A Trundle down the Tardebigge

Saturday 28th January, 2012

It was a flawless, windless, blue sort of day, just right for a winter walk…

The Captain and Boatwif had enjoyed a three night stay in Stratford-upon-Avon and now were making a first visit to the Bromsgrove home to which the Relief Captain and First Mate had recently relocated. Zipped into warm jackets, gaitered from ankles to knees, each walker was aided by a trusty walking pole. First were bought Saturday newspapers at the Aston Fields Co-op. Then we crossed a narrow road bridge high over the Birmingham railway line, passing over the “Lickey Incline”, then took to a fence-lined footpath. Mud. Footprints. Pawprints. In single file we edged our way along to an open field. Towards us, tugging at their leads, came two sturdy, mainly white, Clumber Spaniels (one a past Crufts winner).  Across the field we went until at the far end the crew filed again, threading their way past dark laurel bushes.

On to country lanes: several. Road traffic was light but then ahead stretched a hill, a noticeable hill, a steep hill. Up we strode, talking less, puffing more. Pause at a gateway to gaze south and west, spotting the spire of Bromsgrove’s Church, the smudge of the Malvern Hills. A last pull up the hill and the road flattened out.  Just ahead lay the unmistakeable black and white line of a lock gate, and beyond that a sharp man-made incline, a reservoir wall. Of course, these are narrow locks on the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. With steadying handholds we balanced across the beam to the towpath side. A flight of steep muddied steps led up to Tardebigge Reservoir. We gazed across the watery expanse… The water level didn’t seem particularly high. Nothing  trickled down the overflow channel to the canal. Will winter rains increase levels before summer? Images of low water at Marsworth Reservoirs (feeders for the Grand Union in Bucks) last September returned to mind. We toddled along the reservoir bank then came down near lock 52. No map and compass, nor even a handheld GPS needed now. For the rest of the route it would all be downhill…

Lock 51; lock 50, down the towpath we went. The sun shone. The air was cool, not cold. From time to time dog walkers and joggers approached us. On this narrow canal everything is narrow – the locks, the channel, the towpath. You pass with care. About halfway down there were signs of lock repairs. Iron fencing enclosed the upper end of a lock and the work to be done was all too apparent, a steady gush of water projecting through the top gate down into the lock chamber. We passed a narrow lock side house, its roof arrayed with poles and aerials. Past a moored boat, the scene quiet, no hint of boat movement, no sound of ratchet and windlass. Then on the offside appeared a sign: Tardebigge Bottom Lock.  This was Lock 29. The famed Tardebigge Flight has 30 locks – but only a few hundred yards further on are the six Stoke locks, totalling 36 in just four miles. The walkers reminisced, recounting their various Tardebigge adventures, once as a crew with young teenagers, once with young adults, once just as Captain and Boatwif. Grey-sided Ebenezer hove into view, nestled on a comfortable offside mooring. Then relief for the thirsty walkers, refreshments at the Queen’s Head Inn, now a smart and pleasant dining place. It, like the canal, and like the walkers, had seen the years roll past, had undergone various reconfigurations.

Seated by a window overlooking the water Relief Captain pulled out his Nicholson’s Guide. We pored over our route, marvelled at the closeness of the locks, obvious on the page, observed firsthand by ourselves that morning. We puzzled over where the Droitwich Canals join the cut and how far it would be to walk that way…  Lazy?  practical? The afternoon advanced and a taxi aided the return to Bromsgrove. It had been a good walk – there could be a good trip… How about we check cruise routes for Tardebigge and the Droitwich Canals? After all, there was that excellent restaurant in Worcester last summer and now some willing local windlass wielders…

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