In 1850, political reformer Samuel Smiles wrote: ‘The Earth seems to have turned inside out. Its entrails are strewn about; nearly the entire surface of the ground is covered with cinder heaps… coal is blazing on the surface… by night the country is glowing with fire’.
Instead of imagining a strange science-fiction planet, Smiles was describing a real place – the area west of Birmingham and south of Stoke-on-Trent. This is the Black Country, the pounding engine room of Britain’s industrial revolution. Its name is said to come from the region’s vast coal seams and the acrid smoke belched into the air by resulting factories and furnaces.
Traces of this working landscape can still be found on this Discovering Britain trail around Windmill End, a canal junction built in the 1790s. Windmill End is on the Dudley Number 2 Canal in Netherton, a town on the border of Staffordshire and Worcestershire. Industrialised Netherton became famous (and wealthy) by making anchors. In 1911, local firm Noah Hingley and Sons produced the anchor for the RMS Titanic. A replica sits in the town on a triangle of grass. At over 18 feet long and ten feet wide, it’s bigger than many of the passing buses.
A short walk from the anchor, I meet Graham Fisher MBE, the trail’s creator. Fisher is a Black Country writer and broadcaster with a passion for Britain’s inland waterways. From a small car park, we climb a flight of steps and emerge at the start of the route. To our right is a brick building, the Bumble Hole Visitor Centre. Beside it, the Netherton Tunnel Branch of the Dudley Canal runs arrow-straight and mirror-flat. On the opposite bank groups of trees stand in rolling lawns. Birds sing from the gently rustling branches while an old-fashioned fingerpost points the way to presumably equally bucolic spots.
Each September, Windmill End hosts the Black Country Boating Festival. Hundreds of colourful narrowboats line the canal while visitors enjoy a fairground and live music. ‘The scene today is very deceptive,’ says Fisher. ‘Two hundred years ago, Windmill End was a heady mix of bruising industries. There were collieries, factories, furnaces, boatyards, and sawmills. This place would have been chaos. Utter chaos.’
Following the towpaths today, it’s hard to imagine this Victorian sweatshop. Passing a wooded glade, I glimpse a pond through the trees. Bumble Hole Lake is the centrepiece of Bumble Hole Nature Reserve. The sheltered water attracts coots, herons and moorhens. Tiny pipistrelle bats have been recorded here. Water voles have been spotted splashing into the canal. Fisher explains that though it looks natural, the lake is the landscaped remains of a clay pit.
As the trees thin out and the path straightens, we emerge opposite the Visitor Centre. We’ve gone around in a circle. There is method in the trail’s meander, as the route reveals how Windmill End evolved. The loop around the lake is the Bumble Hole Arm, a stretch of ‘contour’ canal. These early canals were built using the lie of the land to avoid natural obstacles such as forests or hills. As a result, even short journeys could take several days. On the waterways time was money, so canals were constantly improved. Windmill End is one of many places where a later route scythed through the original ‘cut’, creating redundant loops or ‘arms’ to the sides.
Windmill End Junction itself is marked by a jumble of arched metal bridges. As we approach, as if on cue, a group of ponies appear from a local riding school. We watch them pass in formation. The clip-clop of hooves has always echoed around Windmill End. Before the era of engines, canal barges were towed by horse. When we reach the bridges, Fisher points out deep grooves in their sides. To go through the junction horses had to swap from one towpath to another. At the bridges, the tow ropes were pulled taut and carved against the bricks and railings.
These gouges indicate what the canal was originally made for. The landlocked Midlands had few navigable rivers and no coastal ports to transport goods. Pre-19th century roads were very poor and often unusable so canals provided a safer, more reliable alternative. Industrial raw materials could be traded all year round while fragile finished products such as ceramics and glass were no longer at risk of shattering on the rutted rural roads. Working barges passed through Windmill End crammed with heavy loads – coal, limestone, iron ore, timber and glass.
Past the junction is Netherton Tunnel. Opened in 1858, the tunnel took three years to build using 26 million bricks. Boats pass along its 1¾-mile length in almost total darkness. ‘Ventilation shafts in the roof let in some light,’ says Fisher, ‘but when it rains, ice-cold water can drip down your neck!’ Standing outside the tunnel’s gaping mouth, Fisher shows me the towpath wall. The bricks, a distinctive dark blue, are known as ‘toccy’ bricks after a local term for ‘chewy’ or ‘sticky’. They’re made of soft Staffordshire clay that becomes waterproof when baked – ideal for lining canals.
The trail concludes with another example of how the Black Country’s diverse local geology shaped the region. Windmill End developed above a deep seam of coal. This buried treasure was soon dug up in a series of mines. Extracting the coal proved difficult as the mines lay in a geological fault that let in vast amounts of water. Leaving the towpath, we go up a grassy bank. At the top is a slim building with a giant chimney towering above the trees. This is Windmill End Pumping Station, known locally as Cobb’s Engine House. Below it, a 160-metre shaft leads to the abandoned coal pit under our feet.
Completed in 1836, Cobb’s Engine House pumped water out of the mines and back into the canal. The building is now an empty shell. When the mines closed in 1928, the huge Newcomen beam engine inside was sold to Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company. It is now on working display in its industrial museum in Michigan. Fisher says, ‘If anything sums up the Black Country canals, for me, this is it. The mines and factories may be gone – but they’re not forgotten.’
Later that evening we visit The Old Swan. Built in the 1860s, this Netherton pub is now Grade II listed. Locals call it ‘Ma Pardoes’ after the landlady who ran it until the 1980s, when she died aged 85. Tucking into a supper of ‘faggots and pays’ we are surrounded by textured Victorian wallpaper. On the ornate painted ceiling a large swan serenely looks down at us. Instead of tiles, the ceiling is lined with enamelled iron plates. Another sip of Windmill End’s industrial brew. I ask Fisher about this trail’s great mystery. The Canal & River Trust refers to the junction as ‘Windmill End (Bumble Hole)’. The route passes the Bumble Hole Visitor Centre, Bumble Hole Nature Reserve, Bumble Hole Lake, and the Bumble Hole Arm. But... what actually is a Bumble Hole?
Dictionaries define ‘bumble’ as ‘to mumble, stumble, or stagger’. During Netherton’s industrial peak there were 13 pubs around Windmill End. Was Windmill End a Black Country watering hole, where ‘bumbling’ canal workers slaked their thirst? Another story suggests that a steam hammer at Windmill End clanked up and down with a unique ‘bum-bol’ noise. Fisher recalls hearing a furnace opening being called a ‘bumble hole’ but concludes that ‘nobody knows for sure. Ask five Black Country experts and you’ll get six different answers.’
This was published in the August 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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