What­ever floats your boat:

Nav­i­gat­ing the UK’S canal net­work is like step­ping back in time

Chat It's Fate - - Contents -

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.

Jack­the lad

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

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