Silent Highways

For many years Brownhills Bob has run a Christmas competition on his excellent Brownhills Blog. For a number of years this was a pictorial quiz. Some years back I was fortunate enough to recognise some of the places, and was rewarded with a copy of Silent Highways: The Forgotten Heritage of the Midlands Canals, by Ray Shill, who has written extensively about canals. The canals are far from silent these days. Apparently, there are more boats on the network now than at the industrial peak of Victorian times.

Silent Highways
Silent Highways: The Forgotten Heritage of the Midlands Canals, by Ray Shill.

I remember reading it at the time and recognising some of the places, but now that I am on the cut, I think I should revisit the book, and see some of the places included.Currently, I am on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, which links Stourport-on-Severn with Wolverhampton (Autherley Junction 25.6 miles), and on to Haywood Junction (46.1 miles). Though the canal passes through the western reaches of Wolverhampton, and then Wombourne, and Kidderminster, it is largely rural. The canal was constructed as part of a wider plan to link the rivers Trent, Mersey and Severn.  Ray Shill’s book covers interesting features of construction.

Circular weirs

For example, on page 31 there is an image of the circular weir at Compton. Here is my own effort, with Ray Shill’s caption.

circular weir Compton Lock s
“Circular weir, Compton – the circular weir was installed at many of the earliest locks on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal. It is a design linked to James Brindley.” (Ray Shill)

There is another circular weir at Wightwick Mill Lock.

circular weir Wightwick Mill Lock
Circular weir, Wightwick Mill Lock.

The purpose of these weirs is simply to allow water to bypass the lock when it is closed, so that it does not overtop the gate.  This means that use of locks downstream does not drain the pounds between.  A by-product is that it is easier to open the top gate.  These weirs look quite vicious; I think that if someone fell in they would find it hard to escape.

Wightwick Lock

As Ray Shill points out, this is a rather more complex affair than at other locks, for example, Wightwick Lock, between the two locks above.  The image in the book does not show the weir and channel, so here are my own (taken in the rain).

Wightwick Lock 1
Arrival at Wightwick Lock. note overflow weir on left.
Wightwick Lock 2
Wightwick Lock. overflow channel from top.
Wightwick Lock 3
Wightwick Lock. overflow channel.
Wightwick Lock 4
Wightwick Lock. overflow channel on right. Note side wash, which can affect steering.

Practical matters

The depth of locks and the water pressure to withstand means the lock gates are heavy.  Wear and tear can sometimes make them almost impossible to open.  The two bottom gates are each 1,160 kg, i.e. 1.16 tonnes.  The top lock is 1,808 kg, going on for two tonnes.  And this lock, at 8 feet 8 inches, is not especially deep.

Ladders are generally used by single-handers only, and some of them prefer to avoid them by hauling their boat in and out, or by stepping off to let the boat drift in.  Recently, someone commented that the new flat section tops are harder for small hands to grip than the old tubular ones.  Personally, and my hands are not international goalie size, I find the flat ones easier to grip.  CRT say that the flat type is safer because you don’t need to move hands off the ladder to grip the top section, but it seems to me that if you maintain three points of contact it makes no difference.

I will focus on some more subjects in Silent Highways as I go along.

If you are not fortunate enough to have received a copy as a gift you can still get one from Alibris.

Details: Shill, Ray, (2011), Silent Highways: The Forgotten Heritage of the Midlands Canals, The History Press, Stroud, Gloucestershire. ISBN 978 0 7524 5842 7.



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