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. 

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Hopwood (what is it with abandoned houses?)

Our breakfast view back towards Wast Hills and Birmingham

After our cruise to Hopwood on Tuesday we had a couple of walks around the area on Wednesday.
In the morning, we walked up the towpath to Wast Hills tunnel and then branched off to start a circular walk.

Looking down at the southern portal

Under the bridge, just before the tunnel, were piles of metallic objects: bicycle frames, hotel safe boxes, car body parts etc.  I hadn’t noticed them when we came past on Tuesday, so someone must have been magnet fishing since then.  It’s impossible to know what to do as it shouldn’t be left there as litter but there was no way of taking it anywhere.  We usually only see this sort of thing in towns, so it was strange seeing it out in the countryside in a place where access wasn’t easy.

The canal tunnel cottage above the portal was in a great location without any neighbours and was even more attractive as the traffic noise from the M42 couldn’t be heard, unlike in other parts of Hopwood.  Unfortunately, it was boarded up but suspect it will make a great family home one day.

The rest of the walk was away from the canal, across fields and on country roads.  At one place I came across yet another boarded up house.  This time it was an old farmhouse:

Again, it was in a great location without any neighbours:

Back on the boat, whilst having lunch, two boats went past.  I’d forgotten that the winter closures on this canal are during the first three months of next year consequently there will be traffic between Birmingham and Worcester until Christmas.  It made me realise that Birmingham may still be busy boatwise, and not empty as I had hoped.  Still, there’s plenty of places to moor in the centre so it shouldn’t be a problem when we go up on Friday,

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Hopwood (we are now on the Worcester & Birmingham canal)

Lunch looking back at Kings Norton junction on Tuesday

It was going to be a relatively busy day for Buddy and me on Tuesday, so we set off from where we have been moored at Shirley for the last ten days, at 8.30.  Compared with the last few days it felt almost balmy but after 15 minutes or so it did start to feel cold.  Other than jumping up and down there is no chance for moving the body when I’m standing on the back of the boat driving.

Buddy seemed glad to get on the move again and adopted his normal cruising position

I know it’s not a tasteful subject, but we have been pleasantly surprised by the lack of dog mess on the towpaths around Shirley; most built up areas seem to suffer badly these days.  Mind you, in terms of graffiti, it seemed just as prevalent as any other town.

Graffiti on the aqueduct over the River Cole…

…and under the road bridge at Haslucks Green

Our first destination was the water point at Warstock where we would stop and do some washing as well as taking on water.  I was quite happy to moor at the water point as there wasn’t going to be any boat traffic because of the closures and there had been no one else moored near us.  There were two boats moored, in the opposite direction to us, near the water point that had obviously got themselves ‘stuck’ so they couldn’t get through the closures.  This meant they probably wouldn’t get any hassle from the authorities for overstaying.

Leaving the water point – the canal side house has finally been restored – we remember this as a burnt out wreck

Another sign of being in a built-up area are the window protectors on the boats moored at the end of people’s gardens.

So sad that the owners have to protect their boats from stone throwers

At least this little boy was being taught to wave at boats rather than throw things at them

After getting water, we carried on to Lyons boatyard for coal and a pump out.  They didn’t stock our usual brand of coal, so I bought a couple of bags of two other brands to see if they were any good.  It’s strange how some coal just won’t burn well in the stove whereas another brand can almost get too hot.  We haven’t tried either of these new brands on this boat so it’s fingers crossed they work well.

Whilst cruising past the residential boats at the yard guys came out of two different boats to ask if the Shirley lift bridge was now open – I was the first boat they had seen since the closure just over a week ago. I explained that we had been moored by the bridge since the closure and that it was time to move on.

Leaving the boatyard

The canal then passes under the busy A435, a major road into the south of Birmingham.  Most people travelling on the road wouldn’t even know they are crossing a canal at the Horseshoe pub.  With so many canals in Birmingham we often have a bit of a game when driving to see how many times we spot the road crossing a canal.

Old arm off the canal behind the Horseshoe pub

Approaching the 352-yard-long Brandwood tunnel a mile from Kings Norton junction

There used to be a swing bridge here – this is ½ mile before Kings Norton junction

Just about four miles after setting off we came to the guillotine lock at Kings Norton junction.  This lock is no longer operational but used to be a stop lock where tolls would be collected as boats moved from one canal to another.  In times of water shortages, it would also have been used to stop water escaping from one canal to another too.

The graffiti on the bridge and lock mechanism is constantly cleaned off but is soon replaced by more.  Consequently, each time we pass through, the view is slightly different.

The stop lock at Kings Norton junction

The junction marks the end of the Stratford canal and its meeting with the Worcester & Birmingham canal.  To the right the canal runs pretty dead straight for file miles into Birmingham through Bourneville and Edgbaston.  We were turning left (south) so we could spend a few days at Hopwood and then come back up to Birmingham on Friday.

Approaching the junction

Signpost at the junction (25 ½ miles to Worcester, 5 ½ to Birmingham and 25 ½ to Stratford)

The house at the junction used to be the offices of the Worcester & Birmingham canal company.  

Facsimile toll and distance board on the house - painted in 1993 to mark the 200th anniversary of the canal

I decided to stop for lunch at the junction before the final few miles down to Hopwood.  We were heading for Hopwood as there looked a good spot (on satellite images) for Karen to park the car and it is also only ½ mile from a junction on the M42 so an easy journey for her to get to work – well, a lot easier than being in the middle of Birmingham.  That’s why we will only be in Birmingham over the weekend.

A bridge on the Worcester & Birmingham canal

The red metal plate in the bridge parapet (above) is a good sign that we are in the Birmingham area.  These doors were put in during the war so that fire appliances could have easy access to water following bombing raids.  These doors are also a good way of spotting, when driving around Birmingham, if a road is going over a canal or even a canal that has now been filled in.

We soon reached the 1 ½ mile long Wast Hills tunnel.  When the canal was first opened at the end of the 1700s boats were either poled or legged through but in 1872 they brought in steam tugs that were used to tow boats through.

Remains of the building that was used to store coal for the steam tugs

Entering the 1 ½ mile long Wast Hills tunnel

This is the second longest tunnel I have been through on my own; Harecastle tunnel up on the Trent & Mersey is very slightly longer and I have been through that a couple of times on my own too.  

Some people really don’t like tunnels but they never bother me, whether on my own or with Karen.  Mind you, it does get a bit boring as it takes about half an hour to get through and by the end I was singing and shouting away about ghosts and other spooky things 😊

The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel

Talking on the phone to one of our daughters later, she pointed out that I should really text Karen when going into a tunnel on my own and then text her again when I come out.  This is quite sensible, especially at this time of year when there is little traffic, as there would be no way that I could attract attention if the boat broke down or something.

My plan had been to moor at bridge 69 just south of the tunnel where a country lane crosses the canal.

The bridge where I intended mooring (the exit from Wast Hills tunnel is in the background to the left of a white information sign)

When I got to the bridge I realised that the bank was too high and steep for Karen to clamber up and down in her work clothes – there weren’t even steps – so I had to carry on.

Not the easiest of accesses to the road

I carried on another ¼ mile and moored near the Hopwood House pub where at least there was easy access and somewhere for Karen to park.

Our mooring for the next few days