Tuesday, 31 January 2012

A Trundle down the Tardebigge

Saturday 28th January, 2012

It was a flawless, windless, blue sort of day, just right for a winter walk...

The Captain and Boatwif had enjoyed a three night stay in Stratford-upon-Avon and now were making a first visit to the Bromsgrove home to which the Relief Captain and First Mate had recently relocated. Zipped into warm jackets, gaitered from ankles to knees, each walker was aided by a trusty walking pole. First were bought Saturday newspapers at the Aston Fields Co-op. Then we crossed a narrow road bridge high over the Birmingham railway line, passing over the "Lickey Incline", then took to a fence-lined footpath. Mud. Footprints. Pawprints. In single file we edged our way along to an open field. Towards us, tugging at their leads, came two sturdy, mainly white, Clumber Spaniels (one a past Crufts winner).  Across the field we went until at the far end the crew filed again, threading their way past dark laurel bushes.

On to country lanes: several. Road traffic was light but then ahead stretched a hill, a noticeable hill, a steep hill. Up we strode, talking less, puffing more. Pause at a gateway to gaze south and west, spotting the spire of Bromsgrove's Church, the smudge of the Malvern Hills. A last pull up the hill and the road flattened out.  Just ahead lay the unmistakeable black and white line of a lock gate, and beyond that a sharp man-made incline, a reservoir wall. Of course, these are narrow locks on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. With steadying handholds we balanced across the beam to the towpath side. A flight of steep muddied steps led up to Tardebigge Reservoir. We gazed across the watery expanse... The water level didn't seem particularly high. Nothing  trickled down the overflow channel to the canal. Will winter rains increase levels before summer? Images of low water at Marsworth Reservoirs (feeders for the Grand Union in Bucks) last September returned to mind. We toddled along the reservoir bank then came down near lock 52. No map and compass, nor even a handheld GPS needed now. For the rest of the route it would all be downhill...

Lock 51; lock 50, down the towpath we went. The sun shone. The air was cool, not cold. From time to time dog walkers and joggers approached us. On this narrow canal everything is narrow – the locks, the channel, the towpath. You pass with care. About halfway down there were signs of lock repairs. Iron fencing enclosed the upper end of a lock and the work to be done was all too apparent, a steady gush of water projecting through the top gate down into the lock chamber. We passed a narrow lock side house, its roof arrayed with poles and aerials. Past a moored boat, the scene quiet, no hint of boat movement, no sound of ratchet and windlass. Then on the offside appeared a sign: Tardebigge Bottom Lock.  This was Lock 29. The famed Tardebigge Flight has 30 locks – but only a few hundred yards further on are the six Stoke locks, totalling 36 in just four miles. The walkers reminisced, recounting their various Tardebigge adventures, once as a crew with young teenagers, once with young adults, once just as Captain and Boatwif. Grey-sided Ebenezer hove into view, nestled on a comfortable offside mooring. Then relief for the thirsty walkers, refreshments at the Queen's Head Inn, now a smart and pleasant dining place. It, like the canal, and like the walkers, had seen the years roll past, had undergone various reconfigurations.

Seated by a window overlooking the water Relief Captain pulled out his Nicholson's Guide. We pored over our route, marvelled at the closeness of the locks, obvious on the page, observed firsthand by ourselves that morning. We puzzled over where the Droitwich Canals join the cut and how far it would be to walk that way...  Lazy?  practical? The afternoon advanced and a taxi aided the return to Bromsgrove. It had been a good walk – there could be a good trip... How about we check cruise routes for Tardebigge and the Droitwich Canals? After all, there was that excellent restaurant in Worcester last summer and now some willing local windlass wielders...

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Cold Expectations (Part 2)

Friday 30th December 2011 - Sunday 1st January 2012

Happy New Year!

At 1230 am on New Year’s Day the Captain’s phone rang. There, clear as in a next door room, was Cal Son. And from five thousand miles away came the excited voices of Cal Guys Senior and Junior and of Cal Gal. “Happy New Year Graampee! Happy New Year Graannee,” they chorused, loudly, and Cal Guy Junior added his own speech: “ In car. Car. Da-da’s- CAR!” His infatuation with vehicles remains undiminished... While we were in 2012 they were still in 2011, in daylight, just, up at Double Peak Park (see http://boatwif.blogspot.com/search?updated-max=2011-11-28T18:21:00Z&max-results=7) watching the sun go down over the Pacific.

Readers of Cold Expectations (Part 1) may recall mention of a train trip. The weather was forecast to be a constant variation on the theme of Very Wet so plans to walk in the hills were put aside. Then Boatwif’s alternative suggestion of a day trip to Buxton on Friday was surprisingly well received.  Out came the Ordnance Survey map and a pronouncement was swiftly made: “Why walk two sides of a triangle (via the towpath) to Whaley Bridge station when there is a much more direct route.” Off we set, in plenty of time to catch the 1031 train. It was a more direct route, to be sure, but somehow the close together contour lines had been overlooked... Three breathers and a photostop it took to the brow of the hill. Behind us lay the hills of the High Peak District and Kinder Scout, while ahead, far below, lay the little town. We followed the steep path down to the now redundant print works, crossed the River Goyt and arrived at the station. This pristine little station serves passengers to Manchester to the north, Buxton to the south.  An avid Friend of the Station was lurking on the footbridge, waiting to photograph a limestone freight train. He engaged the Captain for near on half an hour with railway history, while Boatwif marvelled at the warm and spotless waiting room, its walls adorned by information boards. It took the train twenty five minutes to heave itself up the long incline to Chapel-en-le-Frith and Doveholes, then along a ridge to Buxton.There every male voice in the town could have belonged to a one-time colleague, but no, there was no recognition tap on the shoulder: he must have been off skiing!

In rain (of varying intensity) we patrolled High Street and then Higher Buxton, made the odd purchase and found all our enquiries met with courtesy and friendliness. “These winters are nothing to those we had in the seventies,” one person assured us. “Leek cut off by snow last week? Well, only for about twenty minutes.” You’d need to be hardy living here – but you would have the joys of the Opera House, the Gilbert and Sullivan Festival, the Buxton water pump, the Winter Garden, the many markets and fairs in the Pavilion – and the stunning park. After a lunch (local produce guaranteed) we returned to the station, to stand in a downpour while staff tried fruitlessly to decouple the front two coaches from the rest. What a surprise then to clamber off our short train at Whaley Bridge to see so many coaches snaking behind it. We walked the flatter, longer route back, congratulating ourselves on a successful expedition from boat to Buxton. Cold and damp outside – warm and cosy inside. We stoked the fire, drew the curtains and waited for daylight.

Saturday, New Year’s Eve: a slosh through the muddy towpath puddles, past “the happy pig” (a sign announces it!), through the horse tunnel to Tesco for weekend essentials. Darkness fell. Aided by a headband torchlight we climbed up from the basin to the Navigation Inn. A few others were partaking of pub food but then numbers swelled. Two guitarists with lots of kit, their followers, locals, families, an effusive landlady, a few other boaters, a great deal of noise and the bar was jammed! Midnight arrived. Cheers and kisses, Auld lang syne, shouts and laughter, and, once outside, fireworks briefly lighting the sky.

At 0950 on Sunday Cleddau started her second ever New Year’s Day cruise. Out of Bugsworth Basin, past the five other New Year crews and back along the Upper Peak. Serious runners in short shorts, dog walkers in gumboots, cyclists in helmets, dawdlers in winter coats: Good mornings, Hallos and Happy New Years. At the first lift bridge friendly boaters did all the work! The rain fell, mostly seriously, the wind sharpened, the temperature fell but still folk smiled and waved. Back on the Macc, at Cleddau’s permanent mooring the air was cold and laden with damp. But now the fairy lights are back on and the fire is aglow.

CONCLUSION: cold expectations of a midwinter cruise have been overridden by New Year cheer!