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

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