Saturday, October 05, 2013

"I am the One Per Cent"

This blog post isn't the
Tales of 1001 Nights...
Apparently, 99% of boat owners on the British inland waterways are over fifty, which makes my friend Richard one of the 1%. But because he’s not a merchant banker or a US congressman, and has to work for a living, he’s happy for friends to come and crew his narrowboat on tours of the inland waterways of England.

I wanted to go, and Beloved Wife said that I could, suggesting that I make a fortnight of it and see friends and family. This was in lieu of Plan A: Nanny Goat’s proposed visit to Dubai over Eid. Not least because Beloved Wife’s employer still hasn’t made up its corporate mind what days will constitute a Public Holiday, we abandoned Plan A and invoked Plan B.

Plan B had me flying into Birmingham International, taking a train to Nanny Goat’s and staying a few days, then borrowing her car and touring southern England. After returning the car with a full tank and my seriously depleted wallet, I would take a train to the midlands, go narrowboating for several days, and then get off right next to a railway station. The airport would be a short rail journey away, and I’d fly back to Dubai.

And guess what. Everything went exactly as planned. It’s amazing what a little forward planning can achieve.

Ducks in a row.
At the airport, something odd did occur to me. Airport security has always been a bugbear of mine because of the illogical rules. This one involves half-litre bottles of water. These are not allowed on board aircraft because they might be liquid explosives, so we’re told. We’re also told that we may dispose of them in that basket full of bottles of liquid piled just there, right next to the security desk. What, I ask myself, would happen in the terminal if some ne’er-do-well did succeed in getting a bottle of cellulose nitrate into this basket? At least the aircraft would be safe…

I now fly with minimal-to-zero metalwork about my person, even resorting to draw-string trousers so that I don’t have to risk a wardrobe malfunction when I take my belt off. The full body scanner at Amsterdam flagged the wristwatch that I’d forgotten to take off, but that was OK because it was obvious what it was when the alarm bells rang.

Travelling around England for a few days did result in Beer. I fear I broke David over a long afternoon session in two Bristol pubs, for which I ought to apologise, but it was good to catch up since we parted ways way back in my Doha days.

I deposited rare spices from the Orient with some friends who might appreciate such things, and eventually headed back to Plymouth in the rain. Nanny Goat’s car does 42 miles per (imperial) gallon on a steady run, which is just as well given that petrol costs a rather shocking £6.15 a gallon. For readers in the Middle East, that’s around AED7.80 rather than the usual AED1.72 per litre. Americans might be shocked and appalled by the British reality of $8.20 per US gallon.

The narrowboat lives in a marina in Droitwich, which is an excellent location as it’s near the Worcester end of the Worcester and Birmingham canal and the river Severn, so Birmingham, Tewkesbury, and Stourport are all potential destinations, each with their own charms.

This time, we were heading for the Birmingham Canal Navigations, so it was up three locks out of the marina, up six more to Stoke Prior, and then the remaining thirty on to the BCN Main Line level. Tardebigge Locks constitute the longest lock flight in the UK, and they’re all self-operating. You operate them yourself, which is why Richard really needed a small crew.

Waiting for a lock to empty.
We had a Bard. That's plusses on all Inspire Competence rolls.
An overnight stop opposite a pub in Stoke Prior and a hearty breakfast later, we set off, arriving at Tardebigge Top Lock three and three-quarter hours later. It might have been quicker, but we’d been following a boat all the way and had to cycle every lock. Once on the summit level, it was easy cruising at about three miles per hour all the way to Gas Street Basin, which is right smack bang in the city centre.

Gas Street has become rather trendy since my last boat trip there back in 1987. Trendy bars and restaurants have popped up but, after a shower in the civilised full-size facilities kept under lock and British Waterways key (which all boaters have, and nobody else does), we ate, and then found the gloriously eighteenth-century Canalside Inn and its stock of Real Ale. 

The double-hearthed fireplace inside the Canalside Inn.
In days of yore (from 1773), the Worcester and Birmingham canal and the BCN were not joined up, and cargo had to be manhandled from one boat to another at this very spot. The Worcester Bar was a water-saving measure, I can imagine that if this building were an inn at the time, they’d have made a fortune. Eventually, in 1815, a seven-foot-wide 84-yard length of canal was constructed to join the W&B to the BCN, and later the lock gates were removed, allowing free passage.

Gas Street Basin is to the left; the BCN Main Line is to the right.
Just beyond Gas Street, we turned right and headed down Farmers Bridge flight of 13 locks. These pass beneath later buildings that have, in some cases been built on columns over the canal. It’s all very industrial. Then there was a right turn at Aston Junction on to the Digbeth Branch Canal and six locks, plus tunnels and bridges.

The canal is easily the oldest thing in this picture.
Two hundred years of wear and tear.
Nobody told me to turn left at the bottom and I overshot and we were heading towards Typhoo Basin before my crass mistake became apparent to everyone. I had to reverse out, which is interesting in a long boat that doesn’t steer in reverse. Nevertheless, we caught up with a working boat and butty (an unpowered towed boat) that were taking coal to canalside pubs along the Grand Union. The butty has to be worked through locks by hand, and it’s a long and slow process. If you fancy this, the Narrow Boat Trust is always looking for crew.

Nuneaton and Brighton.
We ended up following NB Nuneaton and the butty Brighton along the Grand Union Canal until they managed to run aground on a mud bank beneath a bridge. We sneaked past with a couple of inches to spare, and then towed them off.
A very tight squeeze.
Having passed a newly-built Dutch barge, which was for sale, I inferred that we were now on broad canal. Sure enough, as dusk fell we encountered a flight of five broad locks at Knowle. Having got to the bottom of these, we sought a mooring right outside a pub. Huzzah!

The following morning, it was necessary to climb back up to the BCN Main Line level. From Kingswood Junction there’s one lock up to the Stratford Canal, then nineteen more to Kings Norton Junction. The last one is a stop lock. It’s a guillotine lock that nowadays is welded open. The Stratford Canal is very picturesque right into the heart of Birmingham’s sprawling suburbs.

Rush hour on the Lapworth Flight.
Brandwood Tunnel sports William Shakespeare's likeness.
Appropriate for the Stratford Canal
Kings Norton stop lock.
As this was a holiday in England, remarks about the weather cannot be avoided. It was dry almost all of the time except at night when we were safely indoors enjoying a small wood-burning stove, port, and card games, right up to the Kings Norton. Then a large umbrella had to be deployed. The rain had stopped by the time we got to Bournville. Mooring just next to the railway station, we had another social evening, and early the following morning I grabbed my stuff and headed off to the station at the start of a long trip back to Dubai.

The remaining crew went and explored Birmingham again, before turning around and heading back on their own long trip down Tardebigge, and home.

Hey Richard, how would it be if I wanted to borrow your boat for a week next year?


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