Five Counties in 14 Days – into the Abyss

Summer 2011 was wet and I picked it to show off the canal system to Canadian family. It was the first real canal boat holiday I’d arranged myself and, despite the weather, confirmed I had a serious case of the narrowboat bug.

Day 4: Kidsgrove (Harecastle tunnel North end) to Barlaston (Wedgwood Museum), Staffordshire

Awaiting southbound passage through Harecastle Tunnel, Trent and Mersey canal, Kidsgrove Staffordshire
Staging for the southbound trip through Harecastle Tunnel, Kidsgrove Staffordshire

We’d moored locally in Kidsgrove overnight to be first in line for the southbound Harecastle tunnel excursion.

Day 3: Wheelock to Kidsgrove is here

Harecastle Hill between Kidsgrove and Tunstall in Staffordshire was a natural obstacle to the proposed Trent & Mersey canal route supplying raw materials to the Staffordshire Potteries and the resulting wares to the Port of Liverpool for export.

The engineering pioneers of the day were up to the challenge…

Tunnelling through Harecastle Hill

It fell to James Brindley in the last years of his career to tackle this engineering challenge resulting in – at more than a mile and a half – the longest canal tunnel dug thus far. Miners were lowered down 15, 200 foot shafts dotted evenly across the hillside along the surveyed route to dig this so-called ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’. They toiled amidst the danger of flooding, mine gasses and the perils of blasting out granite. Many lost their lives in the 7 years it took to construct. The tunnel build outlived Brindley himself who died 5 years before its opening in 1777.

With no towpath, boats were ‘legged’ slowly through the tunnel, taking some 3 hours to traverse – shorter times were possible if you could ‘incentivise’ the leggers! The horses were driven over the top of the hill, often by younger members of the crew, along a path which became known locally as Boat Horse road.

Original Plan and Cross-section views of Harecastle Hill - Image courtesy of Institute of Civil Engineers/Thomas Telford Ltd.
Telford’s construction plans for a second Harecastle tunnel showing location and depth of excavation shafts, and cross-section with towpath detail – image plates courtesy Institution of Civil Engineers ice.org.uk

The New Harecastle Tunnel

The new passage created a surge in traffic, but it soon became a victim of it’s success. The slow progress through the tunnel created a significant bottle neck on the T&M and by the 1820s a second Harecastle tunnel was proposed. Thomas Telford was commissioned to build the new tunnel which with advancements in engineering took just 3 years. Parallel to the earlier tunnel and offset by 26 yards Telford’s tunnel was larger and incorporated a towpath. The New Tunnel was opened 50 years after Brindley’s tunnel in 1827.

Both tunnels were used for the the remainder of the 19th century although Brindley’s tunnel suffered from regular subsidence. Two railway tunnels were built above the canal tunnels in 1848, and the vibrations from passing trains likely contributed to the collapses. A major collapse in 1914 sounded the death knell for the older tunnel and it was finally abandoned.

This photograph where a barge is being towed into the northern end of Brindley’s tunnel, was taken shortly before the permanent closure.

Although Telford’s tunnel was originally built with a towpath, journey times were still slow and the towpath itself was subject to subsidence. Even with the decline in canal traffic due to the railways, it soon became a bottleneck once again.

An electric tug was used in the Telford tunnel up to 1954 to increase the traffic flow. Once diesel powered barges had become the norm, journey times had reduced to 30 minutes.

Telford’s Harecastle Tunnel, south end, Tunstall Staffordshire
Telford’s Harecastle tunnel (south end) showing remains of the beleaguered towpath.

A fan was installed in the south portal gate. When closed, it draws fresh air through the tunnel and helps with the fumes, opening only to let barges exit. In the 1970’s the Telford tunnel itself suffered a collapse which closed it for several years.

The towpath, now disused had become impassible in places due to subsidence and flooding. This was mostly removed during the repair, increasing the available width and air-flow.

Navigating Harecastle Tunnel today

Today the tunnel is well travelled by boating traffic under the strict management of the Canal and Rivers Trust. Passages from November to early March, must be booked in advance. For the busier 8 months of the year, passage is on a first come first served basis from 8AM-5PM (6PM during the summer), Summer 2021 details here. Boats are queued and allowed through, a handful at time according to demand. Each procession in a single direction while those wanting to travel in the other direction moor until the last of the procession emerges from the tunnel portal. 

Telford’s Harecastle tunnel, south portal
The toll house at the Harecastle tunnel south portal now houses fans to draw the diesel fumes out.

Safety in Harecastle Tunnel

Life jackets are mandatory for the crew who must stay within the profile of the boat. There are many sections where the headroom is low, indicated by the loading gauge at the tunnel portals. The north portal had lost it’s gauge board leaving only the chains dangling when we visited; close enough(!).

To be sure, it’s best that everyone but the helmsman stays inside the cabin. Use the headlight and interior lighting to maximise visibility during the passage. The CRT’s safety instructions are here.

Travel time through the tunnel is 20-30 minutes.



You can find more FAQs answered here and tips on our Home Page. And if this has whetted your appetite for a cruise of your own, you can find all our Booking Details here.

Our blog about an easy 4 day pub-crawl we did on Kodran last fall is here, or sit back and relax with our YouTube channel.