Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Day Nineteen: Looping the Loop

Engine Arm - Curdworth

13 miles, 30 locks BCN Old Main Line, New Main Line, Birmingham and Fazely

The alarm went off early today, as we were planning on exploring the Soho loop and the Icknield Port loops on the BCN, just off the New Main Line. These loops are the remnants of the old meandering canal, as Telford cut the corners to shorten the distances involved.

We set off down the engine arm, with two sharp 90 degree turns to get onto the main line. John, the Duck's previous owner, was lamenting his new boat's lack of steering in comparison to the Duck, and it was gratifying to get around both sharp corners without touching the sides. Long swims and a comparatively big rudder help here! We were soon in the three locks at Smethwick, and then heading down the straight New Main Line. The three locks were the first we ever did on the boat, just over two years ago when we first bought the boat. The weather, however, was sunnier then! We decided to miss out on the Soho loop- apparently the local yoof, bored and off of school, tend to throw things at boats as they pass, and we were a little bit later than we planned to be. Any time before 9am is apparently allright, in general, but it was nearly 10 when we were there, and so we decided not to chance it.

However, we did turn down the Icknield Port loop, and I'm very glad that we did. We first saw a great collection of old BCN Joey boats and workboats, some made of rivetted iron with an amazing patchwork effect where patches were applied. I've definitely got a soft-spot for rivets, they're just so industrial! Further on, we passed the BW yard, at the "port", and a few moored boats. The moored boats formed a contrast of working craft through the ages, from elegant Bantock station-boats- curved bows, with plenty of rivets- the slab-sided, vertical stemmed and double ended Joey boats- to more modern welded steel constructions, the most recent being modular and interchangeable. There was also a nice collection of tugs, from an old cut-down working boat, through a Bantam or two, up to the modern blue-topped and smart pusher tugs used by BW to move their workboats.

Patchwork hull

Once back on the mainline, we continued into the centre of Birmingham, and then turned off down the Oozell Street loop, to visit Sherbourne Wharf for diesel. As a result of a price-war between this wharf and a diesel boat, their Red is only 70p per litre.

They are also the only boatyard we've been to that allow you to declare your own splits on diesel. This situation, for anyone who's not boating at the moment, is extremely convoluted and complex. Basically, when buying diesel for the boat, only the proportion that is used to propel the boat is taxed. The diesel that you use for domestic use- i.e. battery charging, running a diesel heater- is untaxed.

Theoretically, as a boater you have to declare and sign a form for HMRC, and say what proportion of the diesel you buy is used for each. You can claim anything from 100% propulsion (although most people have an alternator at least, and so don't) down to 100% domestic, and theoretically you should be able to declare the proportion that you use.

However boatyards don't like this. They have to fill in paperwork, and many only sell at one price and one split. This puts boaters in a tricky position, because they are responsible for declaring their use, and they are liable to prosecution if they lie- but if the boatyard won't allow them to declare the percentages that get taxed, and only offer one fixed price, then they are stuck and could be prosecuted for tax evasion if HMRC check up.

The reason why I mention this is that Sherbourne Wharf is the only boatyard we visited that allowed us to declare our own split, whereas all the others we have bought from, and have seen, only sell at one fixed price. The whole situation is very complicated, and no-one's happy with it.

Anyway, enough of a rant. We filled the tank, and then moored up at the very swanky Brindleyplace, which felt like the most secure mooring we'd ever had- a security guard passed every 5 minutes or so, and there were CCTV cameras everywhere. They were there for the benefit of the posh flats, of course, not visiting boaters, and it definitely seemed like overkill!

We headed into the city, in search of a cooked brunch- and found a floating greasy spoon! nb George, moored close to Gas Street basin, fitted the bill exactly, and for £6 each we had a full english. It was quite fun eating afloat, in the company of people who aren't used to doing so- one chap found it rather hard, whenever the boat rocked from passing tourist boats or the customers or waitresses as they moved about.

After a quick stroll through Birmingham centre, and some research in the library, we decided that there weren't any plays, films, or events that we desperately wanted to see, and as the sun had come out we decided to keep on up the cut, rather than moor overnight in the centre as we had planned. So at 2:30pm we started the engine, and headed off to the Birmingham and Fazely canal.

Once round the canal roundabout, we encountered some BW people with a remote controlled shark (!) and then headed off down the Farmer's Bridge flight of 13 narrow locks.

These were all against us, as a boat had passed down recently, and none had come up. Nonetheless we got into a good system; with Amy steering the boat (with no crashes or "SPONG!"s, despite the pressure of many gongoozlers...) I would operate the paddles, and then nip ahead and set the next lock, before dashing back. All very energetic! We were glad, a few locks in, to gain the help of a passer-by with a windlass. A local man, he told us how he always carried his windlass when walking by the cut, just in case... and he enjoyed lockworking! We were very happy to see him, and he helped us speed down the flight. The flight itself has been covered and hemmed in by modern developments, and the whole area is a patchwork of periods- BCN red brick and ironwork from the 19th century, alongside re-inforced concrete of the 20th and curved steel architecture of the 21st. Several locks are in tunnels and caverns under high-rise buildings- quite impressive, but not as impressive as the twelth lock, which is in a cathedral-like arched space under a railway line- incredibly impressive, and a massive engineering work.

A lock in a tunnel

The Post Office Tower...

...and the lock beneath it

A use for the square bollards!

Once at the bottom, we effusively thanked our helper, and headed off down the Aston flight- a further 12 locks, and all but one set against us..... Nonetheless the sun came out and we enjoyed working efficiently down the flight, sharing the lockworking and the steering, until we were pleasantly tired. We arrived at the bottom at 4:45, and so we did the 25 locks, all but one against us, in a shade over two hours, which I'm quite pleased with!

Halfway down the Aston flight

Once through the flight, we carried on into the early evening, passing under Spaghetti Junction, and heading out through the outskirts of the city until we reached pleasant countryside, just before Curdworth. A few scattered locks were no problem, and we moored up in a nice spot- only to move, 20 minutes later, when the local Yoof showed up and decided to play music from their cars at loud volume. We headed off about 200 feet down the cut, out of earshot, and so are now enjoying the peace and quiet once again.

Junction with the GU



  1. BW are probably amassing their boats on the loop again in time for the impending sell-off due for later in September 2010.

  2. re. fuel duty:


    read point 4.7 and relax...

  3. Sue on No Problem has complied a page on boatyards diesel splits.