In 2014, I entered the BCN Challenge (Birmingham Canal Navigations) for the first time with my boat Stronghold. It was something I had longed to do for several years and both Barry Adams and Mouse (Michael Daltry) asked if they could crew for the event, which was going to make the trip easier and be far more sociable. The account of this trip can be found in my blog for 29th May 2014, with the title:- The Grand Canal Tour 2014. The BCN Challenge.
I wrote a resume of the Challenge rules there, but will repeat them here, so that you know what is expected of the entrants:-
Your boat can start anywhere on the BCN at 08.00 on Saturday.
The finish is at Bradley Arm CRT Workshops at 14.00 on Sunday. The venue is different each year.
You are allowed to cruise for 24hrs in 30hrs
You are encouraged to cruise the lesser arms of the BCN, for which you will gain bonus points.
At the end of these arms there is a treasure hunt type of question, so you have to be there to be able to answer it. Alternatively, a specific photo at the end of the arm is required.
You are issued with a log, which can only be opened at 8am on Saturday. You fill in time at the start and end of each section. The questions are set on the log, so as to not be pre-empted.
Other stipulations are for working boats, number of crew, length of boat, etc.
I seemed to fall into the job of planning the route this year, as I had done it before. I have to say that I put in nowhere as much time into this, as I did last year. For Barry and I, it was to be more of an enjoyable experience and social occasion than a competition; just like the year before. Needless to say, we assembled at the Black Country Living Museum on the Friday evening, with the intention of patronising Mad O’Rourkes Pie Factory in Tipton. Being a Friday, all the tables were reserved, but after an enquiry was made, we were allocated a table that could probably accommodate 18 people instead of only eight. Beers were in hand and food ordered and as always, Barry had the infamous Desperate Dan Cow Pie again, complete with pastry horns on top, which he consumed with the usual passion and was then awarded his second certificate for eating it all.
|The end of a session at O'Rourkes. (Photo by Maggie)|
On the way back to the boats, we had to pass The Fountain (home of The Tipton Slasher, a bare knuckle fighter of long ago). Needless to say, we failed to pass it by and had final night caps at £1 a pint cheaper than in the previous establishment.
The intended route from the Black Country Living Museum took us along the New Main Line to the Gower Branch and up Brades Locks onto the Old Main Line, heading for Oldbury Locks (The Crow) and Titford Pump House, before winding and returning to the Old Main Line. Then crossing Engine Arm Aqueduct and going to the end of the Engine Arm to wind before going down three locks to Smethwick Junction and ending up at Old Turn in the centre of Birmingham. As we all know, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray”, so it is best to have a Plan B, except that we did not have one. Only three days before the event, the lock beams on two of the Oldbury Locks were so badly damaged, that CRT closed the flight until further notice. There were a lot of points allocated to this arm and circumstances dictated that we could not change our route without a great deal of re-planning, so we just left it out.
|The BCN Challenge Crew.|
We arrived at the top of Factory Locks with Barry on the motor boat at 08.00 and this we took as our starting point. The locking crew found that the middle pound was empty, so it took a while to fill that before going through. Bear in mind that all the locks in and approaching Birmingham are single locks and we were towing the butty, so each lock had to be operated twice.
Approaching Brades Locks, we passed the tug Joanna towing two Joey boats as they exited the bottom lock and we thought we were adventurous towing a butty! At the top, I took over the motor steering and had to execute a 90deg turn under a bridge, with another competitor’s crew waiting to go down. Not an easy task, but I got both boats round eventually. We were now on The Old Main Line and heading for a very sharp turn at Spon Lane, beneath the M5 motorway.
|A forest of concrete piles beneath the M5.|
I attempted to get round, but it was very tight and more than 90degs, so knowing that there was another similar turn below the locks at Bromford Junction, I abandoned the attempt. There was a good possibility of ending up facing the way we had come without the chance of winding for quite a distance and wasting a great deal of time. I had recently seen a You Tube video of Rupert Smedley abandoning one of these turns with his 72ft boat and ending up motoring for quite a distance in reverse.
We continued beneath the forest of concrete motorway piles and through Summit Tunnel to Engine Arm Junction, where there was another 90deg turn though a very small bridge ‘ole to cross the aqueduct over the New Main Line.
|Crossing Engine Arm Aqueduct.|
Immediately after the aqueduct was another 90deg turn, before we entered the short arm to a winding point at the end. After several attempts, both boats were turned and ready for the trip back to the junction, by which time the blades were well choked up with rubbish and made control of the motor difficult. Barry tackled the clearing of the propeller in one of the Smethwick locks, but we were holding up another competitor and had to move on, which made the final turn almost impossible, but not quite.
|Engine Arm winding hole.|
|Winding at Hockley Port|
It was almost plain sailing from now on; just the Soho and Icknield Port Loops to do, with a visit to the basin at Hockley Port to take an official photo outside the services to prove that we were really there.
|Passing the CRT workshops at Icknield Port with Barry steering the motor.|
These loops are a relic of the original canal on the BCN and were designed by James Brindley, who decided that if a hill could be avoided by a detour, that was the way the canal should go. This saved money with no locks to build, but it took longer to travel around. Thomas Telford, on the other hand, just ploughed on through deep hills with cuttings and across valleys with high embankments, so avoiding building locks as well. Thus, Brindley’s Old Main Line was eventually superseded by Telford’s New Main Line, although a considerable part of Brindley’s canal is still navigable.
Back at Sandy Turn, we now headed into the centre of the city to find a suitable overnight mooring. At Old Turn we found one in the approach to Farmers Bridge Locks and having asked another boat owner to move his boat along to make room, we tied up for the night. Three of the crew wandered off with the promise to phone back if they found a decent pub. The promised phone call never happened, as they were out of luck. We had booked a table at The Fiddle and Bone for eight pm, but it was still early, so we decided to go to The Tap and Spile in Gas Street, which was heaving on this Bank Holiday Saturday. I remember this pub before all the new development took place and it was real ‘spit and sawdust’ then, but how things have changed. The bar is now upstairs on street level and there is a restaurant on the ground floor, which is at canal level. Having just looked at the menu, I am not impressed; the usual main courses on offer, plus pizzas or burgers, which doesn’t sound much different to The Fiddle and Bone menu. There had been some discussion earlier about the latter pub, as Colin had been in the city two nights previously and enquired from a few of the locals about the F & B, which was not very good according to them. However, the table was already booked and on a Bank Holiday Saturday, what chance had we to get in anywhere else with a crew of eight?
|Trying to dislodge the island at Old Turn Junction, Birmingham.|
When we cruised past earlier in the afternoon, the forecourt was heaving, which was a good sign. On entering just before 8pm, there were very few people outside, or in the downstairs restaurant, which did not bode well and I was responsible for suggesting it. Originally, there was a city council wharf on the site, dating back to 1769, before the building was completed in 1873 as a workshop and stables for up to 200 towing horses. The building was known as The Round House and under that name became a night club in latter years, but as I remember, it was closed down after residents of the new development complained about the excess noise at early morning chucking out time and has been derelict until taken over by the nearby Sherborne Wharf boating business this year. We had quite a wait for the food and the general concensus was OK, but not outstanding. Meanwhile, there was a live band playing upstairs and we realised that most of the audience had probably eaten earlier in the restaurant, which accounted for the surfeit of empty tables. We all ended up there getting deafened by the band fronted by very good girl vocalist, so all in all, it was a very successful evening. Don’t forget, we were after pints not points on this initial suck it and see BCN Challenge with a pair of boats, so it was not a particularly challenging cruise for us and we reckoned on an easy run back to Bradley Arm workshops, where the event was to finish. Little did we know what was to come!
|Mooring up at the top of Farmer's Bridge, (Photo by Paul Callender)|
A welcome shower in the services for some of us, before we were due to head off. Richard Parry, the CEO of Canal and River Trust, had arranged with Barry to be picked up at Galton Bridge at 10am. However, he appeared at 8am at our mooring and was welcomed aboard. He had previously been out with Barry on the pair and was a very accomplished steerer.
|John Mills and Richard Parry share a joke.|
We reversed out into the junction and started back on the New Main Line, which is a very straight and deep canal, so we were making good speed. In four hours we reached the bottom of Factory Locks once again and were well ahead of our schedule, so by all accounts we would reach the finish in good time. I walked up to set the locks and met a CRT employee as I got to the middle lock. He announced that he was knackered after a very busy morning. Little did he know what was to come! The bottom gate refused to open fully as there was some debris between the gate and the adjacent wall. Paul Clark (the CRT man), was feeling very responsible for the hold-up and when I told him that Richard Parry was on board, that was nearly the last straw, as he had only been employed for the last two months.
We went brick mining with a very long keb that he had on the van, but after 45mins there was only one thing left to be done and that was to empty the lock completely, which also meant emptying the pound below where the motor was waiting with the butty in the full lock behind.
|The motor waits below the lock.|
It was deemed unwise to leave the motor in the empty pound, so that lock was emptied and the butty pulled out. It was then refilled and motor put back in the lock with the top gate closed, while the pound was drained.
|The pound is drained.........|
Paul Clark the CRT man climbed down the ladder with waders on to fish out the offending debris, until at last the gate opened fully to a cheer from the gongoozlers and boaters standing at the top.
|......and Paul enters the lock.............|
................to remove the bricks..............
..........cheered on by Gongoozlers from above.
There were now seven boats waiting below the three locks and the operation had taken one and a half hours. There was no way that we would finish on time at 2pm, or the boaters behind us, so more points would be lost.
Eventually, we turned into the Bradley Arm, which is about 2mls long; shallow and very weedy. We came here last year, so knew what to expect, but being deeper drafted, it was worse. We were now holding up the remaining boats and after several episodes of being stemmed up and trying to get off the mud, we made it at 4pm and were directed to a mooring, ready for winding when the time was right.
|Arriving at Bradley Workshops (Photo by Paul Callendar)|
Richard generously bought eight pints of Swan Entire, supplied by Ma Pardoe’s pub at Netherton and we hung around waiting for the chance to wind the pair, which eventually happened and we dragged the bottom of the cut all the way back to the junction. Once in deep water, we were aiming for Broad Street Basin where Colin had made previous arrangements to moor for the night, with the intention of paying a visit to The Great Western Arms. It was now 9pm and apart from a snack at the workshops, we were a starving bunch of renegade pirates. There may have been a few rolls or batches as they are known in the area, but we needed something more substantial and eventually found a good Indian restaurant about half a mile away, which meant that there was not time to go to the pub – the one and only disappointment on the trip, so we had to make do with Elephant Beers.
The following morning Paul turned up at the workshops in his CRT van and was welcomed with, “Good Morning Paul. Another day in Paradise then?” Needless to say my warm smile was not returned!
All in all, it was a really good social event, along with good experience and not a lot to do with the BCN Challenge. Maybe next year we will aim to gain points and not pints............do I hear sounds of dissent in the background?