Wednesday 1st September: Penkridge (Staffs & Worcs) to Brewood (Shropshire Union): 15.5 miles, 8 locks
Yesterday one of our additional crew, the Recent Bride, had asked about the purpose of the low wooden structures with roofs on, often sited at locks. We explained that they were to hold stop planks which are used to temporarily block the canal channel by retaining water (or debarring it) within a set stretch during repair or renovation work. On the Staffs and Worcs these strange low side-less huts are made of wood, while here on the Shropshire Union they seem to be brick-built.
The cruise yesterday, aided and abetted by our travelling band of lock keepers, had left me with a less than cohesive view of the Staffs and Worcs Canal (eastern end). No matter: we had cruised past once before, years ago. Besides there had been "fishing" to oversee, a wedding album to peruse, a Southern Hemisphere honeymoon to hear about. Today, however, could be given over to uninterrupted looking ...!
We left Penkridge early (2 locks, a corner shop visited and boat water tank topped up before breakfast). Guide book descriptions would suggest that it is a town well worth (re)visiting. It was hard to see any of it from the canal and (like Gailey later) perhaps one should put it on the Worth A Diversion list. Those people spoken to hereabouts all seem open and friendly, although it was only later that I became aware of the Midlands twang in people's speech. That early in the morning the dew was still on the grass and mist hung over the water. The sun was still climbing, sunhat brims needed to squint through the glare. We came close to the M6 again and then the canal swung away in a great loop into quieter countryside. At Brick Kiln Lock there was a glimpse of a strange building ahead, circular and castellated. There it sits beside Gailey Lock, the Gailey Roundhouse, used now as a canal souvenir shop. I dived in, grabbed a Shropshire Union Geo map, waited endlessly to make the payment. Outside the boat was rising in the lock, the Captain appalled at the absence of crew, a stranger having closed the gates and wound the paddles. Chance conversation: "You went upstairs to see the books, didn't you?" I hadn't: But I couldn't not look, could I? The magnetic draw of books overcame my sense of duty to the boat ... Up the outside steps I flew - into a book-lined cavern. Only a full hour's browsing could have done it justice: canal history, boat history, navigation maps, guide books, engineering manuals, boat fiction, children's items ... I photgraphed it and left, not daring to get involved in such tempting matter. The Captain, having brought the boat into the bank some hundred metres further along was less than understanding,
"Crew mutiny," he mumbled.
"BOOKS," I replied - but he did not comprehend.
There followed a long 10 mile summit, gently curving across soft countryside, bordering fields and paddocks, farms and distant woodland. The only straight lines, and there were many of them, were the anglers' rods reaching out over the canal. Mile after mile it seemed, at regular intervals; serious, crouched-down anglers all engaged in a fishing match. Then, at Cross Green, a different sound assaulted the ears, dogs at a kennels, a sound not heard previously on our watery journey. We approached the outskirts of Wolverhampton and at Brinsford Bridge suffered a bombardment - of bread. Above was a line of urchins, chucking bread at the mass of ducks below. Grateful we were that the missiles were crumbs - not stones or rocks... Then to the narrows, creeping along, towpath to the right, sheer rock face to the left, praying that no oncoming boat would meet us bow to bow. We emerged to wider water - to neat housing estates and Autherley Junction.
At 1.15 pm precisely (John Prescott in a rant on Radio 4) we turned sharp left, following the sign to Chester. It is remarkable, that on Day 25 of our trip since leaving Bedford, here we are at Wolverhampton, virtually the same latitude as Peterborough (Day 8, 15th August). But now we've turned, due north, the sun full on our backs. A stop lock separates the two canals. Shapes of wartime shadow factories line the northbound bank, look, see, an aircraft heritage project, Defiants; a friend's father a long time ago was gunner on one of these, he was one of the Few. Then the canal features changed. Longer straighter lengths, rocks lining the bankside, deep cuts made into the iron supports at bridges, the rope marks from horses towing narrow boats and frequent deep cuttings. Then, as Brewood was approached, the first of those high arched bridges, the canal gliding below in a tree-lined cutting. We burst out into an open view, a pastoral scene of spire and village.
Later, after mooring up close to the village, in a deep cutting, exploration could be made. A Catholic school; a C of E First School; A Cof E Middle School; South Staffordshire Police Station; a food emporium; a splendid sandstone church; curious buildings; a classy gift shop on shortened hours "due to honeymooning"...
Tomorrow, in slow time, we'll wander further up this straight and different waterway, to reach Market Drayton certainly, by Friday.
Deep in the cutting here it is dark, totally black, the only passing light from an overflying aircraft.