Thursday, 9 September 2010

Harecastle Tunnel

First a little bit of history, then on to the rest of the story of our journey.

Harecastle Tunnel is on the Trent & Mersey canal between Kidsgrove and Stoke-on-Trent and is the fourth longest tunnel (2676 meters, that’s 2926 yards or 1 and 3/4 mile long!) on the UK canal system.

It’s actually two separate parallel tunnels; one built by James Brindley between 1770 and 1779 and is no longer navigable. It had no towpath for horses so boaters were forced to leg their boats through. Legging it refers to one or more people laying on their sides or back on top of the narrow boat, planting their feet firmly against the wall of the tunnel and literally walking along the sides or top of the tunnel to propel the boat forward and thru to the exit. After a partial collapse due to subsidence Brindley's tunnel was closed in 1914. Since then, more of the tunnel has collapsed due to coal landing shafts caving in and is prone to flooding. Today, the tunnel is closed to everyone, including inspectors who stopped inspecting the tunnel in the 1960’s and is blocked off for safety reasons.

This is how two men legging a narrow boat through a tunnel would’ve looked. Picture was taken at another of one of the UK's canal tunnels, perhaps circa 1930’s?

If you’d like to see how going through a legging tunnel was back then, here is a modern day video. It shows how life on the canals would’ve been before the advent of diesel engines. Time approx. 8 minutes.

The one still in use today, was built by Thomas Telford in just three years and was completed in 1827. Originally when both tunnels were opened, one tunnel was used for northbound traffic while the other for southbound.

Now with only Telford's tunnel left, an electric tug was used to pull boats through until 1954. A large fan was introduced that year to aid in ventilation. The tunnel was closed from 1973 to 1977 to take the no longer in use towpath out and allow for even more of an air draft to be circulated in the middle of the tunnel. Today, the large fan still pulls most of the diesel engine exhaust fumes out of the tunnel from the south entrance after an airtight door is shut.

The Harecastle Tunnel is a one-way system, with attendants allowing groups of either northbound or southbound boaters in at one time. They allow time for each of the boats to go through permitting up to 2 hours before emergency services are called. It usually takes 30-40 minutes to pass through the tunnel.

Harecastle Tunnel. Brindley's Tunnel is on the right with the attendant standing in front of it while Telford's Tunnel is on the left. Picture taken by me, StarlitWolf on August 22nd, 2010 at the northern entrance.

There is also rumoured to be a ghost in the Harecastle Tunnel of a woman who was murdered, beheaded and her body thrown down a coal landing stage within the tunnel. The ghost is believed to be seen as either a headless woman or a white horse and if a boater or anyone else saw her it was believed to be the foretelling of a disaster in the mines. She is known as The Kidsgrove Boggart or as Kit Crewbucket. But actually Kit is related to another tunnel, the Chirk Tunnel on the Llangollen canal.

References: and
"Legging It" Photo found on Trevor and Bill's Adventures Aboard NB Beau, archives May 2008
Video found on YouTube, submitted by philindi1001. Click here and see other related videos

Monday, 6 September 2010

Days 1 and part of 2 - Trent & Mersey Canal

Saturday the 21st of August, Sunday, the 22nd and Monday, the 23rd we travelled on the Trent & Mersey Canal.

We started at Aqueduct Marina on the Middlewich branch of the Shropshire Union canal where we rented a narrow boat for two weeks. Narrow boat Mary Gray was perfect for our needs. She is one of two narrow boats rented out by a small family owned company. Her maximum occupancy is 3; although I wouldn’t recommend it as she is 40 feet long and living space is quite cozy. It’s just the Mr and me on this trip, and so far we love it! This is going to be a Fabulous Vacation!

The Mary Gray on a narrow section of the Llangollen canal, but not in the Narrows that so many are warned about*. Yes, that’s me at the helm and yes, I’m in an ill-fitting jacket which I wore pretty much throughout the trip. Very Comfy!

Saturday morning we picked up Mary Gray and one of her owners, who showed us the boat, safety precautions and trained us how to drive her and what to do while going into and out of a lock. There are a lot of locks on the canals, a lot! He spent several hours with us showing us the ropes, if you will. He handed us our RYA inland waterways helmsman certificates of competence. Then he left us on our own to enjoy the rest of our holiday.

The RYA certificate puts us one step closer to being able to operate a boat on the canals of the rest of Europe which requires both RYA (Royal Yachting Association. Doesnt that sound fancy?) and ICC [International Certificate of Competence]certificates.

If you hire a narrow boat in the UK, you don't necessarily need the RYA certificate, but it would benefit you to have one. Most boat hire companies will tell you how you to handle the boat, the daily maintenance needed, how to tie ropes and how to go through a lock. Basic information and they are allowed to let you go. On our first hire boat trip, all this information took about 20 minutes and then we met the tutor at the lock an hour later to learn how to work it.

We spent the rest of the day going down the Middlewich branch of the Shropshire Union Canal and then turned to the right onto the Trent & Mersey and headed toward Kidsgrove. The morning and most of the afternoon was very cloudy with a few bits of drizzling rain, but nothing too bad, towards the evening the day became clearer and sunshine finally broke through.

That night we stopped just before Hassell Green, although at the time I had absolutely no idea where we were.

The sunset that night.

Sunday was an absolutely gorgeous sunshiny day. We were up and moving through locks by 8am. Several other narrow boats had already passed us as we were getting ready to go. Most of them went quietly past, but Man, one really rocked our world! Plates shifted, books fell off shelves, I was standing in lounge area and knocked off balance ended up falling onto the couch. Nice! But such is the world of narrow boating at times.

We had forgotten our frozen food, so we were looking for a store now, one within walking distance of the canal. We thought we would pass one sometime in the early morning but our information was incorrect and we ended up finding one closer to 1:30 in the afternoon.

Thank you for having a Tesco’s in Kidsgrove!

While I moored up the boat, the Mr ran to Tesco’s to get what we needed as it had already taken us five hours to get there and we needed to get to Harecastle Tunnel before 3pm. I don’t walk as fast as he does and I tend to want to look at everything in a store, so off he went. Time was a wasting!

When Mr finished at the store, he called me and told me it was further down the canal than a couple of locals told us as we passed them while they walked down the towpath. In order to save a bit of time, he asked me to meet him at the next bridge. I picked him up and we were on our way.

We made it to Harecastle Tunnel just in time. We got there at 2:50pm and was the last narrow boat going in for that day, travelling North to South.

*The Narrows are two sections of canal at the top of Llangollen. The one section is 315meters while the other is 500meters. One of the narrow boats crew must be sent ahead of the boat to insure no other boats are coming from the opposite direction as there are no passing points for the larger narrow boats in these sections.

Please Note: We didn’t take many pictures during the first week of vacation/holiday due to rain and fear of getting cameras or phones wet.
We made up for it the next week though!

Also Please Note: The beginning of this post was written on a laptop while on the narrow boat. Lack of signal prevented me from posting at time of writing. If the tenses clash, it's because I didn't catch them while proof-reading it.