When I saw that my journey included three tunnels on the Trent and Mersey Canal (Barnton, Saltersford and Preston Brook) I thought they would be great fun.
In reality, I found them pretty terrifying.
They are narrow, cold, and obviously very dark – you rely completely on your headlamp and the tiny light at the end of the tunnel which never seems to get any closer, as you slowly travel deeper and deeper into the hillside.
My biggest fear going into each one was that there would be a boat coming through towards us. Each tunnel has set times for travelling through from each end to avoid this, but there’s no-one actually enforcing it.
In horrible, horrible rain, we arrived at Barnton Tunnel with Emma at the tiller (I had been hiding from the rain inside an nearly missed the Anderton Lift – a huge mechanical structure which lifts boats and places them on the River Weaver.)
She shouted me up and it turned out to be entrance time, so we got the headlamp on and in we went. It’s very strange going from the air, space and weather of the open canal into the very narrow confines of a tunnel, It’s a fairly straight tunnel, 572 yards long, but it seemed to take forever to get through and although Emma seemed confident driving the boat, I think we both found it pretty intimidating.
Oh – we knocked the chimney over too – and realised afterwards that they’re removable and you’re supposed to take them off in tunnels. D’oh.
Next I got to steer us through Saltersford Tunnel, which is a bit shorter (424 yards) but has a bend all the way along it which I found really difficult to handle – I couldn’t seem to get Swallow from clinging to the left hand side. Fortunately there was a wooden fender all the way along which protected her from little bumps. The bend also meant that it was ages before the end appeared in sight but of course we got through okay.
When we emerged, it was a bright, damp, golden evening – the rain had stopped and the sun was setting beautifully ahead of us. Roy and Mel (who we’d met in Northwich) had recommended Dutton for a stopping place, so we pootled along into the dusk with the headlamp shining brightly until we found the spot – a curving ledge with a beautiful view down over a wide valley where we stoked up the fire and settled in for the night.
The next day was Preston Brook Tunnel, which is much longer, at 1239 yards. It’s right at the end (or the start) of the Trent and Mersey Canal (entering from the south as we did, we emerged onto the Bridgewater at the other end.)
There’s a very very small lock at the southern start of the tunnel – I can only think it’s there to slow you down and make you read the sign, as the waters look even and it doesn’t seem to raise or drop you at all! Conveniently, there is a sad, sunken boat tied to the mooring pins here, which makes pulling up a little bit difficult, but hey.
You get twenty minutes to get through this tunnel, and it took us about this to get through. We took it really slowly, and were sandwiched between some experienced boaters up ahead who went quite a bit faster, and another boat behind us. But although this was by far the longest and scariest tunnel, we both felt a lot more confident once we were inside, knowing more about what to expect. It was comforting having the other two boats with us too. We emerged without a bump thanks to Emma’s now expert steering and emergend onto the Bridgewater Canal which would take us all the way to Manchester.