Sunday, 25 September 2011
Saturday 24th September
We had a 3½ mile stretch of canal without any locks before we reached Harecastle Tunnel. The stretch goes through an area which used to be very industrial and was dominated by the Shelton Bar which was a 400 acre major steelworks which, in its heyday, employed 10,000 in the steelworks, had five coal mines and a complete railway system. In 1978 half of the works were demolished and part of the site was reclaimed for the 1986 National Garden Festival site. The site is now Festival Park, a complex of leisure and business facilities. In April 2000 the last steel works on the site closed. There are still a large number of potteries in the area with many large and famous names, most of these have factory shops and we had passed the Middleport shop before I realised it – next time!! Harecastle Tunnel was next on the list and as we pulled up we were greeted by the Tunnel Keeper who, along with his counterpart at the other end, control the tunnel. The Tunnel is in fact made up of two separate, parallel, tunnels described as Brindley (2,880 yards) and the later Telford (2,926 yards) after the engineers that constructed them. Today only the Telford tunnel is navigable. The tunnel is only wide enough to carry traffic in one direction at a time and boats are sent through in groups, alternating northbound and southbound. We were one of four boats who set off through the very small portal into the hillside. As the last of the boats entered the door was slammed shut and a large fume extractor started up. I popped below to make sure Millie was OK and was greeted by a very upset and crying cat – she hasn’t minded tunnels recently but today she insisted that I stay with her. Now interestingly enough, according to legend, a young woman was decapitated in the Telford Tunnel in the 1800s and her body thrown into Gilbert's Hole, a coal landing stage within the tunnel. The man had hacked the woman's head from her shoulders with a piece of slate until it was removed. It is believed that she now haunts Harecastle Tunnel, either in the form of a headless woman, or a white horse, and her appearance used to fore-warn of disaster in the local mines. Some boatmen took long detours to avoid the tunnel and today the tunnel keepers relate tales of occasional mismatches in the number of boats going in and coming out. Such tales are, however, fanciful, as any such discrepancy would result in a major search operation. Do you think Millie knew something we didn’t? Richard has asked me to write that he saw the ghost!! Well actually someone had drawn a skeleton on the wall in a small tunnel that led off the main one!! 38 minutes later we emerged into sunlight and the most orange water I had ever seen. We went through a lock, moored up and walked to Tesco in Kidsgrove before doing another 11 locks and mooring up for the night at Rode Heath.