The Dudley Tunnels Trip

This month’s ‘walk’ was a 6 hours cruise run by the Dudley Canal and Tunnel Trust, our group taking up 3/4 of the seats on the electric trip boat ‘Electra’. The circular cruise goes from the Black Country Museum, through Dudley tunnel, along the Dudley No 2 Canal to Bumble Hole, through Netherton Tunnel, along the BCN main line to factory locks and back to the museum.

The earliest part of the tunnel system at Dudley was built to help with the transport of limestone extracted from the mines inside Castle Hill, through which the tunnel runs. This was Lord Ward's tunnel, which leads to Castle Mill Basin. From there the main tunnel runs, via the Cathedral Arch, to Parkhead, near Netherton. The Dudley No1 Canal Line and Dudley Tunnel were reported as finished on 25 June 1791.

In 1959 the BTC proposed closing the Dudley Canal Tunnel and mines, officially closing in 1962. Faced with the loss of a unique nationally important site some local people re-opened the tunnel and fought to restore it to working order. In 1970 the Dudley Canal Tunnel Preservation Society became the Dudley Canal Trust and with the reopening of Parkhead Locks in 1973 formed a through route.

The Dudley Tunnel was “Closed by the Government on behalf of the people. Re-opened by the people on behalf of themselves.” — Vic Smallshire, 1962 (founding member of Dudley Canal Trust).

We arrived at the excellent new portal building to be greeted by a very relieved Julia, the volunteer who would be with us for the day ‘There are loads of your group already in the Gongoozler restaurant, some of them were here really early… even before me! You’ve got a list? Thank goodness, I’m trying to keep track but some of them are just here to wave you off so I’m loosing the plot!’

We were soon called down to embark, where we had to collect a hard hat before climbing aboard Electra. Roger and Val waved us off (having already done the trip) and then we were into the first tunnel.

This short tunnel led us into Shirts Mill Basin, originally an underground loading area for limestone then another short tunnel containing Hurst Cavern, the last of the mines to be worked under Castle Hill. Here a diorama shows the working conditions in the mines. On its last day of operation a rock fall killed some of the workers here.

We were soon out of this tunnel and into Castle Mill Basin, originally an underground limestone mine, this is quite beautiful with ivy tumbling down and forming curtains across some of the tunnel mouths. The basin is a junction of four tunnels and leads to the 3,172 yards long Dudley tunnel.

The boat had lights along the beam above our heads meaning we could see the tunnel walls well—quite a different experience to just having a headlight—but at times our entertaining steerer, who was giving a commentary throughout, turned all the lights off so we could experience what it would have been like to travel through the tunnel originally. A short distance in the engine was turned off, a plank put across the boat and volunteers called for to have a go at legging. Several of us were given the chance to have a try—some more successfully than others!

The tunnel is mainly brick lined with a few amazing rock sections, the boaters among us kept looking at the height and width of the tunnel and pondering whether our boats would fit through, we were pretty sure they would, that is until we got towards the Parkhead portal where the dimensions became so tight we finally gave up the idea.

Emerging from the tunnel there is immediately a stop gate and then the canal divides into 3. To the left is the short Grazebrook arm which served an ironworks and to the right is the (originally) 1½ mile long Pensnett Canal which was built to serve the Earl of Dudley’s coalfields. We dropped down the 3 locks in the centre. Many of us got off the boat and walked down the locks but Julia worked them all as passengers are not allowed to do anything except open and close lock gates.

We had an idyllic cruise along the Dudley No2 Canal to the Bumble Hole Conservation Area, passing clumps of beautiful yellow irises growing at the canal side and under elegant bridges. Information panels have been erected along this length giving information about structures and the industries that the canal served and are remarkably graffiti free. The weather was perfect and the quiet electric engine meant we could really enjoy our surroundings.

At Bumble Hole the boat stopped for a half hour break giving us the chance to visit the tearoom and information centre and have a wander round the attractive Windmill End junction.

Back on board and we were soon entering Netherton tunnel which, although almost the same length as Dudley tunnel appears much shorter, being two boats width and perfectly straight the other end is visible all the way through. While the boat had been stopped our steerer had been fiddling in the engine room, he waited until we were in the tunnel before telling us he had a problem with the generator and he’d been trying to get it working to recharge the batteries, thankfully it cut in shortly after, but only for a short period of time.

We emerged from Netherton tunnel into a different landscape, the BCN Mainline being straight and, like the tunnel, having towpaths on both sides. This section of the cruise took us past Dudley port, up the three factory locks and turning back onto the Dudley canal where the boat just managed to limp back to the portal building before the batteries finally died.

The bottom of Factory locks with the unusual cast iron swing bridge

The winner of the limp fender award!

Nearing the end of the trip it’s time for a group photo

Everyone agreed it had been a wonderful day, a very interesting cruise with entertaining steerer/guide, fantastic volunteer and good weather with many boaters finally realising their ambition of boating through the Dudley tunnel.