06 October 2012

(20/21/22/23) UK - Narrow Boat - Hockley Heath - Birmingham

Freezing cold in the boat this morning and we can only turn the engines on at 08.00 and then turn on the heating. The good news is that the sun is shining and perhaps will shine all day.
We set off fairly early as we were planning to turn around at Bridge 27 where there is a winding hole. I walked down with my windlass to the drawbridge at Bridge 26 to open this up for the boat. The British Waterways crew arrived to cut down a tree that had fallen into the river but James managed to get passed first and I decided to wait at the open drawbridge for his return.........and waited and waited getting more and more cold standing in the morning chill. The Hotel Boat lot came down but had to moor whilst the tree was cut down so I asked one of the Australian guests to warn James to stop. He did eventually make an appearance after I thought he had vanished down Lapworth Flight! Apparently, he made  real right royal mess of turning in the winding hole and then panicked which most probably made it worse! Next time, you stay on board, he told me! Anyway, it was fun watching the British Waterways crew cut down the tree - they threw the branches across the canal for the lady to pick up and hide in the foliage on the banks. At times she had to get full length on the ground to pick up the floating logs - luckily none of them hit her on the head although it was a close shave at times.

The Hotel Boat then came waltzing through - how they mange to control 2 long boats so well beats me. Practice and more practice, I suppose. The guests were sitting like royalty waving at anybody on the tow path! It's the easy way to do this but perhaps not quite so much fun?
A hot cup of coffee restored James' spirits and we are now winding our way back to Shirley.
A walk was required to loosen up my sore, stiff muscles after the 4 hour walk yesterday so I walked from Shirley to Kings Norton. Its a very muddy walk and the tow path is not too well maintained with abundant growth on the sides so that one cannot moor easily for a tea break and the mud on the path gets more slushy after the bicycles ride through. A fisherman was sitting on his stool fishing so I asked him if he ever caught any fish. His monosyllabic answer was yes. I do find the British rather unfriendly - do I look so scary that they can't talk? Whilst walking past some canal side houses, there were 2 gents about 3 houses apart, both at the bottom of their gardens, chatting on their cell phones. Hopefully, not to each other as they were within shouting distance! The tow path is fairly deserted and the boat goes so slowly that I was always miles ahead. So I had to keep doubling back just to keep in sight. Rather frustrating.

We suddenly came upon the bridge before I could get back on board so I had to walk overhead. No problem, I though - it will come out on the other side. No such luck - I was suddenly faced with 2 lanes of traffic and a town centre! Which way now? Rather panic stricken as I was not carrying a cell phone, I asked the first bloke who passed. Scary looking fellow with tattoos all over both arms. Anyway, he was very polite and helpful and told me to cross the street and then head left. However, I was then faced with a very long row of houses plus a fork in the road. I stopped a lady who pointed me in the right direction - go downhill, she said. Following this path seemed to be headed towards a street again when I suddenly spotted a tiny footpath so back-tracked to look. Hidden amongst the foliage was a sign that said "Canal Ramble" Hurrah - I won't have to spend the night on the streets!!! I reached the end of the tunnel and could hear a boat chugging along so stood waiting. Lo and behold, it was not Castaway so I asked the couple if there was a boat ahead of them. Nope! So off I started again, by now rather desperate for the loo. Eventually, I could see Castaway up ahead so I waved like crazy when James turned round, only to have him completely ignore me. I came to some mooring bollards - no James - he had merrily carried on. By now my knees were aching, the loo was calling and still he went forward. The boat behind eventually saw my problem and hooted at James. I still don't think he even noticed me, he thought the chap wanted to pass!
Anyway, I eventually got back on board thoroughly irritated, only to be told it was all my fault. Really???

We are now headed back to Birmingham and going faster than normal - thank goodness.
We were quite late arriving in Birmingham and stopped at the water point. James could not get the water lid off - eventually, the people on the next boat came to help and with much banging and crashing they got it off eventually. I wonder who put it back on so tightly?
Food was calling so we set off the Brindley Place where there are tons of restaurants. Mailbox also has restaurant after restaurant - it would take awhile to get through them all. We chose The Slug and Lettuce which was humming and extremely vibey. Given that we were the oldest persons in the entire place it was indeed a picture of the yuppie set of Birmingham! Maybe they don't consider themselves yuppies - just normal 30 yr olds. The ladies are always dressed to kill and the high heels truly can't get any higher - no wonder they sound like clip-clop horses when they walk past. Two girls sitting at a table near us spent most of their time on their cell phones although they did chat from time to time. People were in and out the whole time and most seemed to be there for drinks and a social time rather than food. The cheerful tones and laughter made for a great atmosphere and we thoroughly enjoyed the couple of hours spent there. the food was excellent and very reasonable and the waiter was most attentive. Whether he reckoned we were good for a hefty tip being older than most of the crowd or whether that is his normal cheery nature, who knows? Anyway, we had excellent service so let's not question the reason why!  

We got back to the boat and it started raining soon after, so the timing was good. This weather is so depressing here when we are so used to blue skies every day but one has to accept it and just get out and enjoy the time.

We met a very friendly policeman who advised us how to get into the City Centre. His directions were spot on. The Gas Street Basin is crawling with cops as the Conservative Party are holding their Conference in the Convention Centre which is very close by. We struggled to find the information centre and in fact had walked right passed it as the sign is only on one side!

The architecture in Birmingham is truly interesting with the old mingling with the modern. There is also much renovation/building going on plus many "To Let" signs.  The City centre is quite small which we found rather surprising given the size of the city as a whole. I saw a gorgeous red and white glass cat for 22 pounds - this really was calling out to travel to South Africa but James had the wallet and strode purposefully onwards. We will never find that little shop again - it's just like the home for my Irish people that stayed in Ireland leaving my "little people" homeless in SA.

We did eventually reach the info centre and the chap told us to catch Bus 22 for the Botanical Gardens. Unfortunately, he did not volunteer the info that we required the exact change for the bus so the driver refused to let us board. So we had to stand in a tiny shop, in a queue, to buy some mints for .58c to get change! Bus 22 did indeed take us to the Botanical Gardens. The autumn colours are glorious and the gardens are worth a visit - however, we have to admit that Kirstenbosch Botanical in Cape Town are much bigger with more walks.

To catch the bus back to town was another story - cross the road, turn left, then turn right and look for the bus stop! Crazy but the problem is a one-way system. Not easy when you have no clue!
The City Centre was very quiet this morning and I commented on the lack of crowds. Not so when we returned from the gardens - the walkways were very busy with people bustling to and fro. I even managed to grab a photo of two girls with really high heals - the clip-clop brigade as we have nick-named them.

On the bus back to the city, we sat next to a couple and the chap was talking on the phone to his solicitor about his mom dying recently. He found the title deeds to her flats/properties but could not find a will. He has one sister. All this while on the bus!! He made an appointment for Monday at 11.00 and he told his girl-friend that they would to leave early at .05.00 to get wherever they are going. We did not hear that bit.

After lunch on board, we took a walk down the canals - there are many apartments lining the canal and they are all ever hopeful with their patio furniture. To be fair, I suppose it is October now and winter is setting in but no sunshine? Very depressing.
We spotted a man lying sleeping on two crates - with a gap in the middle. How uncomfortable would that be? We also saw an elderly lady in a red coat carrying two handbacks, wandering past us. Not much further down, we spotted her again, wandering in the opposite direction - hopefully, she is not lost - however, she does not look like a tourist.

Birmingham has a number of interesting buildings - The Rotunda is a 271 foot circular tower built in 1964/1965 as aprt of the Bull Ring complex. It has now been converted into 232 luxury apartments. Collect the Heritage Buildings brochure at the Info centre and do the walk to view many of these.
The sad news still on TV is the search for April Jones who went missing a few days ago in Machynlleth, Wales. The suspect has been arrested and now charged with murder but her body has not yet been found. One's heart goes out to these folk in a tiny village where it would be considered safe for all, including children.

Friday night in the Gas Street Basin, Brindley Place and The Mailbox is busy. We thought an early supper was called for but found out that even as early as 18.30 the restaurants were all very busy. The Slug and Lettuce was standing room only and then barely just. We wandered around and eventualy settled on the burger place in the Mailbox, purely because there were table available! They don't have beer on tap but do offer free monkey nuts while you wait! The burgers were pretty good - no complaints there. It was a good people watching spot as we were sitting at the windows. The people just kept streaming in - all shapes and sizes and many young girls in skinny summer evening wear, looking frozen but determined to have a good night out! Luckily, we had moored just opposite The Cube where is was blissfully quiet for two nights - Gas Street Basin itself, is far noisier as the clip-clop brigade come past at all hours.
We slept well!

We awoke to bright sunshine today and sadly have to leave Birmingham. After taking on some water, we were ready to make the u-turn and head back. A rather distraught couple passed us looking for the lady's guide dog. Very odd that a guide dog would leave it's mistress but they walked up and down, calling and whistling. As we headed out, we passed them on the next bridge and they shouted that they had found the dog - thankfully.
The canal seems a very cheerful place this morning - everybody is smiling and friendly. I can't quite believe it but its true. Perhaps because it is Saturday and the sun is shining? Cyclists are out, runners are out, moms with tots are out, many of them giving shy waves, couples are out with their picnic lunches, the Uni students are playing tennis - it's all bright and wonderful! Even the horrid section of the canal between Kings Norton Junction and Bourne is more sunny today and does not look quite so grim with all the graffiti and industrial buildings. The moorings at Bourneville were still occupied - by the same boats? even though they are 48 hours only so we did not stop. The burnt out boat has been taken away and we are still wondering whether this was a gas fire.
There are a a number of boats on the canal today - again, the increase in activity must be due to week-end. Up to now, boats have been fairly scarce which has made for quiet chugging along but not much interaction.
We stopped at Hopwood House for an on board lunch break and then tried to go for a walk but just busy roads and traffic noise so we decided to go forward thinking there were some more moorings further along. Plenty yes - all private or else nowhere where we could stop for supper. So we ended back at Alvechurch where we have now moored for the night.
A brief sit in the sunshine and then we wandered down the very wet and muddy tow path. A fisherman was comfortably ensconced in his chair, just gazing into space with his line in the canal. On the way back I asked him if he ate the fish that he caught. With a smile, he shook his head and told me that he threw them back so that he could catch them again next time. Today gave him peace and quiet along the canal in some glorious sunshine so he enjoyed a grand day!
Everybody has been smiling today - amazing what some bright sunshine can do to peoples morale!
After a hot shower, we wandered down to the Weighbridge Pub which is on site at Alvechurch Marina to have supper - it was all locked and barred until 19.00!

Promptly at 19.00 hrs we went back only to find that their tables were all reserved! The staff recommended either the Indian Restaurant or the Red Lion in Alvechurch town. Saturday night here is crazy - there was no parking to be had so we parked infront of a MOT garage and hoped for the best. The Red Lion was packed to the gills with a 40 minute wait. Luckily James spotted a high table that had just been vacated so I grabbed it. It was high, lofty and private, giving us a view of the birthday party down below plus a couple having a major argument - so much so, that they ended up writing notes to each other until they eventually started talking again. After a few drinks they left, most probably to carry on with their problems. The food was very good, there was free Wi-Fi - a huge bonus after our saga with the very expensive T-Mobile. We enjoyed just sitting in the buzz of happy people with no blaring music - just chatter and laughter.
An elderly lady was sitting in her lounge watching TV with all her curtains open - we saw her when we went to the pub and when we came out again she was still in exactly the same position, smiling to herself. It must have been a good movie and her chair is obviously most comfy, but it was rather sad to see her all alone on a Saturday night. However, there are many such people all over the world and they just get on with life and continue to smile. It's lovely to see.

It's a sad morning and the weather is being mournful with us bringing in fog to wave us off our "Castaway" narrow boat this morning. The Narrow Boats are very narrow - the spare loo on our boat was only fit for a midget - try and get an elephant through a porthole and that will give you some idea of the gymnastics required. The words " a tight squeeze" would be most appropriate! One also has to climb onto the bed from the bottom as there is no side space but once ensconced, you will be as snug as a bug. We did end up using two double duvets to keep warm - thank goodness this was available as we only 2 adults on a 4 sleeper boat.
It's narrow, it's fun and it is very slow so you just have to relax - there is no other alternative. Equipped with a gas stove and oven, fridge, microwave and all the crockery required, self-catering is no problem. However, with the good food in the British pubs these days, if you only boil the kettle for some tea/coffee, that's also fine. 
This activity is better with fine weather as manning the tiller during a downpour is the total pits and you will be drenched.
If you have never done a canal holiday, make sure you book for next summer!
Boaters are friendly people and many of the UK residents have their dogs onboard as well. If you find yourself in any sort of predicament, they will do their best to assist you.
Whilst waiting for our boat to be checked we chatted to the chap on duty who told us that British Waterways had been replaced by the canal Trust in April 2012. One has to hope that this will work as we found the canal sides very overgrown in many parts, refuse disposal in Birmingham not operational and very muddy tow paths. Whilst the latter is understandable after all the rain, some parts do have stones/gravel which makes it simpler for walking. Having said that, there are hundreds of miles of canals in UK, used by thousands of people so it is quite a daunting task. As boating is such a fun holiday week, one hopes that the Trust will be up to the task of maintaining the canals.
The Alvechurch Marina staff were exceptionally good, friendly and helpful and they must get full marks.
Don't delay, book your boat today. If you don't want to manage on your own, there are a number of Hotel Boat operators - you can then sit back and totally relax and get fed regularly as well! Either way, it's a great week out.

 © Judelle Drake

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