Sunday, 3 August 2008

Day Two- The Learning Curve

King's Norton- Brandwood- Lapworth Flight

Worcester and Birmingham Canal, Stratford-on-Avon Canal

15 miles, 3 drawbridges, 4 locks, 1 proper tunnel

1 large log, 1 small twig and the remnants of a carrier bag round the prop

In which the
Duck's progressing crew find reverse gear, take a three mile detour and run aground thrice, with only minor bumps collected upon the rubbing strakes, and also assist some hire boaters through locks.

The day dawned bright and clear, and we were awoken by the sound of passing boats at 8:30, after the West Hills tunnel further down the canal let them through. A leisurely breakfast was had, before the engine was started at 9:30, after Amy braved the weedhatch to find the single small twig we picked up yesterday afternoon. The filter for the engine cooling water intake had a few chocolate bar wrappers and some assorted gunge, but the baffle seems to be doing its job well and deflecting any serious bits of crud from the intake.

We had moored up past the junction with the Stratford-on-Avon canal, and so the first task was to learn how to reverse the boat. Mindful of the advice of a recent Canal Boat magazine article and plenty of posters on Canal World, we had the engine running in tickover astern to take us backwards, with the odd burst of forward gear to let us use the rudder to straighten the boat. Lucky Duck, when going astern, tends to turn to the right because of prop walk.

We reached the triangular junction, but I didn't quite go back far enough to be able to make the turn. Rather than faff about reversing again, we took a quick executive decision to cruise forwards down the Worcester and Birmingham past the night's mooring and on for a mile, to the winding hole at the mouth of the West Hills tunnel in order to wind (turn) and come back up to the junction with the Stratford-on-Avon Canal.

I'm glad we did, too, because not only is the route beautiful (albeit congested in the other direction as 7 boats were stuck behind one particular slowcoach, which needed some careful maneauvering at times) but we also learnt about how not to wind the boat, and how to get off mud when you run aground!

The winding hole came up unexpectedly and so I was unable to put the bow of the boat into the middle; I ended up more towards one end, where it was particularly narrow and silted up. There was a hard knock as I brought the stem post right at the front of the boat to rest against the far bank; I planned to put the bow onto the bank and then put the engine ahead and the rudder hard over to turn us around. We need a fender low down there, really, if I want to do that again!

Unfortunately as we weren't quite in the centre we ran the bow aground. The long shaft (the infamous 10 foot barge pole!) was used to try and push us off, before I realised that not only could the engine push the boat forwards, it could also pull it backwards... *ahem*

After cruising back down this idyllic stretch, we entered the Stratford-on-Avon canal. There is a disused stop lock at the entrance, which unusually features guillotine gates at both ends. The lock was a remnant of the time when each canal was owned by a separate company- the Stratford lot not wanting the Worcester lot to pinch their water without asking nicely first.

The lock is only about 7' and a smidgeon wide, and it called for precision steering. I made a bit of a hash of it by coming in at too sharp an angle- the rubbing strake at the bow hit the gate post on one side and we bounced a few times before getting straight. Nothing too major, we only lost a small patch of blacking, but the "bang!" was quite loud!

Once on the Stratford-on-Avon, we found that it was quite narrow and also heavily wooded, with the odd piece of decaying brickwork and tree roots sticking into the water, along with floating logs like crocodiles just waiting to be sucked into the prop to give an almighty "thud". Often the blind bends were shrouded with overhanging trees, so we couldn't see what was around the corner- a quick blast on the siren-like horn and then nip around, hoping that no-one's coming the other way... a couple of times we ended up scraping branches down the side of the boat- and into our faces- to avoid oncoming boats. Once, we ended up aground on the inside of a corner after the oncoming boat failed to move out of the centre of the channel- with the choice of a head-on collision or some bendy-looking tree branches, I opted for the latter... unfortunately the branches weren't quite as bendy as they looked, and the canal was quite shallow. We sorted ourselves out, though.

It has been challenging, admittedly, with blind bends and oncoming kamikaze hire boaters. We were definitely giving oncoming boats too wide a berth, hence hitting the several tree branches; something we hope to get better at over time. That said, the Stratford is a lovely canal; dappled sunlight and a green leafy corridor, you wouldn't know you're still in the suburbs of Birmingham, and certainly can't really tell where the city ends and the countryside proper begins.

We encountered our first real tunnel too, the 362 yard Brandwood. After testing the tunnel light and turning on the interior lights, we ventured in. It was very strange, with the half-circle of illuminated roof being surrounded by pitch black impenetrable darkness- an intense contrast. For future tunnels, more light at the stern would be welcome- I ended up steering an erratic course as each wall in turn loomed up disconcertingly close through the darkness. The emergence into sunlight was lovely.

We carried on another couple of miles before stopping at about half past midday for lunch, at Brandwood. Google Maps on Amy's phone was very useful- we searched on the offchance of there being a supermarket near the mooring, and found a Somerfield about two minutes walk away. We locked up and went for provisions, returning with much-needed washing up liquid (!), among other things.

Setting off again, we passed through more wooded areas, before reaching Bridge 8. This was a drawbridge, operated with a BW key in a control panel. I guided the boat between two rows of wooden stakes, and Amy went ashore to operate it. Much to the hilarity of onlookers, she caught a car on the bridge between two sets of barriers! The driver, seeing the descending barriers, accelerated hard to try and get through but didn't make it across. It was tempting to try and open the bridge with them on it, but decided better and Amy kindly let them get off. I'm sure other people we know, if in the same situation, would have marched over to the car door and told them off!

There was a little bit of bother further on, where the canal became lined with moored boats at a motor boat club. We headed for a narrow gap, but two boats were coming the other way. We backed off and neatly pulled in on a convenient empty patch, letting the boats through. A bit of a traffic jam occurred behind, as these boats met another that was behind us. It all worked out well, though, and we carried on.

There was a bit of excitement a few times with twigs and logs getting stuck onto the prop, once with a great big "crash" that made me think of broken gearboxes and big repair bills. I'm paranoid, clearly... a quick spin into reverse cleared all the obstructions and we journeyed on, gaining more confidence.

Unfortunately we also met our first "bandits" as Narrowboat World would call them- some stones were thrown by someone in hiding, although we couldn't see them- if we had, Amy's big camera is easily to hand to scare them off. Miscreants don't like being caught on camera. There was no damage, to us or the boat, although I do have to apologise to BW for making a breaking wash as we sped up to move swiftly away.

After a few more drawbridges, we came to the Lapworth flight at about 6pm. We were in two minda about it, whether to do the first four locks and then moor in a convenient half-mile long pound, with the remaining 14 locks in the morning, or to stop at the top of the flight. As there was still a lot of light, we had a cereal bar each and headed for the locks. Our first locks "solo" were narrow, with double bottom gates and overshot weirs, and a definite flow in the intervening pounds. All thoughts of nerves were forgotten as we assisted a family in the hire-boat behind us, and- not wanting to make a prat of myself- managed to steer smoothly into all four locks. Amy enlisted passers-by on a couple of occasions to close other gates on the far side to save walking around- funnily enough they were all willing to help a pretty girl. Maybe I should get a wig.

A party of girls- slooshing glasses red wine in each hand- provided a good dose of schadenfreude and entertainment as they passed us in an intervening pound, crashed into the bank, flung mooring ropes about, and generally had fun- all to the accompaniment of music. Well, I think it was music; they might have been bashing a puppy with a lump hammer, I couldn't tell. It would be nice to think that we looked competent and careful in comparison!

Finally, we moored up in a convenient half-mile long pound at about 7, and this is where we'll spend the night. The pasta was lovely- and we'll need all the carbs tomorrow to face the remaining 14 locks of the flight!


  1. Finally got round to flicking through your blog and it looks like you're having an amazing time! Good luck with it all.

  2. Glad to see you are both getting on o.k.
    Bacon butties for breakfast, plastic bags, errant motorists, hire boats ....... ah the joys of canal cruising!! See you soon, Dad.

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