I had the great pleasure a few days ago - courtesy of the St Pancras Cruising Club - of travelling by narrowboat through the two-centuries-old Islington Tunnel. What a thrill!
A cavalcade of three narrowboats set off from close to St Pancras Basin, now the home of the wonderful transplanted Victorian Waterpoint which serves as the clubhouse, and headed east along the Regent's Canal.
The Islington Tunnel opened in 1818 and runs for 960 yards. There's no towpath, so initially boats had to be 'legged' through the tunnel - the boatmen would lie on their backs and use their legs to push against the tunnel walls to propel the barge along. From 1826, a steam tug attached to a chain on the canal bed would heave the barges through.
Nowadays, although there's room in the tunnel for narrow boats to pass, the convention is that it's one direction at a time - the tunnel is absolutely straight so it's easy to see if another boat is heading towards you.
Sometimes kayakers and canoeists use the tunnel too, but that must be really scary. There is no lighting - narrowboats have their own lights, but kayakers head through in complete darkness with just a pinprick of light at the end to offer any orientation.
The tunnel interrupts the towpath walk along the Regent's Canal but there are waymarkers to guide you from one tunnel mouth to the other. So if you are heading east to west you would go along Duncan Street, on to and across Islington High Street, up Liverpool Road, on to Chapel Market, right into Penton Street, left into Maygood Street and along Muriel Street and, hey presto, there's the canal again!
You do wonder whether a ferry service through the tunnel might be a worthwhile venture. Any takers?
A big thank you to Liz, the SPCC's vice-president, whose special invitee I was on this wonderful excursion, and to the skipper of the narrowboat I travelled on, Sally, not forgetting her faithful assistant, Flapjack ...
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