The Huddersfield Narrow Canal

The Huddersfield Narrow Canal begins in Ashton-under-Lyne and passes through Diggle on its journey to Huddersfield.  Construction began in 1794 and two of the three sections were open by 1799. However, because of delays due in tunnelling the third section under Standedge, the canal was not fully open until 1811.   The canal opened a link between Colne in West Yorkshire with the Tame valley and beyond there, Manchester.

The southern end of Standedge Tunnel is located in Diggle near the car park on Sam Road.  It is the longest canal tunnel in Britain covering 3 miles 133 yards before its northern opening in Marsden. It is also the highest canal tunnel in Britain being 645 feet above sea level.  The narrow bore of the tunnel is only 9 feet wide, which meant that the horses which usually pulled the canal boats along the tow path, could not pass through the tunnel.  They were walked over Stanedge summit along the bridleway known as the Boat Lane adjacent to the Diggle Hotel.  The boats were ‘walked’ through the tunnel by men known as ‘leggers’, who moved the boats through the tunnel by lying on their backs and walking on the roof or side of the tunnel.

The total cost of the canal amounted to £396,267, which was more than twice the estimated budget.  This includes the cost of the tunnel which was £123,804.

In their book titled ‘Pennine Passage – a History of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal’, Michael and Peter Fox record that many navvies, labourers and other workmen were killed during the works.

Before the completion of the third and last section of the canal, the northern terminus of the canal in the Tame Valley was at Wool Road, close to the Navigation Public House and just in Dobcross.  There was a large warehouse and a smaller transshipment building around a small basin.  Goods were unloaded from the narrow boats and either stored in the main warehouse or transferred to pack-horse for the trip over the Pennines towards Huddersfield.  The warehouse was converted into apartments and the transshipment warehouse restored into a conference centre and spiritual home to the Saddleworth Historical Society.

The canal enjoyed a short period of prosperity until 1845 when it was bought by the Huddersfield and Manchester Railway Company.  The new railway line followed a similar route to the canal.  The railway company built a tunnel for the railway alongside the canal tunnel and used the canal to remove the spoil from their excavations.

In 1893 the Diggle end of the canal tunnel was lengthened by several hundred yards to ease the approach of the railway tracks as they entered the new railway tunnel.  Between the wars there were fewer reasons to promote the canal as railways improved and became more efficient.  The canal gradually fell into a slow decline until its closure in 1944.

In 1974, the Huddersfield Canal Society was formed with the objective of re-opening the canal.  However, the task was very ambitious because many sections were overgrown and filled in.  The restoration project was supported by Kirklees, Oldham and Tameside Councils and by British Waterways and funding was obtained from English Partnerships, the Millennium Commission and amongst several other sources.  After 27 years of hard work and a total cost of £30 million, the tunnel was re-opened tunnel in May 2001.

Today up to 4 narrow boats are towed through the tunnel by an electronically operated tug.  Boat owners and passengers are not permitted to remain on their own boats but are carried through on a specially-designed part of the tug for safety reasons.

Several times each year the Horseboating Society re-enacts the art of legging through the tunnel.  They are always looking for willing volunteers and welcome new members to keep the tradition alive.  It is a unique opportunity to travel through the tunnel in the old fashioned way.

During 2011 the Horseboating Society celebrated the 200 years since the opening of the tunnel.

The photo on the left shows the celebrations in 1961.

Times may have changed, but the canal and the tunnel remain in Diggle’s heritage after 200 years.  With care and enthusiasm we hope these pictures will still be around in 2061.

This final photo was taken at the 2011 celebration showing leggers in traditional clothing just before embarking on a three hour trip through the tunnel.