We’ve navigated all of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways now:
- The Caen Hill Flight (on a hire boat in 2012)
- The Barton Swing Aqueduct
- The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct
- The Anderton Boat Lift
- The Burnley Embankment
- The Bingley Five Rise
- And as of this week, The Standedge Tunnel
We had a few days in Slaithwaite. I got a bit excited. Stylecraft Yarns’ mill is there, but sadly (and Google thinks otherwise) they aren’t open to the public. From Slaithwaite we ascended 21 locks to Marsden, grateful for the help of Sean from nb Eeyore, who gave up his day in favour of a bit of hard labour with us. I bribed him with homemade cake and dinner.
The main event of the week was of course the Standedge Tunnel, all 3.5 miles of it. It has a fearsome reputation for damaging narrowboats. Its reputation is so malevolent I was having the vapours at the very thought of going through it at all, and was ready and prepared to jump on the train instead and completely forego the scraping, banging, and associated wincing. Beau Romer isn’t just a boat. She’s our home and our pride and joy; were we really going to put her – and ourselves – through this ordeal? And let’s not even think about the tunnel being over 200 years old, and going right through the heart of the Pennines, up to 636 feet underground.
By Monday morning I’d calmed down and was feeling a bit fatalistic about the whole thing. Anyway, there was no turning back now, unless we wanted a long delay; the Huddersfield Broad was now impassable because of a broken lock. We’d taken off the pram hood (including the frame) and removed the cratch cover. Martyn had made protective shields for the cabin corners out of cut-up milk bottles, newspaper and masking tape. The navigation lights were off and the wires taped up. We’d done everything we could to protect the boat. So we turned up at the tunnel entrance at 8 o’clock as instructed, and met our chaperone, Alistair, reputed to be the fastest of the CRT volunteer drivers. We had a choice to make; one of us could helm the boat under Alistair’s guidance, or we could let him do it. We chose the latter deciding to let the expert drive. We were going to enjoy the experience from the bow.
And in the end, we loved it. The tunnel is an absolute marvel and completely fascinating. You forget to be worried or scared and just absorb it. I hope the pictures will give a taste of what it’s like.
There’s a railway tunnel that runs parallel to the canal tunnel. You hear the trains, and feel the pressure of the trains in your ears. They’re going at 80mph, so even you you were in the right place to see them, you’d be very lucky to do so. Blink and you miss it.
One aspect of the tunnel neither of us photographed was some of the ventilation shafts are curtains of cascading water. We could hear them coming and every one precipitated an unseemly scramble to get off the bow, back into the boat and close the doors before we got drenched!
Sometimes you see an eerie mist in front of you, but it never felt spooky or scary to me.
In the end, after an hour and a quarter (it would have been less, but they asked Alistair to slow down as we were catching up the boat in front!) we emerged out of our subterranean world and back into the daylight.
It was a fabulous experience, and apart from some scratches on the blacking and the rubbing strake, Beau Romer was unscathed. We owe many thanks to Alistair and his exemplary helming skills. Honourable mention goes to Will from the CRT. Not only did he spend a lot of time moving water down a few days previously to get us from Huddersfield to Slaithwaite, but he was on duty at the four tunnel checkpoints to make sure we had a safe passage. There are 38 places where the tunnel interconnects with one of the three (yes three)! other tunnels on site so we could be extracted in an emergency. As Alistair proudly told us, Standedge is not only the deepest, highest and longest canal tunnel in the country, its also the safest, because they knew where we were all the time.
And what came next after the excitement and adrenaline of the Standedge Tunnel? I can’t put it better than one of my Twitter followers, Grumpy Jack: “All for the joy of another umpteen reluctant locks”. The Huddersfield Narrow is a picturesque canal, but it’s hard work, with stubborn paddles, obstinately heavy gates, leaky locks that empty themselves as if by magic, narrow cuttings, low bridges and plenty of other surprises for the unwary boater. I wonder if that’s why so few seem to attempt it? Whatever its challenges, I’m glad we did.