For this article I am indebted to information from Roy Martin, canal enthusiast. One of the most prominent features of the Birmingham Canal Navigations on which much of the local industry including that at Rattlechain “prospered” is The Netherton Tunnel. A long straight tunnel was opened in 1858, between The Old Mainline and the Rowley Hills and The Dudley No. 2 Canal at Windmill End Junction. Horse powered towed boats could not be accommodated by the earlier over used Dudley Tunnel, and the Lapal Tunnel at Halesowen which became traffic bottleneck, where the boater had to “leg it” along the narrow dark walls.
The new tunnel was to be 2768 meters in length, with a two sided towpath capable of allowing horses access from both sides.
When taking a walk through here for the first time many years ago, I made the mistake of not taking a torch. A narrow pinprick of light was visible from the Northern End towards Tividale as I set off on foot not knowing what to expect from Netherton.
One of the most eerie aspects as I clung for dear life to the handrail were the seven ventilation shafts , like prison vents of light tempting a view to what lay above. What lay on the towpath was more troublesome, ankle deep pockets of water, especially around the middle, and a dip I the brickwork where I nearly went flying. It was 50 minutes I will never forget as I made it out to the other side relieved.
Many, many visits later on bike and I can get through there in around 20 minutes, but a more careful examination of the signs in and around the tunnel show how over time it has had to be repaired and reconstructed in nature, showing how frail Man’s inventions can be to the passing of time.
Each tells a story of their own, markers in time in one place, and the many who followed in the footsteps of those who died constructing it. Nine men died completing it and many more were injured. The latest in Winter 2012/13 saw it closed for several weeks, where massive bolts appear to have been fixed into the walls to stop subsidence.
Light at the end of the tunnel.