Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Stepping back in time

What lies beyond the old east portal of the Norwood Tunnel?
The railways killed the Chesterfield Canal, just like they killed off most others. But what speeded its demise was the collapse of the Norwood Tunnel. This magnificent 2900 yard long tunnel was a masterpiece of canal engineering but finally collapsed in 1907, cutting the last ten miles into Chesterfield from the rest of the canal.
The remains of the tunnel run under this field
Now the canal has been restored back to the eastern tunnel portal and for five miles out of Chesterfield at the western end. But what about the bit in the middle? We went to have an explore.
The Cuckoo Way footpath follows its old route so we weren't quite in the same exploring league as Dr Livingstone looking for the source of the Nile. All the same, our walk had its moments.
The first mile was easy, an even field of rough pastureland shows in its humps and slumps the line of the old tunnel. But after that the footpath veers around the edges of private gardens and then arrives in a maze of paths and tracks across former spoil tips. The one we want should head toward the M1 motorway but could we find it? No - the Cuckoo Way markers had vanished and we took several wrong turns before finally tracking along the edge of a copse – and discovering, hidden among the trees, the stunning sight of the collapsed tunnel, now just a deep open cutting in the middle of the woods.
Hidden in the woods, a long section of caved in tunnel 
The new route will take the canal under the M1 here
From here the route was clear and we walked under the motorway via a farmer's underpass that is intended to be the route of the new canal. Then across a field and into the trees where, suddenly, there was the bricked up western portal of the tunnel and the overgrown but still clearly evident line of the canal.
Bricked up but still complete, the old west portal
If the Chesterfield's eastern flight of double and triple staircase locks were a masterpiece of canal engineering then what we were about to see the remnants of on the western side left them in the shade. The Norwood locks brought the canal down from the tunnel in a tightly structured run of quadruple and two triple staircases – 13 locks in a quarter of a mile – with huge side pounds to hold the water suplies needed for them.
Magnificent side pound for the Norwood Locks
One of the staircase lock chambers still intact
Remarkably, the lock chambers and side pounds are all still there and the Canal Trust's aim is to bring them back to life. But will they be able to? All now sit among the grounds of very exclusive looking houses with electric gates and expensive cars. Will they be happy to see canal boats chuffing past the end of their tennis courts? Hmmm.
Following the old towpath 
Seadog Brian gets a lift home
Anyway, the canal's course is still clear and in water for another mile and we followed its tree-enclosed towpath until the water disappeared, the nettles took over and Seadog Brian went on strike and demanded lunch and a ride in the backpack.
It had been a fascinating walk – seeing the old canal there, like the almost complete skeleton of some ancient dinosaur gave us all a feeling that it could – and should – be brought back to life.

Find out more about the restoration and history of the canal here here

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