(All photographs can be viewed at a larger
size by clicking on the image)
Our last experience in a tunnel was biking along the French canals.
A wide variety of towpaths exist along canals in France as in England,
beautifully paved, gravel, dirt or even waist high grass with a
narrow footpath. Sometimes there is a small railroad track on it.
Bicycling is most difficult on a railroad track and it is not highly
recommended. In fact, it is impossible. We came to a small rail
track as we approached a three mile tunnel in the northwest of France
near Strasbourg. Walking the bicycles on top of the tiny track was
difficult work, but luckily no train appeared to be running at the
time. Small trains had replaced draught horses which used to pull
the barge boats at one time. Diesel engines now have replaced any
canal side propulsion.
Seeing the track disappear into the mouth of the dark tunnel entrance
made us look around for a possible escape route, but we were trapped.
A large mountain loomed in front (hence, the tunnel) and the sides
of a deep valley were all around us. Several miles had been cycled
through the valley and now the only way out was forward or back.
Going back is always the last option so we plunged through and bumpety-bumped
our bikes along.
At first there was some light from behind but this eventually disappeared.
Blackness was so impenetrable that disorientation set in and our
shoulders scraped the rough tunnel walls as we overcompensated for
periodic stumbles toward the canal water. Up and down, side to side
was not accurately sensed in the pervasive darkness. Progress was
slow. About half way through the tunnel we heard the sound of a
large boat approaching. Craning our necks around,we could make out
the headlights of a very large hotel barge. Stinky diesel engine
smoke followed its wake as its low rumble reverberated through the
tunnel. We realized that if we did not want to choke on it we should
keep ahead of the bow. Impossible though it seemed, the bicycles
bumpety-bumped a bit faster over the rails and we managed to walk
them without falling into the water.
Still, the lights of the boat grew larger and even started illuminating
our path. Determined not to let the boat stink us out we increased
our pace even more. Apparently the driver of the boat could make
out our hasty stumbling urgency to stay ahead and had pity on us.
By now the boat was a tunnel monster threatening to swallow us up
at least that's how it felt. Thankfully he slowed down to our pace
and stayed behind until we emerged on the other side with a great
sigh of relief. With a friendly wave he passed us by. The day was
still sunny and bright, we breathed in the fresh spring air and
paused to look around. That's when the next tunnel was spotted just
a few yards ahead. With two groans and a couple of cigarettes (we
smoked in those days) we promptly decided it was lunchtime and set
up a picnic. The time finally arrived when it could be put off no
longer and we plunged in yet again. It was much shorter and we happily
burst out of the end with no other tunnel in sight. We learned that
the light at the end of the tunnel might mean the beginning of a
new one. So much for proverbs!.
We had been narrow boat cruising for only a few days when the Blisworth
Tunnel loomed ahead the longest tunnel on the English canal system,
3057 yards. It was early morning and the dew was still on the boat.
An attractive small cove lies at the entrance. Without stopping
we motored right in. Huge holes had been drilled through the mountain
and the tunnel ceiling, about eight to ten feet in diameter so there
was a pale grey light available and we were not blinded by the dark.
Fifteen minutes and about a mile of uneventful, if spooky, boating
Abruptly, with just a hint of panic, Rob declares I've lost all
power. Lost all power? The engine sounded like it was going full
speed. That's the problem, it's got full throttle but is not moving
forward. Sure enough, the walls of the tunnel were not sliding by
as before. The engine was roaring. If anything was going to go wrong
with the boat mechanically it would be in the beginning of our life
on it. The biggest problem at the moment was how to escape the tunnel
with no power? We were about half a mile away from the entrance
and about two and a half miles from the end. This time, going back
was more palatable unless we happened to meet another boat coming
Realizing the situation, we scrambled for the barge poles and started
poling back as quickly as we could, which is to say, not quickly
at all. Pictures of the old time canal boaters walking their boats
through tunnels by laying on the roof and pushing along the walls
with their feet came to mind. Inch by inch, we finally emerged from
the entrance about a half an hour later and managed to get by the
bank to tie up. Scratching our heads, we were at a loss to understand
the engine problem. It was turned off and the weed trap checked
nothing. The prop was turning freely. Up came the engine boards
and the motor was restarted. This time we had propulsion and all
looked fine. Since we didn't feel like draught horses there was
no inclination to pull the boat back manually along the towpath.
Besides, the nearest town was over five miles away. Taking a deep
breath, we untied the ropes from the bank and plunged back in. Tunnels
are creepy enough, but now we were primed with trepidation. Our
passage was amazingly uneventful and we emerged with great relief
on the other side.
Our English tunnel escapade was over, but not our motor problem.
A mystery was on our hands that we were going to have to solve,
or risk further unplanned adventures.
Next Month: The mystery continues but we cruise the Thames
.....on to November 2001