Un­likely towns have lots to of­fer

Canal Boat - - Me & My Boats -

Igrew up in a quiet coun­try town in Hamp­shire – never knew canals ex­isted. I went to col­lege in Nor­folk: never saw a canal.

I did dis­cover cars, though, and so spent most of my adult life trav­el­ling the mo­tor­ways and by­ways of Bri­tain in a seem­ingly never end­ing stream of cars from my own bangers to ex­otic sports cars as lo­cal news­pa­per cub reporter mor­phed into mo­tor­ing mag­a­zine ed­i­tor.

Along the way I prob­a­bly saw a canal or two but never re­ally no­ticed. And I took cars to many, many strange photo lo­ca­tions from nu­clear power sta­tions to trans­porter bridges hung above rivers. But never, as I re­call, to a canal.

But then, in mid­dle age, I dis­cov­ered boats and, even­tu­ally, canals, and canal boats have taken me to a whole new se­ries of places I’d never have ex­plored by road.

I’m not talk­ing about the sleepy val­leys and ru­ral vil­lages. No, I mean, the un­likely towns that I would never have got to know. Would never have both­ered to, frankly.

I’d driven up the M6 past Stoke-on-Trent many times but did I ever stop? No. Did I ever see its de­cay­ing bot­tle kilns and its rav­aged cen­tre and learn about its great his­tory in pot­tery man­u­fac­ture? No I didn’t – not un­til we got a nar­row­boat, that is.

There are so many towns like Stoke or Not­ting­ham or Wigan; Wolver­hamp­ton or Castle­ford. Some of them with more past than fu­ture. None of them, to be hon­est, ap­peal­ing enough to merit a di­ver­sion away from the near­est mo­tor­way. Or, as my son-in­law puts it: “An­other place that I don’t need to put on my bucket list for a visit.”

Yet many have their own se­crets; fas­ci­nat­ing and often sur­pris­ing. Take Stour­bridge, a mod­est Black Coun­try town that is a lot eas­ier to avoid than to reach by car. I know: we’ve had tug Harry there over a cou­ple of winters for a re­paint and var­i­ous jobs and strug­gled to and from through the densely packed West Mid­lands sub­urbs.

On the face of it there’s not a lot to Stour­bridge: a scruffy town cen­tre en­cir­cled by a 21st Cen­tury Ro­man char­iot race course of a ring road. A lot of the life has been sucked out of it by the nearby Merry Hill – or should that be Merry Hell – shop­ping cen­tre. Yet, scratch be­low the sur­face and there’s plenty to dis­cover. And not just the won­der­ful 200-year-old Nick­olls & Perks wine mer­chants or the Bathams pubs! Stour­bridge was a world renowned cen­tre of glass mak­ing; its glass is said to be among the finest in the world.

In the 19th Cen­tury the 16 locks of the Stour­bridge flight were alive with canal­side glass mak­ing cones and as­so­ci­ated in­dus­tries. Sadly, there’s lit­tle glass pro­duc­tion these days with just the tucked away Tu­dor Crys­tal and the Red House Cone be­side the locks as sur­vivors of an in­dus­try that, like pot­tery, has largely moved abroad.

A mile-long Stour­bridge Arm brings the canal right down to the cen­tre of the town, fin­ish­ing be­side waste­ground that was once the site of the Foster, Ras­trick foundry. Here the first com­mer­cial steam lo­co­mo­tive in the U.S., the Stour­bridge Lion, was built in 1828 and shipped to New York. It’s still on dis­play at Bal­ti­more Rail­road Mu­seum such is its im­por­tance there. The Arm it­self ter­mi­nates at the el­e­gant Grade II Listed Bonded Ware­house, a build­ing that dates back to the ori­gins of the canal in 1799 and was thank­fully saved from de­mo­li­tion in the 1980s, re-stored and is run by a trust. Once a year the Arm comes alive with boats on a fundrais­ing open week­end.

Across the road are the re­mains of what was once a vast fac­tory man­u­fac­tur­ing heat­ing and wa­ter treat­ment equip­ment and the shell of an­other, Sut­tons Hol­loware, that made pots and pans.

But it’s not all ru­ins and dere­lic­tion: in the years since we first vis­ited Stour­bridge part of the old Forster, Ras­trick foundry has been neatly in­cor­po­rated into the mod­ern Lion Health Cen­tre. waste­land and derelict canal­side glass­works turned into smart hous­ing and of­fices.

If I didn’t have a boat, Stour­bridge, like so many other towns, is a past and, hope­fully, an im­prov­ing fu­ture that I’d never have vis­ited or known.

KEVIN BLICK From car jour­nal­ism to the canals was a change of pace, but liv­ing on board tug Harry is a con­stant eye-opener

An­other un­likely des­ti­na­tion head­ing into Stour­bridge –

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.