Taking Cardinal Wolsey through a mile and a half of Victorian sewer-pipe : #Harecastle #Tunnel

By the time I emerged at the northern end of the tunnel into the gloomy January winter daylight I had become so tunnel-institutionalised that for a few seconds I felt like an earthworm without the earth around him, the sort that you see struggling in puddles on pavements, I felt horribly exposed.

The welcome leaflet from the Canal & River Trust occifer on duty at the southern end of the tunnel tells me that it is 2,528 metres long, or 2,926 yards in old money. One and two-thirds miles, if you’re going to be snitty about it. Passage took me roughly forty minutes.

Rather delightfully the leaflet reads:

If you have not come out of the tunnel after one hour and fifteen minutes  we will monitor your progress [how?] and decide whether or not to call the emergency services.

If you are in trouble, the alarm signal is to blast your horn for one long blast every thirty seconds and repeat until you hear three short blasts back in return [tautology, Timothy, tsk tsk] from the tunnel keeper at either portal.

Our experience is that we may not hear your alarm if you are in the middle of the tunnel. If you are able to help yourself (for example poling the boat, we urge you to do so.

If you suspect a fire in the tunnel, exit as quickly as possible…

[Nosh it, Sherlock!]

This tunnel held the record for being the world’s longest tunnel… 1777 to 1789.

Above the tunnel is 195 metres (640ft) of solid Harecastle Hill.

There is no towpath in the tunnel, just water sufficient to float a boat.

In winter passage through the tunnel has to be booked at least forty-eight hours in advance. Last Tuesday I booked passage for Friday, yesterday, the 11th of January 2019. Intriguingly the booking system identifies the Cardinal as being 56′ 12″ in length rather than 57′. No idea why. That makes me feel about 5′ 14″ tall.


I left the misty, moisty moorings in Etruria…


…at about a quarter to nine of the o’clock, and arrived at the tunnel by a quarter past ten o’later, in plenty of time to clamber into my lifejacket, check the Cardinal over one more time, turn on all of the interior lights (advised), scatter torches and such things everywhere, and set up the video camera…

Both ends of the tunnel have scaffolding set up around them. All of England has scaffolding set up about it. England’s infrastructure is suffering from ten thousand years of political neglect and the scaffolding isn’t there while repairs are undertaken, it’s just there to brace the walls a little while England waits for oblivion.

That curved black & white barrier at the portal is the canal equivalent of the fairground “you must be at least this short to enjoy this ride”. If your boat is taller than that in any way, you’ll bung up the tunnel and be in a right old pickle.

Close to the appointed hour the CaRT Tunnel Keeper du jour appeared, looking very cold indeed, and wearing her own official-issue lifejacket. We stood in the gathering rain while the short safety briefing was given and received. Outside was cold, inside, because of the huge fans drawing fresh, human-required air through the tunnel, was likely bloody freezing. The doors would be closed to facilitate my ration of “pitch black”, and shortly after the fans were brought up to speed the air would fog and I wouldn’t be able to see a thing until air, diesel-fumes and my spectacles all achieved sub-zero temperatures. It was freezing, and it did fog up briefly, as you may see on the video. Those were some mighty fans, it was akin to cruising into a Gale Force “Good Grief, Doris” wind.

The Cardinal, a boat that I love dearly, does not seem to possess a “directional sweet spot”. Take your hand off the tiller for a nanosecond, or lose one iota of concentration, and he’ll be at ninety-degrees, heading for towpath, bank or wall. There are games that people play, and there are games that boats play. This is his game. Thus, I had to steer intently all through the tunnel. The slightly lop-sided effect on the video is because the camera was not entirely front and centre, being mounted to one side of the tunnel light and casting its own shadow. There was at most perhaps ten or twelve inches of clearance to either side at water-level, and in the central portion where it gets tight, a lot less than that. A lot less than that. Ditto headroom, for the central portion I had to shuffle down and brace myself diagonally against the opposite bulkhead so that just my (boggly, wide, stark, staring) eyes were above the Cardinal’s “roof” (and such as was up there that couldn’t be removed, like lights and poles and horn). I did still at one point get a tap on the head, this in spite of my best efforts to keep low…

The video is in two portions, the first half and – you guessed it – the second half. The whole length of the tunnel is there, but don’t despair, I have increased the speed to Warp Factor 8x for a lot of the trip, and slowed you down only for points of interest, such as where the tunnel narrows (six or seven times) or where the Snottite formations are particularly pretty. Some portions of the tunnel were quite reflective, others seemed to be matt and to just eat the light. Where the tunnel narrows the edges have been painted with atomic “radium paint” such as used in t’olden days on the hands of wristwatches, and you’ll see these in arches or sections of glowing yellow-green. Look particularly for the bangs and dints and missing brickwork in such sections where boats have shouldered their way through less than gently. Just when you think that the tunnel can’t get any tighter, it does.

The video camera of course was at “roof” height on the bow, my viewpoint was some fifty feet back, crouched on the rear deck and clutching the tiller. Light in front, pitch black immediately behind and chasing. Ignore the date and time stamp on the video, it is one of those modern contraptions with two buttons for fifty-six separate functions, and I have never successfully set the date and time.

If you do have time for these nineteen or so warp-speed minutes (compared to my forty such) then you’ll be treated to the highs and lows of the tunnel as some sort of vaguely hypnotic subterranean, visual but Wagnerian “concert”. Occasionally some tunnel-elf or minor troll – do please excuse me here – took a piss on me as I passed. This was cold, oily and doubtless full of delicious minerals and salts filtered from the hill overhead. The video camera was in his watertight casing, so the engine and fan noise is muted.

We’ve all seen newscasts of scenes in London’s Victorian sewer system, choked by “fatbergs”. Well, now I know exactly what it feels like to be a “fatberg”, making stately progress back towards the light of day.

Entry from the southern end of Harecastle Tunnel (look out at the beginning for the very cold, very damp CaRT Officer Du Jour standing on the grass to the right, having taken my boat details…):

Pooping – um, I mean of course popping – out of the northern portal, like a fatberg slipping greasily into the canal.

Yes, the water really is that colour, it’s something to do with the local geology.

The chap in the northern Tunnel Keep’s office duly noted my appearance, and as I avoided the interestingly-moored CaRT workboat, began to don his coat and lifejacket to go out and lock up the portal for the day.


So that’s that done. Being somewhat in need of a good gibber and LSD (long sit-down) after the experience, I declined the twelve locks in quick succession that were immediately presented on the Trent & Mersey (my favoured direction), and turned instead onto Her Majesty’s Macclesfield Canal. This is lock-free for a stretch, and almost immediately afforded moorings.

The wind has come up overnight though (45mph &etc forecast in gusts), so it seems that we are to be here for a day or three!

Once the weather behaves again I’ll turn us around and head back onto the Trent & Mersey, and get done the 12¾ miles and their 31 locks between us and Middlewich. At Middlewich, after some four or five months of this circular cruise-ette, I’ll finally get to test out the breach repairs… I hope!

The journey out of Stoke was as lovely as the journey in, and I’ll detail some of that in the next post, albeit out of step. Thought that I’d tell you the exciting stuff first!

Enjoy the video. For best effect watch it in a darkened room containing a running diesel engine & exhaust, massive air-fans, an oily fog, and someone to occasionally throw cold water in your face or tap you on the head.

The unwavering dot of light in the middle of the screen on the videos is not, initially at least, the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel – you can’t see from one end to the other. It was perhaps some reflection from the Cardinal’s tunnel light, and it morphed seamlessly into the real light at the end of the tunnel – at the end of the tunnel.

Chin-chin for the mo,

Ian H and Cardinal W.


  1. Good to see you got through. Did you spot the skeleton? Yes the arrows pointing each way is the half way point. It gets easier the more you do it. We went through 21 times last year!

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    1. I was trying to look out for it but only saw it when I checked my own video. I have no idea how you have the stamina to do the running around that you do – but I am glad that you do! Atcherly, in this era of over-eager Elfin Saferty, the tunnel was quite refreshing… 🙂


  2. Their software probably only goes up to 56′ and they have to fudge the rest. 🙂

    Assorted thoughts as the video’s rolled …
    1st Video – This isn’t too bad … Ah, there the fluro paint strips … More fluro paint strips … Getting kinda tight now …
    2nd video – Mother of God! How low is this futhermucking brickwork going to go? … wheeee, this is just like the end of 2001 A Space Odyssey … I’m having palpitations just watching this … what a shit job this must’ve been for the poor bastards building this … Yay, there’s the opening … must go faster must go faster.

    You are a steely-eyed missile man. The end! … as is the Cardinal.

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    1. Just when you think it can’t get any lower, it does! Given that the earlier tunnel was closed because of subsidence I do have to wonder if this low middle section was originally built that way or… hmm, best not thought about! 😉

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  3. At least you’ve escaped Stoke! I have canoed through long tunnels like that and I’ve never entirely enjoyed the experience, so can sympathise to a large extent. I think I’ve have just headed to the nearest pub at that point!

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    1. It was indeed an experience and a half – one that I am glad to have completed. Trouble is, as I went through I couldn’t help but visualise all of the mass of hillside just above my head, and how it would flatten me in a split second should it decide to come down! Reaching the end of the tunnel brought on a strange mix of feelings, a few seconds of horrible exposure because of nought but open sky (heavy clouds!) above me, relief at being out again and some measure of “how did that happen, when did the time and journey through pass?” (doubtless because of the concentration required). Tis done, and tis good tis done. 🙂

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  4. Well, thank you for phase one, you will excuse me, please, if I do not open up phase two! I could never have done that for real, you are a brave boy, you can wear your sticker with pride!

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    1. Thank you! You ought to give the first minute of part two a quick look – lower, lower and lowest roof of the lot! I have a tactic for doing things such as this – I disconnect my mind, put it at the back of my skull and just go through the motions mechanically until afterwards, when I can think about it all! 🙂

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      1. I will have to think about that very seriously before I commit, it sounds like one of my nightmares.

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        1. I have no doubt that it will loom large in some of my future nightmares too! I am not good with confined spaces. Darkness used to worry me too, until I realised that _ I _ am the horror that everyone else is terrified of out there in the inky black of night! 😉

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  5. Not for the faint of heart nor for someone with claustrophobia! The arrows point in one direction only making me wonder is this a one way tunnel? How do you come back?
    I also wondered about CO but you said they have huge fans pumping air through. Did you bounce of the walls at one point Ian? Steering must be nerve racking.Your port bow line looks a tad frayed.
    A interesting Maritime spelunking adventure!

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    1. The arrows I think change direction at the mid-way point, and indicate the nearest of the two possible exits, just in case! There is one in there somewhere with an arrow in both directions… That said, there’s not a lot of choice, it’s either reverse a narrowboat three-quarters of a mile, or swim (and I can’t swim)! 🙂

      The fans were amazing, it was a veritable gale blowing in there – with a wind-chill factor of “oh good gosh”. I don’t know how often the air is replaced, but it felt like a very impressive flow. The rope is on the list of things to be replaced, since I had to take a knife to another rope a couple of days ago that now makes two that I must buy when next I see the fuel boat.


      1. I was surprised to read that the Brindley tunnel is actually smaller. They talked about “legging” which must of been interesting! The coal mines deposited directly into the boats,which also helped drain the mines. That colour of the water is from pyrite (FeS2) I bet.
        It took Brindley 7 years to build his tunnel & only three for Telford.

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        1. One feature of the canals in these parts is an astounding number of abandoned wrecks and ruins of old factories with a covered wharf directly over the canal where all raw materials used to come in and all finished products left – everything from pottery (Wedgwood et al) to chocolate (Cadbury Bourneville). Now we have lorry parks and loading ramps instead… I can only imagine the amount of manual labour required to build these tunnels – to build the whole canal system, really. Vast numbers of chaps with picks and spades, working all hours in all weathers. Tis incredible.

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          1. I once was a underground surveyor. The tunnel was 2.5 klicks long. We had two shafts.One was in solid rock,which used traditional drill,blast & muck methods while the other was in soft soil.We used a TBM for that portion.(tunnel boring machine) In that section we had to pressurize to help stem the water flow. It was difficult surveying in this environment.Lots of moisture & the train was running back & forth.We had to flag (using our headlamps) down the train when it got near & the operator would slow right down while we laid against the rounded sides.It missed us by inches. I decided to get rid of these problems that I’d have to go into the tunnel while they weren’t working.So I got up around 2am & would go down into the tunnel with all my equipment.Air was clear & no threat of being squashed by the electric train.
            So I know a bit about making a tunnel.

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  6. I’m sure it’s all very traditional and what not that this tunnel is pitch dark, but we do live in era of electricity… Light is not out of the question. Hell, even painting from one end to the other with that green radium paint would be better than this mess.
    I mean they won’t let you climb on the lions in Trafalgar Square for safety reasons but they think nothing of sending people into a pitch black tunnel with vague references to tooting your horn if you run into danger, which they note they probably won’t hear.
    I’m just saying Her Majesty’s various bureaucrats need to sort out where the ACTUAL safety issues are. Hint: It’s not the goddamn lions.
    PS – You made it through the tunnel of hell! And you didn’t lose either the boat or yourself. 🏆

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    1. It is amazing that boats and boaters are just counted in and counted out, but long live the rule of Darwin, confusion to Robespierre and his legions of Health & Safety! We ought to be allowed to ride the lions of Trafalgar Square too!

      Actually, all of the way through I was looking at the profile of the arch of the brickwork, and wondering about the mass of hillside above me… chuffing terrrifying, especially when one of the earlier tunnels had to be closed (closed itself effectively) because of subsidence! 🙂

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  7. Quite a few interesting looking growths in the tunnel walls and ceiling, Ian – especially the bright yellow bits that might have been expansion joint filler, or body snatcher algae 😱
    I can see why LSD was required afterwards…

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    1. Some of the organisms in there probably first saw the light of day when the sun was young and dinosaurs roamed Staffordshire (or wherever I am)! The major repairs were the smooth concrete grey parts, I think all of the rest was algae (no sign at all of Biggles though). 🙂

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  8. Whoa! That was amazing! I am left with so many questions and an overwhelming relieft I didn’t have to do it for real. One question answered was the maintenance boat(?) at the end which answers how they maintain it with no walkways. Weird to see the arrows pointing especially the back to back each pointing the other way – leaves you wondering where else you would likely stray to! The colours were unexpected and I was left at one point thinking about warp factor travel through black holes. Well done and thank you for the chance to experience this.

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    1. With the brickwork of the roof rolling past I was rather expecting someone to have spray-painted ‘In a galaxy far, far away…’ on it, somewhere in the tunnel! The green arrows I think (not sure) point to the nearest(of the two possible) exits…there’s one in there that I noticed pointing in both directions, presumably at the middle! 🙂


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