The Canal

Hincaster Tunnel

A tribute to skill and strength.

This article by A L Evans is reproduced by kind permission of the author and The Westmorland Gazette.

'Hennecastre' wrote the scribe into the Doomsday Book of 1086. Little over a century later, it was 'Henkastre'; a name which is still recognisable in the 'Heyncaster' of 1417. By 1544 it had changed by yet another semi-literate writer, to 'Hyndcastell'. The present name is 'Hincaster', a modem version of the old English 'henn' and 'ceaster', meaning, say the philologists, a 'Fortification haunted by wild hens'.

The suffix 'ceaster' is almost certainly the Saxon name for a former Roman Fort, but no trace of one has ever been found here. Shards of Roman tile or pottery were unearthed when excavation started for the link to the M6 in that area, but this is no positive proof of Roman Military occupation. It has been suggested that a Roman road came by here, passing south from Alauna (the fort at Watrecrook, Kendal) through Stainton, and Hincaster to Carnforth, but again there is no firm evidence. A road, important enough to receive special mention, existed in Hincaster between 1237 and 1248, and another, running from Hincaster to Sedgwick was recorded in 1374, either, or both of them possibly relics of a now-lost Roman road system still in Middle Age use.

I find it difficult to equate the name of a place with 'wild hens' whatever they may be, and until positive evidence of the Roman army's presence comes to light, it seems that the story behind the origin of the place-name must remain a mystery. Significantly however, the domestic fowl was introduced as early as the fifth century BC. The 'hen' significance of the title escapes me, for these birds were common and well known to any Saxons naming the original Hincaster.

Equally mysterious are the large stones on Hincaster village green. Erratics? The boulders dropped by ice sheets melted long ago? Part of an ancient field clearance? Former 'Meer-stones' - remaining markers for antiquated field strip systems long out of use? Georgian fancy, or Victorian obsession with historical material? Or just plain decoration, being too awkward to move from their resting place. No one seems to know.

Yet there is one marvellous historical object nearby well recorded. A solid tribute to the highly skilled engineers and hard-working, hard-drinking navvies who built the Lancaster Canal, the Hincaster tunnel, driven straight through a huge hump of a drumlin, is now nothing more than a memorial; an early 19th century sermon in stone writ large. Appropriately, (for it seems almost a secretive place) it is hard by a tiny hamlet with the delightful name of 'World's End'; who named it I cannot discover - (certainly before 1790) and it lies complete with the stables for the canal horses, and attached house, close by a canal turned into little more than a wide, marshy, overgrown ditch. The canal (or what is left of this section) ends abruptly three hundreds to the south, blocked by the M6 link. Northward, the same navigation channel meanders towards Kendal, a wet and soggy line of reed mace, great reed, crowding goat willow and many other wetland invaders of the vegetation kind.

Hincaster Tunnel

Seeing it thus, it is difficult to imagine the busy days of the transport barges, which from 1819 were carrying cargoes too massive to go by any road or wheeled traffic of those days. Bulk-loaded with such massive material as Westmorland slate and limestone on the southward journey, bringing coal north from the south Lancashire coalfields, the long canal barges (and later the railway) were largely responsible for the death of Milnthorpe as a port.

The building of Hincaster tunnel removed the major obstacle on the northern section of the canal. Faced with limestone, 378 yards long, it is lined with something like four million bricks; these in a district where bricks were generally scarce as building material, were made from clay dug at Mosside Farm, on the canalside about half a mile SSE of Milness, by the present A65. On February 4 1817, it was reported that 'two million bricks had been made and half the length of the tunnel completed'.

The Mosside brickworks were too efficient, for in 1818, Thomas Fletcher, the canal engineer, put up for sale 10000 bricks, left over from the tunnel. Interestingly enough, these clay pits and the brickworks were resuscitated in 1845, employing over 100 men and 30 horses; these bricks were made for the new Lancaster/Carlisle railway.

Navvies - the tough canal 'navigators' who were to dig the Hincaster section, attended the contract meeting in Kendal, afterwards causing a considerable riot in the town'. The Westmorland Advertiser promptly declared 'Sound policy demands that the ruffians should be held as an example to the unruly multitude which the culling of the canal will shortly bring to this populous neighbourhood'.

The rowdy navvies are long gone; but the tunnel remains. It is fascinating in any season, but to see it in Spring is a particularly lovely time, with World's End hedges snowdrop white, first lambs in the fields, and curlews calling with such 'sad sweet longing' over the windblown tunnel top.

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Page last updated on: 01.12.2014, 21:00 by Merlin