Once upon a time, a big, beautiful, bright red boat named Felucca came to the Pennines. In typical fashion, she hooked up with the Leeds and Liverpool, falling hard for its expansive scenery, its charmingly wide locks, its hot pork pies. And then one night, she decided to take a shorter route back across Yorkshire: the Huddersfield Narrow. It was love at first sight. For two weeks they snuggled together, a tight fit in the locks; they struggled together, up 42 locks to the summit and another 32 down; they played together, through ‘call me Slawit’ Slaithwaite, Marsden and the delightful Uppermill. Felucca learnt the most intimate secrets of the waterways from the canal – like what to do when a pound is drained of water and just how many Canal & River Trust volunteers it takes to paint a lock paddle.
And all the way up, the notorious Standedge Tunnel was looming. The one thing standing in the way of true happiness. And all the way up, Felucca worried that she wouldn’t fit, that she would be turned away and forced to retrace her steps, tail between her legs, all the way to Huddersfield. And all the way up, her captains tried to reassure Felucca that the alternative route (via Hebden Bridge across the Rochdale) was a more than adequate substitute for seeing this canal to its end.
Then, one warm summer day, the canal took Felucca to Tunnel End, in Marsden. Felucca was measured, and found wanting. Too tall, a half inch too tall, they cried! They weighed her down with 100 litres of water before agreeing that we could try to inch our way into the black hole. With four miles of tunnel, an s-bend and countless low jagged edges from the unlined roof to go before daylight in Diggle, we found ourselves wondering in true Carrie Bradshaw style: “How the hell did we get into this mess?”.
Felucca invited another man on board. Fred is just a friend, she cried; he will help us steer through the tunnel safely, it will be better with him. And so it proved. Without the faithful Fred’s guidance and entertaining commentary, Felucca would be in a far sorrier state than she is now.
The women nestled at the front of the boat, astride the extra water ballast. Nervously, they peered ahead and anticipated each bump and scrape. To distract themselves, they did a crossword, but this was not enough to save them from occasionally moaning “Oh my god, there go my life savings” as the boat hit the tunnel wall again.
Tom took the tiller – or did the tiller take Tom? We trickled through at tickover speed, making it in one hour 50 minutes, the slowest of the day (But hey, Felucca wasn’t built for this and Tom couldn’t see over the top of the cratch. Speed monkeys are welcome to the extra dents in my opinion). Maybe we will never know the truth of what happened at the back of the boat with Fred. Maybe sometimes it is better not to know. All I know is that we made it. Slightly scraped, slightly battered, slightly bruised. But well-travelled and on to the next adventure.