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Secrets of a Tunnel Troll and other Tunnel Tales

I've recently become a Tunnel Troll at Blisworth Tunnel, or more accurately a Canal and River Trust Tunnel Coordinator for widebeam transits. And of course I'm not for a second suggesting any of my fellow coordinators are Trolls, it just amuses me to suggest I am. As a a Tunnel Troll, what I'd like to say to any narrowboat attempting passage after the Tunnel is closed for a widebeam is something like - 'You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow' (Gandalf, Lord of the Rings). What I actually say is something far more British like, would you mind pulling over for a bit sir/madam, the tunnel's closed for a widebeam transit.

Just for a laugh I'd also love to re-enact Monty Python's Bridge of Death scene before allowing the widebeam into the tunnel. If you haven't seen the Bridge of Death, the keeper of the bridge challenges King Arthur with 3 questions before he can pass. It goes like this -

Keeper - What is your name?

King Arthur - King Arthur

Keeper - What is your quest?

King Arthur - To seek the Holy grail

Keeper - What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?

King Arthur - African or European.

Blisworth tunnel is a thing of wonder, it never ceases to amaze me. It isn't the longest canal tunnel and wasn't the first, but it is the longest navigable broad tunnel at over 3,000 yards or 1.75 miles and was built by hand over 200 years ago. Now that is pretty amazing. The broad bit made it so much harder to achieve but was key to is commercial success and of course many people reading will know 'broad' means wide enough for 2 narrowboats (less than 7 feet wide) to pass. Widebeams today are of course a tad wider than that which makes passing awkward (impossible). Blisworth is by canal standards wide, but this is what a widebeam boat looks like in the tunnel.

Easy to see why we need tunnel closures fit widebeams 🤣.

My job as a Tunnel Troll of course involves a fair bit of peering into the tunnel which is, if you've not been in it or peered down it, long dark and atmospheric.

A mile and 3/4 of darkness is a long way and makes me think of how hard transit through the tunnel was in the early 19th century before boats were powered. As many of you will know boats were 'legged' through the tunnel by two people laying on planks laid across the bow of the boat, pushing the boat through the tunnel by 'walking' along the tunnel walls. Of course this is where we get 'legging it' from. Not easy in any tunnel, but when I think of the length of the planks needed for a broad tunnel the job becomes really hard and really dangerous. Can you even begin to imagine what it was like! And this is what broad tunnel legging looked like, pretty frightening!

It took about 3 hours to leg a boat 1.75 miles through the tunnel. Of course there were always time pressures and not surprisingly it was easy to slip off your legging plank which would usually result in a legger being crushed or drowned. Life was hard for leggers and it's this that I'm reminded of when I peer into the tunnel.

Despite how difficult a legger's job was, life in Victorian England was hard and competition for work meant boatmen were often intimidated by leggers to prevent them from taking their own boats through the tunnel. This ultimately resulted in the profession being regulated and leggers were instituted in 1827 and issued with a brass armlet to signify their profession. They were paid 6d per legging job. To put this in context legging the tunnel twice would pay for a loaf of bread. The leggers at Blisworth numbered just over 20 by the time steam powered boats made their jobs redundant in 1871.

The introduction of steam powered vessels in 1860 to Blisworth Tunnel was also initially fraught with danger which resulted in two men being suffocated in 1861. This is an extract of an article reporting the accident in the Northampton Herald:

"The barge was on it's way from Birmingham to London and was under the care of two engine drivers, Joseph Jones and William Gower. In addition was William Webb, a carpenter from Stoke Bruerne, Edward Broadbent the steersman and a boatman named chambers. According to the statements of both drivers they had a good fire and plenty of steam. The time generally occupied in passing through the tunnel is about 40 minutes and on the present occasion the wind was blowing in the same direction the boat was going. The consequence of this was that the smoke was blown back upon them. Almost without warning Webb, the carpenter, fell down in the hold and died. The steersman, Broadbent, was rendered insensible and fell into the water, whence his body was not extracted until midnight. The drivers Jones and Gower were similarly Affected, but happily not to so great an extent, and although they were rendered quite insensible, and fell upon the boiler and were most severely burned. Chambers was also overpowered from the same cause and just as the boat was emerging from the tunnel fell overboard, but the cold water revived him and he was able to swim and raise himself into the boat again"

You will be pleased to know, that despite the scant regard for health and safety at the time, within a week an old construction shaft was opened up in the middle of the tunnel. Following that negotiations were begun with the land owner, The Duke of Grafton, to re-open two more old construction shafts (the cynic in me says the Duke was no doubt paid for this permission) and then, ultimately, a total of 7 ventilation shafts were opened up. Thanks to this, today, we need have no fear of asphyxiation in Blisworth Tunnel.

I do of course treat my tunnel co-ordination job with the seriousness it requires. As you would expect a pre-requisite of the job is a period of training and mentoring before you get to do the job for real. One of the biggest parts of the job is making sure the tunnel is empty before allowing the widebeam transit. This is achieved by sight (peering down the tunnel), sound (listening for the noise of a boat engine) and time (it takes 40 minutes, ish, to transit the tunnel). However one of the biggest aids for a Tunnel Troll is my Tunnel Troll secret. Anyone who has been through the tunnel on a boat will be able to bear witness to one of the most amazing things about the tunnel - it's straight! As soon as you enter you can seen a pin prick of light at the other end.

But here's my Tunnel Troll secret. If you stand at the end of the waiting quay at Blisworth, you can also see the light at the other end. Of course tunnel co-ordinators still need to look, listen and wait, but if we've already seen the light at the other end the rest is just confirmation of what we already know - the tunnel is empty. Here's a picture I took last week, can you see it?

I'll just zoom in a bit.

So, next time you're at Blisworth have a go and it goes without saying if you haven't been through the tunnel and you get a chance, it's really worth it. Not scary, just very atmospheric and pretty amazing. And of course if it's early in the morning, you never know, you might even see a Tunnel Troll.

More soon.

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Kevin Laughton
Kevin Laughton

My grandfather Francis George Grubb was a night watchman at the south portal in the 1930's I believe


Wow, I'd have loved to be able to talk to him Kevin, bet he had some tales.

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