old no. 38
Hello everyone and welcome to my latest column for, Canal’s Online magazine. I hope you’ll indulge me just this once. When I started writing for the magazine some months back now I promised that we take a look together at what was just beyond the normal ‘canal-scape.’ which I hope that in some small measure we have managed to do.
This quarter’s column however is a rather second hand account. Let me explain. My brother Steve is, as I type, walking from John O’Groats to Land’s End in aid of MacMillan Cancer Support. As part of that effort he asked me to write up the journey in what I have called - The Jogle Blogle - and treated with my usual serious journalistic eye.
We join this edited account as he follows the route of The Caledonian Canal from the somewhat higher vantage point of The Great Glen Way.
WARNING: This Blogle is not for the faint of heart.
Yes my friends, this is where the Jogle starts to get tough, so fasten your seatbelts and make sure that you’re well strapped in for this immersive account of Day 8 of my brothers walk from John O’Groats to Land’s End.
Steve up until this point has mainly been puttering about down by the coast. Now however he and wife Sue, who joined him yesterday and will accompany him to Glasgow, are about to tack west along The Great Glen Way. And that means - going uphill. A lot! Yes, they’re now on the trail to the first of the three peaks - Ben Nevis which, all being well, they’ll be climbing - ominously - on Day 13. So as you sit there reading this rather marvelous account, even if I do modestly say so myself, imagine if you can getting into a lift (elevator for our American readers) and going up for nearly 1/4 mile. Yes on this leg of the journey they’ll be ascending to 1243 feet which is more or less the height of the roof of the Empire State Building- and yes, I do know the antenna on the top makes it a couple of hundred feet higher, but you try doing it after a stale granola bar and a cup of weak tea for brekkie!
The Great Glen Way begins at Inverness Castle, so of course the intrepid pair had to pause for the obligatory photos.
The trail is now mainly off road, so from this point there will mainly be interesting scenic shots and something that we haven’t had before - now that he has a companion there are some pictures of the Jogler actually Jogling, so you can tell that this is not some figment of my imagination.
You probably can’t tell from these mobile phone images but it rained constantly almost from the time they set out.
The blue marker poles incidentally are finger posts pointing the way along the trail. Miss one and you could be lost for years, foraging to survive and living off mountain spring water and wild haggis.
Raging torrents had to be forded and all the time the path was up and up and up... Blimey, I think my ears just popped. Dear me! I’m now so hot and sweaty just writing this and this incessant driving rain! Will it never end!?
Finally, signs of life! At the highest inhabited Croft in Scotland they found the Abriachan eco-campsite and cafe. Blimey, that’s a rare old slice of cake, isn’t it?
Our intrepid explorers are now just north of Loch Ness, so careful folks just in case you bump into... Too late!
At Nessieland in Drumnadrochit, their final destination Sue bumped into the fabled monster. At least we now know why William Wallace painted his face blue before he cried, ‘Freedom!’ Or was that Mel Gibson, I’ve never been sure?
Day 9 of The Jogle Blogle. Will it never end? Bro and his missus set out just after 09:30 to continue their walk from Drumndrochit to the nights stop at Invermoriston.
Given a choice of ‘you tek the high road and I’ll tek the low road,’ they opted for the more difficult option of the route which was opened in 2014 at a cost of 1 million pounds to offer spectacular views above the tree line of the famous Loch and surrounding countryside. Given that the Jogler had spent a sleepless night worrying that his back was about to give up the ghost, this doesn’t sound like the most sound of tactics to me. But who am I to judge, lying here, typing on my iPad, recumbent on the chaise lounge, sipping Carling Black Label from a cut glass crystal flute.
They called in at the Loch Ness pottery and cafe right on top of the escarpment there. I guess they may have bought some pottery too, if they hadn’t had to lug it all the way down to Cornwall, so they settled for banana cake and tea instead.
Back on the trail they paused only to get the obligatory selfie - notice my brother hogging all the limelight and Sue playing silly buggers in the middle of the ‘viewcatcher’ which frames the Munros some 25 miles north of Loch Cluanie and playing Pooh sticks on a bridge inspired by the drawings of local schoolchildren.
Day 10 of The Jogle. Uphill, down glen. A fairly leisurely start for our dynamic duo as they conserve energy for their big climb on Day 13 and indeed for their marathon walk on Day 11. They did catch their first glimpse of Ben Nevis in the distance, worryingly capped with snow. But today was the day that they bade farewell to Loch Ness as they continued on to Invergarry. They dropped down from the high trail they’d been following into Fort Augustus.
Out then onto the wide flat towpaths of the Caledonian Canal, for lunch at The Bothy by the locks leading to the Loch which may or may not be the home of a certain monster.
Back on the trail, passing Cullocky Loch where apparently the royal family disembarked in 1958, such a momentous event that they put up a plaque. Perhaps this was the origin of the term ‘the royal wee,’ as they all obviously stopped for a trip behind the bushes. (Well there’s not much else there!)
Finally they passed the suspension bridge at Oich, built over the river of the same name in 1849 and designed by the appropriately named James Dredge, on their way to their overnight stop.
Well I hope you’re all prepared for this. Today’s going to be a grueller! The Jogler and Jogleress are about to embark on their longest leg of their journey.
Day 11 was going to be tough - and they knew it! Steve had planned to walk 26 miles on their journey to Fort William and so they set out earlier than normal at 08:20 via pathways alongside the River Oich, Loch Oich and the Caledonian Canal. Due to not staying where they planned the night previously however this meant the trek was nearly 30 miles instead.
Our intrepid pair though are still prepared to fire off some photos as they breathlessly traverse the countryside, each step after endless step getting them agonisingly slowly toward their long, interminable day’s goal of collapsing exhausted into bed and not caring if that bed were a bed of nails!
Gairlochy and the surrounding area was where Commandos trained during World War II, hence the memorial at Spean Bridge just up the road.
How are you holding up? Yes, me too - I’ll be glad when we can take a rest, my calf muscles are cramping up just reading this. My breathing’s getting a little ragged and I think my pulse is racing, but don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.
In the distance, Ben Nevis, taunting them, so near and yet so far as they strain sinew and muscle toward their base camp for the assault on its summit in two days time. Will they recover in time?
We’re now passing exhaustion point and heading out along the Glen of Despair, mile upon mile, yard upon yard, inch upon torturous inch
Neptune’s staircase at Banavie is home to two swing bridges across the Caledonian Canal. The rail bridge opened in 1901 and carries locomotives from the West Highland Line and is operated by hand from the south side.
The road bridge allows traffic from the A830 to cross the waterway, unless vessels are passing through as they were today. Hang on, do you think we could thumb a lift?
How you doing? Could I just have a sip from your water bottle please? Thanks! Hang on while I just roll my socks down to my ankles.
Finally they reach the end of The Great Glenn Way and although it’s not the final destination it is a chance to rest up under the sign. If you recall the start point of that pathway was at the photogenic Inverness Castle. This end is marked by McDonalds, Morrison’s and a badly parked mini digger, a sure sign we’re getting toward civilisation. Nice hanging baskets though. My word, that hard wooden bench looks comfortable!
Well, I hope you’ve enjoyed our trek alongside The Caledonian Canal – we shall have to leave it there as our intrepid duo leave to climb Ben Nevis.
As I write, Steve is still walking despite a nasty infection in his leg, caused by an insect bite and has just scaled Scafell Pike, England’s highest point. For good measure he has also passed the five hundred mile and one million steps mark as well as raising £7000 to date.
Hi I'm Dave Robertson. I live beside the Staffs & Worcester canal with my wife and a small menagerie. I've just published my third children's book, the first of which was set on a canal boat. My column is called 'Old No 38' because that's the bridge I cross every day...
bratch locks on the staffs & worcs
canal near wombourne
How about that for a February then folks? Did you break out the flip flops and the sun tan lotion? A lot better than last year don’t you think? The ‘Beast from the East’ was about to come roaring through if you remember. Mind you, I think we brought that upon ourselves to a great extent and that we ought to pay better attention to our use of rhyming couplets. Naming it 'The Least from the East’ might have lessened its impact. Or better still, reducing it to a fungal infection, ‘The Yeast from the East,’ would surely have resulted in warmer weather - albeit a little itchy.
Did you check out my last post on these pages? You really should you know. I wrote about the dangers of magnet fishing and the chances of finding unexploded ordinance on the canal bed. How many of you scoffed, I wonder? And yet, lo and behold, not more than a few miles from where I sit typing at this moment, back in January they had to close the cut at Wombourne when someone conducting an underwater survey found and fished out a WWII mortar. I kid you not, so sit up and pay attention at the back!
Anyway, for this quarter’s look at life by the water I thought I’d take a trip to the aforementioned, Wombourne and do a bit of historical research for you, dear reader, around an area known hereabouts as ‘The Bratch.’
Originally ‘the bratch’ derived from the Old English ‘brec’ which described an area of newly broken in ground, probably a clearing at the edge of a forest.
Two bridges cross the ‘cut’ at this point and the old toll house and lock keepers cottage, both typically Georgian, still stand watching over the narrow boats climbing up and down the system.
Bilston Pumping Station
A stone’s throw away is the old pumping station, built as the result of a dispute over the price of water supplied to Bilston council by Wolverhampton district.
Bilston decided to secure its own supply and constructed the ornate building in 1895 to house the two steam engines which pumped water from the sandstone rock to a reservoir on the border of the warring councils. On high days and holidays one of these restored grand old ladies of the great industrial era is sometimes fired up by local steam enthusiasts for the entertainment of the great British public.
Fancy a cuppa? A short stroll along the lane and running parallel to the canal is ‘The Railway Walk.’ Where there used to be tracks for the GWR branch line there are now ramblers, dog walkers, cyclists and horsey types. The old station now serves as a cafe as well as dishing out information. It’s well worth a look as this nature reserve does give a slightly different perspective on the beautiful South Staffordshire countryside. So there you have it. The next time you come hurtling past here (I know what you boaters are like, rushing about all over the place!) just pause, moor up for a bit and chill. It’s well worth a nose around.
It may be a purely Black Country thing, but there are whales in the cut.
‘Surely not?’ I hear you cry, but yes, it’s true. I’ve seen them with my own eyes, beached on the towpath. Whales of all descriptions. Bicycle whales, car whales, pram whales, you get the picture. I know, I know, the old ones are the best.
But, at the risk of repeating myself, it’s true! In fact there’s all kinds of scrap iron accumulating down here by the banks of the Staffs and Worcs canal.
At first I thought it was fly tipping, but no.
Apparently there’s a new type of fisherman trawling our waterways with a magnet on a rope. Have these new age rod danglers ditched the carbon fibre rod in favour of hunting fish with fillings perhaps? Obviously not, as it is a well known fact that fish are for the most part dentally challenged and the ones that do have a full set of gnashers, Pike, Pirhana, sharks, etc, are not particularly renowned for their visits to the dentist to get magnetically charged infills.
So, are these people latter day 'Steptoes' seeking old iron in new and imaginative ways. Again, I think not, otherwise I suspect they’d be hot footing it down to the local scrap yard to weigh in their booty, rather than leaving it littering the walkways for folk like me to trip over.
That leaves me to draw the only possible conclusion. Someone thinks that there may be treasure in our navigations.
And they may well be right.
Personally I know of two mountain bikes underwater somewhere around Burton On Trent after my one and only boating holiday turned to disaster as a low hanging tree branch swept the aforementioned cycles off the narrowboat roof, over my head (lucky I ducked - who shouted ‘shame?’ There’s no need!) and into the murky depths. We never found them, but there again I’d never thought of fishing with a magnet. My knowledge of such things was limited to making pretty patterns with iron filings in the school physics lesson.
But if that is indeed the case and some people really do think that there may be doubloons down there, could I humbly suggest that they may be better heading up north to follow Heidi in The Pirate Boat in the vague hope that she may casually toss pieces of eight overboard in an effort to cut down on the weight.
And may I remind these fortune hunters that all that glitters is not necessarily iron ore. Not round these parts anyway. The canals were here initially to transport the results of slaving over a hot furnace around the world. And any waste products left over may well have been casually tossed away to languish amongst the reeds, so an afternoon's magnet fishing may only result in an alarming accumulation of old slag.
But, inherent in this latest leisure activity are dangers. I know, I’ve Googled it, so it must be true. Not just the aforementioned trip hazard, but real honest to goodness life threatening dangers. People have been known to fish out the odd sub machine gun. Yes, honestly! And grenades. Let’s face it the Luftwaffe did a rather splendid job of tossing all sorts of ordinance around during the forties. There’s no knowing what ended up in your local cut which may not have detonated.
Therefore I urge the utmost caution. If, on a gentle stroll along our waterways you happen upon a pile of scrap and an enthusiastic fisher shouting, ‘I think I’ve hooked a clock - I can hear it ticking!’ then I suggest that you may be well advised to make haste in the opposite direction, jump into the nearest ditch and stick your fingers in your ears. Just be careful that you don’t trip over one of them ‘whales’ on your flight to safety.
So - imagine the scenario. You’ve been enjoying your holibobs in the Lake District, far away from old bridge number 38 and you get a message on your phone from something called, ‘The Pirate Boat.’
‘Ahoy there! - Meet me at Botany Bay.’
Well I don’t know about you, but I was intrigued.
I looked it up on a map. It’s a bloody long way to go if you ask me. There are images in my head of Koala Bears and Kangaroos. I wonder whether to Google if it is necessary to obtain a visa to visit our antipodean cousins.
And then I notice the address. It’s here! In good Old Blighty. It’s oop North. Well down sarf actually, due to the geography of our holiday location it turns out that I’m further up the country than the aforementioned mall is at the moment. I resign myself to traveling by Land Rover rather than Quantas and enter the postcode into my sat- nav as we head back home. I put it into the ‘via’ option expecting that annoying voice to say something like, ‘Don’t turn right in 300 yards - thar be dragons.’ But it doesn’t, probably because I muted the volume.
And the reason for these seemingly obscure instructions? I’m paying a visit to ‘The Pirate Boat,’ a narrowboat captained by Heidi Manning and she’s moored up on the cut alongside the shopping centre known as Botany Bay.
So we drive around that maze of motorways that encircle Manchester following what I am sure is the most tortuous long-winded route that GPS can devise, until we spot a ribbon of water that must be the Leeds and Liverpool canal just off junction 8 of the M61. And there, down a private road we come to what is the five storey shopping complex housed in a former mill. It’s believed that the name originated during the building of the canal. Due to the navvies of the time occupying the site the locals considered it a place to be avoided – much like its more famous upside down namesake.
There’s a car boot sale on the car park - oh joy! My wife, Kate, a veteran of many a market and charity shop encounter is, to my mind, overly excited. Fortunately for me and the two dogs the bazaar is just about to close for the day (the best thing I find with car boots is that they don’t last very long! Most of the entrepreneurs plan on being in the nearest pub as soon as it opens) ‘Oh dear!’ I sympathize whilst sniggering into my sleeve, ‘Never mind.’
And in truth she doesn’t. Mind that is. After all we’ve just arrived at a shopaholics paradise. Manfully I make the best of it. ‘I’ll look after the dogs,’ I tell her, ‘here in this outside cafe on the ground floor.’ Well the weathers nice and there’s a smell of coffee in the air. There’s also the possibility of a sticky bun, so it would be a shame not to.
She’s extremely pleased not to have me tagging along in all honesty, something to do with cramping her style. ‘Just one thing before I go,’ she smiles sweetly, ‘Have you got any money?’ I resist the opportunity to reply, ‘Yes, just enough for my coffee,’ (I probably wouldn’t have mentioned the sticky bun at this stage, one has to have some guilty pleasures after all) and I cross her palm with silver. As she disappeared into this temple to consumerism I swear she had a spring in her step and a song on her lips. Bless!
And so I settled down to an Americano and a Belgian bun (I’m very international in my tastes) with the theme to Captain Pugwash - yes, I am that old - playing on an endless loop around my head. Until, shiver me timbers, slap me barnacles and hoist the mainsail, who’s this approaching?
Yes, it’s Heidi herself. She seems very nice, but in truth I’m a bit disappointed.
Did I hear you ask why?
Well, let me tell you. Having built myself up to expect a female Jack Sparrow and without wishing harm to the poor girl I was expecting someone with at least a wooden leg, a hook poking out of her sleeve where her hand should be and the option of either a parrot on the shoulder, a tricorn hat, or any combination of all of the above.
She wasn’t even rolling her ‘arrrrrrrrs’ for heaven’s sake!
But, in the finest tradition of investigative journalism, fake news and with your interests in mind dear reader, I settled down to interview her anyway.
It turns out that she has been patrolling the canal system like some latter day buccaneer for a few years now, setting out her stall of goodies at all manner of events.
If you should turn up at a festival she’s attending then she will quite gladly relieve you of your small change.
No, this isn’t piracy madam, despite the sinister name of her vessel. This is commerce. From the canal side you can purchase all manner of piratical themed goods.
And about here I must confess a small measure of self-interest. You see my first children’s book DOGNAPPED! about my dog Misty and her crazy friends is set on the canal. They accidentally board a narrowboat and set it adrift. The only other occupant is the boat’s puppy, Ashley who believes that he has been ‘Dognapped,’ by some nasty pirates. Will she agree try to sell some for me? Thankfully Heidi says yes, so we move on to the next important question, ‘Can I see the boat please?’
It turns out that I can, and so we set out. Heidi strode confidentially through the coffee shop and out onto the car park where the last of the ‘booters’ are packing up. I follow, cautiously. Well you never know, do you? There could be all manner of unfriendly militia, zombie pirates (I’ve seen ‘The Fog’ you know) and ticking crocodiles waiting to ambush us. Kindly, Heidi makes no mention of the fact that I’m bent double and casting furtive glances around me like a demented Merecat as we reach the canal side.
And at last here it is, looming menacingly through the mist (yes, I know it’s bright sunshine, but I’m trying to create a mood here!) The Pirate Boat!
It’s actually called, ‘The Rum Wench,’ a nice play on words and very Black Country, if you don’t mind me saying, Heidi.
From the poop deck - sorry, from the stern, flies a skull and cross bones. A roundel at the bow bears a similar emblem and ominously just above this insignia is a small cannon.
I was relieved to find no sign of any planks to be walked, but apparently when The Pirate Boat comes alongside to set up shop a skeleton may be straddling the bow on the lookout for landlubbers to press gang into spending their doubloons and pieces of eight.
Along the gunwale is a sign - ‘STOP HERE - FOR ALL YOUR PIRATE BOOTY.’ It then goes on to further describe what that booty might be, ‘Hats, Flags, Bandannas, Swords and Sailor Outfits.’ There are skull shaped goblets, skull and crossbones signs with a variety of warnings, skull shaped… well, you get the picture!
There are badges too. Small, medium or large with a wide variety of slogans (not all pirate related). You can even send in your own designs to www.badgesonboard.com and get badges, key rings, fridge magnets, bottle openers, et al.
Look out for Heidi along the canal side and at the upcoming events below and pop along to say hi and buy a cutlass, a bangle or even an ice cream, tea or coffee. You’ll know her instantly – she’ll be dressed as a pirate.
And don’t forget to roll your arrrrrrrr’s, otherwise you may get keel-hauled. Oh, buy a copy of DOGNAPPED! too, your kids will love you for it.
As I finish this article for the August edition of ‘Canals Online Magazine,’ I realise that I must return to Botany Bay. Not from any sense of nostalgia you understand. It’s just that I interviewed Heidi a few months back and it’s probably time to pick Kate up. She must have finished shopping by now, surely!?
Catch up with The Pirate Boat on Facebook
As mentioned in the last edition of ‘Canals Online’ magazine, spring has well and truly sprung and is now in full swing down by old bridge number 38.
‘How do you know,’ I hear you cry.
Well I’ll tell you a few of the tricks us old timers living down by the cut use in defining the passing of the seasons. Firstly, during the first full school holiday week of Easter the tourist boats begin to weave their way up from Stourport. ‘Weave’ is the operative word as the novice captain of the vessel struggles with the intricacies of steering left but going right.
Also during this holiday period it rains. Incessantly. Yes, it comes down in galvanised bloody buckets. Happy Easter, pass the creme eggs, some oilskins and a sou’wester.
But there are other signs. Fishermen for a start.
The secretive solitary angler has slowly been shedding his winter plumage. The waterproof green and brown camouflage jacket and camouflage over-trousers with visible bum crack have been replaced by a stunning pair of dungarees in a fetching Grey/ Black ‘shock and awe’ pattern just in case a Russian submarine should surface through the murky waters of the Staffs and Worcs. ‘Can’t smear Novichok nerve agent on my knob, Vladimir - I’m disguised as a rock.’
Flocks of them have now appeared on the banks, freshly returned from their winter migration to The Horse and Jockey or the far more exotic Hinksford Arms.
The calls have changed too. Instead of the customary grunt of the lone fisherman in response to any hearty greeting from passing walkers, the calls echo out as they try to locate their mate - ‘How about them Dingles? Couldn’t pass a ball if they tried!’
‘You need bloody talk, the Baggies ain’t much better.’
The ritual displaying of their wares is in full swing. Boxes on wheels have been dragged through the countryside before being opened up to allow all and sundry to see the bewildering array of hooks and lures lovingly arranged in trays. Phalanxes of carbon fibre rods lie across the towpath, held up on all sorts of tripods, steady’s, stands, racks and bits of old twig, giving each angler more catching power than a fleet of Grimsby trawlers.
A pair of Tupperware boxes, one with cheese sandwiches in cling film which have been mouldering on the windowsill since last Wednesday and one full of maggots fresh from the fridge lie discarded in the grass. Take care not to mix those two up then.
A chorus of disapproval starts at the far end and like some slow motion Mexican wave the only rod each of them ever uses is hoisted out of the water and into the air to let the latest learner skipper zig-zag his way past.
Coming toward us now is the latest fair weather visitor, clad in shorts, an Action Heart tee shirt and shiny new trainers. Yes, the occasional jogger has peeked out of its nest, discerned that the temperature is above fifteen degrees and it is unlikely to drizzle for at least the next half an hour. He has set out on a mission to jog up as far as the pub, stop for a crafty half and then head back in an effort to lose a few pounds. As well as his colourful plumage he wears a Fitbit on his wrist to be examined every few seconds as an antidote to his being unable to access Facebook in this wi-fi dead-spot called ‘the countryside.’ He is also sporting a utility belt which would make Batman green with envy. There is a water bottle handily placed to be unslung without losing pace. An iPod is connected up to his head with the latest in ear-bud technology. There is a spare water bottle and a container with re-hydration fluid for emergencies. A pouch contains a multigrain bar which when opened will look (and probably taste) like something that has fallen out of the backside of a squirrel. There are a packet of plasters because you never know do you? He once stumbled, fell and grazed a knee whilst attempting to hurdle a particularly well spread dog poo. Another pouch contains an economy tub of Vaseline just in case his nipples start to chafe and create static electricity against the nylon of his shirt. And if his right arm should somehow become incapacitated there is a further water bottle within reaching distance of his left arm, to which is also strapped a blood pressure monitor and a sweat band.
Another recent riser from hibernation is the fisherman’s arch rival. So fast and unwilling to stop are these creatures that it causes the normally reticent angler to swear and cuss like girls on a hen night in Newcastle as they hastily drag their fancy plastic rods off the towpath. In a blur of florescent Lycra the mountain biker swoops past covered in an array of multi-national corporate logo’s like an oversubscribed advertising hoarding, head armoured against attack and bum splattered in mud (well at least I hope that’s what that is!) because his bicycle is far too fancy for mud-guards.
Also leaping out of the way are a pair of ramblers. Quiet and unassuming these shy creatures are also agitated by the cyclists ill-mannered charge past and the male may ‘TUT!’ loudly only to be admonished by his mate who will tap his arm apologetically and whisper, ‘George, really!’ They dress identically in a (whisper it, because the next bit is rude) uni-sex sort of way. Despite the heat they wear long grey woollen socks which are rolled down to the top of their hiking boots. Khaki shorts are topped with check patterned shirt (or blouse). He wears a cap, she a sun hat. He carries an Ordnance Survey map in a plastic cover and a compass which he examines at regular intervals despite being on a towpath which allows only a choice of two directions. She has a canvas knapsack inside which is a tinfoil wrap of egg and cress sandwiches, two packets of plain crisps, four Hob-Nobs in cling-film, a thermos of tea - no sugar, her reading glasses (his are on a string around his neck for map and compass readings) and two sensible raincoats.
If I’m not very much mistaken in that thicket over there, just off the towpath - if we approach quietly... Ah yes, I thought it was, the den of the angst ridden teenager - thankfully unoccupied. Normally raucously obnoxious when in a group but get one alone and it will become monosyllabic, with words like ‘yeah,’ ‘nah,’ or ‘innit.’
Oh, how do I know?
Well it’s very similar to looking out for Otter scat. As you will notice there are many empty cans of lager strewn about and the lingering smell of weed signifies that they have been marking their territory. We’d better get back out into the open in case they come back.
Watch out for the over excited Alsatian bounding along it will probably (ah yes, I thought it would – apologies for the tardy warning, it was running faster than I thought) sniff your groin and drool unnervingly. Here comes the owner, or ‘Dad’ as he likes to be called in Tyson’s presence, with a cheery if hesitant, ‘he’s very friendly, so I don’t think he’ll hurt you.’ He would have been closer to his pooch but he was diligently poo picking before hanging the plastic bag from the branch of the nearest tree like a gaudy Christmas bauble.
And that my friends is how we country bumpkins tell the time of year. Summer will be upon us soon, it’s scheduled for a week next Thursday - we will of course know by the arrival of a pair of Kayakers and a paddle boarder.
Oh yes, and the rain will be warmer.
Spring has sprung
The grass is riz
I wonder where
The birdies is?
Ah yes, spring is here down by old bridge number 38. After a bit of a false start that is. No sooner had the weatherman told us on March the first that, ‘today is the metrological start of spring,’ what did we get? The Beast from the East howling in and then storm Emma icing up our southern regions. Winter drawers on then.
Personally, and call me old fashioned if you like, I prefer my spring to start when they put the clocks forward (or is it back, I can never remember). Imagine for a moment that you’re a Swallow. You’ve been off to South Africa on your holibobs and you hear on the grapevine that Tomasz Shaftandknackers has told his viewers on the Beeb that winter is nearly over. You pack your little suitcase, pull on your flight socks, dig out your passport from the bottom of the nest and head on home only to find the snowdrops are hidden under a six foot snow drift. You’re not going to be best pleased really, are you?
Leave it a few weeks longer is my advice, let’s get a bit further in to April and err on the side of caution.
But, mentioning our feathered friends reminds me that the subject of this column in our new issue of Canals Online is nature. No, leave your clothes on madam, I think you’ll find that’s naturism, something completely different.
Yes they’ll all be heading back over the coming weeks, singing their little heads off at five in the morning. Bless!
The Robin has been here all winter of course, jealously protecting his territory against all comers, as witnessed by my good friend Sean Harris. See more of his photo’s on Instagram at seamus0sean.
I’ve seen the Wren quite regularly skittering through the hedgerows on the towpath. But as for the rest...
Tits of all descriptions will be bouncing about through the branches soon. Great ones, Blue ones, the family of Long Tailed ones which descend en masse any time you throw out a few nuts. Coal Tits, quite appropriate here in the Black Country.
All the usual suspects, Pigeon, Sparrows of all denominations, Finches, Blackbirds to name but a few.
Bobbing up and down in the swell from your boat there’ll be Mallards, Coots and Moorhen of course. The odd Swan or two.
But we also have a good representation of the lesser spotted varieties as well. A Nuthatch perhaps climbing down the tree trunk. Buzzards circling in the sky scanning the rabbits. As I laboriously type this with my one finger I can hear a pheasant crowing at its mate on the other side of the field and a Green Woodpecker trying to batter his head in on the side of a tree trunk.
The Grey Heron will be standing pencil thin if you look at him face on, up to his knobbly knee joints in canal water and if he thinks he has been spotted will launch into the sky with a screech like some prehistoric Pterodactyl.
At the right time of day Swallows will swarm around you if you stand stock still as they swoop to skim just above the water’s surface. Pick a spot where the vegetation on the bank is not too tall, between 3 and 4 in the afternoon and wait for them to show up. Are they drinking or feeding off insects? I’ve never been sure, but I feel privileged to be a part of the ritual whenever it happens. No doubt they’ll then be off to build their nests in Billy Whizz’s (my wife’s Shetland pony) stable out of spit and other disgusting stuff.
And then there’s my favourite, a foot above the canal and two feet from the opposite bank to the towpath (apologies for the imperial measurements, I am that old!) a flash of electric blue. You have to be quick to spot the Kingfisher, but follow his flight to where he zips into the undergrowth and when you eventually catch up you may be lucky enough to spot his orangey brown chest among the newly sprouting leaves as he scans for his tea.
Sheila’s parrot. No, that’s not a new species of the brightly coloured chatterbox but the name of our neighbour who left her front door open when cleaning out the little darlings cage. We spent a fun few hours rampaging through the countryside whistling like some demented Roger Whittaker tribute act. It came back when it was hungry.
My wife swears she keeps seeing a Little Egret perched by Smestow Brook on her way to muck out Billy. There is however no corroborating evidence for this claim. I’m not questioning her eyesight just the strength of the prescription for her lenses.
A Hoopoe was spotted in these parts a couple of years back. Not resident in the U.K. it got a lot of people very twitchy indeed. The lanes and hedgerows were full of folk with telephoto lenses trying to get a better look.
But it’s not just birds is it? Not around these parts. Bats. Yes madam, sends a shiver down the spine doesn’t it? There are bat boxes hung from the trees just off the towpath. One even has a large number ‘4’ painted on the front. Probably to help the postman, Mr. V. Bat, no. 4 The Bat Cave, Gotham City.
Pardon? What sort are they? Well I’m not too sure, but the one that landed next to me had a black cape with a red lining. Funnily enough I seem to have had a pain in the neck ever since.
Again in the mammal kingdom we have the usual countryside suspects, rabbits, foxes, badgers, hedgehogs, as mentioned previously my wife’s Shetland pony. Again though there are the more exotic. I once watched as a mole, quite common in their subterranean world, but this one above ground for once, charged out of the undergrowth, across the towpath and plopped into the cold dark waters of the Staffordshire and Worcester. I was quite concerned for the little fellow until he struck out for the opposite bank using his front digging paws as flippers and doing a quite admirable breast stroke like some furry Duncan Goodhew.
Moles in these parts are doing very well, thank you very much, as evidenced by the fact that there are enough molehills to make a good few mountains out of.
There are rumours of Muntjac Deer in the woods over yonder, although I’ve never seen one myself. I did spot a Mink though a few years back. I’m quite pleased for the rest of the local wildlife that I’ve never spotted it since - their reputation as a ruthless predator precedes them. I once found an Pygmy Shrew scurrying through the towpath verge. A tiny round body with a tail two thirds the length of its body and long pointy nose, if you’ve ever seen one, did the same question occur to you as did to me? I wonder whatever happened to Barry Manilow?
I hope you’ve enjoyed our look at the local wildlife. Let me know what exotic creatures you have down your end.
No, I know I haven’t done flora and fauna.
I can’t tell a daffodil from a petunia and anything that gives me raging hay fever is, quite honestly, not deserving of my attention. If you want flowers - Interflora.
Yes sir? Yes, you at the back with your hand up. I haven’t mentioned entomology? Sorry, I never thought to. Anyway I’m sure you can get cream for it. Oh sorry, you meant insects. Well again I’m not an expert, so I’ll leave you as we started with a rhyme.
Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em
And little fleas have lesser fleas and so ad infinitum.
So that’s bugs sorted.
See you in a few weeks as I once again take in the view from Old number 38.
Meantime I’m off for a walk with the dogs - Tomasz says the sun’s about to come out.
That’s why I’m in my waterproofs and wellies.
And just to prove that I was only kidding about the flower thing, here’s a nice picture of a golden host of petunias.
Oh that looks nice. Cup of tea and a biscuit. Pull a chair over here, put your feet up and relax while you catch up with this edition of Canals Online.
Welcome to the first of what I hope will be many meanderings along and around the ‘cut’ as we call it here in The Black Country. We’ll delve into something here, poke about a bit there and lift a few rocks to see what scurries out.
I suppose you ought to know a little bit about me first of all. What qualifies me to write about life on and along this country’s great canal system? What exactly do I know which will inform, surprise and entertain you?
As you’re no doubt aware the waterways of Great Britain are a legacy of our former industrial and engineering heritage. I am an old former engineer, so that must be good for ticking a couple of boxes at least.
We, that is me, my wife, Kate, together with Misty, Milly (the dogs) and Billy Whizz (Shetland pony) live adjacent to the Staffs and Worcester canal, the arm which links the Trent and Mersey to the River Severn. Just past Swindon, not the one with the funny traffic islands, but the small village nestling in the beautiful South Staffordshire countryside.
That’s why this column is called Old No. 38 - it’s the number of the canal bridge which connects us to the outside world. It is also our only means of entering the rat race - I’ve often thought of demolishing it!
In fact if it weren’t for a hawthorn hedge I would be able to wave to you from just the other side of the towpath as you perhaps cruised, walked, cycled, jogged or struggled past with your fishing gear. (By the way, what is all that baggage about? Do you really need that many sandwiches? Perhaps that’s something to investigate at a later date?)
So, whilst we’re ticking boxes let’s add regular walks along the navigation to the list, as well as more than a nodding acquaintance with the aforementioned boaters, hikers, would be Tour de France competitors, budding Roger Bannisters. Oh, and hello to J.R. Hartley and his book on fly fishing. (apologies to our younger readers for those last two).
My intention in this edition, if you’ll indulge me is to take you just beyond the tow path. What was that strange derelict building you chugged past yesterday? Who built it? And why?
For instance did you know that less than a mile as the crow flies from Old No. 38 is Holbeache House. ‘Big deal!’ I hear you cry, ‘We’ve got houses up our end.’ Not like this you haven’t, with musket ball holes in the doorframe. A reminder that once upon a time there was a right old dust up here. Yes, that’s right, in the year 1605 when the gunpowder plotters (minus a certain Mr Guido Fawkes who was busy being tortured at the time) were found up here by the sheriff of Worcester and his merry men. The baddies having spectacularly failed to blow up King James succeeded in blowing themselves up when they tried to dry out their damp gunpowder in front of an open fire. Presumably this was in the days before the Health and Safety Executive otherwise they might have been in even worse trouble than they already were and would have had a good ticking off in addition to their subsequent punishment. Perhaps understandably the rather loud bang attracted the attention of what passed for law enforcement in those days before panda cars were invented. Those that survived the blast and the shootout that followed were hauled off to visit their old mate Guy, before being hung, drawn and quartered. No such thing as a slap on the wrist in those days. The date of the actual explosion, rather than the one for which Guy was arrested which never happened, was the 7th November, so the rhyme ought to be,
‘Remember, remember, the 7th of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.’
With the wonders of technology I’ll whizz you off toward Birmingham before we make our way back.
We’re now in Tipton and you might not have been so keen to be in this neck of the woods nearly two hundred years ago as you could have bumped into a certain boatman known as William Perry. He may have fought you for the right to be first through the lock. Perry also went by the name of, ‘The Tipton Slasher,’ and from 1850 to 1857 was proclaimed as the champion prize-fighter of England. His statue can be seen alongside the canal at Coronation Gardens, Tipton, close to his old headquarters, The Fountain Inn.
No you’re right, we’ll head back to the safety of the good old Staffs and Worcs, just in case the ghost of the old pugilist turns up for a quick bout. Let’s give Dudley a miss for now, though we may pop back in future for a look at the old market town with its castle that that nasty Ollie Cromwell half demolished for supporting the wrong side during the Civil War.
And for now we’ll also bypass The Black Country Museum, a working replica of the good old days, when chips came in proper printed newspaper and your granny used to rub black lead on the fire grate, oblivious of the risk. After all, those of us old enough to remember that were sucking on lead painted tin soldiers, so what possible harm could it do? This place is worth a column of its own one day, but we won’t do it now in case they’re filming an episode of ‘Peaky Blinders’ here again, otherwise we might get dragged in and used as extras and frankly, you’re not dressed the part. We’ll pop back another time, catch a tram, wander through the terraced houses, the old funfair and ‘leg it’ through the Dudley tunnels like they did before boats had modern conveniences - like engines for instance. We could even pop down the replica coal mine - if you’re not scared of the dark!
Instead we’ll head down the last canal tunnel built in Britain during ‘the canal age,’ the Netherton tunnel which is just over nine thousand feet long. Out past the Merry Hill shopping centre on the Dudley canal - no we’re not stopping, it’s not known as Merry Hell around these parts for nothing you know. From there we’ll carry on down past the Delph, through the nine locks (not quite as bad as it sounds - there are only eight).
This is the home of Batham’s brewery and a finer drop of ale you’ll not find for many a mile. Established in a onetime slaughterhouse (but don’t let that put you off) in 1877 the place is still run by the same family and is adjoined by, The Vine Inn, known around these parts as, ‘The Bull and Bladder.’ Charming!
Pardon? You fancy a bit of a break? Oh, go on then, but I’ll warn you it’s strong stuff.
Finished? We’ll chug out past the Redhouse Cone at Wordsley which stands as a reminder that this area was (and still is) renowned for its cut glass crystal. In fact, when they made the movie ‘Titanic’ they commissioned the same glassware as was on the original vessel from these parts - and then they smashed the lot for authenticity - tens of thousands of pounds worth - watch the film carefully and don’t blink or you’ll miss it. Come to think of it, did I mention that the anchor chain for that ‘unsinkable’ vessel was made just up the road. We’re proud of that hereabouts and let’s face it, it was the only part of that ship which ended up where it was supposed to be - at the bottom of the sea.
A quick right turn at Stourton brings us back to the Staffs & Worcs. This rural setting was once at the edge of the industrial revolution because we have chugged past the ruined roundhouse at Gothersley as far as Ashwood marina, now full of moored pleasure craft but originally built for working boats. Ashwood was the terminus of the Shutt End railway, where the coalfields of The Black Country discharged their black gold for distribution to the forges of Kinver and Cookley, the industry of Kidderminster and wider afield via the river connection at Stourport. Shutt End employed one of the earliest steam trains, the ‘Agenoria’ to transport the coal the few miles required for the task. Built in the same year as Stephenson’s Rocket, by Foster, Rastrick and Co. of Stourbridge, Agenoria was the sister of the more famous, ‘Stourbridge Lion’, the first locomotive ever to run in the United States of America.
Past the Navigation pub, we’ll pop in there for a jar or two another time, o.k? Let’s face it we had rather one or two too many up in the Delph. This is Greensforge, perhaps unsurprisingly once a forge owned by a chap called Green. There are forts around here, no, not the one’s raided by Red Indians until the 7th cavalry and John Wayne turned up, but these are a legacy of what the Romans ever did for us. You can only really spot the outlines of them from the air, but if you’re walking along the towpath and stub your toe it may be an ancient fertility symbol you’ve just unearthed. (I know because a friend of mine did exactly that). This area was once the M1 of Roman times and several roads converged here. Luckily there is a local airfield at Halfpenny Green just over the hill if you should fancy a look see from a sightseeing helicopter.
And before you know it, here it is again - Bridge number 38.
Slow down a touch and I’ll jump off here. Thanks for the ride, hope you enjoyed it. See you next time for a look over the hedges.
Don’t forget to wave as you go past.