Monday, 20 November 2017

Hopwood (back again after a weekend cruise to Birmingham)

My youngest son, Jake, was coming up to Birmingham on Friday to go to a concert with us and then stop overnight.  The only problem was that we were moored eight miles south of Birmingham centre so had to cruise there on Friday morning.  This meant turning around (winding), going back through the 1 ½ mile Wast Hills tunnel and then the final five miles through Bourneville and Edgbaston before reaching the centre.  I did most of the driving so Karen could walk alongside with Buddy as she is still desk bound during the week (but only 16 weeks to go now😊).

Getting ready to wind before facing the other way and heading into Birmingham

It was a cloudless day, so lovely and sunny but feeling cold standing on the back of the boat when out of the sun.

Autumnal feel just before Wast Hills tunnel

Karen and Buddy came aboard for the 30-minute trip through the tunnel as the walk across the top isn’t particularly pleasant and it’s easy to get lost.  A friend of ours, Alison, was brought up in the area and has given us some interesting information about the tunnel that I will look into this week. 

Last week I had gone in search of the three air shafts and found two of them.  I had assumed that they would be equidistant from each other and thought I’d check when going through this time.  There are markers every 100 metres on the tunnel walls and, as the tunnel is just over 2,500 metres long, I expected to see the shafts at about 600, 1,250 and 1,800 metres through the tunnel.   

As it was, the ones at either end were only about 400 metres from the entrances whilst the middle one was just about dead centre (about 25 metres south of the middle).

Bit fuzzy but this is looking up the middle shaft

I mentioned in a recent blog that steam tugs were used from about 1870 to tow boats through the tunnel.  At either end there were turning circles for the steam tugs and they can still be seen today.

Turning circle (winding hole) built for the steam tugs at the northern end of the tunnel

The last four or five miles into Birmingham are pretty boring as it is dead straight with a railway line running alongside most of the way.  It reminds us of the Shropshire Union which is also very straight (but mostly rural) and many people rate it as their favourite canal, not so us, we put it way down the list.  Anyway, it wasn’t long before we could smell the chocolate factory at Bourneville.

The five miles from Norton Junction to the end of the Worcester & Birmingham canal at Gas Street basin is different to most canals.  When sections must be drained, stanking planks are usually used to form temporary dams.  These planks are not used on this part of the canal; instead, there are stop gates under most of the bridges.  These can be closed when needing to drain a section of the canal.


After a few hours we had nearly reached our destination but stopped to take on water at the Mailbox, one of the city shopping centres.

Having lunch whilst taking on water

We were getting water with another boat, the name of which I can’t remember nor the girl driving it.  She was visiting Birmingham as a boat trader – selling glassware that she paints on the boat.  We saw her several times over the weekend and bought a mirror from her just before we left on Sunday.

Passing the entrance to the Mailbox

Around the corner we arrived at Gas Street basin which marks the end of the Worcester & Birmingham canal and the start of the Birmingham Canal Navigations.  There used to be a stop lock here where the navigations changed but the lock gates have been removed as these days there are no tolls to collect.

Going through Worcester Bar stop lock at Gas Street basin

Just after the stop lock, the canal goes under Broad Street which is the street that has stars of famous Brummies set into the paving stones.  In the afternoon we took Jake along to see the stars and had to admit that we looked a few up as we had never heard of them

Going through Broad Street tunnel

After passing under Broad Street the International Conference Centre is on the right and then you arrive at another junction where four waterways meet.  It is also just outside the Birmingham Arena (formerly the Barclaycard Arena) which was our destination.

Birmingham & Fazeley canal to the right, Oozells Loop (Old Main line) to the left (just out of sight) and New Main line straight on.  Birmingham Arena is dead ahead.

We moored just past the junction right outside the arena.  There were very few boats moored up, unlike when visiting here in the summer.  Even though it’s in a city, most of the moorings are 14 days which is quite unusual as in many other towns the best moorings are usually only 24 or 48 hours.

We are the farthest boat – the library is the silver and gold building in the background

We met Jake in the early afternoon and took him on a quick sightseeing tour of the city – it was his first ever visit to Birmingham.

Looking across the city from the top of the library

We also showed him the red doors in the bridge parapets around the city and found plenty of examples even though it wasn’t always obvious there was a canal underneath.

In the evening we saw Deep Purple at the arena who were supported by Cats in Space and Europe.  As always with Deep Purple, it was a great concert, but it was good to only have a two-minute walk back home rather than fighting the crowds in public transport.

Jake left around lunchtime on Saturday and I met up with Judith and Nigel in the Brew Dog pub near New Street station whilst Karen went to a wool shop she knew of.  Since its revamp the station is called Grand Central on its facades but elsewhere, and on signs leading to the station, it is still referred to as New Street – must be very confusing for visitors and foreigners.

We stayed in on Saturday night and had a good catch up with Judith and Nigel as its been a while since they visited.

On Sunday we had to get back to Hopwood as we had left the car there all weekend to save bringing it in to Birmingham.

Reversing out of our mooring into Oozells Loop ready to turn round and head back down to Hopwood (note the Dutch style tops to the apartments)

Nigel, Karen and Buddy walked along the towpath to the university whilst Judith and I drove the boat alongside them.  Judith and Nigel then walked back to catch a train home and we continued on, retracing our route from Friday.

Filling up with water at Kings Norton just before going back through Wast Hills tunnel for the third time in six days

We moored back where we had been last week and went to check the car was OK.  All was good, and we brought some go kart tyres back to the boat that Karen had got from a friend at work.  We needed a couple more and four were for Mike and Lesley for their boat when it is delivered (soon 😉).

Friday, 17 November 2017

Hopwood (exploring Wast Hills)

The most northern of the three air shafts

We are currently moored about ½ mile south of Wast Hills tunnel by the Hopwood House pub.  As I mentioned the other day, the tunnel is 1 ½ miles long and does not have a towpath.  This meant that the towing horses used to be walked across the top to get to the other end whilst the boats were legged or poled through the tunnel.

The old path is long gone as Birmingham starts about half way along and the vast Wast Hills estate has been built over it.   When tunnels were built they usually sank many shafts in order to take away the spoil and then covered most up after construction, leaving a few as ventilation shafts.

Not to be outdone, Buddy and I set out, without a map or any desk research, to find the top of the three air shafts that can be seen when in the tunnel itself.

After a steep climb above the southern portal we cut across a field that was rather clayey but it felt as if I was heading in the right direction.  Looking back to the portal gave stunning views down to the Malvern Hills in the very far background.

The first field – southern portal is just the other side of the fir trees on the right

It’s amazing how difficult it is to follow an imaginary line without a compass, but we soldiered on, crossing a second field which was probably the highest point of the walk.

Second field but no air shafts yet

I did pass what looks like an observatory right at the top of Wast Hill but it didn’t look as if it was in use.  Another bit of desk research required, methinks.

Observatory at the top of Wast Hills

Every so often there are large mounds in the fields which I have rather assumed are spoil heaps from when the tunnel was dug.

I guessed there should be an air shaft every six or seven hundred yards so was quite disappointed when I reached the Wast Hills estate, which I judged to be the half way point, but with no sign of an air shaft.

I knew there were some high rises next to the northern portal and when I saw them I realised I had drifted off course a bit so not surprising I hadn’t found anything.  I pressed on into the estate and was really wasn’t expecting to find anything amongst the ‘70s and ‘80s terraced houses.

Don’t think I’ll find much here

A bit more modern and right next to something to lift an explorer’s spirits

It could only mean one thing really, so I followed it as it ran dead straight with back gardens flanking either side.  Eventually it came out on a bit of wasteland and suddenly I found what I was looking for:

The most northern air shaft (I had obviously missed the other two)

Looking closer at the brickwork you can see that it was heightened some time ago - no doubt once people started dropping things down it into the canal below.

Change in brickwork where the extra height was added

I carried on towards the flats and suddenly came across two old cottages which looked most out of place:

The cottages were called number one and number two Tunnel Cottage, so I knew I had found the other end of the tunnel. It’s amazing these two cottages were left standing with all the development of the last 30 years or so.  Coincidently, the cottage at the other end (in yesterday’s blog) was also called Tunnel Cottage. 

The southern portal with high rise behind and the two cottages just out of sight in the foreground.
On the way back, I was determined to keep a straight line so as not to miss the other two shafts.  The skies darkened and it started raining as we got back to the fields.  Once again, I wasn’t prepared for rain as it wasn’t forecast but at least it would give a good excuse to get a roaring fire going when I got back to the boat.

This time I was lucky and found the middle shaft at the corner of a field.  This one hasn’t been made taller, but it did have a brick structure added to it – it looked like it was used for storing hay and/or livestock.
The middle shaft

After drying out and having lunch I went down to a garden nursery in Hopwood to see if they had any miniature daff and tulip bulbs as we haven’t found any yet this year.  We were in luck, so no doubt Karen will get them planted whilst we’re cruising into Birmingham tomorrow.

Next week, when we are back after our weekend in Birmingham, I will do some desk research and go exploring again – hopefully finding that third air shaft too.