Huddersfield Narrow Canal

Huddersfield Narrow Canal

The Huddersfield Narrow Canal is an inland waterway in northern England. It runs just under 20 miles (35 km) from the junction with the Huddersfield Broad Canal near Aspley Basin at Huddersfield to the junction with the Ashton Canal at Whitelands Basin in Ashton-under-Lyne. It crosses the Pennines by means of 74 locks and the Standedge Tunnel.

Building the Canal


The canal was first proposed in 1793 at a meeting in the George Hotel, Huddersfield. Its engineer was Benjamin Outram on the recommendation of William Jessop. His plan was to start from the Huddersfield Broad Canal and follow the Colne valley with a climb of convert|438|ft|m to its summit, where it would pass through a tunnel at Standedge before descending through Saddleworth and the Tame valley near Stockport to the Ashton Canal near Stalybridge. There were many cotton mills along its route which promised ample trade. However there was the possible problem of the loss of their water supplies, so Outram proposed to build a number of reservoirs.


Construction began in 1794 with the marking out of the route. The practice was to set up a line of pegs or stakes about convert|150|ft|m apart so that their tops would indicate the intended water level. It would then be possible to construct the appropriate embankments and cuttings.

As engineer, Outram provided an oversight of the work, whilst also occupied by other projects. The day to day management was carried out by contractors employed and organised by the canal company committee. Progress was slow and erratic. It was also unfortunate that Outram was seriously ill for long periods between 1795 to 1797. The company was also short of money, partly because the costs had been seriously underestimated, but also because shareholders were not honouring their pledges.

In 1799, severe floods damaged earthworks along the canal and of the various reservoirs. In particular, overflow of the Tunnelend reservoir devastated the village of Marsden. Two aqueducts were also destroyed, diverting the company's, already stretched, funds. The Stakes Aqueduct was already in use and had to be replaced immediately. Outram had built it of stone and, due to its low height, it had needed to be constructed in four short spans. The narrow openings had impeded the unprecedented overflow and Outram replaced it with a single span cast iron structure, similar to the Holmes Aqueduct on the Derby Canal.

Outram set out to overcome the problems with the Holmes Aqueduct by making the walls thicker where they joined the baseplates, which also were thicker. However a major stress was the compressive force along the top of the wall plates where they bow outwards or inwards. In 1875 cross bracings were added to reinforce it. The Stakes Aqueduct is the oldest surviving aqueduct of its type that is still in use for its original purpose.

The Standedge Tunnel

Although the canal uses 74 locks to climb and descend the Pennines, there would have had to be many more without the digging of a very long tunnel through the Tame/Colne watershed (the River Colne flowing down to Huddersfield and the River Calder, and the Tame flowing down to Stockport and the River Mersey). The canal tunnel is 3 miles 418 yd (5,209 m) long making it the longest canal tunnel in the United Kingdom. It is largely brick lined but in some places the tunnel has been left with a natural rock surface.

The "Black Flood"

In 1810, the Diggle Moss reservoir gave way and Marsden was again flooded, along with much of the Colne Valley. Houses and factories were wrecked and five people lost their lives. The force of the water was such that a fifteen ton rock was carried two miles (3 km) down the valley.


Despite multiple problems, the building of the Huddersfield Narrow canal showed that the technique of quantity surveying had advanced greatly. Thomas Telford's report during the construction of the Standedge Tunnel covered every expenditure to the last bucket; it was followed to the letter and the canal finally opened in 1811.


The canal operated for approximately 140 years and although moderately successful for a while its width (limited to boats less than convert|7|ft|m|abbr=on wide), number of locks, and long tunnel made it much less profitable than its main rival, the Rochdale Canal, which had a similar number of locks, but was twice as wide, with no long tunnel. The Standedge tunnel proved to be a real bottleneck, having been constructed without an integral towpath.
Narrowboats had to be 'legged' through, eventually by professionally employed leggers. A company employee would chain the tunnel entrance behind a convoy of boats, and walk over Boat Lane, accompanied by boat boys and girls, leading the boat horses, to unchain the opposite end of the tunnel before the boat convoy arrived. This journey was made at least twice per day, for over twenty years. The construction of a double railway tunnel parallel with its route affected the revenue that was brought in and the canal was abandoned in 1944.


In the late 20th century, after 27 years of campaigning and restoration by the Huddersfield Canal Society the canal was fully re-opened to navigation in 2001, when it again became one of three Pennine crossings, the others being the Rochdale and the Leeds and Liverpool (both broad canals). The canal is now entirely used by leisure boaters.

During the period of time when the canal was closed, several lengths were culverted and infilled, and in some cases built over. Over the course of the restoration project, the vast majority of the obliterated line became available to be opened out again, and the canal remains on a substantially identical alignment with some minor alterations.


Due to a legal quirk, the stretch of the canal from Lock 1E to Queen St Bridge was not included in the original abandonment of the canal. Whilst locks on the remainder of the canal were capped, cascaded or demolished, locks 1E and 2E remained gated, but eventually fell into dereliction. The old gates only being removed when work started to restore the canal.Two factories (Bates and Sellars) had been built immediately upstream of locks 2E and 3E respectively. In each case, the solution was the same. The lock was relocated upstream of the factory, to avoid disruption to the firms now using the site. The remodelling of the canal can be clearly seen between the former site of Lock 2E and Queen St Bridge, where a framework of girders sits above the channel to ensure that the deep piling remains secure.


The section of canal through Slaithwaite town centre, between locks 21E and 23E had been culverted, and a car park covered part of the route. In addition, road re-alignment and the lowering of a hump back bridge had encroached close to the tail of lock 23E.

Restoration caused some local controversy, as it involved the felling of a row of mature cherry trees which had been planted along the infilled line, although the local authority claimed that the trees were in poor condition, and unlikely to last for many more years in any case.

Lock 21E was relocated a short distance upstream, to the other side of Platt Lane, in order to ensure that the Platt Lane crossing could be achieved by a conventional bridge instead of the swing bridge that had existed prior to closure.

The stretch from 22E to 23E threads its way through an extremely tight space. Britannia Rd Bridge was formerly hump backed, but changes in traffic levels since closure rendered such a bridge impractical, and instead the pound from 22E to 23E was lowered by convert|12|in|mm.

Hartshead Power Station

On the western side of the Pennines, the canal runs through the legs of an electricity pylon at Heyrod, near Stalybridge.

The pylon had been erected during the period when the canal was closed, and the only viable route for restoration was through the legs.

No other such cases are known on navigable waterways worldwide, although other pylons have been constructed across former waterways that have been filled in with rubble and soil, such as the Manchester, Bolton and Bury Canal.

The Canal Today

The Huddersfield Narrow is part of the South Pennine Ring, which is a circular route crossing the Pennines twice - the other crossing is the Rochdale Canal. The canals are linked at the western (Lancashire) end by the Ashton Canal and at the eastern (Yorkshire) end by the Huddersfield Broad Canal and a length of the Calder and Hebble Navigation. The South Pennine Ring takes in Huddersfield, Golcar, Slaithwaite, Marsden, Saddleworth Diggle, Uppermill, Greenfield, Stalybridge, Ashton, Manchester, Failsworth, Rochdale, Littleborough, Todmorden, Hebden Bridge, Sowerby Bridge, Elland, and Brighouse.

The Huddersfield Canal area is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Photo Gallery

University of Huddersfield

External links

* [ British Waterways site for boaters and visitors]
* [ Locks, Docks and Beyond...]
* [ About Huddersfield Narrow Canal]

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