I rose early on a glorious sunny Sunday morning to await the prompt arrival of my chauffeur, Michael Edwards. After proceeding onward to pick up fellow crew-member Maurice Marsden, we sped swiftly down the M1, A38 and A50 to Stoke and then Market Drayton, to arrive at Tyrley wharf at about 10:30.
We were immediately met by an irate lady pointing out that Python’s 18 day stay on the mooring was outside the spirit of the indicated 48 hours allowed by C&RT. We apologised to the lady for overstaying our welcome, although or extended stay had been approved in advanced with the navigation authorities.The timing of the rain was perfect, the first spots (of what proved to be many) descended as I first put my foot on to Python’s stern deck. Glancing around the engine ‘ole, the engine bilge water level looked higher than I remembered. The incessant downpour accompanied us along the dark, narrow and sinister Woodseaves cutting, only easing as we approached Gnosall, where, after a walk around the village and an excellent curry at the Navigation pub, we spent the night on the town moorings. Our end of day checks revealed that there was significantly more than the usual amount of water in the engine bilge.
Raining at Tyrley before we even set off.
Monday was an altogether different day, dry but overcast. We made good time to Wheaton Aston where we slaked Python’s thirst with nearly 40 gallons of gas oil.
After passing through Wheaton Aston Lock (our first lock of over 70 on this trip) the normally trusty Lister engine started to breathe heavily and make rather peculiar noises. Erring on the side of caution we called in an expert from RCR who diagnosed the problem as being no more serious than water being blown into the engine air cooling ducts and turning to steam. The problem was soon remedied with the aid of a large water pump the engineer fortunately had with him in his van. The delay however was too long for us to reach our planned destination for the day at Wolverhampton Boat Club. Instead we stopped at Brewood and enjoyed an excellent meal at the Lion hotel in the village.
The level of bilge water under the engine gave us some cause for concern, but we had put it down to a gradual increase due the large amount of rain we have had over the summer, it was now well down and hopefully would cause us no further problems.
Telegraph poles - remember them? But not many quite like this one.
Python near Lapley Wood Bridge, No. 17, awaiting ‘medical’ attention from RCR and being totally ignored by the crews of passing craft.
We rose a little earlier than usual on Tuesday, partly to make up the hour we were behind schedule, but more importantly to get the Wolverhampton 21 (locks) under our belt before the ‘little darlings’ would be up and about, inflicting their mischievous tricks on passing boaters. Our progress was slowed by experiencing difficulties with limited water depth in the canal both near bridge number four on the ‘Shroppy’ and at three places on the lock flight. We topped the flight before lunch thanks to some excellent lock-wheeling by Maurice and some lock-gate acrobatics by myself. We had passed about seven descending boats in the flight, but mysteriously almost all the locks were still set against us and there appeared to be no boat ahead of us climbing the flight.
There was considerable activity in the basin at the top of the flight with numerous boats being prepared for the descent. We celebrated our completion of the flight with bacon sandwiches cooked on the move by our ‘Pirelli Star’ chef as we headed on towards Dudley. After leaving the basin we saw only one other boat on the move for nearly two days. Apparently the lack of traffic on the BCN has been noted by other boaters as well. We found the Black Country Living Museum moorings without difficulty, there were only two visiting boats in evidence despite there being extensive excellent moorings available, both in the secure area and outside in the near vicinity.
We had a difficult search to find a hostelry to have our evening meal, but eventually found a suitable place on the edge of a shopping estate by a very busy and noisy main road.
On Wednesday morning Maurice practised some necessary ‘Thetfordery’ and after washing his hands, topped up Python’s fresh water tanks before re-visiting the Dudley Canal Trust, with their electrically powered tunnel trip boats and the adjacent Museum that we had visited with the ‘Commodore’ two years ago.
The level of water in the engine room bilge looked considerably higher than when we had pumped it out only a couple of days before. I decided to keep a close watch on the depth of bilge water during the day’s cruise.
We headed off towards the centre of Birmingham on the ‘Old Main Line’ or Wolverhampton Level seeing only a C&RT survey boat on the move. In fact the only other boat we saw with people aboard before reaching the Smethwick Locks was one moored up under the massive structure of the M5, being spray painted by its owner. The main through routes of the BCN we found to be wide, clear of rubbish, relatively weed-free and eerily quiet. At the Smethwick Locks I decided that we needed to take action and rang RCR asking them to send someone with a large pump to empty the bilge again and possibly loan one to us for a few days. Soon after we reached the bottom of the three locks an engineer arrived, unaware of our request for a bilge pump. I had decided to take up part of the floor in the hold to disconnect the bilge pump to use in the engine room. The hold bilge was, as I had hoped, completely dry, so it would be safe to remove the pump. With the engineer’s help and some cable he happened to have in his van, we were able to wire up the bilge pump in the new location to the nearby battery and empty the engine bilge. Subsequently we drained the bilge each day.
Cambrian Wharf had plenty of mooring space available when we arrived, so we carefully selected an excellent position near the NIA at Farmer’s Bridge junction. Although there were relatively few boats around there were many people about and the shops and pubs were doing excellent trade. That evening we dined and lubricated our throats overlooking the little ‘roundabout’ at the top of the B&F Canal, in preparation for the Farmer’s Bridge, Aston and Minworth locks on Thursday. We returned to the boat through the glittering lights of Gas Street and Cambrian Wharf.
Another early start saw us to the bottom of the first flight in excellent time, aided by a smartly dressed gent who joined us about half way down offering to help us down the locks. As we left the bottom lock it became clear that a visit down the weed hatch was in order as we had collected something on the propeller that was slowing us down. The vote for who should go down the weed hatch into the murky depths was tied (one vote each with no abstentions). As the crew member who had not emptied the toilet (remember the Thetfordery yesterday) I gallantly offered to put my arm down into the depths. After a 30 minute struggle, what a haul ….. a ladies woollen jumper, various plastic bags, two long lengths of webbing, three metres of 3-core cable, several pieces of blue rope, most of a wire supermarket shopping basket, numerous electrical components and their attaching wires and, unbelievably, a complete skate-board with both sets of wheels. We completely filled a large plastic sack with the waste and didn’t have room in it for the skateboard.
Just one visit down the Weed Hatch revealed this collection.
Waiting under a bridge at the top of the Aston Lock Flight.
The Aston flight locks were more widely spaced but less well-maintained than the Farmer’s Bridge locks. Also the canal was much shallower leading to considerable difficulties for us in the two bottom pounds in which we ran aground several times.
When we eventually cleared the flight we met a chap with a home-made, outboard engine powered boat comprised mainly of wooden planks and empty white 25 litre plastic containers lashed together. This vessel had neither directional stability nor turn of speed, so we rounded Salford Junction carefully, both to make the turn and to avoid the unusual craft.
Gent at Salford Junction (beneath ‘Spaghetti Junction’) aboard almost unrecognisable home made craft sorting outboard engine problem.
Along the next reach we observed amongst the mass of floating rubbish two (unmatched) armchairs and a sofa all appearing to have been in good condition before recently entering the water.
Discarded Chesterfield sofa.
We ran aground on this stretch a couple of times and in Minworth Middle Lock our propeller became entangled with a tyre that took considerable effort to dislodge. We were very happy to reach Curdworth and after mooring up took a lengthy stroll through a new secure business park to find an attractive pub alongside a very busy road. The meal there could best be described as ‘OK’ but was reasonably priced and the beer was good.
Friday’s plan was to reach Alvecote and hand over Python to the next crew, a relatively easy run down the Curdworth flight, turn to the right at Fazeley Junction, up the two locks at Glascote and a straight run to the Samuel Barlow. Easy!
Making good time to half way down the Curdworth flight, we were delighted at the excellent depth of water in the lock pounds. Then suddenly we exited a lock into a pound some third of a mile long, in which the canal depth was at least nine inches less than Python’s generous draft. Ohhh dear! As luck would have it we espied a C&RT employee and called him over. Although obviously a normally desk-bound worker, he knew his ‘stuff’ and leaving aside his exciting job for the day of ‘checking assets’ he helped us run water down from a couple of higher pounds for about half an hour, until Python was just floating. We crept along checking the depth in front of the boat until the next lock. This delayed us for about one and a half hours (no time then to perform ‘Thetfordery’ at Fazeley Sanitary Station). The rest of the flight was completed with only one or two minor groundings in the shallow channel. Fortunately below the bottom lock there was adequate water depth. It would have been a challenge to raise the level of the next pound - Fradley to Glascote, with a side arm to Curdworth.
The extremely sharp turn to the right at Fazeley was completed with only minor contact to the canal sidewall. Glascote locks were both against us, as were most of the locks on our week’s journey. We used the opportunity to fill the fresh water tanks at the water point outside Hudson’s boatyard and continued to our 3:00 pm rendez-vous at Alvecote, arriving at the marina at three minutes to three o’clock.
We were guided into the marina by the harbourmaster standing on the bank and I was asked to reverse Python down a quite narrow channel between a line of around thirty historic boats on finger moorings with as many private boats moored opposite them and to moor stern-in alongside ‘Dove’ wherever that might be. The manoeuvre was made more interesting by the cross wind and the fifty (or was it fifty thousand) highly competent boaters standing guarding their gleaming vintage craft. After completing the exercise without actually hitting anything, we tidied up, moved our luggage to the waiting car of David Dawson (who had kindly agreed to drive us home), dumped our rubbish and Maurice again emptied the toilet.