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 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
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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