Harecastle Hill, to the north of Stoke in Trent, is unusual in having two parallel canal tunnels, through which the Trent and Mersey Canal passes.
The first canal tunnel was engineered by Brindley and dates from 1777. At the time of construction, it was the world’s longest canal tunnel at 2,880 yards. Its width however was a maximum of nine feet wide which made it too narrow for boats to pass each other within and as a result of congestion and subsidence a second tunnel was built by Telford in 1827.
The opportunity was also taken to build this tunnel a little wider which made room for a towpath, suspended over the water channel. The Telford tunnel alone took almost 9 million bricks to construct. For many years the Brindley Tunnel was used for southbound traffic and the Telford one for northbound.
Subsidence remained a problem and a possible diversion to completely avoid the tunnels was investigated in 1911. This was costed at £57M (at current day prices); given the growth of the railways it is little surprise that it was not proceeded with. The subsidence in the earlier tunnel continued to be problematic and it closed permanently in 1914 after a partial collapse. Both tunnel portals of the Brindley tunnel can however still be easily seen.
Operation through the Telford canal tunnel was speeded up by the use of electric tugs which operated between 1914 and 1954. The tug pulled itself through the tunnel on a fixed iron rope using five feet diameter winding drums, the electricity coming from battery banks in ‘accumulator barges’. Later (from 1931) the tug drew its power from an overhead conductor instead.
When the tugs were withdrawn, boats progressed through the tunnel under their own motive power. A large fan (still in operation) was installed in 1954 to improve ventilation and remove diesel fumes. The later Telford tunnel also began to suffer from subsidence resulting in its temporary closure between 1973 and 1977. The towpath (which was no longer used) was removed during this closure which widened the tunnel to make navigation easier.
Extensive coal and ironstone mining took place inside Harecastle Hill, some of the output being directly loaded onto boats in side tunnels off the main Trent and Mersey Canal. During the 1951 Festival of Britain the disused coal workings could be visited for a shilling! All four canal tunnel portals are Grade II listed but, following Historic England’s usual (bizarre) practice, the actual bores (the most important part!) have no statutory protection at all.
The tunnels are unique (to the author’s knowledge) in that boats have been propelled through by four methods - legging, horse-drawn, towed by tug, and using on-board engines.
A third set of tunnels (three shorter ones, at a slightly higher level) were bored for the North Staffordshire Railway and operated between 1848 and 1966
- BAKER Allan C, and FELL, Mike G 2019 Harecastle’s Canal and Railway Tunnels Lightmoor Press ISBN 978-1-911038-62-7