Sunday, 15 March 2015

We survived the Gosty Hill Tunnel

A welcome from the ghost of Gosty Hill
'Infamous in boating circles'. That's how Pearson's Guide describes the Gosty Hill Tunnel. And you can even buy a souvenir plaque for your boat with the legend 'I survived the Gosty Hill Tunnel'. To make it even more alluring, it doesn't lead anywhere: just a few pretty missable miles to a terminus at Hawne Basin.
Once the canal went on through an even more demanding tunnel, the two plus miles of the Lapal which linked to another of Birmingham's major canal routes and created a busy circuit for working boats. But the Lapal has been out of action for a hundred years now.
Our surviving leg of what's known as the Dudley No2 Canal remained in active service until 1969 serving the huge Stewart & Lloyds steel tube factories. When they went the canal would probably have gone too but for the efforts of the Coombeswood Canal Trust who have restored the old canal/railway interchange basin at Hawne into a thriving boating centre that welcomes visitors: there's a bar, a little shop, diesel, gas and so on. It didn't seem the decent thing to be at Windmill End without taking the three mile trip down there so say hello and call it 'job done' on the canal. Even if it meant braving the Gosty Hill Tunnel.
The route there meanders around past the remains of old wharves and arms, now replaced by the blank faces of steel framed, corrugated alloy 'units'. It runs high along a hillside, offering distant views to the Mucklow Hills across miles of house roofs.
Circus elephants played in the canal here in 1905
Ingenious graffiti spraying toll clerk

Along the length of the canal is a series of steel sculptures, each giving little insights into its locality and some, like the graffiti spraying toll clerk, delightfully witty. Kept tidy and clean, they are witness to the fact that, grubby as it might be to others, some people love this canal.
But then the tunnel lurks menacingly into view, led into by a narrow channel which has the remains of what was a tunnel tug dock beside it.
The tunnel entrance looms as we pass the old tug dock
In the sludgy, silted up water it's already slow – very slow – going and we're not even in the tunnel. It's only 577 yards long and we can see the other end but, clearly, this is going to take a while. Apparently the old working boaters used to set the engine, go inside and have a brew in the cabin while the boat steadily nosed itself along the narrow bore.
And it gets just a little bit tight
And it's certainly narrow, not much more than our boat's width but it's least for a while until a third of the way in the ceiling height drops suddenly, Dracula greets us, and it's claustrophobically low, the brickwork arching just over us. The boat's on little more than tickover: no point going faster, it just digs down into the sludge. It's smelly, dark and noisy in there. The worst bit is: I'm staring at the gradually enlarging circle of light at the far end then notice a sign on the tunnel wall that tells me we're only half way!
Suddenly the roof rises again and for a few minutes there's a bit of relief from the claustrophobia before it drops down again for the final 50 yards. And then we are out - 22 minutes after going in, which is a speed of just under one mph.
Emerging into the light and the sprawling ruins of the old steel tube works
The final leg of the canal is wider and deeper than pre-tunnel. It emerges from the tunnel to be greeted by a high, long wall of brickwork and archways on the offside – all that is left of the Stewart & Lloyds works. These stretch on for a quarter mile and there's even the remains of old ramps on which the company's boats were launched sideways into the canal.
Finally, moored boats started to appear and we near Hawne Basin. Entry into the basin is a sharp right turn into a challengingly narrow bridgehole that completely defeats me and demands much to-ing and fro-ing and pole work before we are in. Then a deft bit of reversing to make up for it slots us into a mooring – just in time to walk round to the bar and miss the end of the rugby which has just finished.
Tomorrow I guess we'll do it all again in the other direction!


  1. The elephants were actually playing in the canal. Good thing shopping trolleys were not around then!

  2. So did the usually intrepid Harrywoman walk back today?

  3. We got a '999' granny alert and since Hawne Basin is about the only 100% safe mooring on the BCN we have left it there for a few days and headed for Suffolk.

    1. I know the feeling, I hope things aren't too bad when you get there.