Sigmund Freud would have had all sorts to say about Netherton Tunnel, on the Birmingham canal system. Going through it with a bike is a challenging experience. Not physically, but psychologically: it’s 2768m of arrow-straight pitch-darkness. Your only point of reference once inside is the pinprick of light in the distance, piercing thinly like Venus in a heartless winter night sky. This is the only place in Britain you can go potholing with your bike.
You can see why 19th-century narrowboaters were so fearful of ghosts roaming the lonely catacombs. (Spectral remains of the navvies who had perished during the canals’ harsh, dangerous, candlelit construction?) Indeed, many stayed out of the tunnels altogether, taking enormous detours to do so. Here in the gunbarrel acoustic, the merest swish of rainjacket sleeve or drip of condensation from the chill stone walls reverberates on the acoustic mirror of the water surface for ever. When you’re deep in mid-tunnel, 1300km from the nearest living soul in either direction, you hear a chorus of whispering spirits, sounds that came out of nowhere but which refuse to die. You are alone with them, whoever – whatever – they are. Make no mistake, it’s a scary experience.
Netherton was one of the last stretches of canal to be built, in the late 1850s, and modern engineering equipment enabled them to build a tunnel big enough for a towpath on either side. It relieved the bottleneck of the nearby Dudley Tunnel, whose narrow one-way-at-a-time system could hold boats up for hours or even days. Netherton still serves as a thoroughfare for the pleasure craft plying the Birmingham canal system.
Is it cyclable? Well, physically, just: the towpath is a bit rough but OK, there’s a guardrail all the way which doesn’t give you much margin for wobble, and the headroom is only just enough for a six-footer. But you’re not supposed to cycle. The towpath is marked on the OS maps as a footway, and walkers do occasionally use the tunnel. There actually aren’t any ‘No Cycling’ signs, presumably because so few people attempt to; but this length of canal does not appear on British Waterways’ list of towpaths you’re allowed to cycle on. So, officially, walk your bike through the tunnel.
To get to the south entrance, the best way is probably the 3km along the Dudley No 2 Canal towpath, north from Old Hill station, which is just west of the canal. It’s a bit bumpy in places. The end of Dudley No 2 Canal joins Dudley No 1 Canal at Windmill End (above), a waterways T-junction. Netherton Tunnel is up on your right – there are towpaths both sides.
Probably when you do it, you’ll be with friends, and there’ll be lots of cheerily-flashlit walkers and party boats going through, and you’ll think it’s weedy of me to have been so scared by a piece of civil engineering spaghetti. But you’ll certainly need your bike lights, and if you’re alone, possibly a Bible or Qur’an. There is no illumination, save a couple of arrows of daylight coming from ventilation shafts, and the waning moon of the entrance you are leaving behind. And it’s a long, long, long way through.
Out, probably relieved, on the other side, you go immediately under a canal aqueduct, then join the Main Line Canal at Dudley Port junction. Dudley Port station is just up and to your left.