Huddersfield narrow canal and Standedge tunnel

Year:1811

Duration:17 years

Cost:£402,653 (£20m today)

Country: Huddersfield, UK

What did this project achieve?

In 1811 build a canal route across the Pennine hills to transport goods

The Huddersfield narrow canal links the Huddersfield Brad canal with the Ashton canal at Portland Basin in Stalybridge, Greater Manchester. The structure follows the valleys of the rivers Colne and Tame.

The 32km canal is the highest in the UK – 197m above sea level as it passes through the Standedge tunnel. With 74 locks, 10 reservoirs and 5 aqueducts, it can take boats up to 21.3m long and 2.1m wide.

The structure has a summit pound 6.4km long. A summit pound is a canal’s highest stretch of water between 2 locks.

From its summit, the canal falls 108.2m through 32 locks to the west in the direction of Manchester. It falls 132.9m through 42 locks to the east in the direction of West Yorkshire.

The route passes through 2 tunnels — the 200m Scout tunnel and the 5.2km Standedge tunnel between the villages of Diggle and Marsden. The Standedge tunnel is both the longest and highest canal tunnel in Britain.

The canal originally had 2 reservoirs – both in the west Yorkshire stretch. March Haigh reservoir holds 323m litres. Slaithwaite reservoir has a capacity of 309m litres. A further 8 reservoirs were built in later years, adding 911m litres to the scheme’s overall capacity.

The structure was built to carry cargo between the growing industrial centres of Huddersfield and Manchester. It closed in 1944 after operating for 133 years. It reopened in 2001 for leisure boats.

It’s one of the projects celebrated civil engineer Thomas Telford was involved with.

Difference the canal has made

The Huddersfield narrow canal was a key part of the UK’s transport network – particularly in its early years of operation, before the rise of the railways. The cargoes the canal transported contributed to the economic wealth of the north of Britain.

The reopened canal has become a popular tourist attraction since restoration was completed in 2001, bringing income to the area and boosting the local economy.

How the work was done

The Standedge tunnel was designed to reduce the numbers of locks needed on the Huddersfield canal. The tunnel goes straight through the solid rock of the Pennine hills.

Workers excavated the structure using picks, shovels and explosives. The work was difficult and dangerous. Engineers also had problems with water seeping into the structure.

The project team decided against a footpath in the tunnel to save money. This meant that the horses that pulled the barges were led over the top of the hill while the boats were taken through by ‘leggers’.

Leggers propelled the boats through the tunnel by using their feet against the brick-lined walls. It took 4 hours to get from one end to the other.

Work on the Standedge tunnel meant the canal took much longer to complete than expected – 17 years instead of the 5 that engineers had planned.

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Telford was the last of the great canal engineers of the industrial revolution.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Fascinating facts

Canal enthusiasts formed the Huddersfield canal society in 1974. Members raised money and campaigned to reopen the structure after 30 years out of service.

The scheme was often called the ‘impossible restoration’. Some of the canal had been filled in and Standedge tunnel had been impassable for many years.

Work saw 10,000 tons of silt and 3,000 tons of rock removed. Parts of the tunnel were relined with concrete.

People who made it happen

  • Designer: Benjamin Outram
  • Surveyor: Nicholas Brown
  • Consulting engineer: Thomas Telford (ICE president)

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