'By badger light and lantern's sigh, and lonely flies the vixen's cry...'
Nov. 20, 2022

Stories are for listening: Blisworth Tunnel (Ian Douglas)


As the nights draw in and the cosy glow of a fire gets evermore inviting, it is the perfect time to share stories. It is not surprising that ghost stories have an enduring appeal. Many stories of the canal feature them. Ghosts like the canal networks themselves create a link between our worlds and the past. Tonight we enjoy the skill of Ian Douglas’ retelling of a ghostly encounter at Blisworth tunnel and why these stories are important.  

Journal entry:

18th November, Friday.

“Stainless steel
 An empty room.
 The stark coldness of strip lighting.
 The white skirting board is scuffed.
 The head-swimming bite of the scent of
 Eugenol and dentistry.

I look around for old copies of Giles cartoon annuals
 And dog-eared editions of Punch, 
 But there are none.

Outside oak leaves shimmer
 Against an ocean of sky blue.”

Episode Information:

Photograph of a stove with coals glowing red and a red coffeepot on topIn this episode I read Ian Douglas’ account of the ghostly encounter in Blisworth Tunnel (and his epilogue) as told in his (2021) Folk Tales from the Canal Side published by The History Press.  

You can watch David Johns’ (Cruising the Cut) own ‘ghostly’ encounter at the tunnel here: Is this a ghostly encounter at the Blisworth tunnel?

I also read a short extract from Storm Dunlop’s (2021) Weather Almanac 2022 published by Harper Collins and make a reference to Allan Scott-Davies’ (2010) book Shadows on the Water: The Haunted Canals and Waterways of Britain also published by The History Press. 

The earlier episode on the liminal nature of canals is: Ep 5 ‘Down the cut’.

The soundtrack for the tunnel story was recorded cruising through Shrewley Tunnel (below) in August 2021.

Inside a tunnel looking towards the exit. Dripping water. Victorian brickwork. Slimey and wetComing towards the western portal of Shrewley Tunnel (not Blisworth) giving an impression of the brickwork, mineral deposits, and costant dripping.  

General Details

In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.

Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence. 

Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.

All other audio recorded on site. 

Contact
For pictures of Erica and images related to the podcasts or to contact me, follow me on:

I would love to hear from you. You can email me at nighttimeonstillwaters@gmail.com or drop me a line by going to the nowspod website and using either the contact form or, if you prefer, record your message using the voicemail facility by clicking on the microphone icon. 

Transcript

JOURNAL ENTRY

18th November, Friday.

“Stainless steel
An empty room.
The stark coldness of strip lighting.
The white skirting board is scuffed.
The head-swimming bite of the scent of
Eugenol and dentistry.

I look around for old copies of Giles cartoon annuals
And dog-eared editions of Punch, 
But there are none.

Outside oak leaves shimmer
Against an ocean of sky blue.”

[MUSIC]

WELCOME

This is NB Erica narrowcasting to you on dark still waters and wishing you the very best of nights.

The air feels cold and brittle tonight. It's the sort of night that you would expect to be alight with starshine. But there is a thrown ghosting fleece of mid-level clouds shutting out the stars and the waning November moon. breath turns to steam, rising with the smoking chimneys of the Erica and other nearby boats. 

It is lovely to see you, come inside out of the cold. There's a space for you by the stove. The kettle is on the boil, the cabin lights spark like glow worms on the canal's surface. Make yourself comfortable and welcome aboard. 

[MUSIC]

NEWS FROM THE MOORINGS  

The light is beginning to turn wintery. But there's also a fiery twist to it too that sets the water and canal side vegetation alight with golds and the warm kiss of amber. But the sun, weighed down by the pull of winter, each day hangs lower to the south. Its zenith is now no higher than 18 degrees. As if afraid of the northern slopes of the sky's dome, it clings to the southern horizon like a beginner swimmer clings to the rails at the deep-end of the pool.

Astronomical winter doesn't start until December 21st. Meteorological winter starts with the beginning of December. However, Storm Dunlop (well named) in his Weather Almanac reminds us that there is another seasonal calendar. For this November 20th marks the beginning of Early Winter. It will then stretch on until January 19th, when, the following day, Late Winter will begin.

Dunlop explains:

[READING] 

Some fairly deep low-pressure systems have continued to drive a series of, sometimes, quite brutal weather fronts across the country. It's not uncommon for this time of year. We are coming up to the anniversary of the Great Storm of 1703. We've had nothing like that, although parts of Scotland have been hit with flooding. The towpath hedgerows still retain their blaze of autumn colours, but now mainly through their berries rather than their leaves.

What has been uncommon has been the mildness. Even night time temperatures have generally been staying in double figures (in the 50s Fahrenheit). Storm Dunlop's observation of milder air in early winter notwithstanding, this is unusually mild. It's worrying, and as nice as it might be to see spring flowers blossoming and spot butterflies and damsel flies (I saw both last week), it is also troubling. The timings and synchronisations of spring so essential for the survival of the new born and the new growth is increasingly getting out of kilter. It's difficult and I feel so torn. I know so many have been so extra appreciative of the warmer weather. There is an almost palpable fear this winter. The price of keeping warm is a very real concern for many people. Donna has already found patients whose homes she visits too frightened to turn on any heating and so the houses are quickly getting cold and, much worse, beginning to feel damp - she's taken to carrying cans of soup with her to ensure that they get at least something warm. I feel bad in voicing my fear about the weather - that it should be colder - when I know what harm and anxiety it would bring. I too look at the bag of solid fuel still unopened with something of relief.

 I watch the swan family stretching out on the grass bank, wings loose, letting the warmth of the sun that has broken through the cloud filter the snowy drifts of their feathers. The ducks, floating side by side, dozing eyes (or one eye) closed, looking as content as cats. They too appreciate the warmth and I would not begrudge them that. But it made me uneasy. I don't relish bitter days of driving rain that ache the bones and sting the nose, but watching the butterflies in mid November was unsettling, not for what it was, but for what it portends. I feel mean for voicing it. And so, I smile and agree that 'yes, what a glorious day it is now the rain has stopped and aren't we so fortunate that it is still so warm?' I think of the people Donna has told me about and convince myself that yes, I do really think that.

However, Thursday's storm brought in colder air, with temperatures around, if not a little below the expected average. The wind has an edge to it and the nights are cold in the low single figures (mid to high 30s). Perhaps, for a while, we are back on track.  

[MUSIC]

CABIN CHAT

[MUSIC]

STORIES ARE FOR LISTENING: BLISWORTH TUNNEL

In one of the earlier episodes of this podcast, ‘Down the cut’, I mentioned the liminal character of the canal. How it acted as a borderland. A hacked trough gouged out of the rolling pasturelands and farm lands to be filled with water. Channelling the industrial heartlands in silvered veins across the country. The industrial revolution sucked the population into its urban heart and then it proceeded to extend its liquid tentacles blasting through rock, writing the new future on the landscape. And yet. It also does the opposite. A channel, certainly, but a channel that brings the ecologies of the countryside back into the sooty worlds of the cities. How many city kids got their first taste – had their first encounters with nature on the industrial towing paths of the cut? And still do, today. On their website, the CRT heralds the environmental importance of the canal systems – for both human and more than human lives. The arteries that pulsed the industrial heartbeat are now (and perhaps in some ways, always have been) pulsing an altogether different and greener kind of heartbeat. It is this, that I find so beguiling about being on the canal. This strange mix – Victorian industrial engineering in the heart of the countryside, the stone portal of a tunnel that has been blasted through a hillside and yet now, its stones are rain-worn, fissured and shuffling off their quarried shapes, cupping and sheltering moss, and lungwort, fern and nettle. The stones may have been commandeered for our purposes, but they never really belonged to us. They and the hill know that. So does the life that has made it their home.

And so, as we slowly float through this landscape at just below walking pace, there is no way I can trick myself into claiming this is a natural environment – unbounded, unhindered. And yet, it also is exactly that; a natural environment. In fact, there are not many places in the UK that are really wild, untouched. It may be struggling – like most places – but it is here. This hazy hinterland of not quite belonging, of being neither quite one thing or the other, and yet has become so familiar, so rooted, it has become natural in its unnaturalness. Earlier this afternoon as I watched the ducks push passed the boat, a couple detouring to rattle their beaks along the hull, the sunlight catching the vibrancy of the drake’s colours – flashing green and blue, blue, electric blue – they don’t seem to mind. This is their home. What is unnatural about it for them? And the oaks reaching over the canal, their leaves beginning to rattle in the wind like pantomime skeletons. They seem to have long come to terms with their new neighbour. If there was any animosity, it seems to be long since over.

But there is also another aspect of the canal that intrigues and captivates me. It is the way that its cut trenches carry not just water, but memories and a sense of history and the past. The older I get, the greater the importance I attach to that. I have always, since a small lad, liked history. But for most of the time, apart from a short detour into the Elizabethan period, it was ‘proper’ history – the celts, the neolithic, the shadowy figures, shrouded in mists just beyond reach. Georgian and Victorian times didn’t really do much for me. They were a little too recent, too close to us. In some senses, literally. Some of my students find it amazing that when I was young I regularly met people who lived in the Victorian times – including my older relatives. They look at me, with the same expression that I have when I hear a recording of Florence Nightingale or see videos of Edwardian London streets.

But now, I find a sense of the past helps to give me a greater feeling of rootedness, embeddedness. Is this about a sense of belonging, identity? Perhaps. In times of uncertainty these things do become more important. But there is also something more. They help me to understand the world in which I live a little better. Their voices matter. Their stories matter. It is good to hear them.

I’m glad the place of story-telling and story-tellers, the oral wordsmiths and balladeers, retelling stories old and new is becoming more popular once again. I was reminded of it when reading Ian Douglas’ Folk Tales from the Canal Side. Ian is a professionally trained storyteller who is part of the ‘Society for Story Telling’ and who lives with his wife, Jo, on the narrowboat Hawker.

The book is a lively miscellany of stories, fabulous, prosaic, tragic, and charming that he has either collected over his time living on the cut or from his researches in the archives at Ellesmere Port.

A number of them contain, in some way, that classic trope to create connections with the past – ghosts. The ghosts and the storyteller create a duet, acting together in bringing the past to the listener – making their worlds join. Old stories, old wisdoms, old lessons, perhaps, still unlearned.

I am going to stop here, because no one can really do it like Ian and I can’t get his epilogue out of my head, because he says it so well.

The story is quite a familiar one for anyone who has been cruising the canals, particularly in the south Midlands along the Grand Union canal. It features Blisworth tunnel - an incredible feat of engineering: one and three quarter miles long. An engineering miscalculation meant that it has a slight curve in it which means, unlike most tunnels on the canal system, when you enter one of the portals you cannot see daylight at the other end – something which creates added complication in navigating – even today.  

This is the scene for Ian Douglas’ story. Unlike most of the tales in his book, this one is relatively modern. Douglas sets the date as a hot summer’s day in 1973.

I have come across it a number of times – and it also appears Allan Scott-Davies’ collection of canal-related ghost stories, Shadows in the Water. Unsurprisingly – and in fact quit characteristically (and right) there are variations in Scott-Davies’ account with that of Douglas’. Oral tales like this are meant to be plastic, pliable, able to be formed and re-formed, whilst their narrative message remains the same.   

This is the story of Blisworth Tunnel:

[READING]

SIGNING OFF

May your life be warmed and enriched by the stories that surround you.
This is the narrowboat Erica signing off for the night and wishing you a very restful, peaceful night. Good night.

WEATHER LOG