word “museum” is not appropriate for these attractions anymore - they are more like a waterway themed exhibition, curated by someone with, at best a limited knowledge of, or at worst, a complete disregard for, our fantastic waterways heritage. 

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Many moons ago, around 1994, I delivered coal to the Waterway Museum at Gloucester, for use in the stoves of these three boats.  The cabins were then open to the public, and the boats were in a reasonable state of repair, and, more importantly, looked cared for. The coal was off-loaded onto the museums' Lister-truck - a three-wheeled, flat-bed affair with the engine right on top of the front wheel.  This is what museums should be like, interesting and alive. Around the same time, I loaded some iron bollards, which had been made by a local blacksmith in Gloucester, and were destined for the new development at Salford Quays in Manchester. These were loaded into Roach using the museums own mobile crane as shown above, and were subsequently delivered the same week. The bottom picture shows Roach in the approach to Hulme Lock in Manchester awaiting unloading.

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On the coal-delivery front, we have been busy dodging stoppages, and making road deliveries in-between. Pete has done a bit more boating for us, and we had a very quick dash from the yard to Stoke Prior and back in five days - this being the "window of opportunity” offered by the Canal and River Trust. Hard work but rewarding. Ascending the Wolverhampton Locks in the fading light afforded the opportunity of a few atmospheric photos, particularly around the refuse incinerator half way up. Spurred on by the smell of the Great Western, we made the top in time for a hot pork sandwich and a pint of Bathams. Just to prove that I do steer Roach on the odd occasion, here is a picture taken at Cambrian Wharf on this trip.



After a quick dash up the Shroppie, Roach had only been back on the yard a day when we found out that a car had struck the bridge parapet at Dimmingsdale and closed the canal. We are at present awaiting news of a re-opening date so that we can resume our waterborne deliveries. As I remarked earlier - here’s hoping.

Haulin’ Ass


Well, that’s it for another year, Christmas and New Years’ Eve celebrations successfully negotiated with no major mishaps or upsets. Christmas itself was spent on the yard, (and in the Bell, obviously), and was a well earned break for us. Only a short break mind, as we set off on Roach between the two bank holidays to make our regular deliveries along the Shropshire Union Canal. New Years Eve saw us in the Junction Inn at Norbury, where quite a few familiar faces were present - together with some not-so familiar ones. An excellent night was had by all. Jenny and I had spent the previous evening (and the early hours of the morning) with Dave the Duck and Monty, sampling the wares offered by the Hartley Arms in Wheaten Aston. Anyone familiar with Dave’s missives on the Facebook thing will understand that we drank 237.5 pints of whisky each and that we actually sorted out the problems of the entire universe between us. Or maybe we caused them, who knows. Either way, it was a good training session for New Years Eve. 

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New Years Day saw us at the Anchor for a quick “hair of the dog” before venturing further along the Shroppie to carry out a few more deliveries of coal. We winded the boat and ended up back at Norbury where a much quieter night was had in the Junction Inn. The weather was definitely improving from a coal-mans point of view, and a very pleasant, cold day was spent returning down to the Staffs & Worcs Canal before Wheaton Aston Lock was closed for maintenance works to be carried out.  A clear sky, with a fine crescent moon, and Venus and Mars both visible made for a lovely end to the day. (Apologies for waxing lyrical - I know it’s not really me; actually, we ended the day in the bar at Oxley Marine).

The build-up to Christmas had been very busy for us, being flat-out with both boat and road deliveries. A couple of frosty nights helped; we had more frost in two days than we have had in the previous two years! Pete lent a helping hand by skippering Roach for some of this period, a situation he enjoys as driving a top-of-the-range Josher is clearly the best feeling on the cut, particularly for someone used to making do with a pair of old Grand Union boats. 


The wholesale side of things was also very busy in the run-up to Christmas, with all our customers needing to ensure adequate supplies for the holiday. Here we see Terry Bellamy in charge of unloading a pallet of coal from our trusty Transit at Streethay Wharf; this is a rare photo indeed, as it shows Terry with his gob shut! Well - not completely, he had his concentrative tongue out.

In other news, a further picture from the carrier-bag archive has turned up. Here we see the view from the stern of Roach with three 70ft mud-hoppers and two butties in tow, making 420ft of boat in all. The location is Brasshouse Lane on the Birmingham Canal and the butties are Bideford and Pictor. The year is 1994. The folks on the hire boat were completely un-fazed by this train of boats; luckily, this was about the only time that the boats behaved themselves by staying in line. The two hoppers between the butties belonged to Union Towage Ltd, and were named Ass and Ox, hence the title of this essay. Happy New Year everyone.

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There have been a few ancient photos of me posted on the internet of late by some of my old mates from Rotherham. This has put me in a nostalgic frame of mind, particularly as Jenny and I made the effort to go and see my old house-mate Vaj playing slap-bass in his rockabilly band, the Tombstone Buzzards. (Click on the picture for a tune from them).

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Vaj and I used to knock about with a bunch of Teds in the late seventies, and I even played sax in a band with him. When I say played sax, what I really mean is that I could go “PARP” occasionally, in between dancing around on stage - an early Bez really. The truth of the matter is that I was the only one with a driving licence and access to a car, which meant that I had to be in the band. "The Wurlitzer” we were called, which gave rise to the classic gig opening of:

“Knock knock”, “Who’s there?” “Wurlitzer” “Wurlitzer who?” “Wurlitzer one for the money, two for the show…….”

This photo of “Wurlitzer” is taken from the “Sheffield Star” in 1978. Cool, or what?


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Back to the cut then, but still a few years ago, sometime in the mid eighties, I took these photos of a Waddingtons keel loaded with steel bars on the river Don round the back of Thrybergh Bar Mill near Rotherham. This was back in the day when our weekends amusement was boating from Rotherham to Thorne and back. The main reason for these trips was the fact that Darley’s Brewery was situated in Thorne, and most of the licensed premises there sold said beer, which was an excellent pint. Darley’s was eventually taken over by Wards of Sheffield, who also brewed good beer (even if it did smell of eggs!), who were in turn taken over by Vaux of Sunderland. Scottish and Newcastle Breweries finally acquired Vaux, so that was the end of that.

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These photos are a bit random, it just depends which carrier bag I most recently came across at the back of the shed. Talking of sheds, the yard of Les Allen and Sons was the home base of Roach in the early coaling days. This photo shows Roach in the old arm (now filled in) at Valencia Wharf shortly after the Allens had finished boat-building in the shed behind. I enjoyed my time at the Allens yard, it was a little piece of proper old days - they didn’t even have a telephone there; if you wanted the Allens to build you a boat, you had to get out and find them. Even then, you wouldn’t get the boat you wanted - you would get the boat that Bob Allen thought you should have. The electricity supply was equally idiosyncratic; the cables were carried overhead via telegraph pole in the foreground from T & S Elements yard across the main road, and terminated in a jumble of spaghetti-like wiring in the shed which was made from an old wooden joey boat on it’s side, the boats bottom being the back wall of the shed. Only Albert Brookes was allowed to touch the wiring as only Albert Brookes had any idea of how it worked at all.

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Coal-bagging was carried out by us at the Allens yard, but we also used to load coal loose into the boats, usually just along the cut at Tividale Stop. This was done unofficially, as it was assumed that if permission was to be sought from British Waterways, then we would be waiting still. Tipping twenty tonnes into a boat from a lorry was certainly a time to keep your wits about you, as this amount of coal definitely fills a narrow boat. The first picture shows Richard Clapham in charge of loading Cepheus, and the second picture clearly shows how careful everyone involved needs to be as the lorry looms over the butty boat Ethel. 

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We used to tip loose coal into boats at various locations around the canal network, but many of these places are no longer available which is a shame. I expect that the HSE would also have a view on these proceedings now.

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Occasionally, we would sneak into the wet-dock at Icknield Port when it was raining to bag up coal from the boat; this was possible as Richard had some sort of caretaker mooring round there. He was a bit handy with a shovel in those days was Richard; he’s older and wiser now, and no longer owns a shovel. We could do with finding another, younger, Richard Clapham to help out now that I’m getting old and doddery.

We haven’t tipped coal into a boat for a few years, as nowadays we have to carry such a variety of fuels to satisfy the demands of the modern fire enthusiast.

Here is a fine picture of Cepheus appearing from under Icknield Port Road bridge having just loaded at Tividale. This whole area is soon to be re-developed with housing, and having seen the artists impression that has been released, I fear that the Icknield Port Loop will just end up as another bit of homogenised urban canal that could be in any old city anywhere, and be of no interest to boaters at all.

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Oh! By the way, we are still flogging coal, and it’s getting cold so get your orders in now. We have been busy, out and about, and Pete Hawker has been seen out on Roach occasionally too. Here’s a picture to prove it! Tony Phillips also turned up at the yard recently with Trent 5, to load a few tonnes for the usual crew in Gas Street. Needless to say, his main concern was whether the Bathams was on at the Bell. It was……... © John Jackson 2014