By the time we’d worked through Farmer’s Bridge Locks and turned on to the Digbeth Branch Canal yesterday, it was time for lunch. Moving on would have taken us through more locks, and given us little scope for mooring. The consequence of the decision to stay put was that we started the day with the Ashted Locks. The air was cooler than of late, but the sun was shining.
With a flight of locks as close as these, Clare would normally have walked ahead to each one. However immediately after the top lock there is a short (100 yards) tunnel. We walked through the tunnel yesterday and found that though there is a towpath, it is narrow and poorly lit. I offered Clare the option of riding through, which she accepted. Unfortunately this also required her to cross the wooden railing that separates the path from the canal. She managed, but complained that she had twisted something. Getting off at the far end was slightly easier.
We emerged from the tunnel in to a building site. Hard against the towpath for the next section were preparations for HS2 coming in to Birmingham. We got friendly waves from the workers, they didn’t seem to be working at high speed, but perhaps there was more happening than I realised.
There was another tunnel of similar length below the locks. This one was much wider and higher, carrying the railway above us. The plan is for the station for HS2 to be built here. It may mean a wider tunnel is needed, perhaps above one or more of the locks. At the end of the tunnel is the Digbeth Junction where we turned ninety degrees in to the Grand Union Canal.
At this stage it is not particularly grand, though we could see we were moving between former canal companies by the stop lock. As usual these days, this one was locked open. What was unusual was that there were two sets of gates at each end of the lock. Was there some doubt as to the likely direction of water flow, or was this to control boats so that tolls could be collected? Today they were all chained open.
This section of canal is the lowest stretch we’ve been in since Lapworth. We were soon at Bordesley Junction at the foot of the Camp Hill Locks. This flight of six locks are the only ones on the Grand Union that were not replaced with double width locks in the 1930s. We had planned to swap jobs so I hopped off to work them.
One reason for me working these locks is that they have two tail gates. This means that the lock has to be crossed when opening and closing them. Clare is reluctant to step over the gap when only one gate is shut. As long as there is a suitable hand rail, I am usually happy to do this. I always approach it thoughtfully – falling in to the canal from that height could have unpleasant consequences.
We made excellent time up through the locks, I was usually able to get the next lock ready for Clare before she arrived. We reached the top in time for lunch, so we moored up on the lock bollards – this is usually bad form, but we’d seen no moving boats all day.
We were now on the summit level of the canal. Sensible canal builders make the summit level as long as geography and engineering will allow. Locks at both ends of the summit level will only ever extract water. This summit is more than ten miles long, so removing a lock full of water will not reduce its depth significantly. The first section was through more warehouses, but it gradually became more rural. I was sure I’d seen a blue flash of kingfisher at one point, but couldn’t be sure. A mile or so further on I had a clear view of one flying ahead, under a bridge and out of sight.
Getting some distance covered was in the plan for today. We made steady progress, though we still had to clear leaves off the propellor with bursts of reverse surprisingly often. We had to keep going really, as the bank was almost impossible to moor against. The sides were concrete with a solid towpath for many miles.
Fortunately a section of metal pilings started just as sunset approached. The onboard GPS has been failing to record our location since we arrived in Birmingham. Strangely it seems to have started to get a fix at about the time the pilings started. We pressed on to a spot with slightly less tree cover – it’s easier to get out of bed in the morning if we can see the sun is shining. I’m going to have to manually plot our course for the last few days and add it to our cruising history. For now the Where is Bartimaeus page is showing us taking a short cut through central Birmingham.