Researched, Written and Illustrated by Jeannette Briggs
The Huddersfield Narrow Canal is yet another example of the amazing versatility and engineering skills of the early canal builders. Benjamin Outram was the genius in charge. This relatively short canal was constructed in the valley of the River Colne in West Yorkshire to connect the mills of Huddersfield and the Colne valley to the valley of the River Tame and Manchester. It was opened in 1811. The canal had to be built in such a way that it would enable goods to be transported over one of the highest parts of the Pennine mounains which separates Lancashire from Yorkshire.
Because of this the canal has 74 locks in 20 miles and - in order to pass through the summit mountains at Standedge - the engineers had to construct the longest highest and deepest canal tunnel in the whole of the UK. The Standedge Tunnel is the highlight of this short but fascinating canal. It has been reopened along its entire length in time for the bi-centenary of its original construction. The immense efforts of the members of the Huddersfield Canal Society played an enormous part in the restoration: they never lost faith in the belief that this wonderful canal and the tunnel could be rebuilt and brought back to life once again, and now the canal is once again in full use, This short guide is an introduction to the many delights of an amazing piece of England's industrial heritage.
The Huddersfield Narrow Canal leaves the junction of the Peak Forest and Ashton Canals in the suburbs of Manchester at Portland Basin. Canal boat trips (rather than canal boat hire) can be taken here by the Tameside Canal Boat Trust and by the East Manchester Community Boat Project. The old buildings surrounding the basin have also been renovated and now form the Portland Basin Museum on Heritage Wharf at the Basin. From here the canal quickly starts to rise through several locks until it reaches Stalybridge , a charming canalside town where recent building developments have transformed it into a mini-Venice, with piazzas, bars, bistros and housing through which the restored canal runs, looking as though this was always the most beautiful and natural centre of the town. Leaving Stalybridge the canal climbs through 11 locks until it reaches Greenfield, which again has benefitted from recent building developments which have enhanced the canal and provided new moorings for those with their own canal boats or simply enjoying canal boat holidays. Beyond Greenfield you can take your canal boat to Uppermill, where there is the Saddleworth museum and Art Gallery which help both walking and canal boat holiday makers discover the history and heritage of Saddleworth which was an old textile area.
Just beyond Saddleworth Museum, you can access by canal boat the final climb to the summit level via the superb Diggle Flight of locks, which is the most impressive goup of locks on the entire length of the canal.
They have a superb moorland backdrop as the canal is now deep into the Pennine mountain chain. The flight was only restored fully in 1996. also at Diggle is the Transhipment Warehouse, a quaint atone building used originally when cargoes in the canal narrowboats had to be moved from canal boat to canal boat before going through the Standedge Tunnel. It was saved from dereliction by the Saddleworth Historical society, all credit to them because this is well worth the time spent exploring if you are on canal boat holidays
Above: Information Board - the canal is well documented and the boards are very well produced.
Now you reach the southern, portal of the longest, highest and deepest tunnel in the whole of the Uk canal system. The Standedge Tunnel route as devised by Benjamin Outram was the most direct route under the highest part of the Pennine chain, but even he could not forsee the huge challenges that faced the original "navvies" -the men who actually dug out the tunnel with their bare hands. At three and a half miles long the tunnel took 17 years to be constructed - so the rest of the canal was up and operating long before this final link was made. The tunnel was finally ready by 1811 and narrowboats could unleash their horses at the southern portal then "leggers" could lie along the tops of the boats and literally "leg it" or walk with their feet along the narrow canal walls until they reached the northern portal at Marsden. It was hard dangerous work in the pitch dark. They were the heroes of the Industrial Revolution but sadly, with the beginning of the railways which made it so much easier to transport heavy cargoes, the canal boatmens' and leggers' future was numbered. The tunnel at Standedge was officially "abandoned" and huge iron gates erected at both ends to stop people trying to get through. Thanks to the determination of volunteers with the Huddersfield Canal Society and after a £5 million restoration scheme the tunnel was at last re-opened in 2001 by Prince Charles. The tunnel's north portal has a lovely Visitor Centre which serves great cream teas and Yorkshire fat rascals, plus the details of how the canal and tunnels were built and stories behind the life of the people who worked on the canal. You can also go on trips from here in glass roofed boats into the tunnel to Diggle and back.
The towpath now runs on the level of the northern tunnel entrance through woods and fields until it reaches the moorland village of Marsden. Along the route you are constantly reminded about the railways as the route of the Huddersfield to Manchester line lies above the canal and even enters the Pennine mountains at a spot just above the canal portal. So the railway engineers acknowledged that the old canal boys who built this amazing waterway knew a thing or two...At Marsden volunteers from the Canal society operate a shuttle boat service to the Standedge Visitor Centre. The village was an old mill town, but now welcomes walkers on the Pennine Way plus visitors to their Fire Festival, Jazz Festival and a "Cuckoo Day". Pubs and shops here are frequented by walkers and boaters.Standedge information centre and car park - plus cream teas and home-made cakes!
The canal now commences a long descent into the Colne valley to reach Huddersfield. The locks all face north east now! Ten of them come in quick succession after you leave Marsden, followed by another flight of ten more locks spaced out until you reach the town of Slaithaite. Here you can find the only working guillotine gate on the narrow canal system. There is a permanently moored boat here which operates as a tea room near Lock 23 and Slaithwaite station. It is the Moonraker Floating Tearoom.
From here down the last stretch of the canal is another 22 locks until you eventually reach Huddersfield and the junction with the Broad Canal at Lock 1E and Queen Street Huddersfield. The Narrow Canal has a towpath that you can follow down to Longroyd Bridge but modern developments done without consideration to the Narrow Canal's future make it impossible to follow the Narrow Canal by foot right along the towpath at this point. However, you can sail into the heart of Huddersfield in your narrow boat and secure some safe moorings in the centre of the city, which is a fine example of Victorian civic pride, complete with an Art Gallery and City Hall which holds concerts by the world famous Huddersfield Choral Society. Huddersfield has made the transition from grim northern industrial city to a modern clean and very pleasent environment for residents, walkers, cyclists and tourists of all kinds.
I hope that this brief introduction to the Huddersfield Narrow Canal and Standedge Tunnel will encourage you to visit it for yourselves. You will be amazed and delighted as I was to see such a fascinating canal and to enjoy the wildlife and interpretation boards that are all along the canal bringing it to life for you. The canal is clean and a haven for mallards, canada geese, kingfishers
(I saw two in one short stretch), plus dragonflies, damoiselles and a huge variety of wild flowers. All excellent reasons to come and see for yourselves!
© 1999 - 2021 Canal Guide