Saturday, 1 October 2011

Standedge Tunnel, Huddersfield Narrow Canal

Standedge canal tunnel is the longest (over three miles), highest and deepest canal tunnel in Britain. Situated midway along the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, the tunnel takes the canal under the high Pennine spine of Northern England between Marsden in the Colne Valley and Diggle in the Tame Valley. Originally opened in 1811, last used commercially in the 1920s, closed in 1944, the tunnel has been restored and was re-opened in 2001.

A year or so ago, Peter de la Wyche and I took part in a Stockport Walkers' walk from Diggle over the moors to Marsden and back, approximately following the route of the Standedge Tunnels. At the Marsden end is a visitor centre, and this planted the idea of one day coming back to do one of the occasional trips that are run through the canal tunnel.

There are three railway tunnels, two single bores currently disused, and the double track tunnel that carries today's Trans Pennine Expresses between Manchester and Leeds. One of the single bore railway tunnels is used for emergency vehicles to access the canal and railway tunnels, though there is a proposal by Network Rail to re-open all three rail tunnels to increase rail capacity on this vital trans-pennine route. However, the first of the four tunnels through the Hill at Standedge was the canal tunnel.

Today Peter, my wife Chris, and I made the trip through that tunnel.

Our boat awaits at Diggle at lunchtime today, having worked through the tunnel from Marsden this morning

This 'tug' attached to the back of our boat is electrically powered. The batteries are in the tug, powering propellers on the tug and on the boat. The combination can be driven from the boat or from the tug.

The control panel at the front of the boat. It is steered by the silver 'sidestick' control on the left of the panel; push it left to go right, and right to go left! Very confusing as I was to find out later.

Entering the tunnel 'extension' at Diggle. The tunnel was opened in 1811, but the plaque above the portal carries the date 1893 (double click on the picture to see it full size, as with any picture on this blog) as this western end was extended to allow the building of long gone railway infrastructure above the canal.

In we go!

The 'cut and cover' construction of the extension can be seen here, with stone walls and a brick-arch roof.

The roof is flat here, and made of concrete - some sections have a roof of metal girders - as we are still in the tunnel extension at this point

Now we are in the original 1811 tunnel, brick lined here.

The restoration work before re-opening included stabilising some sections with rock bolts, or as here lining the tunnel with steel mesh onto which concrete was sprayed

Water cascades down where the ventilation shafts enter the tunnel roof

A brick-lined section

Much of the tunnel is unlined rock

The light at the end of the tunnel, but still around an hour before we complete the journey. It was about here where I had a go at steering the boat. I had to concentrate to take account of the 'reversed' steering (push the joystick right to go left, and vice versa) but soon got the hang of it. It requires some anticipation a bit like flying (though an Avro Tudor with such reversed controls caused the death of chief designer Roy Chadwick among others on take off from Woodford in the late 1940s).
There is some speed-related delay in the boat's response, though it's a far greater delay than any aeroplane I've flown, but of course not dissimilar to steering a conventional tiller-steered narrow boat (done a lot of that as well!). And of course the walls are far from straight and the tunnel narrow, so one has to 'weave' to avoid hitting the sides. I must have done OK as the official driver congratulated me, saying "what are you doing a week on Saturday?"

Closer to the Marsden end, and at other places as well, brick arches strengthen the roof

Nearly there! It's quite cold in the tunnel and it will be good to emerge into the warm sunshine of this Indian summer, with its balmy mid 20s temperatures

Just before we emerge at Marsden, the wide arch overhead indicates where the railway, which was on our right when entered and almost immediately crossed to our left where it remained for over three miles, passes overhead to our right hand side again.

The Marsden portal

Tunnel End Cottages now form the cafe at the visitor centre at Marsden

Close to Tunnel End is the former canal warehouse which was converted into the Standedge Visitors' Centre.

After a look around the visitor centre we walked the half mile or so into Marsden to catch the bus back to Diggle where we left our car. It took over two hours to travel though the tunnel by boat, but the bus had us back in Diggle inside fifteen minutes.

At £8 per head this trip through the longest, highest and deepest canal tunnel in Britain is good value.

A fascinating day out!


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