Day 28: City
Knowle to Nechells (Star City, Birmingham). 14.5 miles. Miles to date: 435.
When I checked into my overnight accommodation in Knowles the receptionist with a moustache that must take an hour a day to shape told me that while a buffet-style continental breakfast came free with the room, most guests "opted to pay for the cooked breakfast – to really fill them up".
That seemed so obvious a challenge that my first task of today was to prove it is entirely possible to "really fill up" on self-serve breakfast if you have the time and commitment to do so – especially if you have a daily burn rate of 4,000 calories.
There were a few quick wins. An apple. A plum. Five slices of toast, each with a different preserve. A croissant. Another plum and a yoghurt. But it was the Kelloggs mini-boxes that offered most scope for gluttony. I thought I'd go for the full house – all four varieties – and am pleased to say I managed it, albeit with a queasy feeling by the end (I blame it on the Frosties). When the waitress came to clear the table she said, rather pointedly I thought, “Have you finished with your bowls, sir?”, with the emphasis on the s.
Suitably nourished (full, at least), it was time to hit the towpath to cross the nation’s second city, Birmingham.
A slice of toast floating in the canal. Not mine I should add. I ate all mine.
The narrowboats continued to surprise and delight.
I enjoy the boat names - which range from the classic (‘Mayflower’, ‘Jolly Roger’) through the philosophical (‘Journey’s End', 'The Last Resort’) to nautical puns that I often only half understand ('Merry Rose' etc). And I can't get enough of the myriad designs and colour schemes that, in many cases, show creative flair that wouldn't be out of place in an East London art gallery. But most of all I love the on-deck furnishings: the pots and pans and rooftop gardens and bikes and flags and solar panels and washing lines and woodpiles and cats and dogs and statues and other assorted bric-a-brac that make up these crazy, much-loved floating homes.
It’s all so alien to those of us whose main form of transport is the car.
Sure, there are a few oddballs who pimp their ride, with bass bins in the boot, spoilers, rear-view mirror dice and BABY ON BOARD signs.
But narrowboat pimping is in a whole different league. It would be the equivalent of a customer driving off the Ford forecourt with a new car, then taking it home, repainting it in an elaborate floral design, bolting on a windmill and rabbit hutch, giving it a name, and planting a herb garden on the roof.
I guess canalling attracts its fair share of off-gridders. There's certainly an encouraging number of boats with little wind turbines and solar arrays on their rooves.
Then I came to the fishermen.
I’m the first to admit I don’t understand fishing.
On the rare occasions I’ve spent more than ten minutes watching a fisherman doing his (always his) thing, I’ve not once witnessed a fish being landed.
I can see that fishing offers a way to get close to nature – though there are other ways that don’t end up with the bit of nature in question being pulled from its home with a large hook in its mouth.
I respect the patience involved, and the idea that the line is being cast into a simpler, slower time.
But... I can never shake the suspicion that most fisherman simply fish to get away from their wives.
Anyway, this stretch of the canal was lined with fishermen – almost certainly more fishermen than fish given the gently drifting scum of litter that was floating past – all of them sat in silence on little fold-up chairs, wiggly things of different sizes in tupperware boxes at their sides, eyes glued to their few square centimetres of murky brown.
Fisherman: not catching anything.
I was getting frosty glares walking past some of the anglers – even though I'd made the extra effort of walking on the grass verge to avoid disturbing the canal's unlikely fish population. So I decided, for amusement’s sake, to undertake a little experiment and see how many of the next 30 or so fisherman I passed would reply to a softly spoken good morning. I was betting on a big trout-sized zero.
Thirty fisherman later and – surprise surprise – not one had returned my greeting.
I was busy chuckling to myself when I passed a towpath sign that explained all.
“DISABLED ANGLERS AHEAD,” it read, with a symbol for the profoundly deaf.
My hello’s, it turned out, had literally fallen on deaf ears. When the next few anglers I passed offered up friendly smiles, I felt like my little game had been in poor taste.
The canal may have looked murky, but plenty of ducks, coots and moorhen were choosing to start families on it.
The problem is, walking LeJog gives you an awful lot of thinking time. And I'm usually bored of my thoughts a couple of minutes into the day. So you need these kind of games to keep you occupied, perhaps even amused, as the hours and miles slip slowly by.
I've got a few other long-standing competitions with myself for which I am eligible to win prizes (from myself) if my prejudices are proved right. They are as follows:
- If I see a female angler, I win a Hungry Horse Sunday carvery.
- If that female angler gives me a warm 'hello', I also win two pints of bitter to enjoy with the carvery.
The other competition, now closed, was for me to win a pack of Dolly Mixture if I passed a farm with a VOTE GREEN election placard standing at its entrance.
I'm still looking forward to those Dolly Mixture.
Today’s walk was one that got steadily worse.
As the day wore on, the rural surrounds became ever more urban, scenery closing in, birdsong drowned out by traffic noise, lawnmowers and sirens.
The built environment changed from farm outbuildings and exquisite lock-keepers' cottages to suburban semis and terraces, then huge brick warehouses in various states of decay.
These are the wharfs that lined Birmingham's 160 miles of canals when the city was the steam-powered workshop of the world, selling buttons, cutlery, nails, guns, tools, jewellery, toys, locks and ornaments not only to Britain, but also its growing empire.
Now the canalside warehouses have been bricked up, walls crumbling, facades covered in graffiti. Some of the lucky ones have been repurposed for new industry. Others stand there as 100ft memorials to the city's industrial past.
As I walked deeper into the city, the river and towpath traffic thinned until it was pretty much just me left. No boats braved this leg of the canal. And the dog walkers and cyclists had better places to be.
The trees had thinned out too. Rubbish was everywhere. The best of it was in sky-high stacks of wired trash in sprawling recycle yards. The worst was on the banks - piles of burned-out tyres surrounding singed silver birches; a greenhouse thrown over someone’s garden fence; old sofas; iceberg shopping trolleys; rotting takeaway leftovers.
The water was just as filthy. Coke cans, beer bottles, fag packets and plastic bags drifted on lazy eddies.
At one point a perfectly made slice of toast, which I’d like to think popped out of an overzealous toaster through an open narrowboat window to plop butter side up into the canal, floated past.
It was followed by a fridge.
As I curved through the unseen city it all got a bit depressing.
If the incinerators didn’t dampen the walker’s spirit then the ash-stained relics of the past did. Where lilies and daisies once studded the banks with yellow, the only colour now came from dog waste neatly tied up in little red, white and blue bags. The willows, laurel and maple had gone, in their place mile upon mile of barbed wire fencing and, above that, security cameras, slowly panning their patch.
I missed the boats and locks and immaculately painted bridges. And while it was heartening to see that there was plenty of new industry on the graveyards of the old, there was no one working on a Sunday morning. Just this solo LeJoger, tramping along an eerily quiet and unloved stretch of canal.
In the end I started looking forward to passing - in silence - the occasional fishermen, all without a fish in their hopeful nets.
Not that I'd been expecting classical beauty.
I’d opted for the Birmingham canal route to taste something different. Britain is not a collection of postcard views and national parks. If part of the reason for LeJogging is to see more of this country you take the rough with the smooth.
So it is that I find myself tonight in a Holiday Inn overlooking on one side industrial estates and the dirty canal, and on the other Star City.
Star City is one of two landmarks familiar to motorists who drive through Birmingham on the M6.
There’s the impressive Fort Dunlop building at Junction 5. And there’s the colourful, sprawling funpark of Star City, which has stood near Spaghetti Junction for 17 years. Opened - bizarrely - by George Clooney, it is one of the largest leisure complexities in the UK.
That means tonight I've got more eating options than I had during me entire trip through the West Country combined. And though I pretend to loathe these places, I secretly like them
So it is that tonight I will feast on Pizza Hut’s all you can eat meal deal. Like my B&B this morning, they may regret their offering.
If you'd told me before I set off from Land's End that I'd find myself – intentionally – in Star City en route, I wouldn't have believed you.
But here I am.
I think I can safely say I am the first LeJoger to make an overnight stop at Star City. Not least because the Holiday Inn here has only just opened.
The weird thing is I feel more isolated here - in this city of 1.1+ million - than I did in lonely Warren Farm on Exmoor, population 4 (plus 3 dogs and umpteen cats).
But that's cities for you.
Can't say I'll be sorry to leave.
You can just see my Holiday Inn on the far side of the rusting bridge.
Next: Day 29 – Nechells (Star City, Birmingham) to Lichfield.
Previous: Day 27 – Long Marston to Knowle.