Setting Off

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Twenty odd tonnes of assorted solid fuels loaded and ready to go; (Odd metric tonnes - there's a thing, most people still order their coal in hundredweights) all loaded by me and the missus down a plank. We bagged it all as well.

It's winter, by far the best time to load the boat at our yard mainly because it means that the plank does not disappear into the cut with every passing boat. It is precarious enough loading along a plank, particularly as the boat gets pushed further from the bank with every tonne loaded.

We are off up to Birmingham on Roach, an ex-F.M.C. motor boat, or Josher to those in the know. This means that it is the sports model.

We are only a day late leaving - not bad for us. Shovels (especially Jenny's no 10 pan shovel), weights, scales etcetera together with any bagged coal left on the yard are locked up in the container. Pre-packed fuel used to be left out on the yard, suitably covered up, for one or two of our regular customers but this practice had to cease when some of the bags developed legs and went off on their own.

Off we go. Well, ten minutes heaving Roach off the mud then we're off. Now is the time you find out how badly the boat has been loaded. We are normally not bad at getting it right but not always, notably when it has been raining hard as we load. Water tends to sit along one side or other of the hold - moving a few bags across to try and level the boat generally results in a list to the other side as water seeps across. Of course we have a pump - two in fact. One is electric, the other mechanical, belt driven from the engine. It should also be pointed out that we tend to load slightly bow heavy (down by t' 'ead). This means that our pumps, both situated in the back end of the hold, are ineffective.

Anyway, we are off. Jenny is walking along the towing path to set the first lock-Ebstree. Easy job! I have to get the boat there. The Staffs & Worcs canal was never the deepest canal but it was definitely built deeper than it is maintained today.

Obstacle number one- an old bridge hole, the bridge itself no longer standing, the gap full of silt. Wind the engine up to gain momentum then knock the revs off before the scour is reached. Roach should, hopefully, float through. No chance! Resort to brute force - all 29 horses in the engine brought to bear. Slowly, very slowly a way is forced through - silt, twigs, leaves, old plastic bags and other assorted detritus flying up in the wash from the propeller.

P1000007

Obstacle number two is now in sight; well, not in sight but I know that it is there, lurking. Just in front of Ebstree Lock, and, indeed, all the locks on the Staffs & Worcs canal, is a scour built up with deposits from the Bywash Weir. The scours below Ebstree and Dimmingsdale locks are exacerbated by the recently laid crushed brick surface on the towing path being washed into the canal every time heavy rain occurs. British Waterways solve this problem by putting down more crushed brick thus making the path look nice again. Meanwhile, the canal is a little bit fuller.

Anyway, back to boating. The lock is set; actually, Jenny has been sitting on the balance beam for a while now. The same procedure as for the previous scour is employed with the addition of a little local knowledge - the channel approaching this lock does not follow the shape of the canal. Sometimes, depending upon how much rain and traffic there has been, the lock cannot be attained by Roach under its own power. I used to get out the "Tirfor" winch and slowly pull "Roach" into the lock, but I'm fed up doing this now so I ring up the "Hit Squad" (B.W. helpline) and ask for assistance. This assistance generally takes the form of Cliff Sherwood in a 4 x 4 pickup. My reasoning is that if the "Hit Squad" is called out often enough then the penny will drop and something (perhaps even dredging) will be done about the problem.

Finally, out of the lock, negotiate my way around all the rubble - probably old coping stones - obstructing the channel and head for Dimmingsdale Lock to go through exactly the same procedure again. At this point anyone with more than a fiver in their pocket could probably purchase "Roach" there and then!

We have not even got to Wightwick Beach yet. This is the pound between the two locks at Wightwick - a contender for the most un-navigable stretch of canal in the country. This pound is being steadily filled in with deposits from a land drain running from the playing field of a local school. It seems that no one has the responsibility of clearing out the silt trap. Indeed - no one seems to have cleared it out - ever.

At last, Compton for the evening. Zoom down the local chip shop, quick wash (only if essential), then up the "Swan" for a half or three. This is one of the few pubs left where one can hear live music on a Saturday night provided by old men with spoons. Pop Idol eat your heart out!

coalboat@waitrose.com © John Jackson 2014