It all started with a phone call. “Are you doing anything over the May bank holiday?” it was one of those loaded questions that usually mean your services free of charge. Now I’ve learnt in my life that saying “nothing special” can sometimes lead to a fantastic time. So the knot was tied and I was committed to a weekend of canal barging.
My friend had taken a year’s sabbatical to go touring the canal system of England and had ended up in Birmingham. He had entered his narrow boat for a rally/competition to see how many locks and canals could be covered in a twenty four hour period around Birmingham and needed crew. Now I’ve done a fair bit of “ditch crawling”, as sea going folk call canal boating, and had heard how many canals there are in and around Birmingham, more than Venice they say. It had potential.
It was with some excitement I left the train at Winston Green station and joined the “Goliath”, a hundred year old towed canal barge that had been converted from a cargo carrier to a comfortable house boat with an “iron donkey”, (engine), replacing the horse. Goliath was moored alongside one of the many unspoilt canal side pubs about four miles out from Birmingham and after a brief introduction to the other press ganged crew member we sat down to plan the route. After all too short a beer we were off down a flight of 6 locks to the start; for us, locks mean points and we would be winding our way back up at 4.00 a.m. in the morning. A gloomy thought of the early start clouded the sunset but hey presto a pub at the bottom for thirsty bargees.
The next morning well before any time I've ever seen, we dragged ourselves out of the barge and with steaming cups of tea talked quietly on the towpath surveying the six locks we had to go through. There is an odd atmosphere of humour and feeble jokes as we decide the responsibilities; I am lucky and get to steer the boat while the others wind the gates. After a few in/ offs going into the first lock we all get in a routine and an hour later I take us out of the final lock awake and ready for brecky.
The original canal system around Birmingham followed the contour lines and are level with no locks so meander a lot. Improvements made in the late 18th century saw the building of locks and a straighter canal system. The result of all this is a mixture of old and new with aqueducts, tunnels and canals that look down on the old level system meandering round the hill while they go up and over.
Our brave skipper had planned for us to navigate some of the lesser used canals to make sure we experienced the beauty of the canals in the middle of this great metropolis. I was amazed how tranquil it was as I was expecting industrial noise pollution and as many shopping trolleys to get tangled up on as you could shake a stick at. What I saw was green towpaths and water you could fall in and survive after swallowing some.
We travelled down one canal that was now a dead end but we would get extra points for doing it. I was steering Goliath on this leg and was admiring the view when the canal seemed to suddenly end, full astern and panic. What came into view was a tunnel entrance not a lot bigger than the boat, the skipper came on the aft deck and told me if you could see the light at the end of the tunnel there was nothing coming the other way. So that's where that saying came from. In we went with me skillfully bouncing of the sides until I settled down and got the hang of water effect, the slightest movement of the steering was accentuated by the water we were displacing. The tunnel was 1 kilometer long and a third of the way through I found I was claustrophobic, even with a headlamp on the front of the boat it's very dark and noisy at the back. With some relief we emerged into the daylight and as the sun was over the yard arm a character building pint from the barrel secured on the fore deck. How very civilised,I thought but then it dawned on me we had to turn round and go back, this was bribery.
I gave into the bribery a couple of times more and decided to take the left hand tunnel of the two until the skipper decided I was off watch and should rest. I didn't notice the tunnel much on the way back.
After a long day of winding locks, pushing gates and many cries of "fend off" we arrived in the middle of Birmingham at Gas Street Basin. To be honest I wasn't looking forwards to this as the thought of a narrow unlit canal with towering industrial buildings right on the water’s edge made me feel uneasy. It was 10.30 pm when we arrived and I was pleased to find my images of what was to come were so very wrong, as we coasted into a marvelously restored and well illuminated basin with spacious walkways and delightfully curved bridges. It was remarkably unpopulated so my visions of being murdered in my bed were soon dissolved after a few more character building bribes.
11.00 pm and something happened that had me wondering how strong this bribery was. Suddenly there were thousands of people everywhere crossing all the bridges giving a scene that realy belonged in the 1936' film "Things to come" – no matter which way I looked they were determinedly striding. I called out to someone but being from Cornwall myself, the Black Country accent completely garbled the reply. Thankfully the skipper had been in these parts and could translate "they've all just come from a local theatre" he then bribed me again and tucked me up for the night.
Day two and another unearthly awakening and off we went, this time round the industrial canal cuts, under motorways and up to a magnificent pumping engine house. This huge pump kept the upper reaches topped up so that when a boat filled the locks to climb up the hill he didn't arrive at a dried out ditch. There wasn't enough room to build it next to the canal so it was built the other side of a deep cutting that carried the old canal and was linked by a superb cast iron aqueduct that we went over and turned round instantly to come back, but the points were acquired for that little maneuver.
A bargee’s fry up set the day right as we cruised up more and more canal cuts to turn round and come back but it was worth it as the views didn't include graffiti or burnt out cars. We arrived at the finish tired and emotional and midway up the positions, a result! We had not gone flat out to get maximum points as some had but cruised what our magnificent skipper knew to be the best areas of this huge canal system. "Why did we get up so bl***y early then?" I questioned, "there there let me bribe you" … oh that beer tasted good.
There are canal boat hire firms around Birmingham and I would recommend it as a real eye opener to inner city tranquility.