Whatever floats your boat:
Navigating the UK’S canal network is like stepping back in time
Exploring Britain’s haunted canals
Check the light! Quickly!’ I shouted at my wife Amanda down the 70ft length of our narrowboat Long Eared Owl. We’d picked the boat up from ABC Boat Hire at Gayton Marina in Northamptonshire only a couple of hours previously, on a three-day trip which would see us navigating the canal network from Gayton to Milton Keynes and back again.
Now, we were rapidly approaching the dark, forbidding entrance to Blisworth Tunnel – which, at 2,800m long, is the third longest tunnel on the UK canal network.
‘Everything’s fine,’ Amanda yelled back, giving me a double thumbs up. With a gulp, I steered the boat into the dripping gloom of the tunnel.
This was my first experience of captaining a narrowboat. With precious cargo of Amanda, our kids Sam (8) and Savannah (6), and dogs Lola and Spotty on board, and only a few minutes excellent tuition from Les, ABC’S friendly and extremely knowledgeable engineer, I was a little bit daunted.
But as we slid into the pitch blackness, the hairs on the back of my neck began to stand on end…
When Blisworth Tunnel was being dug out in the 18th century, it partially collapsed, killing 14 navvies. As a result, a different tunnel had to be dug out. In the late 1980s, a couple steering their boat down the tunnel became confused about which fork to take. Seeing lights and the voices of workmen down one tunnel, they decided to take that fork, emerging into the light some 40 minutes later.
Nothing weird about that, you might think – except there are no forks in Blisworth Tunnel. The place where the couple saw the lights and heard the workmen’s voices was where the old tunnel would have intersected with the new one…
It was quite an experience to
slowly slide past the 200-year old brickwork, punctuated by a series of heavy showers cascading through ventilation shafts from the hillside far above. I didn’t hear the ghostly voices of long-dead navvies – just Amanda’s yells when she accidentally got a soaking!
By the time we emerged, blinking, into the daylight, I’d got the hang of this boat-driving lark. Evening was fast approaching so we moored up at Stoke Bruerne, a
Ghostly voices haunt the tunnel
pretty little canal-side village. We strolled down the towpath to the Navigation pub for dinner. Soon, we were back on the boat, being rocked softly to sleep.
Next morning, after a hearty cooked breakfast in the boat’s fully kitted-out galley, we were ready to tackle the day’s big challenge – navigating our way through Stoke Bruerne’s seven locks.
We were lucky enough to enter the first lock with a canal veteran who patiently answered our long list of (probably stupid) questions
Leaving Amanda and Savannah to do an excellent job of driving the boat, Sam and I leapt ashore to open and close lock gates, wind lock paddles up and down, and generally marvel at the ingenuity and engineering that could lift boats up and down metres at a time with no power other than the force of the water itself.
It was like stepping back into another world. In Georgian times, these canals would have been busy thoroughfares, teeming with people and boats and the horses that pulled them, as the main way of transporting goods up and down the country. Now, though, they’re quiet and peaceful, the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of the 21st century.
We were navigating the Grand Union canal, which runs from London to Birmingham. It’s famously haunted; other than the ghostly navvies of Blisworth Tunnel, you might encounter the spirit of Jack O’ Cassiobury at the Iron Lock in Hertfordshire. A black slave in the 18th century, his job was to harass the bargees as they drove through, for the nefarious purposes of his master – until one day, one of them them knocked him into the water and he drowned. His sodden ghost has stalked the canal ever since.
Closer to London, SpringHeeled Jack is said to haunt the Grand Union. Leaping over barges and bridges for fun, leaving footprints in snowdrifts on top of houses, but never seen up close, this bizarre entity caused hysteria in Victorian times! Ghostly Roman soldiers have been spotted marching near the canal bridge at Bulbourne in Hertfordshire - and the three locks at Soulbury, on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, are haunted by the sad spectre of a mother who drowned with her baby in its pram. It was all too easy to get into the cruising rhythm, with a slower pace of life very much the order of the day. We turned the boat round at the outskirts of Milton Keynes and retraced our wake, with two more nights on board ahead of us. As we cruised slowly into the marina at the end of the trip, Les was there to greet us and we were all sad to disembark – we will be back!
Ahoy there! Excited kids