Day 29: Trust
Nechells (Star City, Birmingham) to Lichfield. 21.8 miles. Miles to date: 456.8.
A grim start. Leaving Star City I headed north on the canal to Junction 6 of the M6 – aka the Gravelly Hill Interchange – aka Spaghetti Junction.
You'd never know while driving over it, but far below the Junction is a second, lonelier confluence, this time of waterways. It's where the Grand Union Canal, the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal and the Tame Valley Canal meet. My route was east along the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal – the third different waterway in as many days. In the concrete shadows of the tangled motorways and sliproads there's a post-apolocalyptic feel; shades of grey unchallenged by graffiti, pigeons in the trash, a sweaty cold, always the restless thunder of traffic.
This is a place people pass over as fast as they can. I had no plans to linger.
The city thinned then gave way to open country – farmland, copses, distant spires – at Curdworth.
Here I checked into a canalside inn for the worst lunch of my trip to date.
It was the kind of place that looked OK from the outside, but step inside and there was a 1950s feel. Sometimes that's the charm of a pub. Not here. This was a pub where the decor and clientele were 1950s but the prices 2017. The service itself had a timeless quality to it – which is to say you needed an awful lot of time spare to get served.
Did, they, I asked the man behind the bar, have wi-fi?
“Wi-fi?”, he answered hesitantly, each syllable given time to breathe.
“The internet?” like I'd enquired if they had a fusion reactor in the basement.
“Ah..." I felt a momentary spike of hope. Then he shook his head as slowly as he was pulling the pint. "No, no need.”
Who for? I wondered, as I handed over £13 for a drink and a ploughmans.
Fast forward: The Birmingham and Fazely Canal.
The quality of a ploughmans lunch says a lot about a kitchen and the establishment it's part of. It is a dish with just a handful of basic ingredients - cheese, salad, apple, bread. Yet it can be a lazy or brilliant thing.
The best compile a bounty of the best bits and bobs: freshly-baked bread, big chunks of locally-sourced cheese; a home-made relish or two; a beautifully dressed salad. Bonus points for creamy piccalilli, a generous pile of coleslaw and an imaginatively prepared apple,
On the other end of the scale, neatly saying: "We don't give a monkeys about you or our food," is the ploughmans basic: a mean triangle of cheddar, Branston Pickle in a plastic pot, a stale roll and a bruised apple rolling around the half-empty plate wondering what it's doing sat next to a picked onion.
This was one of the latter.
For reasons I couldn't fathom they'd also included two cream crackers.
So I sat there eating crackers and not using the wi-fi for as short a time as possible, then returned to the towpath.
At Drayton Bassett I finally left the canals to rejoin the Heart of England Way - the trail I'd followed on my way out of Chipping Campden. It was to offer a pleasant enough few miles of countryside walking on good paths, along field edges, through shapely wooded combes, along tracks, then down green lanes into the cathedral city of Lichfield.
The highlight – other than my first view of the distant Derbyshire hills, which I should reach on Friday – was passing a large pig farm, where the inhabitants wandered in the mud giving me quizzical looks and snorts. I like pigs. They were the first I've seen on my whole walk.
If it's not been obvious from the past few days, I've become a convert to all things canal.
Bar a few grim miles through the industrial heartlands of Birmingham, I've spent many happy hours in their company. Gwyneth Paltrow and other self-proclaimed lifestyle gurus may only be latching onto the value of slow living now, but canal folk have been doing it for decades; when your max speed is four miles-per-hour you're getting nowhere fast.
It was nice therefore, to be joined during the second leg of today's walk by my uncle David, who is involved with the canals as a narrowboat owner, as a canal enthusiast, and through his long-term voluntary work to help restore the Lichfield & Hatherton Canal – a seven mile link that once joined the Wyrley & Essington Canal to the Coventry Canal, and which was closed in 1954.
One of the most surprising things to emerge as we chatted canals was their current ownership status. I've been impressed by how well maintained everything has been - from the towpath verges (never overgrown) to the carefully painted bridges and beautifully maintained locks.
But it's not always been like this, and the reason for the infrastructural health today is down to an unusual and forward-thinking decision signed off in the early noughties by – even more unusually – a Tory government.
In the 1920s and '30s the canal network was in terminal decline. The industries that had once used boats to transport freight had jumped to the faster, quicker and cheaper railways. In 1948 almost all the canals were nationalised, along with the railways, under the British Transport Commission. Over the next two decades, as freight declined further – not helped by a harsh winter in 1963 that saw boats trapped in ice for weeks – British Waterways oversaw the closure of dozens of branch lines. By the mid '60s the canal network had shrunk to just 2,000 miles, half the size it was at its 19th century peak. Even though leisure boating was on the increase, largely thanks to L. T. C. Rolt's 1944 book Narrow Boat, the future of the loss-making canal network hung in the balance.
Then an odd thing happened. In the fallout of the financial crisis of 2008, and ongoing issues surrounding funding of – and overspend on – the waterways, civil servants weighed up options for the canals and instead of privatising them the Cameron administration backed the creation of The Canal & River Trust, a charity that would not only take ownership of the canals, but also manage them on the nation's behalf. A bit like the National Trust, but for canals.
Although the arrangement has not been perfect the Trust remains popular among those who use the canals. On a limited budget the Trust not only maintains the network it owns to a high standard, but is also widely supportive of the canal restoration movement, which is adding milage back to the network and – slowly but surely – reversing its 20th century decline.
As we made our way into Lichfield, David took me to see one of the restoration sites on the Lichfield & Hatherton Canal.
Here, on the outskirts of the city, running past the gardens of a suburban housing estate were huge ditches and 20 foot walled banks of a canal being bought back to life.
The team working on it know where the old course ran. Sometimes they're lucky and find locks perfectly preserved under farmers' fields that haven't been seen in decades Sometimes entire sections need rebuilding – or the route changing to reflect the fact that new homes have been built, or new roads constructed, over the canal that was.
Generally the locals back the regeneration: they're getting a brand new waterway for their city, with all the benefits that creates in terms of leisure, tourism and wildlife.
What's even more remarkable is that the work is being carried out entirely by volunteers. The brick laying. The restoration of metalwork. The concrete pouring. And all the back-office essentials: planning, fundraising, land purchasing, permission seeking...
"When will it be complete?" I ask.
"Pass," says David.
Like boating itself, it's going to be a slow process. But you know, one day, that it will. That narrowboats will float again on this little canal that could so easily have become a footnote in history.
Work in progress on the restoration of the Lichfield & Hatherton Canal.
There's something magical about this. And it's something that I keep coming across on my walk.
Back on Day 2, I discovered secluded Portheras Cove, a little stretch of sand maintained not by the council, but by a group of locals. On Day 16 I chatted with volunteer wardens replacing waymarks along The Drove Road. On the South West coast path I walked for miles through land owned and managed by the National Trust, and on Day 14's Dunkery Hill - the highest point on Exmoor - I was crossing an estate gifted to the nation by a family who wanted others to love the land as they did.
On the Cotswold Way I explored Woodland Trust woodlands with neat willow fences and escarpment paths cleared of gorse and bracken by working parties who gather each Monday with billhooks and secateurs
Pretty much every day I come across little pockets of land that are managed, nurtured and loved by small groups of passionate people who work in all weathers to maintain the beaches and woods and meadows and heaths.
It has been a constant thread throughout my walk, a reminder that there are safe hands looking after our landscapes – both natural and built – and who are fighting endlessly to ensure what there is can be passed safely onto future generations.
One of my favourite memorial quotes in the 450 miles I've walked to date was one on Day 25. A wooden seat on an out-of-the-way path in the shade of a coppiced beech in a little escarpment copse. It was to the memory of John D M Taylor and said: "A society grows great when old people plant trees whose shade they will never sit in."
It's one of those quotes whose origins are unknown. But it's apt, not only for the tree planters, but for all those with the vision to see and commitment to shape the future.
Witnessing it in every county I've passed through has been one of the highlights of my walk.
Next: Day 30 – Lichfield to Uttoxeter.
Previous: Day 28 – Knowle to Nechells (Star City, Birmingham).