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Repairs ensure Netherton Tunnel is a cut above the rest

By john workman  |  Posted: February 19, 2013

Getting the job done deep inside Netherton Tunnel.

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Nationally, it may just be known as the Netherton Tunnel, which stretches for 1.7 miles (3027 yards) underneath Dudley, but around this neck of the woods it represents one of the wonders of the Black Country's industrial past, if not of Victorian England, and when it opened on August 20, 1858, to complete the link between the northern and southern Birmingham Canal Navigations, history dictated it would turn out to be the last tunnel to be built in Britain during the Great Canal Age.

Over the past few weeks the local media have been covering the story of the repairs being carried out on a 50 metre section of Netherton Tunnel almost a mile from its south portal in Tividale, a project undertaken by the Canal & River Trust that will cost £1.5 million. Due to the nature of the tunnel's design and the local ground conditions, cracks had begun to appear in its Victorian brickwork, with many of the bricks bunching up and some breaking off into the cut. Although engineers have been monitoring the situation for some time, it was obvious things had become critical and a decision was made to implement the necessary repairs to safeguard the tunnel's future.

Holes have now been drilled into the tunnel wall and filled with steel tubes, which in turn have been filled with concrete, and a new reinforced arch is being attached to the wall along the 50 metre stretch, and again filled with concrete, to create a stable centre section which, barring earthquakes, shouldn't need further attention for at least 100 years.

You have to take your hat off to the Victorian engineers and the army of navvies who built the tunnel, salt-of-theearth blokes who would have been delighted to know that their skill and effort had managed to survive for over 150 years. But we’re sure they would also have been impressed with the quality of the repairs currently being carried out, and last week the Bugle, along with other members of the local press, were given the chance to see at close quarters what was going on nearly a mile into the Netherton Tunnel.

The wearing of wellington boots, hi-viz jacket, life-jacket and hard hat were compulsory issue as we snaked our way along the tow-path, strict health and safety measures that the men who built the tunnel in the first place would have known nothing about.

They just got on with the job in the bowels of the earth like their fellow Black Country miners, and hoped to return home in the evening in one piece and unscathed.

The width of the tunnel is 27 feet and it has towpaths running along either side of the cut, allowing horses to pull narrow boats in both directions simultaneously, often bumper to bumper during the canal's heyday. The towpath itself is level and dry for long stretches, but every so often there are deep troughs filled with water, proving the necessity of wearing wellies.

On completion of the tunnel in 1858 gas was fitted to light up the towpaths, although this was later swapped for electricity.

As the northern portal began to grow smaller as we made our way in, the natural light rapidly diminished. Generators were now providing artificial light to guide us along our way down the towpath, but suddenly the tunnel was plunged into darkness and the rail at the side of the canal became the only security as we continued to advance towards our destination.

The question was asked afterwards whether the light failure had been deliberate to make the tunnel conditions more akin to those that the navvies would have experienced as they tunnelled deep under Dudley, with just candlelight to illuminate their passage and their workplace.

But we were told it was simply a case of generator failure which had been quickly rectified.

(Catch up with the rest of this story by reading the full article in Bugle 1068).

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