One of the advantages of a period of limbo between formally starting my PhD and a first supervision meeting is that I can take a little bit of time to hitch up the dog for some really long walks and explore the local area again (added bonus of completely wearing an insane puppy out here). As may or may not be already obvious, my favouritest walking spots are always on the canal, so up the cut we headed. I mentioned this a week or two ago, so it was nice to add to my nerdy spreadsheet as well.
This time the trip was up the Fens Pools branch of the Stourbridge Canal. The main line of this canal reflects its initial use, as part of Lord Dudley’s route from his mines in the Dudley hills to the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal at Stourton and thence to The Markets. Originally planned as one long canal, complaints from the BCN (obviously this would be a major source of competition to its recently completed Birmingham Canal) led to the cut from Parkhead to Stourton being split into two companies, with the join at the Black Delph, between Brierley Hill and Amblecote. The junction is not very evident, but the Stourbridge is still a separate entity – Dudley joined the BCN in 1846, Stourbridge remained a private company until nationalisation in 1948.
So, the main line runs in a straight-ish line from Stourton to Wordsley, then up the famous 16 locks to Leys Junction, then in a sweeping contour around Brierley Hill to meet the Dudley Canal at the bottom of the Delph Nine Locks. Besides the Stourbridge Town Arm (the Crystal Mile), the only other branch is the original water supply feeder from the reservoirs constructed for the canal, now known as the Fens Pools Branch. This leaves the mainline at Leys Junction in Brockmoor and heads in an almost straight line North-East to the reservoirs in Pensnett.
Although constructed to be navigable, it seems like there wasn’t a great deal of traffic on the branch originally. This changed later however so that by the 1840s, well into the railway age, it was deemed feasible to build a brand new canal, the Stourbridge Extension, off the branch and up to Kingswinford and Bromley. By the time of the first OS edition, there are foundries and collieries all up the branch and the new cut, and in fact that’s true today – the stretch between the junction and Pensnett Road is still industrial and still features a foundry, a rarity in today’s Black Country.
Only a short stub remains of the Extension, though it’s possible to trace its course most of the way as it was superceded by a railway right next to it (also gone). The area to your left as you walk up from the junction is now known as Buckpool Local Nature Reserve but was formerly The Lays/Leys, a typical Black Country wasteland once home to various tramroads, inclined planes and works buildings. This is more carefully managed than the Cracker now, although you may well still come across the odd tethered ‘oss.
In fact, the canalside is very green indeed, particularly as you skirt the Dell Stadium and cross Pensnett Road onto the section known as Wide Waters. In fact, it’s remarkably green for so essentially urban a neighbourhood as Pensnett, with autumnal trees draping red leaves into the canal waters, while numerous varieties of ducks float past. This scene opens onto Grove Pool, the first of three lakes in the Fens Pools LNR, then opposite that Middle Pool (not an original reservoir, but constructed in the very early twentieth century). The paths through the reserve are former tramways, part of a maze of branches that criss-crossed the whole area, connecting the canal with the collieries and the main railway lines. Stood here 150 years ago you would have been looking at pithead apparatus for the Old Park Colliery, embanked tramways and swathes of uneven, boggy ground, the result of the water that makes this an ideal spot for the reservoirs, but also of the scars of pit workings and refuse heaps. It’s hard to tally up the two scenes, but it’s the same as countless parts of the Black Country.
It’s not easy to find pictures of the area as it was back then, although there’s some wonderfully evocative ones from more recent times. To those who knew it 150 years ago, it was just another scene of everyday grind, and to most it was seen from below rather than above. I’m pretty sure the miners of Old Park or the Wallows or Bromley Colliery wouldn’t recognise where they were standing if you dropped them into the car park between Grove and Middle Pools.