A Trip Back in Time through the Blisworth Tunnel

More than just your average Northern town – Stoke Bruerne is an historic canal village filled with charming characters, interesting diversions and typical British hospitality.

If you’re passing through by canal boat then you’re going to float right through one of the town’s biggest sights, Blisworth Tunnel.

One of the longest tunnels in Britain, Blisworth Tunnel runs from just outside of Stoke Bruerne and ends at Blisworth, our neighbouring town. Running 3,076 yards, the tunnel is the third-longest of it’s kind in the UK and as such has become something of a local attraction, especially for canal boats. The tunnel attracts thousands of visitors every year, with canal boats crossing each other frequently, the town is kept busy with a constant stream of boats entering and leaving.

The story of Blisworth tunnel is an interesting, if not tragic one. If there’s one thing that should be said about this feat of early 19th Century engineering, it’s that it was by no means easily done. Work on the original tunnel (it was rebuilt in 1984 using modern materials) began in 1793 – but the task would prove to be a mite too challenging for both the designers and the workmen tasked with completing the construction at the same time as the rest of the Grand Junction Canal.

Building anything larger than a garden shed during these technologically simple times was a task almost inevitable invited danger and sometimes death.

In the case of the Blisworth Tunnel, both of these were visited upon the men building the tunnel. With nothing in the way of mechanical aid, the workmen drafted in to build the tunnel were severely unprepared for the daunting task ahead of them. Despite meticulous planning and heavy toil, construction was put to an abrupt halt by an error in calculations that led to the deaths of 14 people.

Three years into construction and already behind schedule, the tunnel had literally veered off course. Unknown to the tunnellers, each day that they dug away, they inched ever closer to a lethal quicksand deposit. Of course, without the help of any kind of scanning technology, these hapless builders kept on digging until the inevitable happened. In 1793, the roof for the tunnel collapsed burying 14 men alive. With this setback, construction was halted and planners had to decide on a new route that would run straighter and not lead to the same loss of life.

The Grand Junction Canal was opened in 1800, but the Blisworth Tunnel wasn’t ready to open alongside it.

In fact, it was one of just two sections of the canal that remained incomplete at this time, despite the tunnel already being under construction for 7 years. For this period of time, the canal continued to operate as usual with the tunnel section being temporarily replaced by a horse-drawn tramway (the first of its kind in the county).

By the time the tunnel was finished in 1805, the overall death toll of workers had risen to over 50. This wasn’t to be the end of the tunnel’s tragic history though, in 1861 an incident involving a canal steamer and a narrow boat led to the deaths of several people – ghost stories and legends have run amok ever since. You won’t have to worry about any of this when you come to visit the Blisworth Tunnel for yourself, though, as the rebuilt tunnel has been reinforced with concrete rings, one of which can be seen near the South end of the tunnel.

Come to Stoke Bruerne for yourself to see this feat of engineering with your own eyes!

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