Saddington Tunnel - August 2021
Tuesday, 17th August 2021
Saddington Tunnel, The Grand Union Canal, Leicestershire Written by Lizzie Olner Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? Spoiler: the short answer is Yes! The longer response, however, is an account of a club trip in which paddlers, in an array of canoes, kayaks and a paddleboard, gathered at Gumley Road Bridge 69 to find out for themselves.
The trip itself was an out and back route covering approximately 7km to the Saddington Tunnel North West Portal and returning via the same waterway to Gumley Road Bridge. This iss a scenic and peaceful stretch of the canal, which is well worth a trip in itself, whether for fishing, paddling, walking, a run or cycling. There is bountiful wildlife above and below water, countryside vistas, and the usual footbridges and moored boats, plus Smeeton Aqueduct en route.
Once we reached the south east portal of Saddington Tunnel, there was a short briefing from Andy, the trip leader, whilst we waited for the all-clear signal from Neil who had cycled ahead to ensure our safety (many thanks, Neil!). We proceeded single file, some of us with head torches on, through the tunnel. It was interesting to see features for the first time, be that distance markers, limestone stalactites (or, more accurately, limestone cal thermites, as it's a man-made structure), the patterns of the brickwork and the changing sounds from being enclosed. I was hoping for bats too but didn't spot any in the tunnel and was surprised there was no road noise from above at all. Despite being a local and having passed over Saddington Tunnel many times, I had never passed through it before.
The end of the tunnel appeared deceptively close, but at 808 metres it certainly wasn't! The tunnel was excavated from both ends c1797 (reports vary from 1796 – 1802) and allegedly had some miscalculations; possibly the reason it has a slight kink. Impressive engineering, nonetheless.
I was already pretty thrilled by the 'out' journey, but the 'return' leg proved to be even more of an experience - we were invited to turn off our lights and attempt to paddle back in pitch black. Myself and Vicky (my adventurous paddle pal) kept our torches off. I couldn't see anyone with lights on in front of us and we had to focus hard on going in the right direction. I'm pretty sure we both felt some satisfaction that we didn't collide with any other boats (maybe a near miss or two) or bounce off the walls. But from fairly early on it became a disorientating sensory experience in that it was tricky to feel forwards motion, in addition to trying to focus on the small pinprick of light to keep facing forwards and not end up sideways! We only knew we were somewhere around the halfway point when we felt a few drips on our heads. I can only liken the disorientation to a funfair haunted house-type ride! In fact, I was surprised on exiting the tunnel, how close we were to other boats as I had no perception of them at all by that point.
We paddled back from the tunnel in the dusk as bats swooped gracefully over the water and back into the trees to our portage point at Gumley Road Bridge, where the trip had begun. I was still absolutely buzzing the next morning from this little adventure and hope to do it again sometime!