Thursday, 29 September 2016

Return from the north country

Waiting in that lurid orange water to leave The North
I think I can say that we are no longer 'oop north'. I know there's no official boundary between up there and down here but, on a boat, I reckon that the Harecastle Tunnel marks a pretty decent border. After all, one end is called the 'north portal' and the other the 'south portal'. And that's good enough for me.
We left the Macclesfield this morning, having moored overnight just shy of its finish. And what a finish it is: the canal crosses the Trent & Mersey below it on an aqueduct, then swings left to run parallel with it and finally swings right to join it in a watery tee-junction. Whereupon we turned right to head for the tunnel. (And if you're wondering how something that was initially above another canal be level with it half a mile later, well it's because the T&M climbs up two locks between the aqueduct and the junction.)
Clever stuff: the Macca goes over the T&M before they meet
The rusty red water of the T&M was a vivid orange in the morning sunshine. The colour is simply caused by iron oxides in the water but never ceases to amaze all the same.
We were the solitary boat waiting to leave The North and an hour later when we headed into the tunnel we were still first in a queue of one. It's a one-way tunnel, controlled by a keeper at either end. The tunnel is one and three quarter miles long (2926 yards in old money) and takes about 45 minutes to get through.
If you don't get through in 1hr 15min they come looking and that probably sounds flippant but there was a tragic accident a couple of years ago when a boater somehow got knocked off the stern and was killed. Since then safety procedures have tightened up to a degree - the bridge keeper didn't rate our horn and lent me an airhorn for instance - but you ar still on your own in there and need to pay attention.
It's actually the second of three tunnels here. James Brindley, who supervised the whole T&M construction, built the first: it took 11 years and when it opened in 1777 was something akin to the Channel Tunnel in its achievement. It remained a bottleneck on the busy canal so Thomas Telford built a second (in just three years) which opened in 1827. Brindley's gradually sank due to mining subsidence and has long been out of use. And the third tunnel? That was built after the others to carry the local railway line: it too is disused, the railway running on a different route.
I'm not a tunnel enthusiast and the longer and narrower they are, the less I like them. The Harecastle comes on my 'if I have to' list. It's long, narrow, wet in places, noisy because of the echoey nature of the inside of a rocky hill and the exhaust smoke puffing out of the roof from an old engine tends to choke the driver. But armed with a face mask and a head torch (to read the distance markers on the wall and my watch to see how much longer I have to suffer being choked and deafened) we set off.
Actually I have to say that Harrywoman, sitting on the front deck was choked worse than me. The tunnel has large extractor fans at the southern end to suck fumes out – which meant it sucked our exhaust forwards and right past her.
The exciting looking and eco-friendly Westport Visitor Centre
Anyway 45 minutes later we emerged into bright sunshine (proof that we were now in the south) and moored a mile later by Westport Lake. This is a magnificent municipal lake with paths, planting and much wildlife plus an excitingly modern visitor centre whose eco-friendly build includes straw bale walls, a 'living' roof and solar panels.
The lake was originally farmland above mine workings. In the 1880s Port Vale FC played there but when the pitch started to sag they sensibly moved away. Subsidence eventually created a lake which, in the 1970s, was taken over by the Council and turned into the lovely space it now is.
Canal Bridge 128 by the lake also happens to be the point where work on the canal began in 1766. And 250 years later we crossed it en route to the local Aldi. And I can't think of anything profound to say about that.
Hard to believe that Port Vale once played football here


  1. I reckon you're actually in the midlands. The south is when you've gone over the Iron Trunk Aqueduct on the GU, and moved from Northants to Bucks.

  2. And there are places which are neither north nor south. We live near Norwich which, despite being on a more northerly latitude than Birmingham, just feels very much east.