We take a short boat trip into the Ch­ester­field Canal’s very long and very derelict Nor­wood Tun­nel – and look at the Canal Trust’s cun­ning plans for re­open­ing it


The Ch­ester­field Canal Trust’s cun­ning plans for re­open­ing the derelict Nor­wood Tun­nel

Look­ing into the rather for­bid­ding hole that was once the en­trance to one of the long­est canal tun­nels in the coun­try, I can’t help com­par­ing this trip into the Ch­ester­field Canal’s Nor­wood Tun­nel with a sim­i­lar trip into Sap­per­ton Tun­nel on the Cotswold Canals a few years ago.

Both long-aban­doned tun­nels; both se­ri­ously dam­aged by roof falls over the decades that they had been shut; but both sub­ject to re­open­ing plans by well-es­tab­lished and ac­tive canal restora­tion so­ci­eties for whom these derelict holes will even­tu­ally form im­por­tant links in nav­i­ga­ble wa­ter­ways.

In the case of Nor­wood, it’s the vi­tal link be­tween the nav­i­ga­ble east­ern 32 miles from the Trent via Work­sop to Kive­ton Park, and the western sec­tions in­clud­ing the cur­rent fo­cus of restora­tion at­ten­tion (and of the cam­paign to save it from the HS2 rail­way) from Kil­la­marsh to Stave­ley – and the iso­lated re­stored fi­nal length from there to Ch­ester­field.

But in other ways the tun­nels are very dif­fer­ent – and one way is im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous. As we clam­ber through a small open­ing that has been bro­ken out of the bricked-up east­ern en­trance to Nor­wood, I can’t help think­ing that, com­pared to Sap­per­ton’s grandiose east­ern por­tal, this seems a bit of a rat-hole. Built for sin­gle-file narrowboats, its di­men­sions were tight at the best of times – and some­times even tighter, as I’ll ex­plain.

Clam­ber­ing into a small elec­tricpow­ered open boat, we set off into the tun­nel, dodg­ing some sur­pris­ingly long

straw-like sta­lac­tites dan­gling from the arch. The gloom is bro­ken by a bright in­spec­tion lamp shone by a Canal & River Trust en­gi­neer that I’m shar­ing the boat with – and that’s the rea­son for this trip. De­spite not see­ing a boat since 1907, Nor­wood is still CRT’s re­spon­si­bil­ity, and is checked at ten-yearly in­ter­vals to make sure it isn’t go­ing to col­lapse and cause prob­lems for prop­er­ties above.

At a first glance, the nar­row brick bore looks in re­mark­ably good con­di­tion for its age – but, in fact, this sec­tion was re­built not long be­fore it closed. And after a quar­ter-mile or so, our jour­ney comes to an end as a few yards ahead of us we can see silt ris­ing above water level (and the re­mains of what might have been an aban­doned in­spec­tion boat – I bet that was a fun trip!)

What we’re see­ing is the start of a large quan­tity of soil that has fallen through the col­lapsed roof of the next sec­tion. This marks the end of the length that CRT checks – and that the Ch­ester­field Canal Trust hopes to re­store. And while for CRT this is a rou­tine en­gi­neer­ing in­spec­tion, CCT sees it very much as an op­por­tu­nity to get some first-hand knowl­edge with a view to the future.

So why doesn’t CCT in­tend to re­store the re­main­ing mile-and-a-half? And what does it plan to do in­stead? The an­swers re­late to the area’s his­tory of coal-min­ing, and to the tun­nel’s un­usual con­struc­tion.

Re­turn­ing to our ear­lier com­par­i­son, un­like Sap­per­ton which passes un­der farm­land, Nor­wood ran through a ma­jor col­liery site, with coal ex­tracted from four dif­fer­ent seams un­der the tun­nel. This led in­evitably to sub­si­dence. At times the head­room was re­duced to barely 4ft in places, and stock­piles of sand were kept by each por­tal to al­low

un­laden craft to be bal­lasted down so that they would fit through at all.

Con­stant re­build­ing and re­pair of col­lapses con­tin­ued un­til 1907, when the canal’s owners gave up. The tun­nel was aban­doned, and al­though a lit­tle lo­cal traf­fic con­tin­ued, this was the be­gin­ning of the end for the canal west of Work­sop.

Since then there have been fur­ther col­lapses, parts of the tun­nel were in­filled by the Na­tional Coal Board where it passed un­der the mine, and a length was filled with con­crete when the new M1 mo­tor­way crossed it in the 1960s.

By the time coal min­ing fin­ished and CCT com­mis­sioned con­sul­tants to study the pos­si­bil­i­ties for re­open­ing, restor­ing the old tun­nel wasn’t re­ally an op­tion. Nor was build­ing a new tun­nel, given the state of the ground after 200 years of min­ing. A third idea of us­ing a nearby dis­used rail­way tun­nel was also dis­missed be­cause it was on a slope that would have made things too tricky.

But re­turn­ing once again to our com­par­i­son, un­like Sap­per­ton which dives deep un­der the hills, Nor­wood isn’t very far un­der­ground at all – barely 12ft of cover for much of the way. In­deed, at the time of con­struc­tion, an al­ter­na­tive plan would have seen a shorter tun­nel at a slightly higher level. (Landowner op­po­si­tion may have pre­vented this.)

That shal­low depth ex­ac­er­bated the tun­nel’s prob­lems (for ex­am­ple, its treat­ment by the M1’s builders) but it also looks like be­ing its sav­ing grace. It al­lowed the con­sul­tants to come up with a fourth, much more prac­ti­ca­ble, op­tion: par­tial re­open­ing of the tun­nel com­bined with build­ing a new sur­face-level route to by­pass the rest. Even bet­ter, land recla­ma­tion of the for­mer col­liery and its tip have al­ready done some of the work.

That ‘par­tial re­open­ing’ means restor­ing the quar­ter-mile that the engi­neers and my­self have just looked at. And beyond there? Well, re­turn­ing to the en­trance and emerg­ing blink­ing into the day­light, I head along the start of the old tun­nel-top horse path to see for my­self where the plans for by­pass­ing the re­main­ing length of the tun­nel will lead.

Soon the path crosses Hard Lane – and un­for­tu­nately, the first tun­nel col­lapse is just be­fore this point. So that means that when the col­lapsed sec­tion of tun­nel is dug out to cre­ate an open cut­ting, a new bridge will be needed im­me­di­ately to carry the lane over it. But it gets bet­ter…

Just across the lane, a new set of three stair­case locks will raise the canal to ground level, at a point where sev­eral size­able ponds known as Kive­ton Wa­ters are in use for fish­ing. Built as part of the col­liery recla­ma­tion with a view to be­ing turned into a ma­rina when the canal gets here, they are al­ready owned by CRT.

Skirting the south side of the ponds, the new canal then takes a gen­tle S-bend to the right of the col­liery tip site, along a re­served route through parkland criss-crossed by paths and cy­cle­ways. Some ini­tial earth­works in prepa­ra­tion for the canal chan­nel have al­ready been

‘Restor­ing the old tun­nel wasn’t an op­tion. Nor was build­ing a new one, given the state of the ground after 200 years of min­ing’

These straw-like sta­lac­tites have grown since the last in­spec­tion a decade ago

The ten-yearly in­spec­tion finds that the first quar­ter-mile is in good con­di­tion

The bricked-up east­ern por­tal has been opened up ready for in­spec­tion

Kive­ton Wa­ters: a fish­ery to­day, but de­signed as a ma­rina for the future

The for­mer west por­tal will be by­passed, as only a few yards of tun­nel sur­vive here

The canal di­ver­sion will fol­low this foot­path past the for­mer col­liery tip

This bridge will take the canal un­der the M1

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