Dark Light: Harecastle and its Genius Loci
“Light reveals the genius loci of a place”
Harecastle is the site of two canal tunnels built at the start of the Industrial Revolution, one in 1777 and the other in 1827, to transport coal on barges from local mines in Lancashire, in the north of England. Dark Light follows a modern day narrowboat, built on the model of the early barges with their seven foot wide beam, through one of these tunnels, now a journey of forty minutes. The tunnel is one and a half miles long, and is only a little wider and higher than the boat. It is unlit save for air holes located at intervals in the roof. Light is provided by a single headlight on the boat.
Narrowboats in the nineteenth century were pulled along the canals by horses walking along the towpath. Tunnels posed a problem, rarely having a towpath, and so boatmen had to leg their way through the tunnel, lying on the roof of their boat and pushing on the sides of the tunnel with their feet. It could take up to three hours to propel the heavily laden boat through the tunnel. From this activity we still have the phrase “legging it.” It was a hard and dangerous job, like so many connected with the coal industry.
Harecastle Tunnel is home to the Kidsgrove Boggart, who haunted the tunnel and whose appearance was believed to forewarn of disaster in the local mines. The boggart appeared as a headless woman, and was purportedly a decapitated young woman whose body had been thrown into Gilbert’s Hole, a coal landing stage in the tunnel. A similar murder had occurred in the area, lending credence to the story and generating fear in many boatmen and their families over the years.