Category Archives: Grand Union Digbeth Branch

Oleanna V Tunnel. 15th April

Star City to Cambrian Wharf, Birmingham

Last nights mooring was very quiet, well apart from the air conditioner unit on the side of the cinema. Only one boat went past us and despite the padlock being no more we felt safe, C&RT did say someone would be out this morning to fix it.

Time to explore, well tick of another stretch of the BCN that we’ve not cruised before. Now when I say BCN, it is actually part of the Grand Union Canal. The working boatmen used to call this the ‘Bottom Road’. Coal was needed for the power station at Star City, there were gas works and numerous goods sheds along the 2.6 mile stretch. Fellows Morton and Clayton had a boat dock where boats such as President were built. On the Alarum talk the other evening Kate had suggested it was one of those arms where the grime and dirt from years gone by still seeps out from the silt at the bottom of the canal. So we expected a lot worse than we actually got.

No single bottom gates on the Garrison flight, so the double gates would all need kicking open. Thankfully all the top gates had held the water back so each and every lock opened without any fuss.

Bottom Lock

Alongside the bottom lock was what looked like a side pond. Drawing from the side pond before drawing water from the pound above would save water, similar to the Hanbury Locks at the top of the Droitwich Canal. None of the other locks seemed to have the same arrangement, but we did notice something we’ve not seen elsewhere.

Grandeur overgrown

At the second lock as I lifted the top paddles Mick heard gurgling behind him, then bubbling up by the bottom gate recesses. This lock not only filled at the top but also the bottom a bit like some Thames locks. Maybe that was what the side pond had been for at the bottom lock.

A few more of the locks also filled at the bottom end on one side or the other. We made good progress up the flight and then ducked our way under numerous bridges before reaching Bordesley Junction where we came back onto familiar water.

Bordesley Junction looking the way we’d come

Towards the end of last year we’d come down the Camp Hill Flight which continues the Grand Union on towards Knowle and Hatton. Today we turned right and onto the Grand Union Digbeth Branch.

There are works of art in amongst the tags

Here just about every wall has been covered in graffiti. boards on posts have been put up and these now obviously are covered too, painting in front of a mass of painting.

Through Warwick Bar where building works are still on going and past Minerva Works all shades of blue.

At Digbeth Junction we decided to turn left and go down into Typhoo Basin, new water again, not much of it. Here three arms used to spread out and Typhoo packaged tea here from 1925 until 1978 despite being badly damaged in WW2. There was just enough room give or take a tree or two to wind.

Curzon Street Tunnel

Once through Curzon Street Tunnel we faced the Ashted flight. The locks here also pretty water tight, but these were all set against us. We soon got into the swing of working an uphill flight, the locks here closer together than on the Garrison flight.

University and HS2

Today all around us was quiet, nobody working on HS2 and most of the students away on their Easter holidays.

Ahead lay Ashted Tunnel, today we were going to win the battle against it. So far the tally stood at Tunnel 2, Lillian 0, Oleanna 0. Lillian lost a nav light on our first trip through, then last year Oleanna gained extra gouges out of her grabrail, all patched in now but not a pretty sight.

Ashted Tunnel ahead!

We remembered the advice others had given us so as soon as the lock below the tunnel was filling I walked ahead to empty the lock on the other side of the tunnel. This we’d done last year, you most certainly don’t want to be part way through the tunnel when the lock empties!

Mick busy filling the pound below

Last year we’d waited for the levels to settle before going through the tunnel. This had been our mistake. Today Mick opened the gate to the lock below the tunnel then lifted a paddle at the bottom end of the lock, letting water flow through it to lower the pound through the tunnel.

I returned and gave up dates on the level, 4 inches below, 5. That’s when we thought we should drop the paddles, the short pound below the lock now really quite full. I took the centre line and as Mick drove Oleanna through the tunnel I kept her towards the towpath side.

Safely through

No bumps or scrapes, the lower level doing the trick and the rope just incase. This time we’d won! Tunnel 2, Pip and Mick 1! Thank you for your advice Brian and Adam it worked a treat.

We paused on the bollards for lunch which meant we were overtaken by another boat. They and the boat a distance behind them most probably taking advantage of the new lower pound through the tunnel, possibly not even aware of the possible trouble that we’d averted.

Words from on high

With a cuppa and refuelled we were ready for the Farmers Bridge flight. We knew we’d be following another boat so every lock would have to be turned.

We started at a steady pace, Mick closing up behind and me going on ahead. Then a volunteer arrived, the boat ahead had four crew so he’d come to offer his services to us.

After one lock we got a rhythm going. The volunteer heading up to the next lock to empty it, open and close the bottom gate. I would then lift the top two paddles, as Oleanna came up Mick would step off and be ready to open the top gate allowing me to close the off side paddle before crossing the gate which he then opened. I then closed the other paddle and closed up behind.

The lock in a tunnel

Through the dark, under the buildings. Then past all the scaffolding on the tower blocks having their cladding removed.

Entering the tourist attraction

On reaching the top three locks we were now a tourist attraction, gongoozlers watching our every move. Mick enlisted a German lady to help with the gates, then I had a Japanese chap help with another.

At the top

At the top a space sat waiting for us right alongside the lock, a 14 day mooring at that. Mick brought Oleanna out from the lock and then reversed her back into the space. Job done, we’d reached our destination.

Our mooring right by the lock

The sun had been out all day, so we made the most of sitting on the bench by Oleanna and watching the world go by. Tilly however was a little bit perturbed as other people seemed to be moving the outside with all of us in it!


24 locks, 5.08 miles, 1 right, 2 lefts, 1 straight on, 1 victory, 1 reverse for a mooring, 1 sunny day, 1 disgruntled cat.

‘I Thought I Was Going To Drown!’ 13th September

Damson Parkway Bridge 78A to Cast Iron Roving Bridge, Birmingham

Now yesterday I said we’d be starting our ascent into Birmingham this morning, well before we could start the climb there was a matter of cruising almost 6.5 miles before we actually dropped down 12.92 m, then we could start our ascent.


An alarm was set and there were no cuppas in bed this morning, tea was had with breakfast. Surprisingly a boat came past a little before 8am, but it was a C&RT tug parting the water as it went, hopefully it wouldn’t be going as far as Camp Hill Locks.

Back in 2015 this route out of Birmingham seemed to take forever, we’d come down and up the locks and then cruised for what felt like an absolute age before we reached Catherine De Barnes all the time wondering if there’d be any space for us. Heading the other way still took time but today there was plenty to look at as C&RT work boats numbered many.

Diddy paddle power

On a floating pontoon sat a generator and attached to it were some little paddle motors. We thought that maybe these could be used where the depth is very shallow on the off side, they almost looked like they were a new section for Mouse Trap. A tug was moving more of these along to a new site.

Dredging was happening at two sites, well one chap was engrossed with his phone, another had a tug with it that had to be moved out of the way to let us pass. All very busy.

Two bridges becoming one

Soon we started to see red gates and panels on the bridges, these are so that the fire brigade can drop their hoses into the canal should they need to. At Bridge 82 there are actually two Bridge 82s. Once they have crossed the canal they join together. One the far side of the bridge someone has painted Kingfishers and Herons.

I’d just been remarking about graffiti artists and what a shame it was that they didn’t start off with their masterpieces and had to practice their tag so many times. Back in February 2019 we got to see the evolution of Ghost from scrawled tag to multicoloured art work around the northern parts of the BCN, then there was one of his, an intermediate tag quite close to Top Cat.

Tyseley Waste Bridge 88A

Passing through Tyseley all you can see is the large incineration plant and the bridge that leads to it. Once the area was known for it’s tube works which attracted numerous bicycle and motorcycle manufacturers. I used to have a Dawes Bicycle which was made here.

Camp Hill Service block

Up ahead modern tall buildings appeared as we passed old factories and warehouses, all showing blocked up windows and archways from decades of change and decline. Then our first lock came into view, the top of the Camp Hill flight. Alongside the top lock is a service block with all facilities, we pulled in to top up on water, empty the yellow water, dispose of rubbish and give Tilly’s pooh box a refresh as she’s likely to be using it more than she has been recently.

Camp Hill Lock 1

With a handcuff key in my back pocket and windlasses at the ready we could start on the locks. The top lock was empty which meant unless top gates leaked most of the flight would be empty too. I lifted a paddle and then walked down to lift a paddle at the next lock so that it could be filling as we made our way down. We soon got into our stride, me setting the next lock ahead as Mick lifted a paddle on the lock with Oleanna. I then walked back to open and close gates. Most locks had handrails on the bottom gates enabling me to kick them open, then Mick helped to close the offside gate with a pole, saving a lot of walking round.

No escape from scrawl

Walking ahead at Lock 3 there is a big pool as the canal curves round under road bridges. There was the bow of a boat ahead, was it moving or just moored up? It was moving, an Aqua Hire boat, so I walked back to set Mick free the next three locks now in our favour.

Big chunks of steel sit alongside gates on these locks and boast their age, still going since 1891.

Around Lock 6 is surrounded by graffiti. Some good, some not so. Having time to read some of it I realised a lot was in memory of Jason. Was Jason a graffiti writer or a local lad who died at the locks?

Straight on

Straight on for us at Bordesley Junction.

Looking back, to the left still uncharted water to us

The canal to our right, the continuation of the Grand Union Canal, is still one to tick off the list on the BCN. We cruised on to Digbeth Junction now on the GU Digbeth Branch.

By Warwick Bar there is building work ongoing. Most of the area is listed, so buildings are being refurbished for new uses. Residential and food outlets will dominate, the area being transformed due to the proximity of HS2. Through the bar itself with double gates at each end, then a right at Digbeth Junction leaving the Typoo Basin behind us and now on the Birmingham and Fazeley Digbeth Branch.

All of a sudden we were greeted with floating rubbish, earlier in the morning we’d seen a lady litter picking whilst feeding the ducks, it looks like the entrance to Curzon Street Tunnel could do with several like minded people.

HS2 works going on behind
Old and new infront

Building work surrounds you as you come out of the other side of the tunnel. Six years ago it was Birmingham City University buildings going up, now added into the mix is HS2 which will cross the canal over the bottom lock of the Ashted Flight.

Mid flight

The locks were all full, so now we started with our uphill routine, the locks however were mostly close enough together for me to come back and close the top gate instead of Mick stopping to close it. The bottom gates are now also single gates, so no kicking to open them or walking round required, just a little bit more umph!

Between Locks 1 and 2 there is a tunnel, a renowned tunnel! Six years ago Lillian lost a nav light here having come down the lock and being a touch too close to the offside, it really was a horrible grating crunching noise. Today I wished Mick luck and left him to close up at Lock 2 as I walked through the tunnel to lock 1 to empty it and then sit and wait.


Below Mick had a passing thought, maybe he should drop the level of the pound a bit to increase the air draught in the tunnel. The top of the chimney was removed and a bucket of toilet solids was moved into the well deck, just in case! The tunnel light went on along with the nav lights, from the far end I could at last see Oleanna making slow progress through the tunnel.

Mind the bump

The handrail along the towpath is beefy wood and mentally pushes you towards the offside wall. But today Mick blocked that out. I could hear the bowthruster nudging the bow away from the wall, from my position it almost looked as if Oleanna was crabbing her way through the tunnel, there isn’t enough width for this to have happened. Slowly they made progress a bulge in the wall very obvious to me towards the northern end. Out came Oleanna’s bow, both nav lights still in tact, hooray!

A scuff or two

Up she rose in the lock, Mick giving the pram cover a checking over. Had the tunnel struck again and damaged the fabric? As Oleanna came up to the top the damage could be seen more clearly. The fabric had a few scuffs from the tunnel wall/roof, but more to the point was a scratch along the grab rail. Then we noticed another and another, some of them right down to bare steel! Mick should have listened to that little voice in his head and dropped the level of the pound. Ashted Tunnel had struck again!


A pause for lunch on the bollards just through the next bridge was finished with a slice of chocolate banana loaf to help us up the last flight of the day, Farmers Bridge.

At Ashton Junction we turned left onto the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, a right would have us descending locks again heading towards Spaghetti Junction. Left however meant thirteen locks and arriving into the heart of the canal system of Birmingham at Cambrian Wharf and Old Turn Junction.

Farmers Bridge Bottom lock

The bottom two locks are slightly set apart from the others, so I wouldn’t be returning to close gates behind Oleanna. Just after I’d lifted the paddles on Lock 12 we could see a volunteer walking towards us, he’d come to tell us to leave the gates open as a boat was heading down. We swapped with them in the next pound and the volunteer continued on downhill.

Beam on the off side

Lock 11 has it’s bottom gate beam on the off side and as I stood there waiting for Mick to bring Oleanna into the lock a man walked up, climbed over a low wall on the off side and then walked down the steps below the lock. It was fairly obvious that he was looking for somewhere a touch out of view, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a rizla packet. I closed the gate to the lock and was about to walk up to the top paddles to fill it when the chap came back up the steps.

Bywash at Lock 11

‘Are you going to fill down there?’ he said in a slightly alarmed voice pointing to the pound below the lock. ‘No just where my boat is’. I could see the relief on his face ‘I thought I was going to drown!’ He returned down the steps now knowing he’d stay dry to smoke his spliff in peace.

Now we were in the thick of the flight and the locks ahead empty or just about. So it was easy to start filling a lock and walk up to open the gate on the one above, then return to close the gate behind Mick. The volunteer walked back up the flight, not stopping to help us directly, but instead he opened up the locks ahead of us as he climbed back up the hill, a great help. Thank you.

Gate open and waiting

We were on a roll now up the flight, each lock waiting for us.

The locks under buildings are quite atmospheric, modern architecture meeting old transport. The lock under a bridge even more so. Above here masses of scaffolding engulfs the buildings, cladding work going on. Extra supports over the canal have had to be fixed to pillars on the existing building to hold the scaffolding up. In a weeks time the towpath down the flight will be shut for even more scaffolding to be erected.

At lock 6 we were greeted with the bottom gate shut. Maybe the volunteer didn’t want to set too far ahead of us. But as I emptied it the reason became clear quite quickly, the top gates leaked a lot, so in the time we’d take to get there the pound above would have emptied itself. The lock above was also full for a similar reason.

A touch of a leak

Then I spied a downhill boat coming out of lock 2. We could now leave gates open for them, we rose up lock 4 and waited for them. Plenty of crew on hand to work NB Kew down the flight, but it being a full length boat time was taken to position her in the lock, the tiller pulled right across and tied in position the arm removed so as not to snag on the lock walls. We wondered how far they would get before dark and which way they were heading.

Up the last of todays locks, we’d reached Birmingham, now we had to find a space. Back in February 2020 this had not really been a problem, but today spaces were few. One space in the corner of Cambrian Wharf, it can be shallow in that corner and awkward to get into.

Top of Farmers Bridge Locks

Oozells Street Loop was chocka. There was one space left towards Sheepcote Bridge, but would it be big enough for us.

One space left

We pulled in, a chap from NB Chyandour came out to take our centre rope. We touched both at the bow and stern, slightly overlapping to be truthful, but neither of our neighbours minded.

Oh Blimey! BUMingham again! At least the small sideways trees have a touch more cover to them this time!

BUMingham bricks!

Time to dig out the sand paper and primer, get something on the grab rails before the rain brings with it rust and makes the job a bigger one. I chipped off loose paint, sanded back the gouges and applied a coat of primer. I’d intended repainting the grabrails this year, but time is now running out both weather wise and before panto starts. So a patch up will have to suffice for this winter. Hopefully in the next few days there won’t be constant rain so I can get undercoat and top coat on it too.

Tweaked in

25 Locks, 9.73 miles, 1 straight, 1 right, 2 lefts, 2 tunnels, 12.92m down, 35.9m up, 4 paddle boats, 2 dredgers, 2 tugs, 1 full water tank, 1 empty wee tank, 1 clean pooh box, 3 boats met, 2 slices cake, 1 volunteer, 1 weed smoking survivor, 6 inches too long, 1 cosy mooring, 1 disappointed cat.