01 June 2008

Tunnel top 10

I’m not good with heights. I’m not really bad in the sense of sick-dizzy-get-me-out-of-here bad, I’m just rather ill at ease. I think it was the glass floor of the CN Tower that did it, with all those children rolling all over it and me not even being able to bring myself to simply look through the bloody thing. And then those lifts up the side of the Eiffel Tower, whizzing up at 45 degrees like a dalek on speed....they didn’t help either. So in a toss-up between the Ponty doo-dah aqueduct and Harecastle Tunnel, it would be Harecastle, Kit Crewbucket and all, every time. Maybe I was an acrophobic troglodyte in a former life?

Harecastle would be number one in my tunnel top ten, elevated to the highest echelon for its sheer drama and theatre. The clanging doors, the insistent thrumming of the fan, the indecisive roof that can’t make up its mind as to whether to take your head off or not, the tomato soup foaming beneath your hull, the ‘can we beat our record passage time’ urgency that has you peering at the yardage markers when you should be steering straight, it’s all epic stuff. And I’ve even had a ghostly encounter at the northern portal...having been given the nod to go in, I steered for the tunnel mouth only for the bow to stem up and be pushed to the side. No explanation and if anyone says ‘crap steering’ I shall instruct my legal team of Sue, Grabbit and Run.

So how does my tunnel top 10 read then?

1. Harecastle
2. Preston Brook
3. Netherton
4. Braunston
5. Barnton and Saltersford (they’re like Romeo and Juliet, they have to go together)
6. Blisworth
7. Husbands Bosworth
8. Wast Hill
9. Dudley
10. Standedge

Preston Brook, as I’ve commented elsewhere, is a Narnian tube that transports you from the bucolic idyll that is the top end of the T&M to the earnestness of the Bridgewater. Netherton aside, I’m not sure there’s another tunnel that achieves such a sleight of hand transition.

Netherton has to be up there because it is simply magnificent – a wide tunnel with towpaths both sides, this is a bore and then some! It takes you from the green oasis that is Windmill End and spits you out in mid-Brum, all in about twenty minutes. We had no headlight for our trip and discovered that the charge on our 2 million watt lamp only lasted for 15 minutes....

Braunston is the tunnel of my childhood. Whether it was open to barrel through (my father was one for creating tsunamis in tunnels) or closed to put the mockers on a trip down the Oxford, it was an integral part of my canal induction.

Barnton and Saltersford are two delightful, slightly kinky, tunnels that guard the charming pool between them. Saltersford is now timed, which has slightly reduced the fun to be had in charging into them only to be met with a serious ‘parp’ from a boat already half way through. If you get close and lean out, you can actually just see if the way is clear, so no-one should ever have to back out. Should being the operative word. As you can imagine, when the timed entry came into force, there were quite a few ‘interesting’ encounters when those in the know met those who weren’t...

Blisworth gets in because I have never been peed on from such a great height and with such great force; Husbands Bosworth merits inclusion for the sheer poetry of its name; and Wast Hill makes it for being the darkest, dankest, most spooky tunnel in the whole of Christendom. Every trip we’ve had to venture through a thick miasma, a shape-changing fog that plays tricks on your eyes and gets your imagination working overtime. There must be a score of headless women in there all preparing for TV’s latest unreality show, ‘Britain’s got phantasmagoria’. Makes my bum squirm that sort of thing...

I haven’t done Dudley as I don’t own a mini-sub but it’s included because one day I’d like to arrange a blessing in the caverns with the gang as bridesdogs. Ever since I read about them doing civil weddings, I’ve imagined us all trooping in on a boat and chucking A in if he doesn’t say it like he means it.

Last but not least, Standedge. Again, it’s one that I’m still aiming for but as the longest and highest extant tunnel, it would be a crime to omit it. If anything should stand as a testament to the vision of waterway campaigners and the power of the volunteer effort, then surely it is this, the jewel in the HNC’s crown. I bet the majority said it could never be done. Good job someone didn’t listen to them.

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