Summer, but not the First Time.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

coalboat@waitrose.com © John Jackson 2014