Unforeseeable future for Anderton Services

British Waterways have just mailed out a stoppage notice containing a most wonderful phrase.  Can you spot it or is just my sense of humour which has gone wrong again.   Their crystal ball must be out of action too.

Here it is in all its glory.

Unforeseeable stoppage
Unforeseeable stoppage

Brewood to Compton and a taste of Wolverhampton

Secure moorings at Wolverhampton - no access at all without a boat
Secure moorings at Wolverhampton - no access at all without a boat

Saturday 23rd and Sunday 24th January


Time to move on now that the ice has all thawed out earlier in the week, but to where?  The route south is blocked in so many places due to maintenance stoppages that we can’t reach Uxbridge until Easter at the earliest.

So whilst I could go up to Great Haywood then down the Trent and Mersey to Fradley, the route beyond is blocked at Atherstone unless I went all the way to the Trent, up the River Soar to Leicester but that area is currently closed to all Navigation due to flooding.  Alternatively I could head up the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal into the centre of Birmingham, but that would just be a huge diversion to the more direct route straight up the Wolverhampton Locks in which we got stuck in the ice three weeks ago.  Although this route is now completely thawed out, and I could stop on the 14 day moorings in the centre of Birmingham at Cambrian Wharf, this would be better delayed until I have a few days to so some exploring on the BCN rather than just going there for the sake of it.  There aren’t many other safe places to leave the boat on the BCN so I will need to stay on board to get the best out of this part of the trip.

The decision point was Autherley Junction.  Left towards Penkridge for a week or two?  Right towards Compton for a week or two?  Or down to Addersley and up the Wolverhampton locks?  Indecision ruled and I went left, then changed my mind and spun round to go right.  Compton for the night was the plan, with a chance to pick up diesel and hopefully some bits and pieces at Limekiln Chandlery.  My indecision delayed my arrival at Limekiln until 4.05 pm, just in time to see them locking up and closing until Tuesday.  Never mind – its a good enough place to stop for a while but I decided to push on down another lock to the next winding hole and then back as near as possible to town without being on a restricted mooring, so at least we are now pointing in the right direction.

I then had a chance to test out whether Wolverhampton really is the 5th Worst City on earth, as claimed a couple of weeks ago by Lonely Planet.  I took the bus intending to go to Brewood to collect the car and missed the connection by 1 minute, forcing me to wander round Wolverhampton for 2 hours.  It was not pleasant, although I did have a nice walk down some of the locks and then up to Horsley Fields Junction.  I can thoroughly recommend not visiting MacDonalds, where the morning clientelle were almost all rough sleepers hugging a coffee, virtually every table had slashed chairs and my breakfast tasted like it had been fried in second hand oil, while leaving the hash brown largely uncooked in the middle. 

On the way back to the bus I passed derelict bars and shops, doorways full of sick and kebabs, several shop fronts splattered with white muddy gunk, rancid piles of rubbish down every stair well, groups of smokers outside every pub (before 10 am) and I even had to pay again on the bus to Brewood, despite having a day ticket from Compton, as the bus I was on was from a different company despite being branded as West Midlands transport.  I do however compliment BW for the excellent facilites at Broad Street depot where the toilet and shower block has a stock of local information leaflets, and was spotlessly clean.  It can be reached from the towpath with a BW key.   Unfortunately the towpath is open to the public and the immaculate top lock was strewn with freshly broken bottles and someone has hurled a tin of blue paint at the bridge, with a trail of tyre marks and footprints running through it.

Off to Brewood by bus, and back to Compton by car for a few things off the boat, and then set off home.  I had hardly done 2 miles when  a helpful taxi driver pulled alongside and told me my back tyre was looking flat.  Marvellous – have you ever tried to get a puncture fixed on a Sunday?  By the time I located a Kwik Fit I was driving on a 90% flat tyre, so ordered a new one instead of a repair, and landed myself with a second chance to explore Wolverhampton.

While killing time in what is the most dismal of shopping malls, I almost got involved in a fight between a security guard and two guys he was trying to apprehend.  I can’t comment on whether he had the right to physically restrain them, or whether they had the right to fight him off.   One escaped, one got apprehended – I do hope he was guilty in order to justify being pinned to the floor, but he had just thrown one guard onto the ground and into a litter bin so I didn’t have much sympathy.   It reminded me that last week I was in a local store on Tattenhall Road when the manager confronted a thief caught on CCTV.  What kind of place is this?  I’ve never witnessed one such event in my life let alone two in a week.

This has done nothing to improve my impression of Wolverhampton, and I must therefore take a view that The Lonely Planet were probably right on this occasion. Back to the car I paid the £118 bill and this time made as fast an exit from the place as I could manage!

8 miles, 4 locks and possibly slightly closer to Uxbridge as a result

Progress report from Brewood

Frozen Wolverhampton locks at Autherley
Frozen Wolverhampton locks at Autherley

Tuesday 12th January 2010


No progress.

Today I took a drive up to Brewood just to check that Zulu was OK in the cold.  Inside the cabin it had been minus 4 degrees and the water in the kettle was frozen solid.  What a good job I drained the water system down before leaving last week.

Apart from that, everything was fine, apart from the frozen canal of course.  Thin ice at Brewood, almost clear in places, turned very thick out of town.  For a moment, deceived by the lack of snow on the roads, I though it may even be possible to d a bit of boating this week, and I took the dog for a walk along the old railway towards Autherley Junction.  The Staffs and Worcester was once again ice free but up at the Junction it was even more frozen than last time and absolutely no sign of broken ice whatsoever, so unless someone can tell me otherwise, I don’t believe a single boat has managed to get up the Wolverhampton locks since I tried two weeks ago.

So back to the car, and back home just in time to miss the next wave of snow, which on Wednesday morning is now lying over 6 inches deep in places, with at least 2 inches of new snow falling overnight. 

Zulu will have to stay put for the foreseeable future.

Dangerous sign of the week

Dangrous sign on the Regents Canal
Dangerous sign on the Regents Canal

While I was working in Little Venice and I used to pass under this sign at Lisson Grove Estate on the Regents Canal half a dozen times a day. Always made me smile.

Ecofan broken and repaired!

Ecofan Motor Replacement Kit
Ecofan Motor Replacement Kit

Most boat owners have at least heard about the Ecofan – very clever device which sits on the stove top and uses the thermal energy to power a tiny electric motor which spins a fan blade to help circulate the hot air further round the boat.  In these low temperatures every little helps, and it was noticeable last week that the fan had stopped spinning as fast as normal.

A new Ecofan is quite an investment – including postage they are somewhere between 85 and 100 pounds depending on where you buy them, so I was interested to discover that a replacement motor kit is available for about £15.00 including postage, from the UK distrubutor.

Worth a punt I thought, so ordered one which arrived yesterday.  Its not a totally straightforward operation, as the wires to the motor are soldered on, but with very clear instructions, I had the new motor fitted in minutes.  I am delighted to say that the fan started spinning instantly and is now back to normal operation.

Bear it in mind if your Ecofan has stopped spinning.  Its a lot cheaper than a replacement, and in this disposable world its nice to find something so specialised off the shelf.

Check out www.ecofan.co.uk for details.

The right kind of snow but wrong kind of news

The forecasters must be congratulating themselves this week, as certainly here in Berkshire we have had a good covering of snow – some 5 inches as at 9am on Wednesday, followed by three beautiful wintery days with a night time temperature reaching minus 9.5 and daytime not much over freezing.

But I knew the snow was coming towards us through another channel altogether, while the TV showed us spinning wheels on cars in Yorkshire, shot 12 hours ago and filmed normal streetscenes hoping someone may fall or at least slip on the ice, generally pumping out the same polished stories hour after hour. 

http://uksnow.benmarsh.co.uk maps Twitter messages (tweets) which use the special hash tag “#uksnow” along with a postcode and a measurement of the snow currently falling. For instance tweeting “#uksnow NG9 6/10” would place a “pin” in this map in real time. It will also disappear after a short time to ensure the info is bang up to date and not some out of date list.

Nobody demanded that thousands of contributers should post their local information this way – the great net applications propagate themselves and here is a superb example where one person has grabbed a growing trend on Twitter and maximized it’s effectiveness.  He even has an iPhone version for mobile use.

While BBC reporters in designer scarves search for local crises to justify their existance, people power is beginning to rule and the results are so much more specific that they actually mean something. Can the Beeb really justify the cost of hiring a helicopter to show us pictures of the M3 running pretty much normally last week?

For example today the BBC seem fixated on the number of schools closed due to the snow. 17? 170? 1700? what does it mean? Is your school in this number?  Sounds good on the news but totally meaningless.

Apply the #uksnow principal and have every school tweet it’s real time status. Suddenly your school is in the map, quite literally and the meaningless stats are now so relevant.

Now back to canals. The press are never going to cover the ice on the canals in any detail, although today BW did declare that 90% of canals are iced over which is better than saying 1,700 miles are iced over but still meaningless if I want to check if Wolverhampton locks are passable.

People power to the rescue then! One of the contributors to waterscape.com has aleady produced a canal ice map which will read twitter tweets containing the tag #canalice. For once we seem almost ahead of the game!  It needs some work to locate the tweets properly, but its the start of something very powerful. http://www.waterscape.com/blog/authors/chris/canal-ice

Maybe too late to become popular enough to be useful this week but it looks like we need to get used to the extreme conditions so let’s get used to updating each other too!

Join Twitter, send regular posts containing #canalice, a canal name and a location and lets see if we can make this thing take off!

Waiting for the thaw

Sunday 3rd January 2010

I left Zulu in Brewood on Friday night, hoping somehow that this cold weather would be over within a couple of days, but it rather looks like it could be well over a week before the trip can be resumed with the weather still getting worse in places.

Sadly this means that I will miss my main deadline of reaching Braunston Tunnel cutting before 11th January, after which the canal is closed there until 5th March, unless BW can be persuaded to allow the occasional convoy of stranded boats to pass through.  I will call them tomorrow to check if they have even managed to get their own boats in position before giving up totally.

Having left Zulu and headed south by road, I can confirm that the Newbury area Kennet and Avon is currently ice free, and whilst thick in places, the ice is certainly breakable all the way up to Crofton, as a couple of boats have made the trip over the weekend.

Such is the power of blogging though, a quick search of other canal blogs shows me that Great Haywood is mostly iced in according to Caxton’s blog, so I am thankful that I didn’t divert all the way up the Staffs and Worcester just to get stuck there, and Norbury Junction, which I passed through a couple of days earlier, has frozen again yesterday according to Debdale.  Worse still, Epiphany tells us (and confimed today by email) that Birmingham centre is more or less impassable with 5 inch thick ice at Rotten Park.  So even if I had forced my way to Wolverhampton it now seems likely I would now be stuck somewhere  in no mans land instead of relatively cosy at Brewood.  There are also a couple of threads running on Canalword.net forums where people are posting ice reports, and then of course there is twitter where Granny Buttons was encouraging the use of a #canalice tag to enable searching of relevant topics.  This could form an  invaluable facility if more people start using it – particularly useful as it can be checked and updated using mobile phones in real time.  It is just as useful if people would also post “no ice” posts as well as reporting thick ice.

But right now on this lovely sunny afternoon down south, I have no way of knowing if conditions on the Birmingham Canal Main Line are changing or even if Brewood is deep in snow. 

So if anyone can keep me updated on this I would really appreciate it and if anyone wants an update on the eastern Kennet and Avon then I will be only too happy to report back what I can.

Wolverhampton Locks – the wrong sort of ice

Friday 1st January 2010

Halted by thick ice at Wolverhampton bottom lock
Halted by thick ice at Wolverhampton bottom lock

After a lazy day yesterday I got up at 7 to walk the dog and set off for Autherley at 8am.  The canal was frozen solid but the ice had all formed overnight, so was not more than a quarter inch thick in most places, so we had the satisfying sound of cracking ice without the problems of moving huge heavy slabs of the stuff around.  So far so good.

The trip to Autherley took until 9:30 so I was pleased that we now had plenty of time to get up the flight of 21 locks to Wolverhampton, and hopefully time to get all the way to Birmingham.  As the sun rose into a blue cloudless sky I did think it unusal that my coffee had frozen, and I don’t ever remember having to scrape newly formed ice off my map cover before – the temperature which reached minus 5 last night was not going to rise above freezing today!

There was a small amount of ice to shift at Autherley stop lock but not a problem, as it too was of the thin variety and once clear of the junction, heading south allong the Staffs and Worcester canal there was no ice at all.  I pulled in at the junction for Birmingham, tied up with rigid frozen ropes (clue) and walked around the corner to the first lock of 21.  It was a winter wonderland of frost, ice, icicles and more ice, this time of the very thick variety. 

On the positive side, the ice was all in the water, and on the metal work, unlike the treacherous frozen lockside stonework which I had on the Middlewich locks last week and so much less dangerous.

However this did not look good.  Clearly no boats had been through yet today, and maybe not this week; above the lock, which itself was frozen solid, was a mass of thick chunks of old ice, all welded back together with new ice in a patchwork style into a solid sheet.  I could just about smash it with a long shaft, but of course it was breaking at the weak points while some of the bigger bits were still well over an inch thick, two inches in places.

Optimistically I walked up the flight under the railway bridge and up to the main road to see where the worst bits might be.  It seemed the longer the pound the thicker the ice, and in particular between locks 19 and 18, maybe 400 yards, was absolutely solid looking.

Even more optimistically, I emptied the first two locks amused by the way the sheets of ice cracked and groaned and then fell into the water below….. and thought there would be nothing to lose by seeing if Zulu was capable of breaking the ice in the first pound.

A small crowd formed.  Well, a man and dog. He said “Good morning”  in a way which conveyed “do you know what you are doing then?”  He let me explain that I had walked a mile up the flight and back, before saying that the last boats to go up a couple of days ago had got the to the railway bridge but then had to reverse back down 10 locks.  Not what I wanted to hear, but it looked pretty bad ahead and for certain, one thing far worse than mooring in Wolverhampton for the night would be getting frozen into the lock flight for days or even weeks.

Nevertheless I filled the lock carefully, making sure that the boat wasn’t getting snagged on the ice sheets alongside, smashed the ice sufficiently to open the top gate, and set off into the frozen pound.  Twenty feet into the frozen pound to be   precise, before Zulu’s old engine met its match and would go no further. With 20 more locks and 2 miles of this to go, the decision to give up was easy and I reversed into the lock, dropped down to the junction and headed back the way we had come.

Stoppages en route would now become a major issue.  I had hoped to get through Braunston before the tunnel cutting is closed on 11th January but this is now looking less likely.  The alternative routes would be south, then up the Stourbridge canal but the Stourbridge 16 and Delph locks would more than likely be just as frozen as these.  Then there’s north up the Staffs and Worcester, down the Trent and Mersey through Rugely to Fradley, then down the Coventry Canal, but Atherstone locks are closed for almost 3 months from 4th January and definitely not a realistic target within 3 days in this weather.

So the only logical option is to moor somewhere local and wait for the thaw.  Brewood?  Could be worse, so we retraced our steps back to Brewood, drained the water system down, banked up the fire which should last a couple of days, and set off South to the comforts of the other boat, finally admitting defeat in the face of the wrong type of ice. 

On the other hand it has been a lovely crisp, frosty and sunny day for a winter’s cruise to nowhere.  Some people are out doing this for pleasure today and I have certainly enjoyed it, even though most unproductive.

11 miles and 4 locks, one backwards.