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The Return of a Super Hero

This month saw the return of an old comic-book hero. No, no, not Ryan “The Boy Wonder", but that revered campaigner from the old days, “Captain Cargo”. The pressure was building, the need was never greater, was “Jaguar” ever going to grace the waterways again, loaded with coal for those unfortunate souls destined to freeze to death unless succour could be found by canal transport?


The answer is yes! “Captain Cargo” turned up in a blaze of diesel fumes as his alter-ego Malcolm Burge, quickly changed out of his office clothes in a handy phone booth and, true to form, demanded to be taken to the nearest hostelry. He appeared from the ether accompanied by the comedy coal duo, Lawrence and Michael, who were in charge of some unlikely old vessels named after animals that had not been invented when the boats were built - Lynx and Emu. I believe that Lawrence and Michael were once a famous popular music act who made a gramophone record entitled “Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs”, a catchy little number all about poor folk who have wooden bottoms.

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Anyway, they all three loaded up, and after a magnificent effort at reducing the stock of Golden Glow at the Bell to nothing, they departed for the wilds of Alvecote via the Amazonian magnificence that is the Stourbridge Canal. I wonder if we will ever see their like again.  

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Actually, Ryan “The Boy Wonder” did make an appearance this month, and accompanied me (Coal-Man, the ultimate super-hero), on our own mission to provide succour to the denizens of the Severn Vale. This was accomplished with the usual aplomb. It was also accomplished with the usual childish racing on the river. Great fun. On the way, we discovered that as canal-carrying is making a comeback, the Canal and River Trust have decided to re-impose tolls, and insisted on gauging us at The Bratch. They have even employed an official “Gauging Guy”, complete with badge to carry out this duty. The official brass “Gauging Gauge” has also been restored to use from the ignominy of its last fifty odd years as a toilet roll holder in the outside lav. The reverse side of the gauging stick has been calibrated to measure the wellbeing generated by the public upon seeing the skipper of a loaded boat swearing profusely whilst ploughing through the mud on a canal that has recently had dredging cancelled. 

The usual high jinks were had down the river, including seeing a large bore tide hurtling up the river at Stonebench - very impressive. We also managed to spot the secret lard works being constructed in a hidden glade near Stroud. It seems that as all the inhabitants of Stroud and its’ environs are vegan (or simply vegetarian if lower down the social scale), that there is a massive glut of animals not being eaten. Something had to be done, hence the construction project. Transport is being sought for the carriage of enormous quantities of lard to the black-pudding mills of Yorkshire and Lancashire. There is surely an opening for an intrepid boater here. I managed to get a photo of this superb, architecturally inspiring megalith from the canal despite the high levels of security and trees surrounding the site.

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The return journey was pretty uneventful, and Mr Hawker relieved me for a couple of days from Worcester to Hanbury Wharf. It was just pure chance that these two days were full of deliveries to be made. The “Boy Wonder” re-loaded Southern Cross at Tardebigge and then disappeared into the wide blue yonder, or was it down the Northern Stratford Canal? Anyway, he zipped off to be a super-hero elsewhere. “May the farce be with you, Ryan."

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We’ll dig dig dig dig dig dig dig……..

Having seen a few old dredging photo’s published on Facebook recently, I thought that I might give some of mine an airing on here. I worked for various outfits in those far off days, including Union Towage, Midland Earthmoving, and the partnership between Andy Rothen and Douglas Construction. 

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The Union Towage tug fleet tied up outside "The Flapper & Firkin" pub in Birmingham.

The first dredging job I worked on was "Project Hillarious”, which was our amusing name for the imaginatively named “Project Aquarious”. This project was the dredging of the Birmingham Main Line from Five Ways Bridge (actually on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal) through to Winson Green Stop. This was the best dredging that I have ever been involved with, as all the silt was removed; the canal was dredged to its' original depth of five feet from bank to bank and is still in excellent condition (depth wise) some twenty-odd years later. The current crop of dredging planners could learn a thing or two here. The funding for this project came mainly from the local authority, together with a large chunk of money from the EU. This was in the heady days of our membership of the European Union, and the paymasters in Brussels had obviously decided that Birmingham was in need of a refurb. 

The hoppers on this job were always well loaded, and we “stemmed” them along without the winch wires attached, as this made cornering easier on the way to the unloading wharf at Icknield Port. The only connection between hopper and tug was a short rope from the front of the tug to the rearmost dolly on the hopper. This was useful for braking, but this operation had to be carried out with the hopper properly lined up as it would just pull the tug along behind until the propellor bit into the water and some semblance of braking was effected. 

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A significant part of this contract was the construction of a stone fillet along the canal edge. This was, we were officially informed by a straight-faced canal manager, to encourage the growth of invertebrates. My own view is that this was the official British Waterways line (spin, as it is called these days) to ensure that funding was in place to keep the towing path walls from collapsing into the canal. Nothing much changes; this is just like the current use of the word “wellbeing”, used in the current attempt to persuade the government to continue funding the Canal & River Trust.

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The vessel used to construct said stone fillet was the river-class butty boat, “Tow”, which was ballasted down and fitted with a side tipping platform. This platform was loaded with stone by the oldest “Metal Mickey” that money could buy. This picture shows “Tow” parked up in the wet-dock at Icknield Port in the company of said “Metal Mickey. 

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Here is “Tow” tied alongside “Roach” in Cambrian Wharf, Birmingham with the side-tipping platform loaded ready for the morning. 

A few more shots of the same boat being used as a mud-hopper. The first one is the unloading wharf at Love Lane, Aston, the wharf being formed from a couple of short ex GKN day-boats. The Priestman crane on the wharf had been hired to unload the dredgings, but the operator (nameless, but he knows who he is), could not get to grips with the technique required to grab the dredgings out. The idea was to open the jaws of the grab and then drop it onto the dredgings whilst closing the jaws immediately on impact to use the force of the falling grab to get a full load of material. For some reason, said operator couldn’t get the timing right, and was frequently seen unloading just one brick-end caught between the jaws of the grab. Luckily, a passing Priestman operator wandered into the yard and was hired on the spot. He pretty soon suggested that a hydraulic machine would be far more efficient, and that he would unload boats twice as fast for the same amount of pay - and that he would put up with the comfortable cab without complaining.

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The second photo shows “Tow” being filled on the “Hospital Pond” below Farmers Bridge Locks. Most boatmen would say that these boats made far better mud-hoppers than butty boats. 

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I also used “Tow” in the removal of a large Cummins engine that had been used as a stand-by generator from the rear of the Hospital adjacent the old Davenports brewery. This engine was then exported to the Middle East, I believe, but not by narrow boat.

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Incidentaly, “Tow” has been tied up in the trees by Alvechurch for well over a year now, looking quite forlorn. I’m told that it is on its’ way to Over basin on the Severn; it will arrive some time in the twenty-forties at this rate.





Once more onto the Beach, Dear Friends.

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I’ve not blogged for a while - I’ve had to restrain myself from over-indulging in negativity. (That’s a sentence from the modern world if ever I’ve encountered one). We have endured the re-branding of our canal provider for incomprehensible reasons formed from yet more modern words like “wellbeing”, maintained a well-bitten lip over the official explanation provided to explain the well publicised breach of the canal near Middlewich, and actually had to work really hard to keep up with the supply of coal to customers seeing out the long winter months. Most of our usual trips have been undertaken, although more road deliveries than usual have had to be made as the winter canal maintenance programme was not planned with the usual care and attention to the needs of winter users such as ourselves.

Well, never mind all that, Summer is here and the Jules’ Fuels fleet have just been and gone. This event is always a fine occasion, the main point of it being to fund a foreign holiday for the Steve and Lorraine, mine hosts at The Bell. I expect that they will be having a month in the Bahamas this year. Easily.

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The boats to be loaded on this occasion, for those to whom an importance is attached to such things, were: Bletchley & Bideford, (Bletchley being a change boat for Towcester), Southern Cross & Cedar, and Corona. The names of those involved in the loading have been removed for legal reasons.

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The loading followed its’ usual pattern, lots of sitting about and laughing, with the occasional lifting of the proverbial finger to assist the real workers with the actual handling of the cargo. The real workers managed to load the five boats in record time, however, a feat that ensured the return of the “Wheel-barrow with the Golden Wheel” trophy to Mr Ryan Dimmock, as this years "coal-boater of the year”. He now keeps this much coveted trophy for posterity, having won it three times. I think time must now be called on this once prestigious award as no-one is the slightest bit interested. Here’s Ryan being presented with the trophy by an ardent watcher of boat-loading. 



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The departure of the fleet from Awbridge was delayed somewhat by “Andy Capp” Haysome threatening to saw his own hand off rather that steer the butty for Ryan. Understandable, but the world must keep turning, the show must go on, etc, so up stepped myself, into the breech as it were. A quick refresher course, followed by a tour of the controls, and I was ready. The reality was that all Ryan wanted was some mug to bow-haul the butty into the locks, and I fitted the bill perfectly. Flannel and flattery still seem to work, and after being told how good I was at pulling on a rope, I obliged.


Just to prove that I can steer a butty, and in fact, multi-task by adding in tea-drinking, here is a picture of me steering Cedar away from the wharf, and another, taken by me (multi-tasking again) from the rear of Cedar under tow by Ryan on Southern Cross.

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Changing the subject slightly, a couple more photos have been uncovered at the bottom of the side-bed. The first one shows Roach tied outside Caggy Stevens’ yard at Tipton in the days when Tipton was but a leafy village on the outskirts of Dudley. The other was taken by the Turners, of “Bath” fame, who happened across me zooming downstream through Gainsborough in the late eighties. I had hair then.

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Finally, in our quest to find the finest canal side eatery in the land, we came across this mobile cafe. It comes highly recommended, particularly for those afficionados of the complete rural experience. Here we see the chef preparing his speciality dish - black pudding flambé. Exquisite!

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“Smerrick” - One Small Step for Mankind

Cor! It’s been that cold round here even the sheep are hibernating. I just managed to snap a shot of one of ‘em emerging from his burrow to hunt for food in the mistaken belief that spring had turned up. I leaped over the fence just in time - his fangs were enormous.


Back in the wonderful world of coal-boating, I managed a mad four-day dash on Roach to make much needed coal deliveries to customers between our yard at Awbridge, and Tardebigge New Wharf on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. The Canal and River Trust had begrudgingly allowed a four-day window in the winter maintenance programme so that we could make make this trip. We had asked for a five day window, just to allow for problems, old age etc, but four was deemed the most that could possibly be allowed. This meant that I had four very long and intense days, but it did have its rewards - a good thirst was built up, and then slaked with some excellent beer in the company of Mr Wigley, Mr Russell and all the other beautiful people of Broad Street.


Another reward is the view towards Birmingham on a winters morning as the approach is made by canal from Smethwick. It’s quite attractive in an urban sort of way.

Speaking of Smethwick, or “Smerrick” in the local parlance, I recently dug out a photo from about twenty five years ago of Roach descending the locks there festooned with local passengers. My over-riding memory of this event is that not one of ‘em bought a ticket. I imagine that they are all respectable members of society now, having seen at first hand what becomes of folk who take no notice at school. That gate, incidentally,  is now in preservation at Kew Gardens.

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Back into present times. After working up Smethwick Locks, and after having to fill the pounds between them with water, it was back to the reason for the trip - coal deliveries, which meant a bit of smart reversing along the “Engine Arm” to the moorings there.

Like all canals everywhere, the cut through Smethwick could do with dredging. I expect that this will only happen when, or possibly if, Bill Gates leaves his entire fortune to the Canal & River Trust. Bizzarely, the Engine Arm, a dead end stretch of canal departing from the Old Main Line above Smethwick Locks is surprisingly deep, and presents no problems to Roach reversing along it. The engine arm passes over the New Main Line of the Birmingham Canal via a fine, cast iron aqueduct, designed, we are reliably informed, by Thomas Telford. It is believed that he specified “no fog”, but to no avail.

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Here is a picture of Roach returning over the aquaduct heading towards the recent housing development which replaced a handsome factory with “EVER READY” emblazoned across it’s wall in contrasting brickwork. This from the days when business’s intended to be around for ever, rather than the two or three weeks expected these days. 

Thomas Telford was also responsible for the magnificent Galton Bridge a little further along the New Main Line canal, which is also constructed of cast iron. This bridge is a favourite spot for the odd scallywag to indulge in a spot of target practice on boats passing underneath, safe in the knowledge that, even if an irate boater caught up with them, a severe wheezing at would be all the boater would be capable of after such an ascent.

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Passing further along towards Oldbury, an overwhelmingly massive work of art of the “Utilitarian” school has been installed on the canal through Smethwick and West Bromwich. It is very impressive, but It turns out that all this scaffolding is holding up the M5 motorway, or so it seems. I hope it works. Whilst they are at it, they might as well fill the spaces between the pillars with glazed panels, which would complete the weather-proofing of this canal, and make it a world-class destination for people hell-bent on “well-being”.

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The conscientious reader of this rubbish will be aware that we do not pass along the Old Main Line of the Birmingham Canal very often, as the New Main Line is a more direct route between Tipton and Birmingham, albeit slightly less scenic. The New Main Line is currently closed whilst having new walls fitted to stop fish from escaping. I can’t see why they would want to escape, mind, as there are lots of interesting obstacles, provided free of charge by the local populace, for fish to amuse themselves swimming around. 

Our tame boatman, Pete, has since been out and about on Roach delivering much needed solid fuels to the freezing gentle-folk of Shropshire, Cheshire and Staffordshire. Here’s a picture of him turning up for duty. He lives for bad weather, the badder the better. 

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Out with the Old…...

Well, we’ve had some snow then. You’d think that we’d never had any before. Just to prove that we have - here’s a picture taken in Gas Street Basin, Birmingham, around 1991.

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Roach is the middle boat, the others (for those of you who just have to know) are Cedar, Cyprus, Argon and Yeoford.

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The recent snow did impact on us, though, and delayed our departure from Awbridge for a few days. It seems that our particular part of South Staffordshire, together with the adjoining part of Shropshire, had loads more snow than the rest of the country. We couldn’t get off the yard for two days, but luckily we had a crate of Bathams laid by for just such an emergency. 

The snow-scape did provide scope for some seasonal photos with the old Kodak Brownie, and, because I can, I include a couple for your delectation and enjoyment. The arty one is taken through the rather fine brickwork on Awbridge Bridge, the other is of Dimmingsdale Lock.


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We finally managed to persuade Pete to board Roach and he set off for all points North. Obviously, it was chucking it down with rain when he set off - it is traditional with Pete, but he loves it, and wouldn’t have it any other way. We did manage to relieve him for a couple of days to allow him to dry out, but made him return when we got to Middlewich. This gave him the opportunity to ascend the Cheshire Locks, nick-named “Heartbreak Hill” in recent years by people for whom more than two locks in one day constitutes strenuous exercise. He got back to the yard in time for Christmas. Just.


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The cold weather has ensured that we have been very busy delivering by road as well as by boat, and Jenny has been kept busy (and warm) bagging up on the yard. Here she is loading coal into the hopper with our JCB (Jenny’s Coal Brute). She is an able operator of this machine, and has perfected the “tongue-sticking-out-in-concentration” technique. 

Her enthusiasm for all things coal is a joy to behold, and this made my choice of Christmas gift for her extremely easy. She has had to wrap it herself though - in around 1200 individual parcels.


I have been delving into the “Plastic Bag of History” again, and found a few more interesting photos. The first shows Roach tied up at the bottom of the "Rochdale Nine Locks” in Manchester. This was taken in 1988 (I think), and there wasn’t a soul to be seen anywhere. I had a good night out in the pubs around Deansgate, and then a quiet nights sleep - I don’t imagine that would be possible nowadays.

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This next photo is of “Roach" tied outside of Dave Blowers’ “Stewponey" opposite Langley Maltings up “The Crow”, taken around 1990, I would guess. The maltings were still in use then, malting barley for Banks’s Brewery. I was lucky enough to be given a tour of the maltings as we were trying to interest them in buying their anthracite through us. The (six, I think) boilers were individualy hand fired, and each boiler had a small pile of anthracite by it, delivered by a wooden two-wheeled barrow. Even the wheels on these barrows were made of wood. We never got the job, which was a shame, but the maltings closed soon afterwards and then, as all buildings that the owners of wish to develop, suffered from a mysterious fire. The remains of the maltings are still there, but I imagine that total demolition will be the only viable option now. 

The reason we tied there was the “Bridge Inn” public house that housed the Holt, Plant & Deakin brewery (actually owned by Ansells, but nevertheless a welcome diversion). This pub was on the bridge behind the photographer (me!) and has sadly just been demolished. This pub was used regularly by Dave and myself, as was the “Crosswells” just down the road. Actually, Dave and I used most of the pubs in the Black Country regularly, and there are still lots of good ‘uns still extant.

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The final photo is of Vic Berry’s scrap-yard in Leicester, also taken around 1988, and shows how to neatly stack obsolete transportation artefacts. I was quite surprised that there was not a similar heap of old Grand Union boats there. 

Happy New Year to one and all.

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A Winter Miscellany

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Having seen the pictures of Peter and Kirk enjoying themselves cavorting on the top planks of the Narrow Boat Trusts’ boats, Brighton and Nuneaton, in my previous blog post, our former advertising guru, Mr Langford, decided that he should take up the challenge. He donned his special “top-plank walking” hat, knitted from steel wool, which, even though he denies it, contains a gyroscope and a top of the range “sat-nav” system linked directly to his brain by a couple of loose strands of wool. It is a shame that unbeknownst to him, he was wearing it back-to-front which meant that he was unable to let go with both hands without falling over. Even with vociferous encouragement from the assembled onlookers, he refused to let go and fall in. No prizes for him, then.

Back to reality, and the latest news from the wonderful world of coal-boating.

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After almost losing the sun in a load of airbourne Saharan sand recently, it looks like we might actually get a winter this year. A red sun is the harbinger of a dreadful winter, apparently.  We have already had a few frosts, and some customers have had actual snow falling. Whoopeee! It is surprising how much heat a coal man can generate by rubbing his hands together when cold weather is forecast. He can get even more excited when the orders come rolling in - get on the coal hotline now to avoid disappointment. All tastes catered for!


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We’ve been out and about as usual this autumn, and we even made time to visit the Stourbridge gathering in October. This was the first time that Roach has appeared at this do, although we have attended over the years by public transport. It was decided that a bed on site would be better than taking a bus ride back to the yard whilst busting for the loo. Ian Braine joined us for the trip from Awbridge to Stourbridge just to keep his hand in. and was allowed to return Roach to Awbridge with just young George for company. This gave me time to head north to meet Dev at Yarwoods Basin.

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I joined Dev Shep aboard his boat Effingham on the River Weaver in Northwich to finally deliver the coal that he had loaded earlier at Awbridge. This involved a short trip from Yarwoods Basin, then a gruelling couple of hours work hand-balling several tonnes of out of the boat and making the final delivery by the time honoured “wheel-barrow” method. Dev is very much the modern, or “Yoof”, boater, and is the epitome of cool with nonchalant attitude and "shades and hoodie” look. The picture below shows Effingham returning downstream towards Hunts Locks in Northwich. The boatyard on the left was Pimblotts, where some of the “Admiral” class narrow boats were built for the British Waterways fleet around 1960. These were among the last carrying narrow boats ever built. Effingham, as the name would suggest, is an “Admiral” class boat, and not a comment aimed at the Canal and River Trust. Effingham, however, was built just below Hunts Locks by Yarwoods. It seems that Pimblotts yard is next in line for housing development; we can hope for some fine, visionary and imaginative architecture, but I don’t suppose that’s what we will get. I’m not holding my breath.

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Time now for a little lyrical waxing. The autumn colours have been pretty spectacular this year as shown in the following two photos. The first shows Roach above Debdale Lock on the Staffs & Worcs Canal just as the first autumnal colours were showing, and the other is taken in Grub Street Cutting on the Shropshire Union Canal as autumn is in full swing. Fol de lol de rol etc...

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Enough of that nonsense, Fotherington-Thomas, and back to reality. 

Another recent trip saw Roach on the Severn again, this time just from Stourport to Worcester. We had to hang about above Lincomb Lock for a while, as the lock keeper could not get to the lock because there was a barge blocking the road! The lock cut was pretty much full, the crane barge was moored there together with the bottom-discharge barge, “Teme”. “Teme” is quite an unusual boat as it is hinged in the middle along its’ length which allows it to discharge dredged material into the Severn estuary. It has not performed this function in living memory, and is now only used as part of the maintenance fleet. It is also the noisiest vessel that I have ever heard moving; the steering cabin being mounted right on top of what essentially is a large outboard motor. The mere threat of being assigned to drive this vessel is used by CRT to keep their unruly staff in line.

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After a pleasant overnight sojourn in Worcester, taking in the delights of “the Cardinals' Hat” and “The Plough”, and then snapping a couple of arty shots around Diglis Basin, I managed to get Roach stuck in Tolladine Lock on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. Well stuck. It needed three of us to free it, and not easily at that. We’ve never been stuck here before, and I’m sure that Roach has not spread, so it must be the lock structure that has moved. There is significant cracking to the brickwork on the off-side, and, presumably, this has moved the iron guard outwards into the channel.

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It appears that Roach is not the only boat to have been caught out here, I believe that Gort was also stuck here for some time recently. It has been reported to the relevant authority, but as similar situations at Hurleston Bottom Lock and at Napton have been known about for many years with no resolution, I fully expect to be getting stuck here for a few more years yet.

And finally……

Here is a picture of die-hard boaters enjoying a conversation in Slaters Bar on a night out in Wolverhampton. There’s no hope.

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Summertime (and the livin’s not easy).

September has been and gone, how time flies when you’re having fun (or being a coal-man). It has been a tremendously busy month for us, I’m now knackered.

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This year, it was the turn of Awbridge to host the Narrow Boat Trusts’ annual “Dance along the Top-Plank” competition. Minutes of mirth were had, and the highlight was Peter Lovett’s comedy impression entitled “I really don’t care to be here”. He managed a creditable second place in the end, even though he absolutely refused to fall in for the amusement of the massed onlookers. He lost points for this failure.

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The eventual winner, Kirk Martin, erstwhile author of that fine tome “Crossing the Humber Without Getting Wet", never put a foot wrong on the top-planks. He was subsequently found to be wearing lead-weighted diving boots, which explained his slow progress and  seeming inability to fall over. This impressed the judging panel, and he was was given extra points for imaginative improvisation. He was also given hospital treatment for pulled knees, a seldom seen injury in these parts. In fact, the last time I saw pulled knees, they were being sold in a poulterers shop.

The Narrow Boat Trust boats, Nuneaton and Brighton, have been twice this summer to load coal for their customers down south, and both time been caught out by poorly publicised “Summer Stoppages”. Summer stoppages are a recent phenomenon, they are maintenance works carried out by the Canal & River Trust in the Summer months rather that over the winter months when this sort of work is expected to be carried out as boat movements are significantly lower. One of these stoppages was on the Leicester Section of the Grand Union Canal, during the week leading up to the highly publicised Foxton Vintage Festival - held at Foxton Locks on the Leicester Section and organised by - you’ve guessed it - Canal and River Trust! Nuneaton and Brighton were carrying, as part of their cargo, four tonnes of steam coal destined for the festival, and they only managed to get it there seemingly with some intervention from a higher authority.  Hopefully, this incident will focus the minds of the CRT works planners, and ensure that summer works will only be considered where there are easy alternative routes available. My preference would be NO summer works other than those that can be accommodated overnight as happened in recent years replacing lock gates on the Birmingham canals.

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Our jaunt down to the Gloucester & Berkeley Canal with Ryan on Southern Cross is turning into an annual event, and was eagerly anticipated by the young tyro. I do understand his eagerness, the trip involves all aspects of canal boating, from the glorious scenery of the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, particularly through Hyde and Kinver, to the might of the Severn and then the sheer scale of the Gloucester & Berkeley Ship Canal. Not that Ryan notices any of these delights, he just wants to “get ‘em ahead” as the old parlance has it. The Severn is certainly the place for gettin’ ‘em ahead.

The same old problems in the same old places keep us interested. Raking out the rubbish from Oldington Bridge on the way to Stourport is an annual event, this bridge-hole is generally famous for electrical goods and we have had a fair assortment over the years. This years' haul included a rather nice mud filled floodlight just to add variety. 

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Stourport is always a delight, and we were delighted to see Pete and Julie on their boats, Bascote and Gosport, tied up on the Severn outside the Angel. It would have been rude not to stop and join them in a quick one (or two), particularly as they were on the way up to Awbridge to load Gosport for our next trip up North. We also learned, by calling in of course, that Rob, the landlord of the Rising Sun, is retiring. He has been landlord there ever since I started coal-boating in 1994, and has been a customer from the first trip. He informs me that he will still be making guest appearances behind the bar though, which means that I will still have to call in. And drink beer.

As mentioned earlier, the Severn is definitely the place for gettin’ ‘em ahead. Roach certainly likes the deep water, and even Southern Cross managed to cut a creditable dash.

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After making deliveries at Worcester we carried on down past Upton-on-Severn where we saw that Graham Thompson’s boats are once again engaged in the carriage of gravel. This time they are loading at a site just north of Upton and carrying downstream to the existing unloading wharf at Ryall. They are not travelling a great distance, but nevertheless they are saving a lot of lorry miles on the surrounding roads. Long may it continue. Our journey continued in much the same vein as last years (see blog entry entitled Holiday Boating), except that we returned via the Worcester & Birmingham Canal and Wolverhampton Locks.

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The return journey was pretty much routine, that is boating, locks, pub, boating locks, pub etc. You get the idea. Oh, and we delivered some coal. There are some further pictures of this trip in the gallery here.

As soon as we were back we just had time, in the company of Ryan and the Ivermees, to drink all the alcohol on our yard after a superb one course meal prepared by Jenny. Next morning, but not too early, we loaded Southern Cross up for Ryan’s own customers and off he went. Gosport and Roach were immediately afterwards loaded up and we were away up North through Stafford and Stoke-on-Trent to make our regular deliveries on the Macclesfield Canal. Below is a picture of Gosport exiting Harecastle Tunnel under tow from Roach. The cut around here is kept up to level by the Canal & River Trust disposing of their surplus tea, which accounts for the peculiar colour.

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Thence up the Macc to the Peak Forest Canal, then back down and down the Cheshire Locks to Middlewich. The Macc and the Peak Forest Canal are both blessed with spectacular scenery and it is always a pleasure to boat up there. The Macc is one of those canals where boats jump out at you from behind bridges - by which I mean that plenty of oncoming boaters cut across corners so are not seen until the last minute. It’s a good job that Pete and Julie are both good boaters and alert to all possible disasters. I can report that all possible disasters were averted. 

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Cheshire Locks are easy enough to work through as lots of them are paired, that is two locks side by side. It has to be remembered that some of these locks have one chamber that is narrower than usual. A bit of local knowledge is useful, although some of the extremely narrow ones have a small notice fastened to the beam informing the user of this situation. When traversing these locks, the village of Wheelock is eventually encountered. This has a public house in it’s midst, where beer was taken in the company of Pam and Malcolm from the yard at Malkins Bank, together with the MacDonalds of Elizabeth fame, and various other drinking types. Yet another excellent night out. There was even football on the telly!

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Middlewich is a busy place for boats, being at the Junction of the Trent & Mersey Canal with the Wardle Canal. The Wardle Canal is about two feet long and turns into the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union Canal at Wardle Lock. I reckon that you could get £200 per day from Harry Hill just by filming the antics of boaters at this junction. There is a shallow arched bridge over the Wardle Canal, which is just below a deep lock with just enough room for one boat to wait, and no visibility around the junction for steerers. Great fun. Kings Lock Chandlery stocks coal supplied by ourselves and delivery by water is encouraged. There is a handy pub next door too.

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Pete Hawker took over Roach at Nantwich for the return down the Shroppie, and I returned to the yard to make some road deliveries and load up the Narrow Boat Trust for their second run. 

As soon as Pete returned, Roach was loaded up again, as was Ian Braine’s Triumph. Triumph is a rather nice motor tug built by Ian utilising what was left of an old Birmingham day boat. We then set out to deliver to various points around the Black Country and Birmingham, including to Hawne Basin through Gosty Hill Tunnel - a route that Ian had last travelled as a small boy. This was an extremely intense trip, enjoyable but hard work, which was rewarded by drinks in such hostelries as The Fountain at Tipton, and Ma Pardoes at Netherton. We also went in a place called "The 1000 Trades" in the Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham and paid £4.50 for a pint of beer. Good beer, mind, but then it bloody well aught to be at that extortionate price. They let dogs in though! And Ian.

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On our return we had a night tied up amidst the boats attending the Tipton Festival. Ian had his children with him so had to baby-sit, but I manfully went out on my own and found a whole pub full of nefarious characters, all of them intent on drinking too much. What could I do? I did what I could! 

We whizzed back down the Wolverhampton 21, George and Josie, Ian's youngsters doing a grand job of lock-wheeling. We also had our friend Richard in attendance. Many hands…. as they say. 


No time to rest, Lynx and Australia then arrived to load for Alvecote. Lawrence and I  loaded Australia the same afternoon, before repairing to the Bell for much needed rest and relaxation. And drink. Whilst loading Lynx the following morning, Dev and Rachel turned up on Effingham to load coal on our behalf for delivery to customers on the river Weaver. Luckily, they turned up with Andrew Haysome, the worlds tallest boatman, who just loves slinging bags of coal into boats. 

They all left the same day; peace at last.

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Finally, on the last day of September, we sent Pete Hawker off again on Roach to start our latest trip up the Shropshire Union. It had to be Pete ‘cos it was raining stair-rods. We’ll relieve him when it stops. 


Summer, but not the First Time.

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As usual, we have had a very intense summer so far. The Jules’ Fuels fleet, comprising Towcester, Bideford, Southern Cross, Cedar and Stanton have already been up to Awbridge to load solid fuels, together with Alan Buckle on his boat, Bletchley. Lawrence and Sarah have also been up to load Lynx with coal for the yard at Alvecote. We have managed to fit in the odd trip with Roach too.

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The loading of all these boats was not without incident; young Dan - Jules Fuels' cabin boy - was made to perform acrobatics for the amusement of the other crew members and this resulted in him sustaining a broken elbow in the middle of his arm. We subsequently had a pleasant evening, together with the entire population of Dudley, enjoying the hospitality of the A & E Department at Russells Hall. The good news is that he can still use his ‘phone.

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Judging has taken place to determine the  “Coal-boater of the Year”, and it turns out that the current holder of the title has not managed to retain it. The judges, including the incumbent, decided that he spent too much time in the pointless occupation of polishing things that were already way too shiny. The above picture shows the judging team, carrying out their duties in much the same manner as mystery shoppers. It is most probable that the members of the judging team are themselves mystified. A decision was finally reached, (after copious amounts of beer, obviously) and the accolade of “Coal-boater of the Year” once again went to the steerer of Southern Cross. By a suprise turn of events, this turned out to be Pete Hawker, as Ryan has now been demoted to deck-hand on the butty-boat Cedar. Here we see Pete aboard Southern Cross receiving the news of his victory in his usual ecstatic manner.

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Mr Dimmock took the defeat very well as can be seen in this photograph taken moments after the announcement was made. 

Due to Pete Hawker taking up his prize of an unpaid holiday for one, Andrew Haysom was summoned to assist in the moving of Southern Cross and Cedar from Awbridge back to the vast, sprawling metropolis that is Stoke Bruerne. What with Andrew being over nine feet tall, Cedar did look very small with him steering. This is actually a very rare ‘photo of Andrew without his flat ‘at on.

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Our own trip up to the Stratford Canal was intense too; we set off in sweltering heat early one Wednesday morning, only to find that there was a four-hour stoppage at Lock 19 on the Wolverhampton flight to replace a rotten paddle-stand. It would have been nice if the Canal & River Trust had issued a warning notice via their email alerting service (to which we are signed up), as we could have stayed in bed until a reasonable hour, but never mind - the good thing is that this work was being carried out within a week of the old paddle-stand failing, unlike the two years or more that it took to replace the same thing at Lock 20 recently. I used to really enjoy using the Wolverhampton 21 Locks, as they were reasonably well maintained, but recent works have not been up to previous standards. A typical example is the paddle gear re-fitted onto the new bottom gates of Lock 12, which is terribly jerky (and therefore liable to be injurious) to use, and has been since the work was completed last winter. This would be condemned in any other place of work under the auspices of Health & Safety. Mind you, at least it can be operated, albeit with care, unlike the paddle gear that was re-fitted on a couple of the locks on the Staffs & Worcs Canal after replacement  gates were installed this last winter too. These locks, including Awbridge Lock right by our yard, were un-useable as a standard size windlass would not pass over the balance beam because the paddle gear was fitted so badly.   This situation was remedied, as the following ‘photo shows, but not until a few weeks afterwards. Clearly, no-one thought to check that the gear was operable before they left the site. This tells you that the operation of paddles is not tested immediately work is completed. Basic methodology, I would have thought.


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Anyway, back to our trip. Up the 21, then along to Factory Locks at Tipton with no more than the usual bumps and scrapes. Below the locks was a different story altogether. The Birmingham Level looked to be around four inches off, not an unusual occurrence in summer, but we use this canal regularly and know that it will be slow going. Bloody hell - it was slow going. This canal has got noticeably worse over the last few years, and in spite of some token spot-dredging by CRT, we still struggle in the same old places. The old gauging stops at Dunkirque and Bromford both brought us to a complete standstill. We got through them both eventually, with a combination of backing off and having a run at the obstacle, and heaving on ropes. Apparently, Bromford Stop has been spot dredged twice recently. No where near enough material was removed on either occasion - the surrounding silt, which is very soft and fluid (and incredibly foul smelling) simply oozes into the hole left by dredging. Whilst we are talking of these stop-places, it appears that CRT are abandoning one side of them by stealth by not attending to overgrowing vegetation. 

The whole length of canal from Tipton to Kings Norton on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal is in a dreadful state. The sheer amount of hard detritus that we hit / get stuck on / get thrown off course by, beggars belief. There are moves afoot to spot dredge some odd places on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, but this will only alleviate a very small part of the problem. The whole lot of this length of canal needs dredging properly NOW. We had to call on a following hire-boat to push us through and out of the Selly Oak railway narrows - once again, this is a location that has been spot-dredged twice recently, with the bare minimum of spoil removed and, once again no where near enough attention paid to the real problem.

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Once we got round the junction at Kings Norton, we could see that a dredger was working away on the other side of the guillotine lock. Good news indeed. Now all we needed was to actually get through the lock - something that has been a major problem for years, even though the lock was drained for "major restoration work” a couple of years ago. No chance! Luckily, the dredger was being operated by Dai, a dour Welshman whom we have known for a long time. A rope was attached from Roach to the dredging hopper, and with the dredger pulling and Roach’s Lister pushing, we just managed to get through. Plain sailing from here then. No chance - immediately outside the lock we picked up a rucksack around the propellor - a rucksack with especially strengthened straps it seemed. We did get it off eventually, and left Dai to continue his digging. The canal was markedly improved from here to Lyons Boatyard. We shaved at least two hours off last years time to cover this couple of miles.

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We still could not get near the jetty at Lyons though, and still had to employ the plank until we had off-loaded sufficient cargo to pull Roach in. Never mind, we’re used to it. And we get plenty of help here, too.

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And we got to go for a curry and some beer later with Sarah and Gary. We had certainly earned it.

We had a couple of small drops to do beyond Lyons Boatyard, and I have to say that I’m glad we were nearly empty, as the canal soon reverts to dreadful. I have to say that boating with an empty boat is completely different to driving a loaded one. We barely registered all the obstacles on the way back to Birmingham, just a small jump as the rear of the boat catches. Even this, though, is doing the boat no good at all. Oh well - it’s never going to be perfect, but recognition of the scale of the problem by CRT would be a start.

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What’s happenning next? Oh! The Narrowboat Trust pair, Nuneaton and Brighton are due tomorrow. Yet more work!

Get down Shep

I was sorry to hear of the passing of John Noakes last week. He came to our yard a few years back to do some filming for a DVD about the inland waterways, which was sold to raise money for the Cotswold Canals Trust. Like everyone else of my generation I grew up with him on Blue Peter, and he turned out to be exactly like he appeared on telly - a thoroughly nice bloke with no airs and graces; no “look at me - I’m a star” about him at all. He turned up at the yard dressed all in white - ideal for a coal yard - and wanted a go at bagging coal. We furnished him with a size twelve “Scubbin”, a very large fork to the layman, with which he proceeded to load a fork-full of finest house-coal into our scoop-scales. Unfortunately, he loaded the coal too far forward in the scoop which immediately tipped the coal back out, right down his front. White clothes - I arsk yer! It was a pleasure to meet you Sir.

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Incidentaly, the “Scubbin” he used is a piece of history in itself as it used to belong to “Caggy” Stevens. For those who don’t know, Alan “Caggy” Stevens was, among other things, the last horse boater on the Birmingham Canal Navigations.


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There’s been plenty going on around here recently. We dry-docked Roach at Stourbridge in April, mainly to enable a hull survey to be carried out, but also to apply a further couple of coats of fancy, and fantastically expensive black paint to protect the hull from being eaten by our extremely predetory canal water. Stourbridge Dry-dock is a fine place to work on a boat, it is covered, clean, and has access platforms right around  the boat to enable ease of working on it. Mainly, though, Stourbridge has loads of fine hostelries for taking ones ease in after a hard days talking about boat maintenance.

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The old girl did look better for a new coat of black, mind. This photo was taken by our esteemed Advertising Executive, Mr Langford, who had inadvertently stepped into the canal having been blinded by the dazzling new paint. I imagine that he has got himself out by now. Another shot from an unusual angle is this picture of our yard taken by me whilst hanging one-handed from a drone. It looks quite tidy from this angle.

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We managed to find time to go on holiday last month, and headed north for a roam around. We ended up staying in Haltwhistle, Northumberland, where one of the pubs, the Railway Inn, has a landlord who is also the local coal-man. This, predictably, meant a few more pints and a long natter about our respective experiences in the industry. He also seemed to know a bit about football in spite of being a Newcastle United fan. A proper local pub.

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Just to prove that we really were on holiday, here’s a picture of Jenny scampering along Hadrians Wall, and then here she is again, in pensive mood, looking out over the Solway Firth from the promenade at Silloth. Silloth is right at the end of “The Land that Time Forgot”. 


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We ended up at the fashionable resort of Barrow-in-Furness, which is an interesting place while at the same time managing to be the epitome of dismal. The beaches and wildlife on Walney Island were fantastic though, well worth the effort of getting there. I’ve put a few of our holiday snaps in a gallery here if anyone is interested.


Bagging of summer-priced coal is now in full swing, ready for stocking up all our customers in time for the coldest winter ever (as forecast every year by most of the media on “slow news days”. I expect that they will be right one day). We are also awaiting the arrival any day now of the entire Grand Union fleet to load coal for Northamptonshire and beyond. This fleet includes the good ship "Southern Cross", captained by Skip Dimmock, who is busy lavishing the shiny bits of his boat with gallons of “Brasso” in the hope of retaining his “Coal-boater of the Year” title. We shall see. I’ve heard that the Judges need to see an improvement in his whisky intake before any consideration is given to his retention of the title.

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And finally…..

Orders for Summer priced coal are now being taken - and we have the best prices on the cut. Help us to keep on carrying by canal, and ensure that fine sights like the one above are still to be seen. Call Jenny or John on 07885 284812 with your order now.

Riveting stuff

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The Canal and River Trust appear to have a problem. This is a problem that will strike a chord with most folk - lack of storage space. Apparently, the Trust have had numerous large bags of stone donated, and rather than politely refuse, they have accepted on the off-chance that they will “come in useful one day”. The major problem for the Trust is that all their storage facillities are filled to the rafters with nonsensical public relations signage; it seems that they got “a good price, Guv’nor” for ordering enough signs to last a thousand years. This good price clearly did not involve proof-reading. 

The solution to the storage problem was, according to an inside source, resolved in a massive brainstorming session held at an undisclosed location during discussions to consider how to sell yet more well-remunerated, high-level appointments to gullible, licence-paying customers.

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“Put ‘em in the cut,” was the prize-winning suggestion, which was immediately implemented at several locations.. These  were then unveiled to the public as “visionary art installations designed to challenge the usual, one-dimensional, old-fashioned concept of canals as merely functional navigations”, as the official CRT Department of Spin press-release informed us.

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The Trust has clearly been vindicated, as coach-loads of visitors have been observed “Oohing!" and "Aahing!” in astonishment at these sites. Some of these visitors have even been overheard exclaiming “What the f**k are those doing there? I’ve never seen anything so mentally stimulating in all my life!” 


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Meanwhile, over at Dadfords Wharf on the Stourbridge Canal, the ex Stewarts & Lloyds tug “Bittell” has been removed from the water for the replacement of worn plates. This is a very nice tug, but definitely in need of the work being carried out. I was drafted in as “Head Second Riveting Assistant”, a grand title which turned out to be rather grander than the actual job merited.

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Basically, I had to knock the hot rivets tightly into the pre-drilled holes from the inside with a heavy lump of metal, and act as an anvil for Ian Kemp to rivet the ends over on the outside of the vessel. I was duly praised for my anvil impression. John ‘Baldric” Sanderson had the task of heating the rivets up and offering them into the holes with the oldest pair of tongues in the world. I have a little experience of this work, as I performed a similar role when Roach was re-footed a few years ago, with the new plates riveted to the bottom angle and a new bottom-guard riveted on. 

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In between all this work, coal has still been tipped on the yard, bagged, loaded into boats and delivered. It is relentless; it’s like painting the Forth Bridge - with a shovel. It is also daunting, holding a shovel whilst looking at twenty-nine tonnes of smokeless fuel needing to be put into bags. The different coloured bags and pallet wrappers that we use does present a cheerful view over the yard though. Enough to brighten anyone’s day.

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On the boating front, I took Roach down the Severn to Worcester recently with coal aboard; a pretty swift trip as the river was rising quite rapidly. I was saddened to see that the huge, old conker tree by the Camp House Inn at Grimley had fallen over in the high winds. This tree must have been a few-hundred years old and was certainly iconic - a much overused word these days, but appropriate in this case. Luckily, it was too early for a pint as stopping would have been difficult. 

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Pete took over Roach in Worcester, and was due to finish our deliveries by boating up to Hanbury Wharf, and then returning either via the Droitwich Canal, or back down through Worcester. He made it up to Hanbury, but subsequently discovered that the Severn was closed as the water levels had risen substantially. The alternative route up Tardebigge Locks was closed for maintenance work, but after a phone call to the CRT personnel working there, they agreed to allow us to pass through the works early in the morning. This was greatly appreciated - although it has to be acknowledged that the blokes on this length are always helpful - and Pete was able to proceed up the canal. A few locks from the top of Tardebigge flight, a large tree was encountered across the canal. Luckily, I had driven out to give Pete a hand up the locks, and we did manage to get by this obstruction, but it did need both of us to achieve this. The situation was a little strange as two other trees that had fallen down at the same time, and immediately adjacent to this one, had been removed by CRT’s contractor. Oh, well, as the song says, “Two out of three ain’t bad”.

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Flooding is not always confined to rivers, here is a picture from our latest trip round the North. It shows Roach leaving the bottom of Jackson’s Lock having to run the gauntlet of a mini Niagara Falls. This water was cascading out from the blocked chamber on the weir stream. I’m glad that we were not heading the other way - all that water down the chimney would have been disastrous. 


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To finish on a brighter note, here is a picture of Pete leaving the bottom lock of the Wolverhampton flight on his way back to Awbridge from Worcester, cheery smile and all. Looking forward to a pint, I expect.




coalboat@waitrose.com © John Jackson 2014