Day 109 – Up The Junction

We had nine junctions to contend with today, usually we’re lucky if we get one! The weather forecast wasn’t looking great, so we cast off nice and early (well 8am, that’s early for Toby!). We were following Fred from nb Chyandour’s suggested route to Birmingham and it worked a treat.

Three locks, I steered and Toby operated the locks, he’s still in training though and forgot the handcuff key – thank goodness we’ve still got the fishing net on a pole to hand things over.

The canals were lovely and wide with so much greenery, and we had it all to ourselves in the main. We’re so pleased we made the decision to come this way, quite a few boaters we’ve passed on our travels have tried to put us off, I’m glad we stuck to the plan. It’s not often you come across a fork on the canal network, we stayed right.

We went under the M5, the bridge is quite impressive. Some of the graffiti we saw along the canal banks was quite a work of art.

On the wide sections of the canal on the New Line into Birmingham, there were islands in the middle with narrow channels either side, these were once the home of toll houses, and now long since disappeared.

Birmingham high rises seems to appear out of nowhere. We made the last or our turns at Oozells Loop and took the advice of Neil and Chris on nb Comfortably Numb, and moored at their favorite mooring off the main line. It’s a great little spot, we were lucky to get in, Toby got off to see if there was space, a boat turned in from the other direction so I pushed on the throttle and kept to the right making my intentions clear that I was having that space! The other boat carried on past us, so it all worked out.

We went for a walk in between the showers up as far as Gas Street basin, if you’re hungry, you’re not short of places to eat.

It’s fair to say we both got the munchies, so with a spoon each, we tucked in to some crumble and watched the first episode of Bake Off.

Day 108 – The Hanging Gardens of Dudley

This morning we said farewell to Tim and Sam on nb Plan B, who we’d had a drink with, out on the canal side yesterday evening. They surprised us by giving us a handful of cooking apples; they had a massive carrier bag full of them from another boater they’d met.

I took Eira out for a short walk in the morning and found some blackberries. Sarah couldn’t resist making me a crumble from the later 🙂

I also took the chance to explore the entrance to Dudley tunnel, which Sarah had been around earlier. They have guided tours, which we booked onto for the afternoon. You can also arrange to have your own boat towed through by a tug, but we’re not going that way…not this time anyway!

Before we went on any jaunts, we needed to do an oil change, so we made the most of the cooler weather in the morning to get that done. It all went slickly, naturally!

The tour was very interesting. Sarah and I went on separate trips, so we had one of us on the boat to look after Eira. We had tried leaving her on her own, but she wasn’t having any of it and would have disturbed the neighbourhood for miles around with her barking if we’d both left her, she wouldn’t settle for some reason.

There are big open spaces in places, where the roof has been mined out. There are also some large enclosed caverns, one of which they use for putting on concerts, pantos and the like. The area in the photo below is jokingly known as the Hanging Gardens of Dudley.

The network of tunnels goes on for miles, including a lower level, but most of it is closed off now as it’s unsafe or flooded. In fact, a portion of the trip is through a much more modern tunnel adding in 1989 to allow for a round trip, avoiding a now unsafe part of the network.

In the old days boats were “legged” through the tunnel by men lying sideways across the boat with their legs ou the side, pushing with their feet along the tunnel wall. I got to have a go, but sadly no photo as Sarah wasn’t there with me. When they weren’t legging the boats along, they would pole them by sticking their boat hook in the ceiling and pushing on it, or pushing on a boat pole off the bottom. The bricks were all hand made and different sizes and colours, and took a bit of a beating from all the boat hooks being stuck into them.

In the afternoon we did a pumpout – a boat moved on last night, so we moved to the other side of the basin so we were in prime position. It’s a great little mooring spot, with a grass area for Eira and the toilet block and water tap all close to hand – and all secure and locked up after the museum closes at 5pm.

Day 107 – A Blinder Of A Day As Temperatures Peak

A misty and chilly morning at 7.30 when we cast off, we had doubts as to whether it would warm up as predicted. We retraced out steps, turning left at the junction and back on new territory. In three hours, we only saw one moored boat and a handful of runners and dog walkers.

We turned at the junction towards the Black Country Living Museum and had everything crossed that there would be a mooring, yey, we got one! You can see how close we are to the museum, it worked out perfectly. A number of the scenes from Peaky Blinders are filmed here, our timing couldn’t have been better with the latest series airing this weekend.

With it being the hottest bank holiday on record, it was certainly busy.

We saw steel being shaped at The Foundry….

….and chain links being made. So good were the chains from Birmingham, they were asked to make the anchor and chain for the Titanic.

We’d heard the fish and chips cooked in beef dripping at Hobbs and Sons were legendary, so we got in line and queued (along with everyone else!) for 40 mins, and boy they were worth the wait, absolutely delicious.

There was a street of shops including a tobacconist (I overheard some interesting conversations with parents and little ones as to why they don’t exist anymore – or maybe they do, we just call them vape shops now), a dispensary, a sweet shop (rhubarb and custard sweets duly purchased) and a bakery.

Day 106 – The Wolverhampton 21

We were up at 6:30 this morning, and off by 7am, so we could hit the Wolverhampton flight before the day got too hot – with the forecast set to rise to 30C and full sun later, even I can get out of bed early!

One little stop lock to warm us up, a right turn at Autherley Junction and then left at Aldersley junction, and then we were onto new territory for us.

We started with lock no. 21, and soon met a cyclist coming down who told us that one or two pounds up around lock 9 had been emptied overnight by some jokers. Shortly after we saw the CRT man working his way up the locks – we understand they check every day because empty pounds are such a common occurrence.

The good news for us was that every lock after the first was set in our favour, and by the time we got up to lock 9 any issues had been resolved, though one pound was rather low.

We passed two boats coming down, and saw another three up at the top near the services, where we pulled in for water just to keep things topped up. The water was incredibly clear, with lots of weed growing on the bottom. It feels like not many boats come through this way, which is a shame as we quite enjoyed it.

Taking advice from Fred on nb Chyandour, we turned off our route at Horseley Fields Junction and turned left up the Wyreley and Essington as far as Wednesfield. Here we found a lovely mooring on bollards by the retail park, with some trees offering shade. Sarah turned us around and we moored up for the rest of the day.

Sarah went to Sainsbury’s for supplies, whilst I left the boat but stayed near to check Eira was ok. After some initial whining, she calmed down once she saw I was still around, and then when I moved out of sight again later she was fine. We’ve not left her alone on the boat before, so it was good to know she seemed ok.

The three of us then chilled out in the shade, a glass of pimms for me (cheers Barry!) and a cup of tea for Sarah. I followed the cricket on the phone, and was delighted when England just squeaked out a win, to bring the Ashes level at 1-1.

We’ve only seen one other boat on the Wyreley and Essington all day, and that was moored up. No need to worry about anyone going past too fast!

A quick update on the bread from yesterday. It could have done with a bit more time in the basket to prove at room temperature, but as we had the locks coming up it went in as it was. The bread is tipped out of the basket, and slashed across the top to give room for expansion. It then gets 20 minutes in the oven (most people would say 30 mins, but Sarah likes a thinner crust). The first 10 mins I have a tray with some water in the bottom of the oven to add steam, and then take it out and turn the loaf around for the last 10 mins.

Day 105 – Migraine Misery

We start with a photo from yesterday evening and a lovey sunset. It was early to bed as we had a heavy locking day ahead of us. Toby woke in the night to a migraine, so we agreed it’s best if we stay put for the day so Toby can recover, and not be in full sun all day.

A walk into Bilbrook to buy a paper, and a Costa fluffy coffee for Toby (all part of the recovery plan!). Toby decided to build up the filler, so once it’s painted, the whole surface will be smooth. It’s surprisingly malleable but soon goes off and hardens.

We’re both guilty of getting the munchies when we stay put for the day. You can’t eat anything in secret with Eira being around! She’s partial to a cheese straw and licking the yoghurt pot clean, although her tongue isn’t long enough to clean her face, and required a bit of human assistance.

The rest of the day was sat out in the shade reading the paper.

Toby started another sourdough loaf – I’ll let him explain it all… we know one or two of our readers are interested in making their own, so hope it might prove informative.

Toby here… so… there are a million different ways to make sourdough and everyone has their own take on it. This is just mine and what works for me. Being on the boat things have to be a bit flexible with time and temperature. It’s very warm at the moment, ideal temperatures for the yeast which is great. Key – T=Time from starting.

The starter mix is 40g white bread flour, 40g warm water, and 20g of the mother (which is the same 50-50 ratio of flour and water). This is just left in a pot with a loose lid on, until it’s at least doubled in height in the pot and has lots of air bubbles in it. It should float if you put a blob of it in water. Today I left it for 6 hours before making the main dough mix.

The dough is made with the starter above, 300g bread flour (I’m using a malted mix from Shipton Mill) and 200g of warm water. Technically you want the final mix at 28C, for which you can use the formula: (Final dough temp x 2) - flour temp = water temp or you just say hand warm and approximate it.

Thoroughly mix everything together, and then leave for 20-30 minutes in a covered bowl. This lets the flour absorb some water before you start trying to work it. Then add 7g salt, with a splash of water and work it in so it’s well mixed. Shape the dough into a boule (google it!) – the aim here is to stretch and add tension to the dough.

Leave to prove in a warm environment (we use an airing cupboard at home). After 45 minutes, reshape it into a tighter boule as it will have spread out and flattened. Repeat twice more after 45 minutes each time, and then leave for a final hour. Each time the dough should be looking smoother, and holding it’s shape a bit better.

After that, the dough then goes into a banneton, covered up and put in the fridge overnight. Alternatively leave it in a warm place for about 2 hours. We’ll show this and the following stages tomorrow.

Day 104 – Return of the Sarah

I spent the morning repairing the end of the guttering at the stern of the boat, which captures all the rain and sends it down a run-off to the side. The port side never really drains though as the boat has a slight lean to the right – almost all the heavy stuff is on the right, and there’s not enough ballast to compensate it.

The net result is a very rusty and corroded end to the guttering, to the point now that water overflows into the engine bay. You can see the port side on the left (after removing the flaking rusty bits), compared to the starboard side on the right.

I used a dremel with a wire wool brush to remove most of the surface rust, and then cleaned it up and painted over with some vactan to help neutralize and seal any remaining patches of rust. I then built the end back up using some epoxy putty. It’s not something I’ve used before, but looks promising so far.

A bit of filing down the rough edges and a few licks of paint and hopefully it’ll soon look like new again, assuming the putty holds strong.

Jobs done for now, I was closely watching Sarah’s progress on the train back, and exchanging messages on WhatsApp. The 12 minutes to make the change at Birmingham New Street slowly decreased down to 5 minutes as the train was delayed. Luckily she made it in time – good job too as the next train to Bilbrook after that was 2 hours later due to a cancellation.

That’s the end of train journeys home for this trip, hooray! Happily reunited on Oliver we caught up with each other’s news.

Sarah’s lost 1st 4lb since the start of the holiday, and now weighs less than I do – the only downside is her trousers are a bit loose around the waist now and require a safety pin to hold them up!

Tomorrow we tackle the Wolverhampton 21 flight of locks – looks like it’s going to be a scorcher of a day. Hopefully it won’t be as much of a melter as Hatton was in 2015.

Day 103 – Bilbrook Blackberry Pie

Today was Sarah’s last trip back to hospital before we return home. For once the trains ran on time, and it was a smooth journey – only one change, at Wolverhampton once more, and the train to Oxford leaves from the same platform as the Bilbrook train arrives on, so that’s handy!

No, Sarah didn’t take Eira with her – she’s just holding the lead so I can take the photo!

Bilbrook’s a nice little place, lots of handy shops, and some lovely signs. Eira had a good run around the park on the way back from the train station.

I went foraging for blackberries with Eira in the afternoon. She seems to quite like them too, but is happy to let me do the picking.

There was an apple tree too, but the apples were well out of reach – so I got some down with the boat hook! Sadly they were more suitable for cider than anything else, but we had a couple of apples from Donald and Beth, so I used those with the blackberries:

Ok I confess it was shop-bought pastry, but very yummy all the same, it went down great with some custard. If anyone’s in the area I’ve got some left over!

Day 102 – Walking The Plank

We’ve made it to moorings just outside Bilbrook, where Sarah will be catching her train tomorrow. We’ve had lovely weather today, the Shroppie cuttings looking rather gloomy when the sun is in, but glorious when it’s shining bright.

Sarah gave Eira a walk along the towpath whilst I pootled along behind, all the way up to the water point where we topped up the tank.

Our first and only lock of the day was at Wheaton Aston. This was scheduled to be closed for the CRT to make repairs, but the outcry was such that they changed their minds, and will do the repairs in the winter when things are quieter. In the meantime, the bottom gates are incredibly leaky, as you can see from the piccie below.

Some boaters like to grow lots of plant life on their roof. I don’t know how the first one sees where they are going, but it did look nice. As for the second, well it clearly doesn’t go anywhere anyway!

We stopped off at Countrywide Cruisers for a pumpout, as they are alongside and on the right side for our pump out. We were impressed to learn that they’ve been going for 49 years, and the man doing the pumpout for 30. Not bad going!

After that, it was plain sailing up to our mooring point. The moorings here are blighted by the typical ‘Shropppie shelf’, which lurks a foot or so underwater at the edge. As a result we couldn’t get Oliver close in; Eira was going to have to walk the plank.

Despite coercion with cheese and treats, she refused to get on and I ended up carrying her back aboard. Later she did pluck up the courage to get off the boat – the promise of walkies overruling her fears!

Luckily when we got back from a trip to the shops the boat behind us had left, so we moved back to where the shelf is much smaller and we can get the bow in close enough to just step off rather than needing to leap for shore.

Day 101 – A-Maizing

The weather is holding, and we’re enjoying the warmth on our backs and somewhat short lazy days cruising. We cast off, with Toby steering while I walked ahead with Eira. We went past the old Cadbury’s wharf which opened in 1911. In it’s hey day, milk, cocoa and sugar crumb were all delivered here by narrowboat – just imagine the whiff in the air!

It doesn’t look like this stop gate has been used in a while.

We stopped at Norbury Wharf and topped up the tank to the brim with fuel (76p a litre), we then shimmied over to the other side and filled the water tank up – I wonder how much extra weight we added in that time?!

I’d forgotten about Cowley Tunnel and how impressive it looks, cut from the rock. I’m glad we were aboard, as the towpath was a wet muddy mess. We saw a lady walking along it in flip flops!

We moored up in the middle of nowhere, we were surprised as usually at least one boat moors up – so far so good!

I did some cooking, and Toby took Eira for a walk. She really enjoyed running through the maize fields and was quite hard to spot, apart from the shaking of the leaves. She’s true to the saying of dog-tired and has been asleep since.

Day 100 – Our First Century

Wow, 100 consecutive days aboard Oliver, that’s a first (but will it be the last?!) Just a short hop for us today, so after letting Eira out for a morning wee we got back in bed for our tea and coffee. I took Eira for a walk and Sarah topped up food supplies at Morrisons, we eventually cast off at 10am.

Just the 5 locks at Tyrley to tackle today. We were really lucky – with a steady stream of boats coming the other way, Sarah didn’t have to open a single entry gate, nor close an exit one, making the locks a breeze.

Eira seems to really like the locks and was quite fascinated by them, following Sarah as she opened paddles, then running back to check that I was ok, back and forth she went!

Cadbury’s used to collect milk from the wharf at the top of the flight and take it to their factory at Knighton, near to we’re now moored for the night.

This must be smallest, narrowest narrowboat we’ve ever seen on the canal!

Whenever I think of the Shroppie, it’s the deep verdant cuttings that always come to mind. Woodseaves Cutting is over 100 feet deep in places, and it all felt rather other-worldly as we passed through, seemingly cut off from the rest of the world. We kept our fingers crossed that no trees would fall down!

We moored shortly before Knighton, deep in the countryside; perfect for an afternoon walk with Eira.