The Huddersfield Narrow Canal runs along the Colne Valley bottom, along with the River Colne and the main railway line from Huddersfield to Manchester.
As a child, I spent many happy times playing in this area. I think humans are naturally drawn to water for pleasure and survival, and boys in particular are naturally drawn to the railway. Huge metal steam engines belching out fire and black smoke, the thrill overshadowing the harm that this black smoke was causing; this became a concern of older people and future generations.
In the late 50s, when my friends and I used to play, go fishing, swim and get up to mischief, the canal was in a semi-derelict state, and all the trade had been taken over by the railway. Many of the locks were broken but no-one seemed to care. Some sections had been filled in and buildings erected over the area. The body of water between the lock gates was either high and deep or low and difficult to climb out of if anyone fell into the lock. Large concrete slabs were therefore fitted to the full width of the lock, which formed a shallower watercourse between the lock gates to stop people falling into the deep water by accident or design. But it was still a great place to play.
Introduction of canals
For centuries, rivers were used for transporting goods; the Fossdyke Navigation was built by the Romans to link Lincoln to the river Trent.
Up to recently, I thought a ‘navigation’ was a posh word for a canal, when in fact there are subtle differences. A navigation is the re-routing, and/or using an existing river to form a navigable waterway for goods and traffic. Whereas, a canal is a completely new channel cut into the earth to form the same function.
Before the creation of canals, transporting goods was done on packhorse routes, which were slow, dangerous, unpredictable, and vulnerable. Canals quickly became the solution. Nearly 4,000 miles of inland waterways were built, ultimately forming the backbone of the industrial revolution.
The Exeter Ship Canal was constructed in 1567, but it took a further 200 years for the idea of an inland waterway to develop, these were the Sankey Canal and Bridgewater Canal (near to St Helens and Warrington) in 1757 and 1761 respectively.
Huddersfield Narrow Canal
The Huddersfield Narrow Canal is the highest canal in Britain. Nineteen and a half miles long, it has 74 locks and navigates over and through the Pennines. Along with the Rochdale Canal, both were built as alternatives to the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. To a British inland waterway enthusiast, Huddersfield’s canal is the equivalent to a mountaineer tackling Mount Everest; it is attempted because it’s a challenge.
Of course, the biggest obstacle was the Pennines themselves. Work on the canal started in 1794 and work on the tunnel soon followed. However, many unforeseen obstacles were encountered and it eventually took 17 years to complete, at a cost of 50 lives. It took so long to complete that the canals on both sides of the Pennines were completed long before the tunnel, and a packhorse system had to be set up over the top between Marsden and Diggle.
Work on both ends of the tunnel started at the same time. Shafts were dug somewhere in the middle to remove the spoil and the plan was to join them all together.
But difficulties continued. When Thomas Telford, the most renowned civil engineer of that time, was employed to sort things out, in doing so, he discovered that the tunnels were not going to meet. The problem was resolved, but as a consequence there were several bends and a height discrepancy, resulting in the tunnel entrance at Marsden being 11 feet deep. This tunnel can boast to being the longest, deepest and highest tunnel in Britain.
Over the years different materials were used, or even no materials at all.
Financial restraints and cost cutting meant that there was only one single width tunnel and no tow path. Legers had to propel the boats through by laying on the top or boards at the side of the boat and by walking it through. Unfortunately, others had the same idea from the other end. Heated conversation and fights often developed in near complete darkness somewhere in the middle. Eventually sense prevailed and a timetable was devised, in turn resulting in a traffic jam at both ends.
This tunnel was never really profitable.
Construction of the railway
The London and North Eastern Railway was constructed parallel to the Pennines, and having previously bought the rights to the canal, they were able to build small connecting sections to remove the spoil. This railway tunnel was completed in 1848. The popularity of the line meant that more capacity was needed; a single-track tunnel was completed in 1871 and another double track opened in 1894.
There continued to be a four-track railway between Huddersfield and Manchester until Dr Richard Beeching decided to axe the railway system in March 1963. Four lines became two and the two single line tunnels were shut, but it was still possible to enter these disused tunnels.
Geological difficulties were discovered during the tunnel construction which resulted in large rock falls and cavities forming. Now weddings and other activities are often held here. Rumour has it that the cavern is sometimes host to pagan rituals with fire, dancing and no doubt chanting and bell ringing. Probably the removal of clothing is also encouraged. I very much hope that they get dressed again before passing through Marsden on their way home.
There are trips for the public through the canal tunnel throughout the summer. The connecting sections and bends are still plainly visible, and there are some odd sections where the railway line crosses the roof section of the canal tunnel.
When the canals were first constructed, many areas of industry were connected, and this is how it was in the Colne Valley. However, now that industry has gone, the narrow canal tow path becomes more and more picturesque on the seven-mile walk from Huddersfield to Marsden. A beautiful part of the world; I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.