Sunday, 20 October 2013

Back In Birmingham For a Naughty Balti

You’ve probably heard of the “Bermuda Triangle”: you may have even heard of the “Golden Triangle”, but how about the “Balti Triangle”?
Yes, folks, we are back in Brum, the epi-centre of Britain’s canal network. The claim that Birmingham has more miles of canal that Venice is not an empty one either, Waterways seem  to go off in all directions – they snake around in loops, there are numerous crossroads, and just as many dead ends. You seldom have to walk very far in this city to encounter water running below you or past you.
We snuck into the city from the south, via the North Stratford canal and on Tuesday night moored  about half way between Warwick and Birmingham at Hockley Heath, where our pal and trusty “lockmaster” Vic left us. I do like having Vic on board. We always have such a laugh and, to be fair, he has had some rubbish weather to deal with the last few times he has joined us. I suspect the next time we will see him will be in New Zealand after Christmas. His daughter lives about five miles from ours, on the outskirts of Wellington.
The autumnal weather has thrown up some very balmy days and quite a few wet ones, and we now check the BBC local forecast daily for windows of opportunity to cruise. We are well ahead of ourselves at the moment and do not need to arrive at our marina for another two weeks, so we’ll pootle along and stop if it gets too wet or windy.
Passing Bournville Station on the way into the city. Note the Cadbury purple colour scheme

A good example of this was last Wednesday. It looked like it was going to be wet all day, so we locked up the boat, and caught a bus into Stratford-Upon-Avon for the day. Pat finally found the mini vacumn cleaner she had been searching for all season in Robert Dyas, so it was far from a wasted journey. The Wetherspoon’s was not bad either.

Pat's new toy. And it works!
We pitched up in Birmingham city centre the following day, and chose to endure a couple of heavy showers on the way that had been forecast, but apart from the rain it was a very pleasant cruise, and lock-free.
Our pals on “Free Spirit” had arrived a couple of days ahead of us, and after an overnight on a short-term mooring, we were able to move up in front of them on where we can stay for 14 days. I was surprised at how few boats there are moored in and around the city centre here. None of the “Gypo-type” craft, that clog up many of our cities and sport a mini “breakers yard” on their roofs! Oh, and the obligatory wheelbarrow, lest I forget as well. Not sure the Canal & River Trust have had a sort out here, but it’s very pleasant at the moment, and those boats that are out and about, seem come and go on a daily basis, leaving lots of room for new ones.
Ian and Irene, on “Free Spirit”, lucked out when they discovered a team of tree fellers working just down the cut, removing a tree by the tow path. They didn’t want the wood, so Ian took what looks like a whole tree, judging by the amount he has on the roof of the boat. They kindly let us take what we wanted, so we are now getting nicely tucked up with our stack of next year’s winter wood supply which we will transfer to our garage in Welwyn Garden, the next time we travel down.

Ian helps in my selection of wood from his extensive rooftop collection

 One of the things I really wanted to see, on this trip to the city, was the newly finished 170-million pound City of Birmingham Library, that opened a few weeks back. Its right by the canal, and you can’t really miss it. A huge square box with a hat on, covered in a lattice-like pattern, you either love it or hate it. We didn’t like the exterior that much, but inside was another matter all together.  But before that there was lunch to consider and out of the blue one of Ian and Irene’s boating pals turned up. Allen was working in the city, and joined us for lunch. His interests (apart from boating) are ukuleles and motorbikes.... Alan is my new best friend!

Now here's a common picture. Roger and Pat in a Wetherspoons.
Looks like Allen and myself are comparing the size of our ukuleles. Ohhh ahhh misses!
Then it was a short hop, across the road, to the new library. This is very much a living cathedral to the media and popular culture. Huge swathes of the building are given over to lecture theatres, “contemplation rooms”, rehearsal space for budding musicians, and it has a lending DVD collection that I can only surmise came from Blockbusters when it went bust. Behind the scenes are huge collections of social, railway and canal archives and to top it off on the roof is a Shakespeare room, imported lock, stock, with ornate ceiling and wooded panels from its home in the old library. Chuck in a couple of roof gardens overlooking the city, and you can see why it is rapidly becoming a major tourist destination. I have been back three times now, especially to the music library in the basement – I’m like a pig in... well I’ll leave you to fill in the blanks. There are books, of course, thousands of them, but the building is so big and open, you really don’t get the impression of being hemmed in by them.
The new City Of Birmingham Library

The escalators up to the rotunda

The view from the roof of the library. We are moored just after the bridge. That's the National Indoor Arena on the left.
While in the city we looked up Brendan and Sophie, a couple of boaters we first encountered on their very first boating day, back in April, on the Trent & Mersey, when we helped them through their first few locks, and got them sorted out with essential equipment. We have kept in touch and Pat stayed in their flat in the city’s Jewellery Quarter when I had a boatful of blokes on board, the last time we were here in June.
Sophie is now pregnant so I can’t see them doing much boating next year, though they have been talking about it.  They took us for a superb steak in a restaurant close to their home on Friday night and on Saturday we went out again into the Balti Triangle around Sparkhill, an area just to the south-east of the city centre. There are now 50 restaurants in the triangle and they compete each year for the title of “Balti Restaurant of the Year”

Pat & I tackle the table-sized Naan in the original Balti House in Sparkhill
After cruising  the area in the rain we plumped for “Avil’s”. I found out later that this was the restaurant where the Balti-style started in the early 1970s, and we thoroughly enjoyed the experience, especially the giant-sized naans, the size of a pop-up tent, which are a feature of these restaurants. Good value too.
Looking at the weather forecast I think we are staying in the city until Wednesday, when we head out north on the Birmingham & Fazely canal. I have a day away from the boat on Tuesday meeting some old JL Oxford Street buddies in Leighton Buzzard, so the train will take the strain, and the journey from there that has taken us three weeks, will take around an hour.
Toodaloo chums

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