Waterways pioneer Robert Aickman nominated the tunnel as one of his seven wonders, but in my opinion he really should have given the prize to the whole Huddersfield Narrow Canal. It’s an engineering marvel, and beautiful too.
The tunnel is the cherry on the top. Some cherry! Three and a half miles long, twelve years in the building, built by navvies with pick axes and explosives, and passing 700 feet below Standedge Moor, it’s a triumph of optimism, sheer bloody mindedness and scant regard for health and safety. The engineers of the time were so inexperienced at building such tunnels that the two shafts they built from either end missed in the middle. Thomas Telford had to be called in to build a cunning S-bend so all the hard graft wasn’t wasted.
Then the whole operation was shut down for fifty years, before a group of equally bloody minded volunteers, the Huddersfield Canal Society, brought it all back from the dead. Nowadays, its operation is supervised by a posse of cheerful C&RT chaps, who escort all the boats through. Only three are allowed each way per day to minimise the build up of engine fumes, and it is only open Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
We were assigned Fred as our guide, a splendid, knowledgeable chap and minor celebrity, being hauled in front of the cameras each time a TV programme is made about the tunnel. (Next up, apparently, is Celebrity Canal Boat, where various sitcom actors and boyband members will pilot a narrow boat through the tunnel. Don’t miss it.)
Fred stands at the back to give you the history of the tunnel and to ensure all goes well. He also leaps off at various points along the way to radio base and keep them updated. What he doesn’t do, it turns out, is steer the boat through the tight, winding, tunnel; that’s up to you. There’s only room for one person to stand at the back with Fred, and funnily enough, volunteers for the job of steerer were hard to come by on board Felucca. And so it passed that I was kitted out with life jacket, hard hat, and attractive high vis vest, whilst the other crew members cowered below deck.
So, here are the key numbers. The passage took one hour and fifty minutes. The steerer hit his hard hat on the roof perhaps a dozen times; the wily Fred survived all but 100m smug and unscathed before giving his the bang to end all bangs against a cheeky protruding rock. The crew seated in the bow got a good soaking from leaks on at least two occasions. Felucca bumped the side of the tunnel a teeth-gritting twenty times, including two or three big old scrapes along the side of the roof.
No doubt part of this rough and tumble is down to steering incompetence, but it didn’t help that Felucca’s cratch and top box, so useful for storing things, made it almost impossible to see the tunnel ahead. Fred revealed afterwards that Felucca was the tightest fit they’d had in a long time, within an inch of getting stuck. A dicey business!
Steering her through was a breathtaking and intense experience. Ducking all the time to avoid the ceiling, it takes all one’s energy and concentration to just keep the boat straight-ish. Bumps and thumps keep you on your toes throughout. Parts of the tunnel are lined with brick, the more craggy sections unlined rock, and occasionally you sail through a wide limestone cavern. Periodically, there are passages leading to the various railways tunnels that run parallel. When a Huddersfield to Manchester train passes through, a breeze sweeps along the canal tunnel, and the fall in pressure can cause mist to form. The tunnel is chilly, cold, and clammy. Did I also mention that the ceiling is low??
The concentration required to pilot our life savings through this hull-denting, paint-scratching mousehole meant I was quite pleased when a tiny light appeared in the far distance. Twenty minutes later, trees and boats were visible. With 100m to go, the aroma of cooking bacon from a boat waiting at the other side filled the tunnel. And then we sailed out into blinding sunshine. It took a good half hour after that to fully recover one’s composure and senses, brought about by a nice stiff cup of tea and a custard cream.
So, quite the most intense and incredible wonder so far. Felucca has a few scratches, we have our certificates of passage from Fred, and we leave the Pennines behind – at least for now!