Sunday, 10 March 2019

UK's longest canal tunnels 1 - Standedge

Mega Tunnels 1 - Standedge
March 2019
I recently had a two part article published in Waterways World (Feb and March 2019) under the title Super Tunnels.

The article contained a few images but not all the ones I found and I thought it would be interesting to feature a wider selection of images, along with a version of the text in a series of blog posts.
For the full article I would recommend you get a copy of the relevant months editions of the magazine in either hard or soft copy.
I will be posting a focus on the 14 tunnels which are over 2,000 yards in length starting with the mighty Standedge. Interestingly, I have very recently come across a quite amazing 30 minute YouTube vlog by Martin Zero of Manchester, in which he undertakes a perilous exploration of the two disused railway tunnels and the linked canal tunnel. The link is here:
Get a cup of tea, sit down and enjoy.

I would hasten to point out that this is not open for public access and I would not suggest anyone else tries to gain access to what is a very dangerous environment. But it does make compelling viewing!

1. Standedge Tunnel
The Standedge Tunnel on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal commands the top spot in terms of canal tunnels by just about every measure.
At 5,698 yards long, it burrows under the Pennine ridge for well over three miles and is a full mile longer than its nearest rival. Not only is it the longest but it is also the highest (643 ft above sea level) and the deepest (636 ft below the moors) and can therefore justifiably claim to be the king of the tunnels.

It was built over a period of 17 years and was finally completed by Thomas Telford in 1811, creating a direct connection between Manchester in the west and Huddersfield in the east. To fully appreciate this wonder of the waterways you really need to walk up to the Pennine Way which crosses the line of the tunnel, and from this lofty vantage point it is possible to look west to the Diggle end and then east to the hill which blocks the view to Marsden. I first climbed this hill about 10 years ago and every time I return I wonder at the audacity of the early engineers who stood on the wild moors in the 1700’s armed only with explosives, pickaxes and wheelbarrows and concluded that they could drive a navigable tunnel all the way through the stubborn Pennine rock.
To be honest, the tunnel took far longer to build than they expected and swallowed a hefty £160,000, making it also the most expensive tunnel in the country. Work progressed simultaneously from both ends and a central shaft but sadly claimed the lives of over 50 of its workers.

This was a narrow canal and navigating its massive summit tunnel was a slow business. There is no towpath and all boats had to be legged through, a trip taking 1hr 20 mins for an empty boat and up to three hours for one laden with goods. In the early years business was brisk and about 40 boats were worked through daily.

Whilst it was a narrow tunnel, two-way working was planned with passing places constructed. In practice this did not work out well and single way traffic became the norm, as it does today. The last commercial boat passed through in 1921 and it was closed to traffic in 1944, although Tom Rolt and Robert Aickman made a final and much celebrated passage in the Ailsa Craig in 1948. After being left to its own devices for over 50 years, save an occasional inspection, the tunnel was repaired and reopened for through passages in 2001 at a cost of £5m.

Today the canal tunnel is one of a set of four parallel tunnels, with the other three being railway tunnels, of which just one remains operational. The four tunnels are connected by cross adits which were used to move spoil during the construction of the railways, easing their construction.

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