Unlikely towns have lots to offer
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 –