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Crimson Hill Canal Tunnel

The Chard to Taunton canal was not a success. It was constructed to carry coal and other goods from Chard to Taunton where it met the Taunton Canal but, to coin a phrase, missed the boat at a time when rail transport was in the ascendant. It opened in 1842 and by 1866 had closed. The canal was about 13 miles long and incorporated a variety of technologies to cross the hilly landscape between Chard and Taunton. These included 3 tunnels, 4 inclines, a lock and a couple of aqueducts. The 1800 yard tunnel under Crimson Hill between Beer Crowcombe and Wrantage took 2 years to complete and is still today one of the longest in the country.  Chard History group published a small booklet on the canal in 1967, which was reprinted in 1988.

The tunnellers apparently began by excavating outwards from a central shaft. There were deaths due to collapses during the course of the work. Today the northern end at Wrantage is readily accessible via a farm track and footpath. The attractive portal is an interesting feature in the landscape. Nearby is an interpretation board that provides some background to the tunnel and canal’s history.

As a long time resident of Chard I had been aware of the canal from childhood. The reservoir providing the headwater for the canal is now a moderately important wildlife reserve and fishing lake. Land development has obliterated the old canal basin in Chard but its route can still be traced through the fields at a variety of locations.  I visited the northern entrance more than 10 years ago and had wondered for some while how far it went. Rumour had it that the far end had collapsed. Nick Chipchase told me that he had struggled some way up it many years ago but that the thick clinging mud on the floor had defeated him. A local bat

group used to do a count in the tunnel by using an inflatable dinghy but they didn’t venture that far in.  Access is a bit debatable as well as at some time the landowner has obviously extracted water from the entrance area.

My interest was renewed when I got the opportunity to visit the southern end of the tunnel, which lies in the garden of Old Star Cottage in the hamlet of Beer Crocombe. Roger Clarke the owner had the old canal cutting in this garden but didn’t start digging until a neighbour told him that he had a canal tunnel there!  Pete Rose provided a humorous report on a trip to the tunnel in November 2004 (Belfry Bulletin No 521, Spring 2005) and we planned to return at sometime for more photography.

In the summer of 2007 I contacted Roger again and he told me that he had paddled to an earth choke some 500 yards up the tunnel (measured with string); the choke probably corresponding with the air shaft mentioned by Pete Rose.  Feeling thwarted I decided to visit the northern end with a more reliable inflatable device namely a canoe left by my late father and never used.  September the first 2007 saw me, Philippa Glanvill and a friend of hers Christian Guppy pumping away at the entrance to the northern end preparatory to our first trip. We wore wet suits as well!  The canoe proved helpful but as it could only accommodate 2 people, and that’s at a pinch, progress was slow and made slower by the canoe grounding on the muddy bottom. The water in the tunnel for the first 600 metres is never more than thigh deep but the mud on the bottom is tenaciously glutinous making progress tiring.

The tunnel is surprisingly high, probably about 3 metres, and about 2.5 to 3 metres across with a high arched roof. In the first section there are shallow alcoves at intervals at about head height, which we surmised were drainage holes. Placed regularly along the roof are rusting structures resembling inverted pitchforks.  At points where the drip from the roof was heavy were some delightful orange stalactite and stalagmite formations.  The odd lesser horseshoe bat could also been seen high up in the ceiling.

 The tunnel runs on a bearing of about 140 degrees in a virtual straight line and daylight can be seen from the centre more than 500 metres in.  At this point the walls bulge slightly probably more to do with ground movement than the  construction methods used. At 600 metres the tunnel widens to about 4 metres and less than 50 metres later is the first collapse.  The water emerges from the base of the collapse, which is passed by climbing up into the space created by the roof fall before rapidly descending the far side.  The rock is soft – a form of lias which contains big bands of calcite. It looks as if the collapse has occurred at the location of an old surface shaft and there is a very heavy drip here. 

Beyond the collapse the water is clear, green, chest deep and cold.  Martin Grass, Philippa and I returned at the end of November and surveyed up to the collapse.  After a brief foray across the next section to a point where the passage narrowed again, Martin and I  vowed to return with the inflatable canoe.  In mid December we were back.  The widened section is probably in total a distance of something like 60 metres or so and just beyond the left hand wall has peeled away over a 4 metre stretch. It is rather alarming to climb up and peer into the space above the collapse. There is airspace running for as far as the eye can see in both directions above the tunnel roof!  A stream trickling in has deposited calcite cementing the roof bricks together, which is slightly reassuring.

Beyond another wall collapse we entered the ‘unknown’, the canoe now being essential. I estimated the water depth to be something approaching 2 metres.  A loud crunching accompanied our progress through a calcite raft  stretching across the entire passage and extending several metres in front of us suggesting few people had been this far. Sadly about 200 metres from the choke we came to a solid bank of mud obstructing the passage.   If the total length of the tunnel is 1800 yards I estimate there are about 4-500 meters of canal tunnel that are currently inaccessible. Digging would be feasible but one would be digging standing in cold water. Strong swimmers immune to cold or owners of inflatable dinghies can apply!

My next project is to obtain some better shots of the southern end of the tunnel, which contains some absolutely stunning straws.

By Peter Glanvill