A DINGHY manned by waterways enthusiast Colin Ogden has become the first craft to sail through the Hincaster Tunnel for nearly 70 years.

The brick-lined, 345-metre-long passage on the Lancaster Canal's Northern Reaches was last used commercially in 1944.

Heating engineer Mr Ogden, 62, from Burnley, completed the adventure with friends to share his enthusiasm for the waterway and to help promote its restoration.

He described the tunnel as "a bit spooky, but in pretty good condition inside, despite the deteriorating masonry facing it and the neglect to the approaches".

Frank Sanderson, an expert on the Lancaster Canal, told the Gazette that work began on the tunnel in 1816, with John Fletcher as engineer and William Crossley as builder.

Built through a drumlin, the tunnel has limestone portals, is lined with bricks made in Heversham, and was completed on Christmas Day 1817.

There is no towpath, and barges laden with coal and limestone would have been rope-hauled by horses taken over the hill, rather than 'legged through' the tunnel.

The idea for Mr Ogden's adventure came from conservationist Robert Aickman, who sailed his boat Ailsa Craig through Standedge Tunnel on the Pennines Huddersfield canal in 1948, 'ignoring' British Waterways, canal custodians at that time. Mr Aickman was instrumental in founding the Inland Waterways Association (IWA), which campaigns for canals to be restored.

As Mr Ogden and friends emerged from Hincaster Tunnel, they noticed a sign they described as 'dilapidated', put up by today's canal custodians, the Canal and River Trust, forbidding entry. "Good job we didn't see that before we started, and that's seen better days," commented Mr Ogden.

The Lancaster Canal Trust and Waterways Recovery Group, part of the IWA, have recently done "a tremendous amount of work" felling trees and cleaning up approaches to the tunnel, said Mr Sanderson. They are constantly working on the horse path, a listed ancient monument, he added.

Meanwhile, heating engineer Mr Ogden, founder of the Owd Lanky Boaters Group on Facebook, has finalised a date for towing his vintage Windermere launch, Whimbrel, along the route of the canal from Garstang to Kendal.

The venture is to take place on Sunday, June 26, departing from Bridgehouse Marina, Garstang at 10am. Mr Ogden will be accompanied by good friend and photographer Laurraine Smith, of Morecambe, dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow, the Pirates of the Caribbean movie character made famous by actor Johnny Depp.