Our Eileen, heading North, towards Fenny, enters the ‘tunnel’, on a storm-laden August afternoon…
OK, I know, it doesn’t look too like a tunnel today but that’s how it started out.
Built to take the Oxford Canal under high ground, Fenny Compton Tunnel was opened out in two stages in the nineteenth century. Work on the Oxford Canal, designed to link Coventry Canal to the River Thames at Oxford, began with the passing of an Act of Parliament in 1769. Its surveyor and engineer was James Brindley. Construction began in Coventry and worked south, reaching Napton by August 1774. Brindley had died in 1772 and his place was taken by his assistant (and incidentally his brother-in-law) Samuel Simcock. The next stretch, to Banbury, included the construction of a tunnel at Fenny Compton, opened in 1776.
Fenny Compton Tunnel was 9ft wide by 12ft high and ran for a little over a 1000yds. It wasn’t very deep underground and had a number of wider sections to allow canal boats to pass each other. These were approximately 15ft wide. It also had rings mounted in the walls to help boatmen haul their craft through.
The Oxford Company bought the land over the tunnel in 1838 with the idea of opening it up. The first stage of this work started in 1838 and by 1840, they had removed several parts of the tunnel roof — a section at each end and a short section in the centre, creating two separate tunnels, one 335yds long and the other 451yds long. In 1865, the decision was made to open out the rest of the tunnel. The southern end was open by 1868 and the northern by 1870. During the opening out works several bridges were constructed, including the cast iron roving bridge that still carries the towpath across the canal, a bridge carrying the A423 Southam to Banbury road (recently rebuilt in reinforced concrete) and a rectangular wrought iron trough (now demolished) carrying a stream that fed Wormleighton Reservoir.
Today the canal runs through a stunningly verdant deep cutting, and there is little evidence of the tunnel to be seen, beyond the narrow block section on the Southern approach… Despite the tunnel being long gone, something of it’s mystery lingers; I hope the following images capture a little of it’s claustrophobic character.