Under the Pennines and back in time

Last Saturday was a real highlight for me. I travelled the three miles on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal between Marsden in West Yorkshire to Diggle in Greater Manchester. What’s so special about that – it’s all underground – in the longest canal tunnel in Britain (and the third in the World – the first and second are in France). The longest ‘Le Rove’ at 7120 metres is between Marseilles – Rhone and was closed in 1963. The second ‘Le Grand Souterain’ near Riqueval north east of Paris at 5677m is still open. The Standedge Tunnel is a close third at 5210 m (3.23 miles to be exact).

I first got to know about Standedge and the Huddersfield canal in the 1980s when I first visited the area. Then the canal, which runs from Huddersfield to Ashton under Lyne, was in need for serious renovation. Now thanks to the vision and hard work of many volunteers, the work has been done, but pride of place goes to those who campaigned and finally reopened the tunnel on 1 May 2001. But how we got here is really interesting.

>Work first began on the Narrow Canal in 1794. It was an ambitious plan to tunnel for some three miles under the Pennies at Standedge, with nothing more than gunpowder, picks and shovels and of course the navvies, who took all the risks, According to our guides on the three mile trip, they started work at both ends with a target of five years to completion (1799). But progress was slow, and those in charge lacked experience. So it was Thomas Telford who rode up to rescue the project. Digging, we were told, had been taking place at both ends, and also, I later found out, from the bottom of the airshafts (through which spoil was hoisted up and onto the moor where some it can still be seen today). It was discovered (nobody quite knows how) that the tunnels would not meet in the middle – they were some 37 feet out, so a number of bends were added to correct the problem.

The tunnel finally opened in 1811, seventeen years after the work had begun, at a cost of £123,804. However, the cost in human life was great according to our guide. Fifty navvies were killed while digging the tunnel and died in the tunnel itself. Any worker who died of his injuries outside the tunnel (having been rescued and brought out into the open) was not counted and the total numbers of injuries do not seem to have been recorded either!

As we discovered on our 2 hour 15 minute trip in our especially adapted craft, the tunnel is very narrow in most places and to save money on the original construction, no towpath was provided. As the guide explained, the horses we decoupled at the entrances and trekked over the hill to the other side, while the boatmen had to ‘leg it’ through the tunnel. As we saw from a very old picture on the craft that took us through, this was done by lying on boards at the front of the boat and walking along the roof or walls of the tunnel. Depending on the load being carried this could take up to four hours (more when it was first opened) so very soon after the it was opened, official or professional ‘leggers’ were introduced to speed up the operation. And every 50 yards there is a marker on the roof telling you how far you have gone. This was the only guide to how far you had travelled, as you can’t see straight through the tunnel to the light at the other end because of the bends!

As with many canals, early profits and prosperity were brought to an end with the coming of the railways and the canal and tunnel were subsequently bought by the Huddersfield and Manchester Railway Company, whose railway lines and tunnels followed a similar route to the canal. Of course the canal was key in the construction of the new railway and tunnels, but thereafter it feel into decline and was officially closed in 1944, commercial traffic having ceased some twenty years earlier.

Although basic maintenance within the tunnel was carried out in the 50’s and 60’s its state deteriorated with parts of the roof collapsing making any journey impossible. My early memory some thirty years ago was of sealed entrances and little sign of activity. However, a campaign for restoration for the Narrow Canal was underway, but the tunnel was going to be a major operation. By the late 1990’s funding had been secured and work got underway. The tunnel was by all accounts, not a pretty site. Some parts were silted up to a depth of six feet. Sections of the roof had collapsed and others were unstable. Access for vehicles and machinery was difficult as most of the tunnel measured only around seven feet wide. Hopes to re-open the tunnel during the millennium remained just that, restoration had become a major operation with 10,000 tons of silt and 3,000 tons of fallen rock being removed. Sections of the tunnel had to be lined with concrete.

But on May Day 2001 the tunnel was opened to traffic once again, at a cost of more than five million pounds. Unlike the 1811 opening I don’t believe the event was marked with church bells and a band playing ‘Rule Britannia’. However, it meant the entire length of the canal from Huddersfield to Ashton under Lyne, some 20 miles, was open for business once again. But it is not commercial business this time. Narrow boats serving tourism now gently run up and down the canal which has a total of 74 locks and connects end on with the Ashton Canal and the Huddersfield Broad Canal.

So to find out more visit http://www.penninewaterways.co.uk/huddersfield/ or go to the Standedge Visitor Centre near Marsden and don’t miss the Tunnel End Cottages which have been regenerated into the very pleasing ‘Watersedge’ café. And for the journey of a life-time, book yourself onto the ‘tunnel experience’. Hard hats are provided and the guides live and breathe the canal and tunnel. As one explained to us, it is the best job he has ever had!

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