“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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coalboat@waitrose.com © John Jackson 2014