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…
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.