Thursday, 28 January 2016

Harecastle Tunnel… The alternate way

A blustery day but dry, and so I thought I might use the alternate Harecastle route.  My assumption is few boaters have used the top route?  No doubt Paul Balmer has when collecting data for his canal maps!  Looking at his map (link to website here) it’s obvious the towpath doesn’t follow the same alignment as the tunnel.

MM Towpath

Map courtesy of Waterway Routes

The towpath is the red dotted line in the above map extract.  However I’m not convinced this is the original route.  The reason for this will become clear shortly.

My own route was more direct.

OSM Towpath

The canal is green and my route is red.  The arrow points to Harecastle Hill.  You can see from the contour lines in the above map that my route took me over the top of the hill whilst the official towpath goes around the left (western) side.


A photo taken from above the entrance to Brindley’s original tunnel looking north.  My route took me up the CRT access road and then east across the B5371 road.  The tunnel was now directly underneath my feet.  Looking back in the direction of the tunnel entrance I noticed the war memorial park. 


Fortunately it’s not a cemetery otherwise the occupants might have wet feet! Smile

At this point I’m on the “official” towpath.  A hint as to the right route can be seen in the next photo.


The route continues up Boathorse Road.  There are actually two railway lines here that both enter tunnels above Harecastle Tunnel.  The first is the Stafford to Manchester line and is still in use.  The railway enters a tunnel under the road to the left of the position of the lady in the following photo.


The second railway roughly follows the alignment of Harecastle Tunnel.  I came upon the northern tunnel portal at the park.  This is where I continued going whilst the designated towpath turns west.


Northern entrance to the old rail tunnel.  This tunnel has been abandoned and I assume this is why there is a second rail route.  I continued on up Boathorse road which became steeper and narrower.  Eventually I arrived at Harecastle Hill which is approximately 200 metres above sea level.  If visibility had been good there would have been views to Chester, the Welsh hills and Cumbria.


Chester is out there somewhere!


Off to the northeast was Mow Cop.  It’s just over 100 metres higher than Harecastle Hill.  Did you notice the brick air vent in the above photo?


A closer view.  I can’t remember if Harecastle Tunnel has air vents and this may actually be one of the air vents to the abandoned rail tunnel which runs adjacent to the canal tunnel.  You can see a second air vent in the next photo.


OK, I just took a peek at Wikipedia which states Telford’s tunnel was built by digging 15 shafts which were then connected by tunnelling horizontally.  If the 15 air shafts still exist I would have expected to see more of them.

At Harecastle Hill Boathorse Road makes a 90 deg turn west for 170 metres.  This part of the road has been abandoned and all that remains is a rough walking track with evidence of the former bitumen surface in places.  The track ends at a static caravan park.  A not particularly attractive caravan park.  Actually I wondered why anyone would want to live in it!


Looking back!  The track starts behind the trailer.

I’m still on Boathorse road which is still narrow but only serves the caravan park and isn’t very busy.  My route is now parallel with the tunnel and I head towards the southern portal past Ben & Kelly who were obviously on holiday!


Yes….. I’m never going to forget or forgive!

And at the other end of the road is……


Behind me can be seen the former alignment of the abandoned railway which is actually running above and parallel to the canal tunnel.


It looks like the former alignment has been recently cleared of undergrowth. 

It’s a very short walk to rejoin the canal towpath.  A brief diversion took me to above the sourthern portal.


Then it was a case of retracing my footsteps.


Halfie said...

I enjoyed your description of the route and the photos. I have been "over the top", but on my bike and using roads!

Tom and Jan said...

I suspect you are a member of a very small group alive today!

Ant said...

It occurred to me, too, recently, to try to retrace the boatmen's (and horses') route over Harecastle Tunnel. It was good to know that it's still possible. Thank you. Here are a few other observations, which I made on a similarly blustery but dry day...

• On the ascent, Boathorse Road gives way to a narrow country road with blind bends. It can be hazardous. Take care.

• Not far short of the summit is the Riflemans Arms (or in earlier times, the Rifle Volunteers Inn). Displayed inside is a Victorian poster advertising the sale of the public house. Interestingly, two of the selling points are stables and passing "canal traffic", the latter presumably a reference to the boatmen and horses. Given that it took three hours to leg the tunnel, the public house would've made a convenient refreshment stop.

• The road's detour to the west of the summit, with its sharp 90-degree turn, seems very unnatural both when you look at the map and when walking the route. A map from the 1840's shows there was also a lane and track that bypassed the hilltop farm in favour of a more direct route.

• The sharp left turn at the farm is very easy to miss. The track is directly opposite the main buildings and looks more like a passageway than a track.

• By this point, you'll have noticed that parts of the walk are in dire need of a clean-up. The problem hits its peaks around the caravan park. Its interesting to note that this area was the abandoned hamlet of Line Houses--terraced cottages in parallel rows said to have been built to accommodate workers on the railway tunnel in the 1840's, but possibly also workers on the Telford tunnel two decades earlier.

• There's a third brick air vent at the former clay pit-cum-motocross circuit that sits directly atop the tunnels. (Old maps suggest a fourth, too.) There's also a natural south-facing viewing platform from which you can see the canal reappear in the distance from underneath you. Access is via a track leading directly up the hill on the right as you descend, but bear in mind that it may be private land and could be dangerous if motocross activity is going on.

• At the end of the canal tunnel is the lock-keeper's cottage. You're free to explore the grounds, which despite having been recently inhabited have fallen into disrepair.

• If you follow the canal to Westport Lake you'll pass the spot where the first sods for the canal were dug in July 1776 by Josiah Wedgwood and James Brindley (by the Brownhills bridge, no. 128). The lake is worth a visit itself. Nearby Longport Station is handy for the journey back to Kidsgrove.

The route also allows you to take in all four portals to the disused "middle" and "south" railway tunnels. You'll need to keep your eyes peeled though or use old maps such as the ones on the links below. The train back to Kidsgrove will take you through the section where the "north" tunnel used to be before it was "opened out".

Tom and Jan said...

Hi Ant

I've subsequently been informed that the footpath down and through the caravan park is private land with no public access. We may both have been tresspassing! :-)


Unknown said...

I have just tried that way.... Boathorse rd on my electric bike. It's a travellers camp. I had the police ask me if I was from round here.. when I said no they told me to go back the way I came and they will follow for safety. Please note there is no way to "go over the top" from this road any more. The farmer has blocked the road to stop more fly tipping. I'm in shock...

Ant said...

Yes, I read that post, Tom. I did see one or two people as I passed through but no-one objected.

Ant said...

After Unknown's comment above, I thought I'd check the route through the caravan park again, which I did last week. The path isn't blocked (other than to vehicles, as it was before). There certainly weren't any police around--nor any dogs! I stopped to eat my lunch and watch a bit of the motocross on the other side then even walked back through. Again, there were one or two residents about, but no-one batted an eyelid.

Ant said...

After reading Unknown's comment above, I thought I'd check the route through the caravan park again, which I did last week. The path isn't blocked (other than to vehicles, as it was before). There certainly weren't any police around--nor any dogs! I stopped to eat my lunch and watch a bit of the motocross on the other side then even walked back through. Again, there were one or two residents about, but no-one batted an eyelid.

Tom and Jan said...

I'm starting to think two different locations are being discussed in these comments? The bottom of the "unofficial" footpath appeared to me to be a static caravan park full of permanent residents.

Scott Downing said...

I've been through old train tunnel recently there's 3 ventilation shafts that go too surface there's 2 barred up horizontal shafts either side of tunnel about 300 yards in really good experience better at night (wear wellies)

Tom and Jan said...


I would have assumed the old tunnel would have been blocked. did you need special permission to enter?

Scott Downing said...

Gate was open matey about 3/4 of the way in though it gets muddy

Tom and Jan said...

Well done! It's something I would have liked to attempt

Ant said...

Thanks for the information, Scott. The best I was able to achieve last time was pressing my nose up against locked gates. It'd be great if the south tunnel could be reclaimed and converted into some kind of cycleway / walkway, similar to the Middlewood Way a few miles north.