With a tragic history, the dark and intimidating Blisworth Tunnel is now haunted by the souls of its many victims. JAMES WILLIS takes a trip to experience the story first hand.
Northamptonshire’s ‘Blisworth Tunnel’ takes the Grand Union Canal from Stoke Bruene to Blisworth. At nearly three thousand meters in length, it is the third longest navigable canal tunnel in Britain.
Construction of this deep, dark tunnel began in 1793, and teams of navvies were to work away by candlelight for the next three years. Unfortunately they not only misaligned the route, leaving a ‘kink’ in the tunnel, but also hit quicksand, causing a roof collapse which killed fourteen men. Following this setback the planners decided to route a new, and somewhat straighter tunnel branching away from the old one at a point which came to be known as ‘Buttermilk Hall.’
By the time the Blisworth Tunnel finally opened for business in March 1805, signalling the completion of the Grand Union Canal, it had claimed the lives of some fifty workers.
Further tragedy was to strike in 1861. Entering the northern end of the unlit tunnel – which had been temporarily narrowed due to engineering works – a canal steamer known as ‘Wasp’ travelled as far as Buttermilk Hall when smoke from her boiler reduced visibility to zero. In pitch darkness, Wasp collided head on with a narrow boat being ‘legged’ in the opposite direction. In the ensuing chaos several people drowned or died of fume inhalation. In addition, two of Wasps engineers were horrifically burned as they fell against her furnace.
As a result of this disaster a new air shaft (the Buttermilk Hall air shaft) was sunk into the crash site to provide better ventilation. Since then some travellers claim to have experienced a macabre sense of suffocation in the vicinity of this shaft. The wailing, splashing and choking of dying crew members is said to be heard in the darkness. There are tales of day trippers who, upon reaching the Buttermilk Hall section, swear they have heard a crying baby and seen a candlelit fork in the tunnel. Spookily this is just where the old, doomed tunnel would have been.
On a recent snowy afternoon, I boarded a boat at Stoke Bruene to see the bat-ridden tunnel for myself. The cavernous mouth of the great tube leads immediately into a cold, damp, Tolkienesque nether-region. So long is the unlit tunnel, that one cannot always see daylight at the other end. Eventually, as the slippery and crumbling red bricks gave way to more modern concrete rings, I thought I could see the exit, but as we drew closer it was but the lamp of an oncoming boat.
Every few hundred yards we had to pull our heads inside the boat to avoid a soaking from the many streams and drains which cascade from the roof.
Although our engine drowned out the finer sounds, it is safe to say that it would never be quiet in the tunnel: the constant drip from the ceiling, together with the echoes and incessant splashes give it a certain ominous sense of restlessness and life. I didn’t experience anything supernatural (indeed the atmosphere on board was perhaps too jovial for such things) but I certainly soaked up some of the oppressive, otherworldly atmosphere. Were one alone in the tunnel, particularly in a small, unpowered vessel, there is little doubt that the loneliness, agitation and history of the place would play tricks with the mind.