Our second big trip taking us through Rugby, Leamington, Warwick, Stratford, Evesham, Tewkesbury and Worcester.
We had been deliberating over our route for a few days but eventually a decision had to be made and thankfully we made it before we set off, rather than waiting until we reached Fradley junction. It was an easy enough trip to Fradley and we had the benefit of having a volunteer lockie at the last lock before the junction. He asked us which way we were heading and adjusted a sign that is on the bottom gates so that the keeper at junction lock knows which way the oncoming boats are travelling. We were going straight on so by the time we reached the next lock, it was ready for us. Below the lock, we made use of the services before setting off again with the hope of finding a mooring at Alrewas.
It didn’t seem to take too long to reach our destination, despite the fact that we had worked through seven locks to get there and we tied before the road bridge above Bagnall lock on the edge of Alrewas village. Showered and changed, we walked into Alrewas and had lunch at The Bank coffee house.
On Wednesday we caught the bus and went to the Cathedral City of Lichfield and what a beautiful place it turned out to be!
On our travels we often muse about places that we might like to live in. Lichfield has just shot into the number one slot of that particular top ten chart! We had a fabulous lunch at McKenzie’s restaurant and then returned to the bus station to catch the bus back to Alrewas.
Another sunny day awaited us when we awoke on Thursday and once ready, we walked up through the village to the National Memorial Arboretum. The only fly in the ointment is the crossing of Ryknild Street, now the A38 which is a busy dual carriageway. With a bit of patience, we made it across the road, there and back. The Arboretum is a fine place with many different memorials to a great number of individuals, regiments and conflicts that have taken place over the years.
Friday morning was yet another blue skied event so we got up, untied and dropped down through Bagnall lock and then took on water just above Alrewas lock. We then dropped down on to the river section of the canal, although by comparison to the other rivers that we have travelled on it would have been difficult to know that we were actually on a river at all. After Wychnor lock, we hit the long straight that runs parallel to the A38 (Ryknild Street) and after the little kink at the end of the street, tied up outside Barton Turn marina. This was just a stopping point so that we could check out whether we could moor inside for a few nights.
Our overnight mooring at Milford Wharf was quiet despite the proximity of the West Coast Mainline. We set off reasonably early, working through the final lock on the Staffordshire and Worcestershire before passing Tixall wide on the way to the junction with the Trent and Mersey canal at Great Haywood.
We made use of the services at the Anglo Welsh hire base before finding a mooring just above Haywood lock. We’ve passed through these parts a few times before and even stopped overnight but never had the time to explore but this year we have plenty of time. It was another warm sunny day and being a Sunday there were lots of people out and about. The confluence of the rivers Sow and Trent are nearby and we could hear the sounds of people playing in the shallow water.
In fact, later in the day when we took an evening walk near Shugborough Hall, there were still families sitting on the river banks and youngsters splashing about near Essex bridge. Earlier in the day, we had crossed the canal, walked under the railway bridge and into Great Haywood. There’s not a lot to see there, just a pub and a Spar shop but it is still a nice looking village. Our walk took us back to the canal junction where we made a diversion into the Canalside Farm Shop. The shop carries a fabulous selection of fresh produce, much of which is local and some of it is grown on the farm. There is a butcher and a fishmonger on site and they also sell home made pies and pastries. All in all a great range of produce. The adjacent café was quite busy so we didn’t partake of anything but we did look at the menu and that seemed to cater for most tastes. We bought a few bits to take back to the boat and have for lunch which we did while sitting on the front deck. In terms of boat traffic, it turned out to be one of the busiest days that we have experienced for a while so there was plenty of entertainment to keep us amused throughout the afternoon.
We were uncertain as to what we might do but it all hinged on whether we would visit Shugborough Hall the following day. After giving it a bit of consideration we decided that we would give it a miss and just carry on the following morning, Monday.
Another peaceful night on a mooring close to the railway! It was just before eight when we untied and moved the few yards on to the lock landing. As we worked down, two boats arrived below, effectively halving the work involved. Twenty minutes later at Colwich lock, the same thing happened and after that it was an easy lock free cruise to Rugeley.
Rugeley is another town that we have never taken the time to look around when we have stopped in the past for some supermarket shopping. As we approached the visitor moorings we could see that a boat was stuck on the offside so before attempting to moor up, we attached a rope and pulled him back into the middle of the channel. The canal was shallow on the towpath side too and it took us about ten minutes or so before we managed to get Caxton secured with a gap between the boat and the bank which varied between 18″ and 24″. Once done, we set off to explore the town centre.
It was alright, nothing too exciting but enough in the way of shops to keep the locals satisfied. After a good wander around, we toddled back to the Tesco superstore which is sited next to the canal. After carrying the shopping back to the boat, we had a sandwich and then carried on our merry way again. Another couple of lock free hours saw us passing by Armitage and Handsacre before finding a mooring near Kings Bromley marina, itself just a couple of miles and three locks from Fradley junction where we will have to decide which way to go next.
Our mooring in Penkridge allowed us to take advantage of the fact that it has a railway station as much as anything else. Our first journey took us in to Birmingham, a city that we have visited many times before. We had no particular reason to go, it was just a day out for us. We didn’t do much, a short walk from the station took us to The Mailbox where we walked through to the canal – as if we haven’t seen enough of the cut! A wander along past Gas Street basin and back again in time for lunch overlooking the water. After lunch we took a stroll around the Bullring before heading back to New Street station where we caught the train back to Penkridge.
The next day we spent in and around the village doing no more than just mooching about. En-route to Penkridge we had contemplated taking a diversion into Wolverhampton but with 21 locks in less than two miles to negotiate, we didn’t ponder the question too long! Instead, we used the train again and went to visit Wolverhampton on our final day in Penkridge. If I had to sum up my impression of Wolverhampton in one word, it would be “scruffy”. It’s a pity really because there is building work going on and its clear that money has been spent on improving parts of the City centre. The railway station is close to the bus station and a tram station is being built in between the two so there will be a good integrated transport system in place soon enough. Unfortunately, the streets are scruffy with litter – even the newer ones. It doesn’t help that the area nearest to the bus station is populated with fast food outlets of the kebab and fried chicken type and they are interspersed with phone repair shops and those selling supplies to the vaping community. We had an uninspiring walk around the central area before catching the train back just before two o’clock. So we weren’t impressed by Wolverhampton but it could have worse, we could have travelled there by boat!
Thursday morning dawned bright and blue again so we got up and set off early again, dropping down through Filance lock and on to the service point. With the chores complete, we moved on and arrived at Midland Chandlers just as they opened at 9am. Our destination was hopefully going to be Radford Bank, the nearest point that the canal gets to Stafford. We had a few locks to do but there was plenty of traffic heading in the opposite direction and that made life easier for us. Most of the moorings at Radford bank can be quite busy so we took the first available space that we saw before the bridge and the start of the stretch that can get crowded. My priority was to collect a phone from Argos that I had bought on eBay a few days earlier so after getting showered and changed we set off on the half mile walk to the retail park on the way into town. Back at the boat, I spent my time setting up the new phone or as Sue described it, messing about with it. In any case, it works well and I am happy with it.
Friday morning saw us catching the bus to Stafford railway station, this time to catch a train to Nuneaton. After ten weeks away from home, we thought that we should go and check that all was well and to pick up the post that had accumulated. The train journey only takes 40 minutes and everything went to plan and we were back at Radford bank at half past three. We hadn’t eaten all day so we decided to make use of the Radford Bank pub / restaurant which is adjacent to the canal bridge.
On Saturday, we walked into Stafford itself and spent a few hours in the town centre. In common with the previous times that we have visited, we found Stafford to be very pleasant. There were a few food stalls in the market place and we had a wander around the shopping streets for a while. In the middle of the town centre is the Ancient High House , the largest Elizabethan timber framed house left in England.
The building is now a museum and each of the rooms on the three floors is set out to reflect how they might have looked through the ages. The house dates back to 1595 so that’s over four hundred years of history.
Once back at the boat, we decided that rather than wait until the morning to set off, we would break with tradition and have an early evening cruise. It was a nice change too, we only encountered a slack handful of boats on the move, we didn’t have any locks to do and after an hour we reached Milford wharf where we tied up for the night.
There were no other boats around to disturb us near Coven but we were still up and about at six. With there being more than five miles to cover before we reached the services and the first of the downhill locks at Gailey, we just took our time and enjoyed another leisurely cruise in the early morning sunshine. In reality, we didn’t have much choice but to take it easy once we reached the Anchor pub. There were boats moored for the best part of a mile along the towpath. Hotel boats “Duke” and “Duchess” had passed us yesterday afternoon and were also moored along that stretch, breasted up of course just to keep passing boats on their toes in the narrow channel that remained beside them.
When we reached Gailey, there was space on the water point so we were able to complete our services in good time. CRT were in attendance running water down from the summit to compensate for low pound levels below. The levels seemed alright to us as we made our way down through the five locks on the way to Penkridge but maybe the problem is further down. The Trent & Mersey canal is still more than ten miles away but we have heard reports of low levels above Fradley so perhaps there is a link there. It will be another week or so before we get there so we might find out then or maybe we will never know.
It was around eleven o’clock when we moored above Filance lock on the edge of Penkridge. Once settled, we took a walk into the village for a look around although being Sunday it was quiet with most shops closed for the day. In the late afternoon we had Sunday dinner, the lamb that we had bought in Coven the day before had been gently cooking in the slow cooker for a few hours as we travelled along and for the time we had been in the village. It was delicious, much as the steak pies had been on Saturday.
Penkridge is a place that we’ve visited a couple of times before and we quite like it so the intention is to stay for a few days before moving on again.
By the time we had turned in for the night, we had decided to get up early and move on a bit. Six-thirty seemed reasonable enough to start, early enough to be useful but not so early that it would disturb the neighbouring boats. At Five-thirty, the engine of the boat in front started up and coupled with the sounds of piling pins being removed made sure that we were fully awake. Ah well, at least we had plenty of time to prepare for our own departure an hour later. By 7.30 we had worked up the lock at Compton, our third and final lock of the day. From there on in it was just another pleasant cruise in the early morning sunshine along the summit level.
There had only been one oncoming boat by the time we reached the narrow section at Pendeford Rockin’. As we approached, we joked that by the time we were out the other side, that number would be five. As we reached the first passing place we could see the distinctive yellow colour of a Viking narrowboat approaching so we tucked Caxton into place and waited for them to pass. The two lads on board told us as they passed that this was their first day but in fairness, they handled their boat perfectly. They were followed by a private boat which had taken the opportunity to ‘tailgate’ the Viking into the narrow section after the passing place at the other end. Fair enough but did they then have to dawdle along cutting overhead foliage as they went? I had visions of getting trapped in the passing place like someone who gets stuck in a shop entrance by holding the door open for an old lady who is followed by ten more shoppers. As we reached the end of the narrows, another Viking was waiting to enter and an Anglo Welsh wasn’t too far behind them.
From there on in it was plain sailing and we found a good place to moor between Coven Heath and Coven. This is the third time that we have passed this way but the first time that we have been into the village of Coven itself. It’s a small village but it has a nice centre with a few shops although the jewel in the crown has to be the butcher’s shop, Astons. Our visit there yielded a ‘catch’ of award winning steak pies, shoulder of lamb for Sunday dinner, a piece of steak and four sausages (award winning no less) to run a comparison test against the Kinver pre-war bangers.
As has been the case for the last few weeks, the sky was blue, the sun was blazing and the temperature was very high so it was another afternoon dossing in the shade of the cratch.
We left Kinver early enough to get up through the lock and on to the service point although when we got there, an ABC hire boat was already filling with water. They pulled back a little and we squeezed in between them and the long term moorings. They were expressing surprise at how much water they had used and assumed that someone had left a tap running overnight. No one had confessed and we did explain to them that they might not realise just how much water four people can get through in a day. Anyway, we had a nice early morning chat before they were on their way. After completing our own chores, we untied and continued our journey. There were another four locks to be done before we found a mooring which was shaded by tall trees on both sides of the canal. Other than a canalside pub, The Navigation Inn, there’s nothing else at Greensforge so we walked along the towpath for a while until we reached The Hinksford Arms where we stopped for refreshments before we headed back to the boat. In the shade, the boat had cooled down nicely for probably the first time in two weeks so we made the most of it and just chilled out.
Another early start the following morning for no other reason than we were awake saw us continue our plod uphill taking in six locks along the way. We only saw a couple of boats on the move as we passed through Swindon and once we had passed through Botterham staircase locks, we pulled up at the first available mooring and tied up for the day. It was still early but that gave us time to walk along the towpath and do a big shop at Sainsbury’s on the outskirts of Wombourne. Back at the boat a couple of hours later, we once again just chilled in the afternoon sun.
Two boats passed us at seven the following morning, both heading in the same direction as we were. It was almost eight when we set off, again the cut was quiet under the blue skies that have persisted for days or even weeks now. Bumblehole lock was all that stood between us and the Bratch locks and we reached those just before nine. It was nice to see some bee hives just above Bumblehole lock on the offside and it was possible to see some flying in and out.
Nothing was waiting on the lock landings at The Bratch and Sue subsequently found out from the lock keepers that the only traffic before we turned up was the two boats that had passed us at seven o’clock. Fifteen minutes later, we left the top lock! The two lock keepers who worked us through really know those locks like the backs of their hands. They were friendly, chatty and very helpful to us – 3 locks in 15 minutes.
We did three more locks and then found a spot on the visitor moorings at Wightwick. It had been over a week since we last ate out, at Gloucester, so we got changed at had lunch at The Mermaid which is a short walk from the towpath.
After an excellent lunch, we walked a mile along the towpath to Compton wharf where we had tied up on our trip down this way in 2015. Back to Caxton for another lazy afternoon but once again we’ve worked and walked a bit so we’re not completely idle.
With our “Day of Rest” behind us, we got up and set off early again, this time heading for the village of Kinver. The two hour trip with its two locks flew by and it seemed that no sooner had we set off, we were tying up on the visitor moorings below Kinver lock. Showered and changed, we were out and walking by 11.30. St Peter’s church stands high on a hill and although the views from the churchyard are superb, sadly the church is locked up. Maybe this is because it is a bit isolated but it’s the first church on this trip that we haven’t had access to.
Our walk continued and we eventually found a farm shop where we had a sandwich for lunch before pressing on. We were hoping to visit the Kinver rock houses but when we asked a couple of walkers if we were heading in the right direction, they told us that they had been but that the houses were closed until Thursday. We did a bit of walking on Kinver edge before returning to the village itself.
Someone once asked me how we find our way around the canals and how do we know where various facilities are located. Most boaters will have a number of books and the most popular series are “Nicholson’s Waterways Guides” and “Pearson’s Canal Companions”. Nicholson’s are better for maps as they use the Ordnance Survey maps. North is always at the top of the page and the scale is consistent. Pearson’s maps are not so easy to follow but the narrative is much better than Nicholson’s so between the two series of books, the boat traveller is well catered for. Well, to an extent anyway. The problem is that books go out of date because things change over time; pubs close, facilities move or get withdrawn, supermarkets get built and so on. The internet is a wonderful thing and many boaters write blogs like this one. I read a few but only the ones that are interesting and more importantly, informative. Real life experience is invaluable when it comes to making recommendations especially when that experience is recent and therefore up to date. One of my “Go To” blogs is this one. I’ve harvested countless nuggets of information from this source since we first met the author back in 2010.
Where is this all leading to, you’re probably wondering, well wonder no more – it’s leading to a string of sausages!
My “Napier’s Enchiridion” recommends pre-war sausages sold by the local butcher so of course I had to try them. Trusting that it’s the recipe that’s pre-war and that they’re not peddling eighty year old bangers, we bought half a dozen and Sue kindly cooked two of them for my dinner in the evening. From what I understand, the main difference is that they are bound with breadcrumbs rather than rusk. They were really good, meaty and tasty but not highly seasoned – the remaining four are now in the freezer and will be savoured over the coming weeks. Thanks for the info, Bruce – another nugget of information which can’t be found in a Nicholson’s guide!!!!
Our original plan had been to spend the weekend at Stourport and include a bus trip to Kidderminster on the Saturday. We spent the Friday afternoon walking around the town in the heat with a bit of respite while we shopped in the air conditioned Tesco store. A bit of research on Kidderminster made us think that it mightn’t be worth the effort to visit after all. Not that there was anything to put us off, rather that there was nothing to draw us there. After a bit of a discussion about how we might spend our time in Stourport, we decided to get up early and set off in the morning.
There was a light, although temporary as it turned out, cloud covering when we cast off on Saturday morning. After four weeks on the rivers, the Staffs and Worcestershire canal seemed very narrow and twisty and it was a bit like turning off a motorway and going straight into the streets of a medieval village. No other boats were on the move and as we left Stourport behind, the canal got straighter and wider for us. The cloud dispersed and the air started to warm up even though it was still before nine o’clock. There were quite a few joggers and walkers around as we approached Kidderminster and as Sue walked towards the viaduct that carries the Severn Valley Railway over the canal, she was lucky enough to see a steam train pass over it.
Once through central Kidderminster we passed through parkland and waterside housing estates before reaching the village of Wolverley where we found a space on the visitor moorings above the lock.
Our walk to the village was mostly uphill and in all honesty there’s not a lot there but we found the village shop where we bought a couple of ice creams before returning to the canal via the local church. The church of St John the Baptist is unusual in that is built in a classic style and from a distance looks like many others. It is actually built from brick suggesting that it is fairly modern but it was completed in 1772 after the previous structure was pulled down in 1769. Three years to build a large church in the 18th century is good going, maybe because bricklaying is quicker than building from stone.
Back on the canal bank there is more going on. The lock is flanked by a pub, The Lock Inn, and a tea room, both have gardens and were very busy as you might imagine with it being a sunny weekend. Next to the tearoom is a putting green or mini golf as it is described. We thought that it was a bit expensive at £7.95 per person but it didn’t deter the dozens of players already using the course.
When we got back to the tearoom, the cooling effect of the ice creams from the shop had worn off so we had to rejuvenate ourselves with more ice cream. The tea room sells luxurious ice cream from a farm in Devon and it was delicious!
The following day, Sunday, we stayed put but other than a mid morning coffee in the tearoom garden, we didn’t venture far.
The final leg of our journey on the Severn would take us through three locks and end at Stourport on Severn. The locks are all manned so there is very little work to do but they don’t open until 8am so we decided to set off at half past seven and give the first lock keeper time to get settled before we arrived. As with the previous stretches, the river is fairly featureless if you ignore the lush greenery that lines the banks but with the locks spaced out as they are, it made the trip quite interesting.
When we reached the lock at Holt Fleet, we were entertained by the lock keeper. Now I have to say that all of the lock keepers that we encountered were very friendly and helpful but this lockie was in a class of his own. As we approached, the gates opened and the traffic light turned green as usual. Unusually, the lock keeper signalled that he wanted us over to the side that he was standing on and of course that is what we did. Once in the lock, he started to explain to us that there was a fault with the lock and that we needed to listen very carefully to him. As he spoke in a very clear Northern Irish accent, Caxton’s bow was drifting to the other side of the chamber but his explanation cleared that up for us. There was a leak below the gate on his side of the lock which was creating the current pushing us away from him. His first instruction had been for us not to attempt to attach our ropes to the vertical cables as we would not be able to hold the boat. He then went on to say that as the water filled the lock, the stern would move over to his side followed by the bow but that I would need to use throttle, gearbox and rudder to soften the inevitable collision with the wall. When he was satisfied that we fully understood what was about to happen, he operated the hydraulics and away we went. It all went according to plan and as we rose in the lock, he told us of the problems that he had been having with other boats. He said that the main issue was with holidaymakers who didn’t fully understand how locks work and then they stopped listening to his instruction. It had been clear enough to us but he told us that he had been a boat instructor for eighteen years beforehand.
Now that the chamber was full and his new pupils had passed his course with flying colours, he told us some more stories. We had no choice but to listen, with all the gates closed we literally were a captive audience. Still, his delivery was good; he was quite animated and a good orator so it was quite amusing. We heard about the Dutchman who entered the lock, didn’t slow down and looked like he was going to crash into the bottom gate. There was the hire boat crew who didn’t listen to instructions and almost capsized their boat in the lock. Finally, like all good stand-up acts he saved his big story until the end and regaled us with the tale of the narrowboater with Tourette Syndrome. Under normal circumstances, he wouldn’t have known about the person’s condition but with the leaking gate, a two way conversation had taken place with some difficulty. He had then noticed a bugle lying on the boat roof and so asked the steerer, an ex-paratrooper as it turned out, if he could play it. The ex-soldier had then stood to attention, saluted the lock keeper and played the last post as the boat rose in the lock.
Our entertainer, once finished, released us from his one man show and waved us goodbye. We had been his first audience of the day but undoubtedly not his last. As the day went on, the stories would likely continue to change and to be embellished but we will never know.
We carried on to Stourport, the final Severn lock being a more straightforward affair than the previous one. There were no spaces on the river pontoons so we ascended the two staircase locks before weaving our way through the Stourport basins to the service point.
Other boats were either taking on water or waiting to do so but it all worked out and eventually we completed our services before moving up through the lock and on to the York Street moorings where there was plenty of space for us to choose from.
When we made our decision to head north at Tewkesbury, we hadn’t given up on Gloucester completely; we just used a different mode of transport. Thursday 28th June was another hot day and as result the rail companies had speed restrictions in place to prevent buckling of the rails. Our train was late, in common with a number of others and while we waited, we chatted to a Canadian man who had been at the University for a week looking at a rural touring arts scheme that is in place in the county. He was travelling to Paddington and then to Heathrow before flying home that evening and it was his first experience of our railways. Hopefully his journey wasn’t delayed too much.
It was just before midday when we arrived in Gloucester and our first place to visit was the Cathedral, another very impressive structure.
A film crew were setting up to film scenes for a BBC drama, The Spanish Princess.
In nearby College Court is a shop selling Beatrix Potter books and gifts, the building is reputed to be the house of The Tailor of Gloucester.
The next stop on the tour was Gloucester docks where we would have moored if we had turned left rather than right at Tewkesbury. The docks have been and are continuing to be redeveloped. The quaysides are populated by bars and restaurants and on that sunny day it all looked very vibrant. We had lunch here before moving on to the National Waterways Museum where there are a number of good exhibits but the focus, unsurprisingly, is on the history of trade on the Severn.
We were all done by three o’clock so that gave us a choice, head back to the station for the 15.37 train back to Worcester or have a drink before checking out the nearby shopping mall and its outlet stores and then catching the 17.37. We chose the latter option and after a couple of soft drinks in the nearby Wetherspoons, we went to the shops.
Afterwards, we took a slow walk back through the city centre which is alright but not as appealing as Worcester. At the station, chaos ensued. The speed restrictions that led to late trains had eventually led to cancellations including the 15.37 so it was just as well that we hadn’t tried to catch that one. Platform changes were being announced, passengers were getting frustrated as they were being shunted from one end of the station to the other and of course it was still very warm just to improve everyone’s mood. Our train just got later and later but eventually arrived twenty minutes after it should have done. The air conditioning had broken down so the carriage was boiling and the passengers were pretty uncomfortable. Some were concerned about missing onward connections and the train manager was doing her best to get answers for them. The train continued to lose time and even stopped for five minutes near Tewkesbury. As it pulled into Worcester Shrub Hill, the train manager announced that the service was going to terminate there and that everyone had to leave the train. This left us on the wrong side of the city and gave us an extra mile to walk back to our mooring and yes it was still boiling hot outside! By the time we got back to the boat it was gone 7.20, an hour later than we had expected to return. Still, we had seen Gloucester and that was the main thing. It was worth going but we were just as happy that we hadn’t gone by boat.
(We didn’t see Dr Foster though but that wasn’t surprising really, he only goes when it’s raining and we haven’t seen any rain for weeks now!)