TUNNELS, TOLLS & TURTLES
Eight fascinating facts from the world’s canals
The Panama Canal cuts the two-week trip between Atlantic and Pacific via Cape Horn to a tenhour cross-country jaunt. Tolls must be paid in cash based on tonnage, so in 1928 Richard Halliburton paid 36 cents to swim its length, while recently a super-sized container ship was charged $829,000. China’s Grand Canal is the world’s longest man-made waterway. Started in the 5th century BC, it has been added to over the centuries to reach 1115 miles in length. At 5500 yards, or over three miles, Standedge Tunnel on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal is the longest and highest in Britain. Before engines, boaters would ‘leg’ their narrowboats through, lying on their backs and pushing with their feet against the tunnel roof. The word ‘navvies’ for the men who dug the over 2000 miles of British canals comes from ‘navigators,’ the labourers who built the canals, or navigations. Canal navvies included Irish and Scottish migrant workers, local farmhands and soldiers decommissioned after foreign wars.
Macclesfield Bridge on London’s Regents Canal was destroyed in the early hours of 2nd October 1874 when a gunpowder boat – the Tilbury – caught fire and exploded as it passed under the bridge. The rebuilt bridge has been known as ‘Blow-Up Bridge’ ever since. All Aboard, a silent, two-hour BBC Four documentary filmed in real time from the bow of a narrowboat travelling the Kennet & Avon Canal, attracted half a million viewers in 2015. Since the 1980s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze, canals in the south of England have become home to red-eared terrapins (above) that were dumped when they became too big to keep as pets.
The longest flight of locks in Britain is at Tardebigge on the Worcestershire and Birmingham
Canal. Thirty locks raise the waterway 220 feet over a two-anda-quarter-mile distance. Walkers looking for a bit more exercise could offer their services to passing narrowboats as a ‘hobbler,’ the name for a casual worker who traditionally helped boats through locks.