Ten - Longest, Deepest, Highest - the Standedge Tunnel
3rd week of June 2005
A week or two earlier, when I was in Whaley Bridge at the end of the Peak Forest Canal I'd met a fellow who performed a perfect rendition of that teeth sucking thing when I mentioned I was going over the Huddersfield Narrow singlehanded. "Ah," he said, "allow plenty of time. Plenty of time...! If you can get help, I should take it."
The Huddersfield Narrow Canal has a reputation for difficult locks, and plenty of them, and, most importantly, a struggle to keep water levels in the canal sufficient for practical navigation. 'Practical navigation'? That's a rather po-faced way of describing it. What we are talking about here is enough water for a boat to float! At times when I was on the canal, there wasn't...!
As I described in the last chapter the early parts of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal are not very attractive. The locks are padlocked, they are not used as much as they could be, making their operation plain hard work, and the canal itself wends its way round a landscape formed by industrial decline. However, there is promise in the air, almost literally.
Evoke Psalm 121 - "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills..." and do just that! Whilst all around there are boarded up and decaying factories and mills, beyond them are the Pennine Hills, powerful and magnificent, and they hint at their attraction with glimpses of empty, windswept peaks. The Huddersfield Narrow Canal goes right over them!
In the late 18th century the Pennine Hills created a natural barrier between two distinct areas of the waterways system. Changes in the industries of Lancashire and Yorkshire created a need for a canal to connect the two areas but the project was seen as a huge undertaking and most were discouraged by the enormity of the task involved. Proposals for routes basically following the existing Rochdale canal were rejected in 1792, but in 1793 a more direct route via the Ashton Canal and the Tame and Colne Valleys, a route used for centuries by packhorses, was proposed.
The Huddersfield Narrow Canal opened in 1798 from Huddersfield to Marsden on the eastern side and Dobcross to Ashton on the western side. However, in between lay Marsden Moor. The proposal was to build a tunnel but, as with the formation of the canal, the scale of the physical challenges that building a suitable tunnel would produce was daunting in the extreme.
Work on the Standedge Tunnel started in 1799 and was beset with inefficiencies and mistakes from the beginning. Excavation began at either end simultaneously and it was some time before it was realised that the Diggle end was being built several feet higher than the Marsden end! Correcting this by undermining caused many collapses and work was also hampered by the large quantities of water that seeped into the workings.
Excavation work was done entirely with picks, chisels and shovels and was lit entirely by candle light.
It seems building work then was not unlike building work today... The tunnel engineer, Benjamin Outram, had many other commitments (where have we heard this before?!) and the job was left in the hands of a young and inexperienced fellow, Nicholas Brown. I wonder if he kept popping off, then coming back with bits from B & Q which looked much more DIY than they did specialist canal engineer stuff. No, of course he didn't, but I bet he would have done if he could! Back then and on this particular project there was much remedial work done and at one stage the tunnel project was nearly abandoned.
Benjamin Outram resigned as tunnel engineer and the well-known and experienced canal engineer Thomas Telford was brought in to rescue the project. Building continued from both ends but excavation was also carried out in the middle. Air shafts were sunk from the surface and then excavation work went east and west away from them. The less-than-burgeoning tunnel was, not surprisingly, thus somewhat crooked and at one stage it looked very much as though the two main excavations would not meet in the middle and that the workers would inadvertently build two tunnels!
The tunnel was built, however, and eventually opened to traffic in 1811 thus becoming a trading route 17 years after the project first started. The tunnel was not easy to use, however. It had no towpath and barges were 'legged' through by men lying on their backs, on boards laid on the barges, and 'walking' along the walls and roof of the tunnel. A transit of the tunnel could take over four hours. The tunnel was a single barge wide and there were passing places along its route. As traffic increased there were many fights between teams of leggers deep within the tunnel as barges met and refused to give way! In due course a traffic management scheme was developed, with eastbound traffic giving way to westbound traffic in four-hour periods. The Canal Company decided that only 'official' leggers should move barges and boaters were charged a shilling for the use of the leggers. The 'official' leggers were accommodated in cottages at either end of the tunnel and much congestion was caused. This is all a bit M25-esque, is it not...?! Still, being a tunnel it didn't wobble - did it?!
The canal financiers and backers struggled to get their investment back and after only a short period of prosperity the Huddersfield and Manchester Railway Company, whose railway followed the same course as the tunnel, bought the canal and the tunnel. They built more tunnels parallel to the original, using the canal tunnel to remove spoil and, today, there are actually three railway tunnels in the Standedge Tunnel 'complex', as well as the canal tunnel, of course. Only one railway tunnel is still in use today and is part of the main Liverpool to Leeds line.
Read more about all of this at http://www.penninewaterways.co.uk/huddersfield/standedge1.htm and follow the various links.
On 16th June I was on the upper part of the Peak Forest Canal near the village of Woodley. Ashton-Under-Lyne and the start of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal lay a few miles ahead. I was not sure where I was making for, but I saw there was a Tesco at Stalybridge and where there's a Tesco there are moorings - they are very good like that. Several miles of canal, but only six locks lay between me and Stalybridge.
I don't remember a great deal about the early locks, except that they were heavy, stiff and hard work. The opening miles at the western end of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal do not hold much promise, save for the backcloth of the Pennines. I know, I went over this bit a few paragraphs above - I'll press on! After turning off the Peak Forest Canal and into the Portland Basin at Aston-Under-Lyne I had to negotiate a couple of tight places where boats were moored next to crumbling mills and the opposite bank was falling into the canal. I realise now this is actually the very eastern end of the Aston Canal. Immediately thereafter are two short, modern tunnels, complete, of course, with ubiquitous graffiti, which carry the canal under first a road and then a large Asda superstore. Things improve as one passes under a railway bridge and enters Ashton Old Wharf. This is where the Huddersfield Narrow Canal really starts (shades of The Goons there!)...
I bashed on, got to Stalybridge at quarter past six in the evening and tied up outside Tesco. Ah, Tesco - that oasis in the desert that is the canal system provisions supply! How poor we have become at shopping (am I really writing this?). No doubt in the places through which I pass there are butchers, bakers, greengrocers and general stores. Maybe there are but in reality I think you'll find there is now only a Co-op metro or whatever they call those shops which have Co-op written on the outside of them but inside only have endless rows of fizzy drinks, tins of hotdog sausages, shrink-wrapped blocks of white 'mild' (mild - who buys white mild, for Chris'sakes?!) cheddar cheese and endless piles of magazines with names like "Zoo", "Shout", "Plank", "Hot Whizz", "Crossword Mega Jumbo Annual", all with exclusives about singularly unattractive and unheard-of celebrities based on lurid pictures involving underwear, and piles of whatever local paper is shouting the latest by-pass drink-drive misunderstanding and soccer local derby travesty from their headlines. Anyway; let's be generous. The places through which I pass have all these individual shops where one could buy all the bread, milk, cheese, vegetables, meat, booze, loo rolls, J-cloths, toothpaste etc etc that one could want. It would, however, involve marching up and down local streets seeking the places out and then wrestling with the concept of unprepackaged food. Delightful but something of an unsettling throwback, perhaps. So I buy a few essentials and wait. Then a Tesco hoves into view, they being built near canals, it seems. Better if it were a Sainsbury (I have enough experience of the various places now to be able to make a rational judgement, ha ha...), even better if it were a Waitrose. Less good if it were a Marks & Spencer which seem only to do small-scale 'supermarkets' which they call 'Only Food' or something - as if you are going to ask if this apple comes in any other colours and do you have it in a size ten?!, or can I exchange this packet of spicy chicken wings, I've kept the receipt, for a boy's sized string vest? - and charge pretentious prices for shiny food in extravagant packaging.
I went through the Stalybridge Tesco like a man possessed. I was moored 30 yards from it, on the other side of the canal next to the bridge that leads straight to its front door. It is open 24 hours a day and it has everything. I bought all the usual food items plus picture frames, candles, rewritable CDs, non-rewritable CDs, music CDs, DVDs and could have bought a pair of jeans for £10 (wish I had; I wrecked a pair the other day), a polo shirt for £3 or something and so on and so forth. Tesco stuff is not the greatest stuff but it ain't bad either, and they make it all so easy...! I had to get away from there. Barbecue sets and garden furniture were crying out to be purchased and I could feel my resolve weakening. Need? No of course I do not have a need for this stuff, but it is universally acknowledged in today's society that 'need' is the most redundant word in the English language. Look around you right now. What of what you can see do you really need? Exactly. My Mother used to say of me when a child (when I was a child that is; we like to think she had not had me when she was still a child) that as soon as I had tuppence to rub together I'd go out and spend it. She was both right and wrong. Much later a friend of mine Willy correctly identified that as soon as I had tuppence to rub together I went out and spent threepence! True; still true and I actually wish it weren't.
Otherwise what of Stalybridge? The Stalybridge Restored Section was the biggest single project of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal restoration. During redevelopment in the 1960s the original canal had been filled in and the land sold. Part of the restoration saw the building of an 800 yard new section, complete with new bridges and locks. There was talk of using the River Tame but a large factory closed in 1996 enabling the original line of the canal to be used. Various locks were refurbished, some were wholly or partially resited and one, Lock 6W (the locks on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal are, uniquely, numbered from either end of the west and east sections of the canal to the Standedge Tunnel, so there are Locks 1W, 2W, 3W etc on the western side as there are locks 1E, 2E, 3E on the - which side...? Exactly!) was, Lock 6W this is, moved to be a focal point of the restored section. The fabric of the restored section is most impressive. It could be so wonderful. My GEO Surveys/British Waterways chart describes the restored canal at Stalybridge as being 'now central to the regeneration of the town'. No doubt, but it would be a pity indeed if by the time the regeneration of the town has progressed enough to be noticed the restored section of the canal has degenerated to a level at which it slows the very regeneration of the town to which it is, apparently, central. I mean there is only so much graffiti, broken tiles and paving slabs, cigarette butts, broken bottles and loitering youths the canal environs can take, isn't there? For only the second time in four months - and the first time was, I think, an unfortunate coincidence for the bloke looked genuinely embarrassed when he'd done it - I was spat at from a bridge as I went under it. The gob missed but oh how I wanted a Dirty Harry moment. I am one of the, what must be, not-many Englishmen of my generation who have actually fired a Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum revolver! In controlled conditions in a private shooting club in America with my great friend and at-that-moment-revolver-firing-mentor Ted at my side I fired off a host of rounds into paper targets a few yards in front of me. Did okay too, it seems. None of those targets walked out of there that day, I can tell you! Would I have liked to have .357-blown the empty-threatening look off that cretin's lardy, baseball-capped, smirking, underprivileged, socially-disadvantaged yet potential-filled, pathetic face? Yup - but only in my mind and here, on this page. I'd sooner get hold of the bugger, and all his mates, and coach them on to greater and better things. Maybe I should. It is something I am thinking about as I write this in late July 2005. Coaching that is. I know of a 'life coach' (they call themselves something more appropriate to the clever, skilled work that they do, but let's call them that for now) who said she'd coach me. Didn't but she knows me well enough to suggest that perhaps I am more the coachee than the coacher, even with training, but let's see... As for the spitting crew: at that moment, where they were and where they presumably still are, in similar moments, they stood and stand little chance of improvement. The regeneration of Stalybridge has yet to begin, but the degeneration of the restored canal section moves on apace. Pity...
The next day I got out of there in good order at the crack of just before noon! I wonder what I was doing before that? I'm not sure for my logbook, on which I am relying for all of this does not say, but I bet I was in Tesco again. In fact I know I was but I am not going to go into that again!
Knowing what I thought I knew about the Huddersfield Narrow Canal meant that I was prepared for a pretty torrid time. Torrid in what form was I was not quite sure but I was ready. Lack of depth is the signature of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal. This is not to say that it can't put the Reformation and the Restoration into context, or the works of Gilbert and George leave it confused and inadequate and, hey, Mozart wrote some nice tunes. It just means it's bloody shallow! As I staggered out of Stalybridge, via another restored lock, the reeds and water lilies on either side of the boat appeared to rush toward the stern end of FRILFORD. Which is exactly what they were doing and were only prevented from ending their moment as some sort of British Waterways/FRILFORD produced canalised guacamole by the fact that they are rooted to the canal bottom. In shallow water one can open the throttle, power up the engine, spin the propeller faster and all that happens is that one sucks water into the propeller faster. The boat goes no faster; indeed it 'sits down'. The stern drops and, I know this because I have a GPS - remember that?! - the boat slows down...!
Thus we made our way slowly from the restored lock along a section past 'light industry'. 'Light industry' means small industrial units doing just about anything. One of them had model motorbikes lined up outside. Not the ghastly mini-Moto things which are the scourge of the towpath at present, but real nice-looking motorbikes, one being a fully-tricked out Easy Rider-like 'chopper' and, in their smallness, rather clever... Most had the ubiquitous (that word again, but, you see, there is nothing new on the canals; just a reworking, sometimes wonderfully, sometimes rather ordinarily, of a template which was established early on in one's travels) white Transit van standing without and the usual number of, apparently disused, pallets were stacked haphazardly around. Why is it that those in the transport industry (and my brother is, so I know something - always assuming he knows something! - of this) are crying out for pallets, whilst all the while there are masses of pallets lying around all over the place. I know - I've seen 'em!
Before the next lock, and is not to be a lock-by-lock telling of this story. Have I done that to date? Well, I have come close to it and have been criticised for it so will avoid the trap but, moving on, before the next lock I came across 'the pylon'. It straddles the canal and amplifies a phenomenon that is known to all who stray close to these things. They fizz... They don't, maybe, but the power contained in the lines they carry does.
Shall I 'never be the same' having gone under that one? Nope. I think I passed beneath it and remained the same. I wish it had given me the self-confidence to make a fist of this tale, or to not have to wait three weeks before I could come to the realisation, again, maybe, that what I am doing is not running away but running to... and that I really must write something down, if only to remind myself how it was and never mind anyone else, who I cannot imagine would be interested anyway. Except that they are, apparently, which is daunting. And then to have the inclination to write something. How many times have I have sat before this blank page, the modern incarnation being the blank computer screen, and been unable to write anything? 'Tis a rhetorical question, of course. "Just start!" people cry, "then it will start to come - get it down and edit it later; jus' get it down..." No, dear well-wishers. Sometimes there is absolutely nothing at all. I started this very piece about a week ago and could write nothing of my own. The stuff about the Standedge Tunnel I got from websites and my GEO charts and when it came to writing about making my way to Stalybridge and beyond - nothing. Tonight? Can't stop writing! All bollocks no doubt but it is my bollocks and I'm writing it for me. If you enjoy it too; wonderful. If not, please don't crucify me on it.
After the pylon (thank God we are back on the canal!) there is a lock. In truth there are lots of locks - my logbook is stark, giving only lock number and the time I arrived and went through them. Suffice it to say I went from Lock 7W at 1148 hrs to Lock 20W at 1650 hrs, via the Scout Tunnel at 1326 hrs.
The canal was delightful. Shallow, certainly, making progress slow, but a classic (I presume, for being a boater of only three months experience I am not allowing myself to accept this as normal) rural canal. Clear, dark, interesting (but shallow, right? - Ed.) water bounded by full, magnificent overhanging trees sparkling in the backlit glory of the sun above and locks which showed much character. Easier to use now, but the wooden gates of which, and sometimes the stone walls of which, sprouted all sorts of improbably bosky vegetation. Each lock took us up another twelve feet or so. We were rising towards interesting times.
Later the canal approached the sublime. Still shallow, still slow and hard-going, still went aground in places (that happens - just live with it: the boat's made of steel....!) but rather fancy houses stood elegantly behind lawns and borders which swept down to the canal edge. Luxuriant trees dipped elegantly into the water and throughout, the Pennines showed green and purple as a constant and magnificent backdrop. All in all, the western side of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal was being very kind to its rookie visitor.
Any rookie visitor in fact. If any narrowboaters have any ambition at all I insist they go over the Huddersfield Narrow Canal. It is a fine canal. Go west to east, though. I met people coming west who'd, obviously, started in the east. Enquiries as to the quality of their trip so far were hesitant at best and, in one case, liberally coated in f-word expletives. "You're okay now...!" I exchanged encouragingly.
"How far to Stalybridge? I gather that's okay," came the retort. I told him how far. And that's all I told him...
Just round the corner I found a balloon! One of those 'racing' ones that get filled with helium at garden fetes, gets set free and, with the hopes and aspirations of many young and fine souls carry cards off across the country in the hope of becoming the one to be found the furthest from their launch location. A prize for the launcher and the finder it seems! The one I saw was inflated and tugging at the tall grasses on the side of the canal in which its string had got stuck. I was past it on FRILFORD before I realised it was a 'racing' balloon. I reversed to collect. Simple enough thing to write - "I reversed to collect it..."! Shallow water. Boat goes everywhere but anywhere when in reverse in shallow water. And, yes, there was a bit of wind. The bows decided that the stern should not be followed. The canal decided that reversing at such a time and in such a place was foolishness and did not help. Indeed it tried to stop me; several times I went aground. Anyway - after almost falling in the water both getting off the boat and getting back on, I retrieved the balloon (53 32.102'N 002 01.316'W by the way - GPS again!).
For the next day or so it bobbed about inside FRILFORD variously hiding under the table or hanging from the ceiling (okay - it was pushing up against the ceiling but you know what I mean...!) all the while carrying its precious cargo, being the card on which its finder, me, had to fill in his details. I started to feel like the Tom Hanks character in Cast Away, anthropomophically befriending a basketball - a balloon in my case. Except I knew I had to kill that balloon in order for it to realise its destiny. Hum...!
Uppermill... Uppermill, Uppermill, Uppermill! There have been a number of places through which I have passed about which I have said "I could live here...!" Uppermill sits at the top of that list (except that I am writing this in York of which more much later...!).
One comes through a new bridge, which is actually more like a small tunnel, straight into Lock 20W, and I suggest that this is a welcome sight for any weary traveller. It has a sense of order after what, behind one, was, perhaps, sometimes lacking a strict regime. As far as I was concerned I'd had enough for the day. The lock is like all the others; quite deep so one cannot see what lies in store as one motors into it. I threw my lines and my windlass up and over the walls of the lock, as is my wont when locking 'uphill', as I have done so many, many, times before and climbed up the small, steel-runged lock ladder. Before me was a charming village or small town with an attractive little canal basin nuzzled under trees, looking down on the village. Being man-made structures there are time when canals overlook theirs environs, rather than being deep within them as is a river! A little place under a tree looking like it was made just for me to moor there called to me from the lock. An old man on a rather fine-looking traditional narrowboat smiled at me as I inched my way slowly, for I was in no hurry now, out of the lock. "Any reason why I cannot moor under that tree over there?" I asked him as I drifted past.
"No - seems pretty relaxed here. If you can get in there, take it," was his reply. I took it.
Had a fine weekend in Uppermill. It is like Chelsea, Fulham or, dare I say it, Henley on Thames in the Pennines. There are parks and a river, and the canal, and fine shops, a lot with designer clothes and designer lifestyle aspirations, and pubs and restaurants and a supermarket and a petrol filling station and a museum and all that sort of thing. It nestles bellow a dramatic ridge, on which sits 'Pots and Pans' the local nickname for a war memorial to the fallen of WW1. Behind the ridge the rolling upland transmogrifies into Saddleworth Moor; a name which has a certain timbre for anyone who remembers the British news of the early 1960s.
In Uppermill I decided to get a haircut. Not because this appeared to be a haircutting centre, but because I needed one. I counted seven hairdressers and I wasn't really looking for them, as such! The bloke with the classic stripy pole-type hairdressing saloon (two rickety chairs, sharp clippers always set to a Number One, or a Number Two for the wimps, plus remarkably old copies of Rolling Stone and Classic Cars magazines) was closed for a fortnight for holidays from that very morning so I went into another one, filled, as it was, by older ladies in various stages of perm and blue rinse! On leaving, which was the only thing to do given that I hadn't booked, I went off in search of a newspaper. Not difficult: there are card shops and a small Post Office and all that sort of thing right there on the main street. Walking further I came to a bike shop with the most fantastic bikes in it. Cycling, I have come to realise, is a big thing in the north - much more so than in the south. Remember that spending thing - the thing that flies in the face of the 'need' word? I have a perfectly good Trek bike which I use more than you'd think I use it, but, boy, could I have spent threepence (a lot more, actually) in there! Next door, or thereabouts was another hairdresser. I walked in to a rather effete man, a charming and, apparently, thoroughly heterosexual, attractive woman and big red leather sofas. Apparently their next booking was a notorious no-show and they'd start me now on the basis he wouldn't show. I got the apparently heterosexual woman, which pleased me somewhat, and enjoyed a thoroughly good haircut, including that hair washing procedure which seems to me to be a bit unnecessary except that it is virtually a head massage which, never mind the seamier end of the more 'stimulating' massage menu, is, genuinely, an enjoyable experience.
The following night I decided to explore the pubs of Uppermill. I don't usually do this, preferring to have a few drinks on FRILFORD, whilst watching whatever bit of the world is in the vicinity, go by. Uppermill, however, comes alight at night and I was drawn to it, via a couple of heart-starters on my foredeck. I drink Scotch. That's it! There are three pubs in a line down the main street of Uppermill. No doubt there are many more elsewhere, but I focused (ha...!) on the three. In one of them an utterly charming Polish barmaid poured what seemed to be, no 'was...', a huge scotch into a glass, my having asked for a double, and poured me another a few minutes later when I decided that I'd tarry a while in the name of EU expansion (not that she was talking to me, I have to say...). On arriving in the pub next door and asking for a double scotch, enough scotch in which to bath a large dog came across the bar. Had a couple there before moving on to the bigger place a bit up the road, where the crowds were thick upon the pavement. That's thick, not sick.
"Large scotch, please.." I asked of the highly efficient, slightly harassed barmaid.
"By large do you mean a double?" she asked, shouting above the raucous hubub. Silly question, particularly of a barmaid, I thought, but, of course, answered yes anyway.
"It's just that in this town they come as blah blah blah (I can't remember what she said but it was big units!) measures anyway - do you still want two?"
"Ah, right," I found myself saying, a little concerned. "Okay, yes... a double."
Turns out that, notwithstanding the little heart-starters I'd had on FRILFORD before setting out, I'd actually been drinking quadruples all night. Several of them. Well; quite a lot of them, actually.
In the spilling-into-the road pub I sat outside and called Adrian Donovan, who'd been my skipper on our British Steel Challenge Round the World Race in 1992-93. His brother-in-law had narrowboated around Britain a few years ago and Adrian was good enough to keep in touch with me and my progress. I know I spoke to him for I am recounting the occasion of the call now. I remember we talked for some time, maybe twenty minutes or more. As to what we said - ain't got a clue!
I staggered home after that and whilst I was a little 'slow' the next day it didn't matter for it poured with torrential rain most of the day, the Sunday, to a soundtrack of really loud and close thunderclaps. God really was banging his pots and pans about that day! The American F1 Grand Prix, to receive which I had rigged all sorts of complicated satellite disk things involving extension cables and chairs set up in the car park below the canal, was a farce and I had to go. It's then I killed the balloon! Pricked it, flattened it, wrote a letter about it, put both into an envelope and mailed them back to the primary school whence it came. I checked its flight distance using my GPS. I reckon that balloon had flown about 900 feet. No, not up... along! Will we win the race?! Thereafter I bade farewell to Uppermill, which I can recommend to anyone, and set off, in the fading light of evening, to Lock 24W which is the holding point for boats making a west to east passage of the Standedge Tunnel. I was remarkably clearheaded and genuinely appreciative of Uppermill and what it has to offer. Go there if you can. Go by canal boat if you can, that's best, but go anyway. Surprisingly attractive.
On Monday morning the British Waterways people were at Lock 24W by eight o'clock. There were two of us: a couple with dogs on a 58 footer, and me on FRILFORD. Lock 24W is locked to helped preserve water and one can only proceed up to the Diggle end of the Standedge Tunnel when British Waterways come, at set times, to unlock the lock.
The couple set of first, with me a couple of locks behind them. They kindly 'dropped the lock' (i.e. let the water out of it, or, at least opened a bottom paddle so the lock would be empty by the time I got there). This meant I could drive FRILFORD straight at the lock gates and open them with the bows. This is not hooligan behaviour - this is standard canal practice on single locks, and it makes for efficient operation. The nine locks to Diggle, being 24W to 32W are pretty close together so I kept the couple \pretty much in sight all the way up. We made good time and were tied up close to Standedge Tunnel by soon after ten o'clock. The weather was clear, the sun shining from a clear blue sky. British Waterways were due at about noon.
At about ten to noon British Waterways called. The storms of the day before had knocked out the communications in the tunnel and we would not be allowed to transit the tunnel until they were fixed. Later that day, they thought. Tomorrow at the latest…!
It was to be the Tuesday, in fact. British Waterways called back, they are very good like that, to say that work to get the communications was going well but they would not be finished to day. I didn’t mind. It was the first day of Wimbledon 2005 and I spent the day near the TV, with Sue Barker and friends. Perhaps I should have been out on the moors, but, hey, I get masses of fresh air and England’s Green and Pleasant Land when standing on the back of FRILFORD moving through it. That I can do most days. Watching Cliesters’ power, Federers’ skill and Natalie Dechi running about in those shorts (what?), all commented on and analysed by tennis’ great and good, is a rare treat and I was not about to miss it.
Tuesday was cold and wet – a good day to be in a tunnel, in fact! The British Waterways crew arrived (“weather’s better at the other end!” they joked) and measured the two narrowboats. Something of a formality for the other boat as they had been through the tunnel a number of times. The measuring is important – if one’s boat is not exactly to the optimum size (beam 6 feet 10 inches, height 7 feet, length not so important but a maximum of 70 feet) one will not be allowed to transit the tunnel. Knowing this British Waterways still does not measure boats until they at the tunnel entrance. On the eastern side of the tunnel there were two boats turned away at one time. The tunnel manager was fill of regret, claiming the usually turn away only about six boats all season so to have two at one time was very rare. The boaters themselves were furious and remonstrated with the BW man, asking why they wait until they, the boaters, had struggled through the all the locks, right to the tunnel entrance, before being measured. A good question, the answer to which I did not hear as I was asked to move off to the next lock. I admire British Waterways very much for everything to do with the Standedge Tunnel, but I must admit I, too, find it odd that they do not establish much earlier on (like in Huddersfield in the east and Ashton-Under-Lyne in the west) whether a particular boat will go through or not.
FRILFORD passed her measuring but was declared to be ‘tall’ and would be first in the convoy. She is tall, actually. Below she has plenty of headroom for all but the tallest people (a young man who stands over 6’4” claimed he could not stand up straight in her one day, but he’s exceptional!) and I was just a little concerned that she might be just over the limit. It can be that narrowboat builders inadvertently add an inch or so to dimensions during a build and this is all it takes for a boat to be refused transit of the Standedge Tunnel.
As the rain fell steadily from skies leaden with low, scudding, clouds the BW crew prepared the boats for transit. They create a convoy by lashing boats together behind each other and have large, heavy, shaped, rubber spacers between them. The lead boat, mine in this instance, is lashed to an electric tug unit which has a passenger module ahead of it. Each boat in the convoy is covered in thick heavy rubber sheeting to protect it from any damage from contact with protruding rocks in the tunnel. Finally a fender-off person, dressed in full wet weather protective clothing, with lifejacket, walkie-talkie and powerful torch, is placed on the stern of each boat in the convoy. A motorman/watch keeper is stationed on the tug unit and the skipper/pilot takes up a steering position at the controls at the front of the passenger module. The system is relatively simple, highly effective and works perfectly. I was most impressed.
The transit process is most impressive also. Aside from the convoy crew there is a support crew who monitor the convoy though the canal tunnel. The support crew drive a van through one of the other tunnels and position themselves at link/lookout points along the canal tunnel route. I seem to remember there are three, maybe four, such points. The support crew log the departure time of the convoy and are standing at the lookout point to check the convoy past it. The convoy pilot is in contact with the support chief and they speak briefly to each other at the lookouts. If the convoy suffers a problem it can, be monitored and dealt with at a lookout point. Alternatively if one of the passengers cannot cope with the transit, and it might be daunting to some, then the support crew will take them off the convoy at a lookout and drive them in the van to the other end of the tunnel. In such a case the convoy waits at the lookout point until the van returns and thus can continue monitoring the rest of the tunnel transit. It is a very good system and most reassuring. Were a convoy ever to get significantly overdue at a lookout the support crew are already on hand to instigate any action needed. The local fire service is fully trained on tunnel rescue and carry out many training exercises in the tunnel. I know this because British Waterways even lay on a guide in the passenger module. The guide is a local, recently retired, fireman so has all the experience and first-aid skills required if anything were to happen. He assured me nothing of any significance had happened but that all involved with the convoys are trained to a high state of readiness anyway.
The day I went through the tunnel the couple in the other boat did not come on the passenger module because they had their dogs with them. Dogs are not allowed on the convoy. They were actually local and had got a friend to drive them over the hills to the other side, where they’d meet the convoy and get back on their boat. So for the three and a half miles of the tunnel and the two and a half hours it took to make its transit I was the crew’s only passenger!
So what was it like in there? Magnificent! No two feet of the tunnel’s length are the same. In places it is quite big; in other places it is alarmingly small. In some places, as with other tunnels, it is brick lined; a marvellous testament to the skill of the builders and bricklayers with hundreds of thousands of bricks, millions no doubt, built in a long, perfect arch, and not one seemingly out of place. In other places, as part of the modern restoration, the tunnel has been lined with a concrete render, but in a lot of places, most impressively, the tunnel is hewn out of solid rock. To this day large chisel marks, masses of them, are clearly visible on parts of the roof. It is a marvel to think that the whole tunnel was dug using picks, chisels and shovels all the while lit by nothing more than candlelight. What a huge engineering undertaking. I wonder if we can get the same gang back to build the Olympic 2012 stadiums?! (Stadiums, hear ye: I can’t stand it when people insist on using ‘stadia’ as the plural of stadium. Yes, I know – it’s Latin. Well, no - it was Latin. It is now English and the plural of stadium is stadiums… isn’t it?)
The convoy moved off slowly. The skipper/pilot sits in an external cockpit sat the front of the passenger module but he was quite happy for me to stand up there with him. He controls the convoy with a series of joysticks, variously operating the tug unit behind the passenger module, and a couple of bow thrusters either side of the bows. Initially we inch forward at about a mile an hour, but once the convoy is well into the tunnel and is ‘established’ he opens up a bit and we accelerate… to about two miles an hour! We cannot sustain such heady speed, however, as we we constantly having to slow down to negotiate tricky tight bits. The support crew were on station just as I described (Well, of course they were; what I described is what I saw!) and hailed the skipper as we passed their positions. The guide kindly gave me all sorts of information as we went along and later we ate lunch together. He produced a sandwich from his bag and I had pork pies, juice, coffee and biscuits. Picnicing at a mile an hour 700 feet below Marsden Moor over a mile from either end of the tunnel. I hope all who worked so hard to build the tunnel are pleased we are still using it.
At one stage a cry went up from the rear of the convoy and the pilot brought the thing to a halt. It seems one of the fending off people on one of the boats, mine I think, wanted to check the lashings. This is pretty standard procedure. The stopping of the convoy to do this was introduced after it was realised that having the fending off blokes crawling along the top of the boats in the convoy and back was not good practice – especially in the bare rock bits! It’s tight down there in places. Could be too tight… After a few minutes of checks the ‘all clear’ was sounded and off we went again.
The fending off blockes certainly earn their money. I was allowed to walk around the passenger module and out to the open bit at the back where the tug unit it. I could see them through the lights, distant troglodytes pushing and shoving against the walls of the tunnel. At several points water comes down from the roof of the tunnel. Small streams; one only has to lean to one side to avoid them. Except for one. I was warned to stay in the passenger module for that one. Indeed even the pilot left his controls and stepped back under the roof of the module for that one. A flow of water the size of a decent babbling brook poured noisily from the centre of the tunnel roof and hammered on the roof of the module. The guide, the pilot and me – we were safely out of it. The watchkeeper was able to step away from the worst of it. The fending off crew? They pass right under it and get soaked to the skin. And is it bloody cold? Bloody cold…!
Eventually the classic ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ appears and, after an age, for it always takes an age to get to the light at the end of the tunnel, we emerged into the light at the Marsden portal. And a very pleasant day it was too; the BW crew had been right about the weather at this end! Very quickly the boats were unwrapped and separated from the convoy and we were asked to move off down the next ten locks. The BW service does not end at the tunnel, however. The next ten locks are close together and, as part of the service, the BW tunnel crew work the locks for you whilst you stay aboard. Marvellous!
Tuesday 21st June 2005 – the summer solstice – and a great day for me on FRILFORD. The best? Maybe – except that I don’t have any ‘best’ days. There have been some wonderful days; there have been and will be many more I know, and I would not want to rate them. I could maybe pick a worst day, but I would not want to do that either. Anyway, being on the canals is no different to being on the high seas during the British Steel Challenge Round the World Race 1992-93 in that regard. You can have some absolutely ghastly days or watches, but once one is through them and settled down once again they mellow in the memory and become part of the whole.
Before leaving Marsden I thanked the BW crew heartily and slipped them enough of the contents of my wallet to get themselves a few drinks. I also told them I’d write to British Waterways in appreciation of the whole Standedge Tunnel experience (I emailed them; they emailed back and thanked my warmly). The BW manager and the crew seemed very pleased and grateful tat I was prefered to do that. It seems there are letters which get written to British Waterways about them and the Standedge Tunnel but the letters tend to be complaints about bits of damage done to boats. Boaters seem ready to knock lumps out of their boats (“It is a contact sport… ha, ha” is something you hear everywhere) on the navigation generally and in the locks, but are loath to accept that, with the best will in the world, this might happen when others are in charge! FRILFORD now carries a bit of a scar on her port bow. I don’t know how it got there but it was not there at the Diggle end of the tunnel and it was there at the Marsden end! Hey – a campaign wound: I’ve put enough of them around her steely exterior. She carries that particular one with honour.
I tied up for the night and took pictures of the sun going down sometime after 11.00 pm. Ahead of me lay the eastern side of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal with its many locks, shallow pounds and wonderful scenery, then the oasis (another one!) that is Aspley Basin in Huddersfield itself, although I did not know that at the time, and interesting rivers beyond. My arriving in Ripon, once little more than a concept, was now a reality only as many days away as I cared to make it.
All well! All very well…
- this is me working on this piece at 2 o'clock in the morning the