Roger's Reminiscences - Fred and the canal tunnel

Story List

Next >>>

Fred was always fascinated by canals. He used to say: "Just think back to those hard days when men sweated with just shovel and pick and some swanky Lord coming along and saying to the Government, 'Oh, we’ll just dig a ditch from here to London, fill it with water and float boats down it and carry cargo’. And they did it! We can’t even dig a bloody pond in the garden today without it leaking."

He always maintained the canals and navigable rivers were fundamental to the success of the Industrial Revolution as they would never have been able to move many of the heavy castings over the roads which were just muddy quagmires and they would certainly never have got them to the seaports for export. His unwavering interests in things industrial and Victorian could have been nurtured at an early age by the disused Bolton and Bury canal, just a few minutes from where Fred used to live with his Mum and Dad. It provided a colourful Treasure Island, full of hidden booty, a boyhood River Amazon to explore. With his best mate, Alan Heap, he recovered all kinds of bygone industrial objects from the canal and the much-coveted treasure was stored in Fred's back yard. They even designed a crude diver's helmet to allow Fred to explore further into the murky uncharted depths.

Fred was a real owt for nowt merchant, as he would proudly proclaim. It was possibly those early canal forays which got Fred into the hoarding habit. He developed a keen nose for sniffing out discarded bits and pieces of Victorian engineering, which would be handy for the whimsical workshop he was building in his Bolton back garden, steam-driven, of course, by the beloved Aveling & Porter steamroller, Betsy.

It all started with the erection of a simple shed supported by four telegraph poles just to house the steamroller. Then it seemed to sprout out all over the place with more telegraph poles and sheds housing medieval bits of machinery, all run by Betsy's flywheel which was set up to drive an assembly of creaking, overhead line shafting. It really was like Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory. When in full motion, everything shook! The chuffing of the engine, the clattering of the machinery and the whirring of the line shafting pulleys within this conglomerate of shaking sheds created a rich backcloth to behold, especially with Fred running around in the midst of it, clutching tongs while brandishing a red hot bar of metal which was being battered. Sparks flew as he shaped it under a prehistoric-looking mechanical hammer, the likes of which might never be seen again. It was something which could only have been built by dear Fred!

Fred’s collection evolved slowly over the years. In nearly every factory or mill where he carried out work, he would ferret out some rusty, unwanted relic that the owner would gladly give him to be added to this wondrous 'workshop of the north’.


During one particular mill visit he had his eye on some very old line shafting with a unique pulley arrangement, which the owner of a derelict mill said he could have - but he would have to get it out. It was next to a canal and the only way was through some doors on the canal side of the building. The mill was on the opposite side to the towpath, so its walls went straight down into the water. It was a boat job. I had an old, ex-working narrowboat which Fred had been on a few times, so we had a mission. We put a couple of his red ladders on the cabin roof and off we went. It was so long ago that I cannot remember where the mill was, or whether it was before or after getting the line shafting, but I do recall that during the course of the journey we went through a long, dark tunnel. We were chugging through this tunnel and Fred was always very interested in the tunnels - when he suddenly shouted: "Stop, stop, whoa, go back, go back!" We had just gone under an air shaft and he wanted to see how the tons of bricks were supported at the base. “Go back, go back!’ he hollered, clambering on the cabin roof with his big boots. I backed the boat up and within minutes he had a ladder up into the base of the air shaft. AlI could see were his boots sticking out from the black hole in the tunnel roof. “Have you got a torch?" he yelled down. "Can you let me have that lump hammer. His gravelly voice coming out of the hole seemed to amplify as if coming out of a trombone, the echo rumbling along the tunnel for what seemed ages. Luckily, it was late in the season and there were no other boats about, or anybody from British Waterways. Within minutes, it sounded as if there was a complete demolition job going on up the air shaft with loads of sludge and muck and bricks tumbling down on the cabin roof.

"What the **** are you doing, Fred?" I shouted up. "You could have the whole bloody roof collapsing! Come down. You’re not supposed to be up there!"I had thoughts of the whole lot collapsing, with us and the boat never to be seen again! Canal tunnels are wet, dark, dank places - with thoughts of the creature Gollum (Lord of the Rings) - and this was no exception. I just wanted to get him down and for us to get out of the place but he was having none of it, scrabbling further up and sending even more debris down.

"Bob your head up, Rog, and have a look,” he shouted. I gingerly climbed a few rungs of the ladder so my head was just in the opening. I was very wary of Fred's 'come up and have a look' invitations, as he once had me up a mill chimney, which was the worst thing I had ever done in my life. He shone the torch on some bricks dripping with slime and water, which was sloshing on my head and down my neck. "They were bloody clever men in those days -just look at that!" he exclaimed as if he had just broken the seal of a tomb in the Valley of the Kings, prodding in a screwdriver and gouging out a load of old cement and gunge, again falling on my head. I tried to look equally inspired. Evidently, according to Fred, they had used different types of bricks and cements in layers to counteract something which can happen in tunnels or air vents, which he seemed to know a lot about. He was totally absorbed and completely oblivious to the fact that we were on a boat, halfway through a tunnel, with a ladder stuck up a hole!

I was not paying attention, either, but the boat was gently moving forwards with the slow current of water and all of a sudden the ladder slipped on the wet, muddy, cabin roof and slithered sideways over the cabin side, taking me with it. I gave a yell and went down between the cabin side and the tunnel wall with my leg stuck through a rung. Being completely covered in slimy gunge I couldn’t find a handhold. I yelled up to Fred that I was stuck and the boat was moving. "Hang on, cock! I’ll be down in a minute,” he shouted, not really aware of the seriousness of the maritime incident unfolding below.

He was still happily banging away with loads of muck coming down clattering all over the cabin top. With the boat slowly moving forward, the air shaft hole was now nearly over the stern. I had visions of the boat drifting off leaving me in the water and Fred up the hole. I managed to grab the tiller and lever myself up. The ladder had demolished the stove chimney and wiped my bike off the roof, which was dangling in the water on the other side of the cabin. Completely unfazed by the situation, Fred shouted down: ”Are you going to make a pot of tea, Rog?” This was followed by a big thud as he jumped down. His boot marks were imprinted on the cabin roof of that boat until the day I sold it. They could probably add to its value now! We finally emerged from the tunnel with the boat looking as if it had just been salvaged from the bottom of the Mersey.

Fred was totally focused on the way that tunnel was built back in Victorian times. He was intrigued with the air shafts and how they managed to support the great weight of bricks, which, he reckoned, would be many tons as they went all the way up to the surface. As he said, it was the same principle as a mill chimney, but a mill chimney had solid ground to support it. I think he said they were built downwards instead of upwards, like a pit shaft, or something like that! I was more interested in getting away from the scene, especially as the British Waterways people could have heard the row emitting from the tunnel on that peaceful autumn afternoon.

Roger's Reminiscences - Fred and the canal tunnel

Story List

Next >>>


Copyright © 2011 Roger Murray

+44(0)7736 949474