The Underground Canals, The Latest Version!


  The Underground Canals at Worsley had featured since the late 1960's in the local press quite often as the idea of reopening sections was toyed with. Sadly ill informed and uninterested bureaucracy and lack of funding had always blocked these attempts. Now Lottery funding was potentially available and what better use for it?

As part of the Steam Coal and Canals project which would create a linear heritage canal linked corridor including Barton Aqueduct, the Underground Canals at Worsley Delph and restoration of the giant steam colliery winding engine at Astley Green, a feasibility study had to be carried out as to the state of the tunnels and potential problems such as ventilation.
The Coal Authority and Mines Inspectorate would not allow free access to the system, last travelled in 1968. They insisted on a licence being obtained, as if a working small mine, with an appointed mine manager on site. Also the Mines Rescue Service had to be involved to monitor operations.

After many months waiting for the go-ahead from the Mines Inspectorate and Coal Authority, rescue teams from Selby and Mansfield arrived on site in August 1998 to begin reopening operations.

Wearing diving suits and using forced ventilation, the western tunnel was entered and a hole knocked through it's brick stopping-wall a few metres in. A fan was then connected to the hole allowing air to be sucked out of the tunnel. This created a fresh air circuit, with air entering from the eastern tunnel, which had not been left fully sealed off.

Very soon it was realised the air in the tunnels had been good right from the start and mines rescue men entered the eastern arm in a canoe the following morning. They took with them gas alarms and communication radios. After a journey themselves, it was time for surveyors from Wardell Armstrong to enter the system. When they had completed their work, time was left for myself to try and take photographs as well as video the journey. Getting into the diving suit itself proved a major feat, then stepping into what must have been the most unstable canoe design ever produced also proving a challenge!

A line had been set up by the mines rescue in the tunnel all the way to "Waters Meeting", the junction of the two entrance tunnels around 500 metres in. This enabled the rescueman up front to pull us along. The water level had been raised to allow the canoe to clear the orange sludge, also making headroom limited. This meant we both had to lie on our backs until greater headroom appeared, making photography and videoing rather farcical. This was very frustrating as for all 1 knew, this might be the last time anyone enters the system for a long time, if ever.

We passed below the motorway where engineers seemed to have set up steel roof arches in the knowledge that access should be maintained even after closure. Eerily gliding along it was possible to see that the brickwork was in perfect condition, it's lime mortar rock hard. The handmade bricks of the 1750's looked as new, very few in poor state.

After a few hundred feet, a small side tunnel to the right appeared, only about 3 feet wide, yet probably six or eight feet high without the water in the tunnel. This was the access point and drain for water raised up the Wood Pit shaft.

The steel ring supports had now left us behind as we carried on towards Waters Meeting entering an area left totally unlined, the hard stone strong enough to be left untouched although we could not see evidence as to how the stone had been removed, no shot holes or pick marks. Perhaps sections had shelled off over the years.

Just before Waters Meeting, a large tunnel to the right presented itself, around ten feet high and at least twenty feet wide on a higher level than the canal. A few feet in the tunnel was bricked off to the roof. This had been the canal link for lngles Pit, and although tempting to climb out and have a closer look we had to stay in the canoe.

A lower and smaller section of the canal was now entered for a few feet as we reached Waters Meeting. This seemed cavernous in comparison with the main canal tunnel, around thirty feet wide at most and cave-like in parts where the roof had parted and fallen, perhaps over a century ago.

We could not sail into the western arm due to the build up of ochrey sludge, although a glance into it showed it also was in perfect condition. The air towards the continuation of the main canal showed a very slight change in air quality so we did not venture into that section, and the brief was only to travel to Waters Meeting anyway.

 

 

 

After a rest, and a chance to take photographs we travelled out, this time faster than the inward journey due to the outflow of water and also the team at the entrance pulling the nylon lifeline. So something 1 never thought 1 would have the chance to do had been achieved. More excitingly the tunnels were found to be in superb condition, ventilation had been achieved successfully and the survey completed.

The findings joined the overall bid document to the Heritage Lottery Fund and a few months later the Culture Minister Chris Smith actually mentioned the underground canals in a press release, possibly giving us advance notice that the bid could be successful.

From a personal point of view, having seen the stretch to Waters Meeting visions of more extensive explorations immediately came to mind! Perhaps in the future.

Alan Davies, Curator, Lancashire Mining Museum, 30.7.99

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