First Day: South Birmingham to Dudley Port

Day 1: South Birmingham to Dudley Port.

Please see @FranMillicanS #alongtheshroppie for pictures.
(I’m working with limited technology here & time, so grammar, spelling errors may be common!)

The Station Hotel, Dudley.

Saturday dawned rainy, very rainy and I’d woken at 4am unable to stop contemplating what I was about to do. The logistics, what I was carrying, the rain. Dripping outside. Delayed until it eased off I started the first leg of my journey with a blurry eyed best friend Pippa (who I’ve know since I was 3, grew up in Watford, is one of the reason’s I reside in Birmingham) her husband, Chris, (resplendent despite a hangover in tweed jacket) and their dog, Worcester (a springer, boarder collie mix, inexhaustible with a nose for trouble).

Both sunglassed following a social evening the night before the plan was to walk to about 2 miles to Brandwood tunnel, find the entrance on the other side and leave me too walk onto through Kings Norton to Birmingham.

This stretch of the Stratford Upon Avon is familiar to me, the place I tramp, when I need to walk out, past Lyon’s boatyard across the canal ,where there is often a nod and a wave, a small Jack rustle keeping guard, golf course to the right. Boats lining the mooring, Henry’s Cat, a giant of a narrow boat, dogs out (3 Vermerama, known to Worcester). It feels too familiar, as if I might turn around at Brandwood tunnel and continue my Saturday wrapped up in Pippa & Chris’s house. There’s no path through Brandwood tunnel (or the quarter miler as it is known locally) steps down to peak into the darkness, and hold up a picture from the Herbert Dunkley collection from the 1950’s of kids stood in shorts and scarves where I’m standing watching at the edge of the tunnel watching the narrow boat go under. Inscriptions on the tunnel, unreadable and worn away then, covered in moss now, an ode to Shakespeare. I’m thinking that this would have been part of the trips surrounding the re-generation of the Stratford Upon Avon, re navigable after years of disuse, and stand off that led to it’s clearing by prisoners, army and dedicated volunteers (see previous post). I imagine those children not having seen a canal boat pass through the tunnel in a long time, the photographer on board catching their stares, shouts for a lift through the tunnel, echos of the men as they engine through the dark. And before them in use for coal and industry it would have been footed by the men that worked it, as the horses went over and ahead, walking horizontally, backs on the top, pushing the boat along. Now, at the top of the steep steps, a band of cyclists stream past in squeaky breaks and smiling politeness. They just keep coming, probably on their way to Stratford. Pippa & Chris stand to the side, nodding and acknowledging. Pippa’s says there is so many it starts to feel like the wedding line up.

Over road and down to the canal again, Worcester and I investigating the other end of the Tunnel, a moss free Shakespeare Bust as another reminder that head that way and you’ll be boating to ‘his country’. Past disused warehouses in bright graffiti. Kings Norton Guillotine stop lock next, keeping the Worcester & Birmingham Canal 1 inch above the Stratford upon Avon. The couple and the Dog are still with me, Worcester scouting ahead, Pippa wondering how far they are going to go, Chris enjoying matching archive pictures to the present scenes, making his way through a bag of haribo. Kings Norton junction and they continue onwards with me, with promises of buses to be found at Selly Oak. We’re now walking on Worcester & Birmingham. Old Paper factory’s and wharf’s from 1900’s that no longer exist as they were, flat caps and bowlers, watch chain’s and gas lights. It straightens out again, wide canal, serving ruins of buildings, they may well become prime real estate with the coming of fast H2 service. Bounville stop, the station and a break to have a bit of that dark chocolate (I’d come prepared), Cadbury’s factory in the background, houses with jetty’s and small shed spaces provoke Chris into conversations of buying a canoe for him, his dog and his wife. I cannot see that dog staying still in a boat. There are a few boaters out, some holiday boaters in convoys and sailor hats, some more serious nods aware of urban surroundings. There is a difference in wariness of greeting along urban routes of canals then ease on the outskirts of the city.
Selly Oak, they exit, relief that there is a bus for easy access. They’ve done 6 miles with me, with hugs and luck they wave me on my way. Only another 84 miles to go. At Gas street I’m meeting Charles, son of one of the volunteers from the museum, he lives and works in Birmingham, but for a few miles I am alone.

Through the university, the tower a landmark in credibility. Student couples holding hands, wondering along the canal in to town, older more seasoned walkers stopping to pick off the best blackberries from the tops of bushes. No more graffitied warehouses, the canal opening up and pruned as it makes it’s way towards the city centre. Edgbatson tunnel railway running alongside canal, curved in redbrick. Familiar again from a cruise boat ride with my family some time last year (by little brother delighted by being on a boat and seeing a train) a dining experience tight turning back towards the city centre. Squashed in tables, wine, birthdays and special occasions. Stop to re-tie my laces. I’m about halfway to my destination.

Charles meets me along the canal, a welcome companion with traces of an Ellesmere Port Edge accent, but some Brum inflections from having lived here more then 20 years. And when James Brindley put pen to paper for the industrial new age of transport, those hands excavating cuts in cutting edge technology I’m sure he did not envisage the industry it has become. Hen Do boats moored up, rollered hair and smoking fags. Pink banners. Party boats drawing up alongside the bars. Charles points out a man in over coat and beard steering a party boat passed All Bar One or Slug and Lettuce or whichever bar it is-face set. Charles says he seen him with rowdy passengers later at night, his face impassive always exactly the same. I bet there’s nothing he hasn’t seen. Gas street basin keeping faded writing fashionable enough to show its history of industry. Tap and Spile and old drinking establishment I’ve only ended up in whiling away the small hours in late night karaoke.

Walking past the Sea Life Centre in the landlocked centre of the country, and onto The BCN, Brindley designed opened in 1772, some meandering around to ensure parts are served (although there is accusations of increasing toll). Brindley’s last complete canal, dieing 9 days after completion, these engineers working until they could no more.

Charles and I chatting through his growing up in Ellesmere Port, and the stories that were always told of the Workers of Wolverhampton walking. It seems they were told as true. Wondering what feels like home, Birmingham open armed adoptive home to so many migrants fiercely defending it’s honour. He talks of sailing on Earlswood lakes (see previous post) and on the mersey growing up. All the while we are walking under motorway, next to train line, past window shattered warehouses, rusting in complementary colours. Blocked up slipways that snake around old wharves. Passed Winston Green, those prisoners clearing the canal further down water. Opening out into greenery, as we head further towards Galton Bridge and under a Telford Aquaduct, splendid in it’s iron casting. Telford coming along after Brindley and straightening up his canals, taking hours and miles off journey’s. The walking provokes and ease of companionship, a different feel to walking alone.

Charles leaves me at Galton bridge, to walk back the four or so miles we have done, hands me over to another friend, Birmingham born and bred Gemma (although when initially meeting her at University with all the sensibility of a southerner heard her accent and assumed she was from Manchester so called her ‘Northern Gemma’).

We walk the last four miles in chatter of catching up and Gemma in surprise of enjoying walking (a dedicated car driver, this is a woman that drives or gets taxi’s, never public transport). She has an eye for placing the old pictures in the right scene. Galton Bridge, famous and high (at one point the highest in the country, so they say). The railway bridge covering it from one angle, holding up picture from 1974 and 1977, the tunnel being built, new on old. Old junctions and off loading places shaped like boats. Pudding Green junction (Gemma: I like pudding). And I’m only 15 miles from my home but already on my way, feet holding up. Trying to trace the picture of an 1899 explosion at Dudley Port from a postcard that resides in the archives (these tragedy’s publicised and told through postal pictures, the Instagram and Twitter of the day) emptying the canal of 6 miles of water, possibly caused by a leakage from a gun factory. I could be wrong. No one was killed, stories of a boat man having to jump as the rubble rose.

We finish at Coopers Aquaduct. I’ll admit a taxi to the hotel, The Station Hotel, where a wedding is in full swing, young bridesmaids in their dresses running high kicking around the dance floor, fitted shirts and waistcoats on young men and dinner for me and Gemma. A bath and an early night. 15 miles done, 75 to go. On the way. Tomorrow, Dudley to Brewood.

Francesca Millican-Slater


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