diamond geezer

 Friday, May 13, 2022

Climbing County Tops: WEST MIDLANDS
Turner's Hill

In my ongoing quest to visit the highest points in every English county I've hiked to the very top of the West Midlands.
That's the ceremonial county, not the English region, because the highest point in that West Midlands is Black Mountain in Herefordshire which is 400m higher.

The geology: A lot of the West Midlands is fairly flat but a significant ridge runs through the Black Country along an arc from almost-Wolverhampton to almost-Birmingham. A raindrop falling on the southwestern slope ends up in the Severn and the Atlantic while to the northeast it'd be the Trent and the North Sea. The highest cluster is the Rowley Hills, an outcrop of igneous rock that welled up 300 million years ago and hasn't eroded as fast as the surrounding clay. Its dolerite (known locally as Rowley Rag) proved useful for roadbuilding, kerbstones and paving slabs so has been extensively quarried. A full geological history can be found in this excellent leaflet produced by the Black Country Geological Society.

My target was Turner's Hill, which at 271m is marginally the highest of the Rowley Hills' four summits. It's easily seen from miles around thanks to the pair of TV & radio masts at its summit - twin prongs rising from a woody hump. Much of the hill's northern flank is housing estate so the easiest way to reach the top is via the number 12 bus from Dudley, hopping off by the defunct Wheatsheaf pub and walking up the lane. But that was far too straightforward and unblogworthy so instead I started a mile away at half the elevation beside the canal in Bumble Hole.

Bumble Hole Nature Reserve is a delightful spot, a tumbledown grassy flank with multiple pools and wildflower meadows, and even an occasionally-open visitor centre (which wasn't). It's centred on a canal basin with rather a lot of iron footbridges, a hint that once upon a time this was a waterway nexus seething with industrial activity. All around were coal shafts and collieries, brickworks and tileworks, plus a large clay pit called Bumble Hole which now makes an attractive pond. A rare timber gallows crane is still on show if industrial heritage is your thing. Alternatively come back in September for the Black Country Boating Festival, assuming it hasn't folded through lack of financial support.

A short way along the towpath is a much sturdier bridge which once carried a railway, long gone, as has the nearby halt at Windmill End. The Bumble Hole Line linked Dudley to Old Hill and was massively underused so was an obvious target for Dr Beeching. These days that's a damned shame because the rail service across the wider West Midlands is somewhat sparse and most orbital journeys have to be tackled via a chain of slow, infrequent buses... but I digress. The real transport sensation is another 100 metres along the towpath where the canal suddenly disappears into the upcoming hill. How innocuous the entrance looks.

This is the Netherton Tunnel, an engineering marvel which opened in 1858 as the height of canal mania was ebbing away. It was needed because the parallel Dudley Tunnel, a key artery, was much too narrow so could only cope with alternating one-way non-horsedrawn traffic. This new bore was much wider and had two towpaths, one of which has since been sealed by a locked gate for safety reasons. I walked in via the other towpath, grew accustomed to the darkness and squinted towards a tiny shaft of light at the very far end.

It beckoned siren-like, but progressing further without a torch would have been a rookie error because the Netherton Tunnel is 1¾ miles long! The full trek to Tividale is definitely doable, indeed this is municipally-sanctioned urbex for pedestrians and cyclists alike. But when I thought I saw the silhouette of something moving mid-tunnel, or perhaps someone, I decided very much against proceeding further... plus you don't get to the summit of a hill by walking underneath it.

Instead I bore off up the slope past Cobb's Engine House, the shell of a pumping station which once extracted groundwater from a local colliery, and a single very tall very square chimney. I passed buttercups in the meadow (for which read former spoil heap) and toddlers throwing bread at ducks in the Secret Pool (which plainly isn't), but failed to spot the first pepperpot airshaft servicing the tunnel beneath. The view behind me was already good - low suburban sprawl spreading towards a distant row of hills - and only grew better as I climbed into the precipitous housing estate of Springfield. Residents of its stacked terraces are scenically blessed, and enjoy another nod to mountaineering at the Edmund & Tenzing Bar & Grill (formerly the Royal Oak).

To continue I could have zigzagged up sequential cul-de-sacs in search of a gate to squeeze through, but better to continue along the main road and find the alleyway behind Springfield Social Club. This opens out onto a scrubby ascent, initially broad, which climbs rapidly towards a somewhat makeshift stile. Here we enter the domain of Dudley Golf Club who first commandeered the summit of neighbouring Rough Hill in 1927 and whose backdrop therefore verges on spectacular. The fifth hole in particular drops away so suddenly towards the green that from the tee you just have to aim for the rooftops of Rowley Regis and hope.

A public footpath is tolerated along the edge of the fairway, hugging a scrappy treeline that conceals an enormous 100 acre landfill site immediately beyond. This used to be Edwin Richards Quarry but has been disused since 2008 and is now surrounded by a slew of warning notices warning of sheer drops, water hazards and contaminated soil. The final climb requires not being hit by golf balls landing on the fourth green and exits onto the lane you could have reached an hour earlier if you'd taken the advice in my third paragraph. Alas the radio masts at the very top of the hill are sealed off behind a paddock where three horses will view you suspiciously.

The closest I could get was a set of locked gates bedecked with forget-me-nots at the tip of a dead end access road. According to the elevation app on my phone I was still six metres short of the summit, but that's still higher than everywhere in London, Kent, Oxfordshire, East Sussex and the whole of East Anglia so not to be sniffed at. The panorama from the adjacent playing field included the jagged skyline of central Birmingham, but not as unobstructedly as I'd have preferred and may be better in the winter months. If you're a golf club member you can celebrate your county top conquest with a pint in the clubhouse... but I just fired up my phone and attempted to work out how on earth to get back to somewhere near a station.

Other English County Tops I've ticked off
Cumbria: Scafell Pike (978m)
Somerset: Dunkery Beacon (519m)
Worcestershire: Worcestershire Beacon (425m)
Surrey: Leith Hill (295m)
East Sussex: Ditchling Beacon (248m)
London: Westerham Heights (246m)
Bedfordshire: Dunstable Downs (243m)
Norfolk: Beacon Hill (103m)

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