Hardham Tunnel

ARUN Navigation

A Forgotten Canal Explored

RAILWAY travellers between Arundel and Pulborough may have noticed, as the expanse of Amberley Brooks narrows between Lodge Hill and the sandy plateau beyond Greatham Bridge, a few fragments of brickwork rising from a bank about a hundred yards east of the line. They are a monument-a tiny and still-dwindling one-to the Arun-Rother, or Hardham Canal, an undertaking which had one of the shortest careers, in every sense of the phrase, of any of its kind in the country. Its total length was well under two miles and its life not much above half a century. What made it unique among the canals of Sussex was that it ran for about a quarter of a mile through a tunnel, under the higher ground near Hardham Priory.

From the latter years of the Eighteenth Century until late in the Nineteenth, there was considerable commercial traffic on the Arun and the Rother and, until beyond the mid-Eighteen Hundreds, through the Arun-Wey canal to Guildford and the Thames. That fine old waterman, the late "Sailor" Strudwick, of Pulborough, once told Marshall, "When I was a lad I used to make the round trip on barges. We went up from Littlehampton with hay, straw and timber, and back to Littlehampton with coal and suchlike. We were in a nice way of business when the railway came and put us out."

Now this was a slight rhetorical exaggeration. The old man was at that time, just before the war, a trifle short of eighty. He could not have been born before 1860 and therefore would have been only three, at the most, when the Mid-Sussex line, from Horsham to Ford, was opened. What he meant, no doubt, was that as the railway became established it hit the water trade more and more. Nor could he have made the round trip without changing
craft at least once, for no sea-going barge could have negotiated the Arun-Wey canal, even if it ignored the equally narrow Hardham cut. Nevertheless, there was, until the railways killed it, more by monopoly than competition, a steadily-flowing trade by inland and coastal ways, and there is no doubt that young Strudwick, and other smart water-men, could always get a place in a crew, and could work their way round in a few weeks.

In the last quarter of the Eighteenth Century the still-terrible country roads, the need for materials of war-timber and fodder, particularly-and the unsafe state of the Channel due to the operations of French privateers were imposing a great strain on the rivers and providing opportunities for speculation. Canals were being cut all over the place; no bend was too small to by-pass if it was thought that money could be made in tolls. The map shows that just such an opportunity existed in the Hardham vicinity. From Greatham bridge the Arun describes a double bend, like the loops of a B, before turning west to Pul-borough. It goes almost a mile beyond the town before joining up with the Rother, yet when it does it is back almost at Hardham, for the confluence is only a couple of hundred yards below Hardham mill. The crow that flies north from Greatham Bridge will have gone only 900 yards before it reaches the Rother. Cut a canal along this line and you shorten the distance to the Rother and the upper Arun by over three miles and avoid the shallows be-tween Greatham and Pulborough.

Plans for such a canal were drawn up in the late Eighteenth Century as one of the enter-prises of the River Arun Navigation Company, formed in 1785. In mid-career the canal had to traverse the narrow peninsula which abuts from the sandy ridge at Coldwaltham and subsides into the brooklands just behind Hardham church on one side and the mill on the other. Mainly because of landowners' objections, a cutting was ruled out and a tunnel decided upon. That meant a heavy expense, which must have imposed a burden on the undertaking from the start. Construction of several locks was necessary too. Yet in the thirties and forties of last century the canal seems to have been doing a fair trade, mainly because it was a convenient link with the Rother on which thriving little towns like Midhurst and Petworth were mainly dependent for heavy goods, owing to the hilly and badly-surfaced roads all round them. Records suggest that goods were carried in the com-pany's own barges, for two permanent barge-men were employed.

The course of the canal can still be plainly followed, though it has been out of use for about ninety years. It leaves the Arun about half a mile south-west of Greatham Bridge and, until it reaches the site of the first lock, where the ruins of the keeper's cottage and toll house make a landmark for railway passengers, it contains some water. From that point, until it strikes the Coldwaltham-Greatham road about 100 yards west of Greatham Bridge, it runs as a grassy depression between low banks. It then strikes almost due north directly to-wards Hardham Priory, its course marked by a line of trees. Just short of the priory it swings half-left for a few yards and plunges through the tunnel under the London-Bognor road, the main railway and the Midhurst branch. Emerging just beyond the branch, about a hundred yards after it leaves the main line at Hardham signal box, it was traceable, until recently, as a narrow gully, mostly over-grown. It met the Rother just above the ruins of the mill, but the last bit of its course has lately been obliterated under the pumping station :which is being constructed to provide water for the Horsham and Crawley area.

The interior of the tunnel, showing the clay mound under the railway. 
Small stalactites can be seen on the roof and larger deposits on the left wall

That is not quite the end of it, however. After using the course of the Rother for a few yards, it branches off from the west bank opposite the mill-the red-brick lock-keeper's cottage is still inhabited, though not by a lock-keeper- and runs parallel with the river, emerging in the bay, which anglers know as a famous spot for pike, just above the confluence of Rother with Arun. This little stretch though reedy, contains plenty of water. The line of the tunnel is marked almost exactly by a red-brick gabled cottage on the Bognor road, a little south of the gateway to Hardham Priory, and by a girder bridge opposite which carries a farm road over the main railway.

There was another cut, from the Arun to the Rother through the grounds of Stopham House, and this, too, can be clearly traced, but it does not concern this narrative.

Only recently did it occur to Marshall that, though he had walked and fished in the vicinity for some years, and had been within a few yards of either end of the Hardham tunnel, he did not know whether it survived or whether it had been filled in and its entrances obliterated. So he made a special journey of investigation, and these were his findings:

At the north-western (Rother) end, the entrance, though overgrown, was well preserved (photograph on page 131). The brickwork of the arch, and the abutments, were little damaged and part of the timber of a lock, just outside, remained. He was surprised at the small width of the tunnel, about 10 feet. The centre of the arch was about eight feet above the level of the water which, as it was here well above the level of the Rother, seemed to have accumulated by percolation and was about six feet deep. Only the narrowest of canal boats could have passed through. There was no sign of any ledge or horse-walk, and the only way of getting craft through must have been by poling or "footing," a process in which the bargees, bracing their backs against a deck-house or some other solid body, pushed with their feet against the walls of the tunnel.

Embowered in trees and with ferns growing from the masonry, the entrance this side, though a little sombre, had the effect of a grotto and was not displeasing. Not long afterwards workmen on the pumping station scheme cleared the undergrowth and built a concrete dam across the canal bed a short distance in front of the tunnel entrance.

Returning over the main railway, Marshall saw, beside the down track, a yard or so north of the girder bridge, a concrete hatchway with a moveable cover. He surmised, rightly as it proved, that this had some significance in relation to the tunnel.

The south-eastern, or priory, end proved to be in a much more ruinous state. The abutments had gone and masses of brickwork lay all around. At some time there had been an attempt to block the entrance with a wall of blue clay, but it had subsided and formed only a v-shaped bank over which crystal-clear water from the interior slowly rilled into the lower level of the old bed through the fields. The scruffy atmosphere was accentuated by the fact that the place had long been used as a dump for old iron. Conspicuous were the remains of a hip bath, a milk churn and a coal scuttle, as well as an assortment of paint cans.

Marshall could see, when looking down the tunnel from one position, a tiny spot of daylight. When he moved, the spot disappeared. This puzzled him. Apparently the bore of the tunnel was partly obstructed in some way, but how he could not imagine. The atmosphere of the interior was very cold; the dripping of water could be heard, and when a train passed over, a couple of hundred yards away, every wheel-beat reverberated in the most sepulchral manner.

Obviously, further exploration was called for. A canoe, or one of those tiny "pram" dinghies, would be suitable in size and easily transported. From canoes, Marshall's thought-process inevitably turned to colleague Norris, a young Worthing Herald reporter, veteran of several Sea Scouts canoe marathons from Pulborough to Littlehampton and builder of his own craft, the Zephyr. Norris jumped at the idea, and a joint reconnaisance was made.

The north-west entrance to the tunnel as it was before the undergrowth was cleared

It was agreed that the expedition should start from the north-west end of the tunnel, that sweaters should be worn as a protection against cold and that the pair should light their way by lamps slung round their necks. Norris said he could get the canoe forward-and backwards if they came to an obstruction-with a single paddle, as there was not room to use a double-bladed one. He kindly but firmly rejected Marshall's suggestion of a pole, to propel the craft gondola-fashion, and a boathook with which to draw it along by palling on the brickwork.

For one reason or another, some time elapsed before the expedition could be made, but early one windy and rather overcast evening they set off. Marshall's small touring car proved almost ideal for transporting the canoe to the gate bordering the Midhurst railway. From there it was easy to carry it to the tunnel entrance.

Norris had no difficulty in setting it in the water and in taking his place in the stern. Marshall, though at home in boats on fresh or salt water, had inhibitions about the stability of canoes, due to an embarrassing experience before a Bank Holiday crowd on a park lake when a boy, and he took some time in lowering his fourteen stone, plus a shower of dry earth, into the forward seat. Lights were switched on, Norris flourished his paddle and the tunnel engulfed the pair.

Daylight waned rapidly. Almost at once they were conscious of the chill and of an earthy smell which, incongruously, suggested dryness. Drops of water fell on their heads and down their necks. The roof literally bristled with stalactites of a-to them-curious type. They were in the shape of little rods, greyish but sparkling in the lamplight, about a quarter of an inch in diameter and mostly between two and six inches long, though a few were a foot or more. They were found to be tubular, like macaroni, and filled with water. Apparently they formed from the inside outwards. They were very fragile and broke up when handled. Here and there Marshall and Norris saw a formation of more conventional shape, conical and of greyish chalky or limy substance.

All this was observed in a very short time and distance. They had progressed no more than about a hundred feet when a greyness loomed ahead and the lamps focussed on a miniature mountain of clay, scored and fissured, which rose out of the water, blocking the whole width of the tunnel and rising to the roof. They were, they knew, underneath the railway: they had thought of concrete or girders as a buttress to the road bed, but not this simple expedient. There was no sign of the roof having been opened up, but they concluded that it must have been, when the railway was cut, the clay tipped down and the track laid over the top. It was a ridiculous check to progress. Looking over their shoulders they saw the vivid picture of green leaves, set in a semicircular frame, only just behind. But their minds were made up. If the barrier was so near that end of the tunnel it was so much the farther from the other end.

With a few strokes, Norris propelled the canoe backwards and out. The bottom boards and clobber were lifted out and put in the car. The canoe was carried, a distance of about a quarter of a mile, to a gate giving access to the fields of the priory side. Marshall brought the car to the grass verge by the gate. Portage was made to the eastern end of the tunnel. The whole operation took about half an hour.

Once more they set off, and spirits were high. This end of the tunnel was much the wetter. Water dripped and "plinked" everywhere and, in one place, descended in a shower. How infinite is the capacity of the earth to store up moisture, they reflected. There were only a few feet of sandy clay overhead, its surface was parched and dusty, yet the tunnel roof was like the deck of a rotten ship in a heavy sea. As they progressed, the air, though pure, be-came increasingly chilly, and breaths steamed in the lamplight. Stalactites here were much more numerous. When they got to about the centre of the tunnel practically every inch of brickwork was covered with some sort of deposit. The roof sprouted hundreds of the kind they called macaroni; there were the conical type, too, some comically twisted into the shape of pigs' tails, and those wavy growths, which, in the commercial, show-place caves, they call "blankets." These were mostly greyish, but a few were dull red and glowed with ruby brilliance when a light was focussed on them. In the spaces between the larger growths the brickwork was encrusted with a metallic or silica deposit which had the effect of aluminium paint.

Over their shoulder the pair saw the little patch of trees, framed in the opening, grow small, like a view seen through the wrong end of a telescope but increased in clarity. Just as the tunnel and the water in it had acted as a conductor of sound from the inside outwards, so did it conduct sound, with surprising clear-ness, from the outside world. Marshall almost jumped to hear a pigeon cooing, as it seemed near his elbow; when he got back, there was the bird cooing away in the trees by the priory, sixty or seventy yards away. That was not the only odd thing about the tunnel. As they came in sight of the eastern face of the clay mountain, and realised that they were in as far as they could go, about three hundred yards, they found floating on the water a number of rusty but abnormally buoyant tins. Two looked as though they might have contained boot polish; another was flask-shaped and Marshall made out on it traces of the name of a brand of metal polish. All were covered with a brownish, jelly-like growth, whether animal, vegetable or mineral, they were not able to decide. How had the tins got there? Had they been carried that far by some easterly air current ?

It was by accident, a chance gleam of light, that Marshall detected the oddest, and the prettiest, of all the odd things in that place. In a chink of the wall he thought he saw some-thing resembling gossamer with dew upon it: looking closely, he found that it was indeed a tiny cobweb, each strand sparkling with diamonds of moisture. It was a thing of sunshine and September mornings; how it came to be in that dark hole was the greatest mystery of all. Of the spider, or of any other living thing, there was no sign.

The canoe grounded against the mountain. On this side it was more furrowed into valleys and bays. In the right-hand corner of the largest bay-oh, the anti-climax of it!-ascended an iron ladder. It disappeared into a concrete manhole, to emerge, no doubt, at the hatch which Marshall had seen beside the railway. It was through this hatch, as they confirmed by switching off lights, that the spot of daylight percolated. The railway runs through a shallow cutting here, and cannot be many feet above the tunnel.

So they were not the first humans to go down there in eighty-odd years! That sinister-looking mass of clay had been trodden by the prosaic feet of railway gangers. But they consoled themselves with the thought that they were probably the first to sail those near-icy waters, so clear and yet so Stygian. With that in mind, Norris back-paddled and, in due course, they emerged. The sky had clouded over, dusk was falling and a gusty wind blew, but the air seemed very mellow and fragrant.

Sussex County Magazine Volume 28 - 1953 - page 128


I was very much interested in the article "Canoeing under Sussex" by Messrs. Marshall and Norris in the March SUSSEX COUNTY MAGAZINE, more especially in the part referring to the tunnel at Hardham Junction. I was with the Engineer's Dept of the old L.B. and S.C. Railway at the time of the filling up of the tunnel beneath the railway tracks on the main and branch lines. The work was done by the Railway Co. in 1898. Holes were made a few feet from the running lines and carried down to the crown of the tunnel (9 ft. or 10 ft. below) which was pierced, and tons of chalk conveyed to the site by ballast trains were tipped down these holes, the chalk being thrown back under each railway to the extent of the Company's boundaries.

I am now in my 81st year, and have been retired for 20 years from the position of Chief Clerk to the Civil Engineers Dept. of the Southern Railway, at Brighton station, and thought that these few extra details might be of interest. - CHAS. G. SAUNDERS, xxx Ditchling Road, Brighton

Sussex County Magazine Volume 28 - 1953 - page 257

Copyright 1999 Martin Snow. All rights reserved.
Revised: August 18, 2002