Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article High & Dry is the copyright of Jim Shead - We find some low pounds when crossing the Huddersfield Narrow Canal high in the Pennines. First published in Waterways World May 2005.
High & Dry
On the Huddersfield Narrow Canal
We made our first trip across the Huddersfield Narrow Canal in May 2001 within weeks of it reopening after restoration. At the end of July 2004 we had completed our crossing of the Pennines on the Rochdale Canal and were heading towards Huddersfield to make the return journey on the Huddersfield Narrow Canal. What changes had there been in the last three years? We were looking forward to a more trouble free passage this time but would we be disappointed?
Huddersfield's first canal was the Broad Canal, or Sir John Ramsden's Canal, opened in 1776. This was connected to other Yorkshire navigations through the Calder & Hebble Navigation and shared its 57 foot 6 inches by 14 foot 2 inches standard barge size. When the Narrow Canal opened in 1811 Huddersfield, like Sowerby Bridge and some other places, became a transhipping point where craft met. The narrowboats were unable to get through the short locks of the Broad Canal and broad craft unable to use the Narrow Canal.
Huddersfield Broad Canal joins the river Calder at Coopers Bridge and runs for 3½ miles, up 9 locks, to Aspley Basin close to the town centre. This canal is much improved since we took our first trip on it to Huddersfield in 1994. Not only are the locks and channel much better maintained but also there are less derelict industrial sites along its banks. The reopening of the Narrow Canal has also been a major boost to the Broad Canal as Huddersfield is no longer a dead-end.
A little way before reaching Aspley Basin is the unique Turnbridge Locomotive Lift Bridge, which was completely refurbished in 2002 and is now electrically operated. Once through the bridge there are plenty of moorings outside of the Sainsbury's supermarket which are also handy for the town centre and overnight stays.
On one side of Aspley Basin are Aspley Wharf Marina and the Aspley pub. Opposite these are the new BW facilities including a card operated pumpout machine (cards available at the marina). From here to Slaithwaite is five miles and 22 locks, surely a comfortable day's cruising. That's what I thought in 2001 but it was a journey that took us 9 hours 50 minutes due to all the problems we encountered.
We hoped to do much better now the teething problems of a newly restored canal had been overcome and set off to go the short distance to the first lock of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal. At the lock we found the narrowboat Butterfly waiting to go through the lock and Glad All Over in the lock waiting for the water level of the pound above to come up enough for them to get over the cill and through to the next one.
This is a pound that is known to lose water but refilling it can only be done by BW as there is no towpath or public access to the lock above other than by boat. After waiting for 2½ hours for the water level to rise and for the first two boats to get through the lock we managed to get through and were making slow but steady progress through the low pound.
We were soon halted again by remains of the old second lock. This structure now consists of the high walls of the old lock joined onto new high concrete walls forming the approach to Bates Tunnel. The lock was moved to overcome the difficulties caused by part of the canal being built-over after it was abandoned. In 2001 we had no problems here but with low water levels we found there was hard object below the water that stopped us getting through.
We phoned BW to get more water let down, tried every trick we knew, then got more water let down but could not budge the boat past this point. After a while another boat, Suenami, came along behind us but we found that even with the combined power of both engines we could not get through. In desperation we got Suenami to try bumping our boat . It moved Lorna-Ann a few inches and after repeated backing and bumping we were through the obstruction.
The next few locks were much easier. The pounds seemed deeper and the locks better maintained than on our first trip. There also seemed to be much less rubbish in the canal. Low pounds and defective paddle gear caused a few more delays that day before we stopped for the night by the old mill above Highest Westwood Lock, No.17E. It had taken us 11½ hours and it was still 5 more locks and a mile to Slaithwaite, pronounced Slou'at by the natives.
The canal through Slaithwaite is all new, the previous channel having been filled in, and is narrow in many places. There are moorings and it is a good stopping place with shops and an excellent Tandoori Restaurant. Mooring is difficult generally throughout the canal so it is best to plan your journey around the few spots where moorings are available.
Our next stage was from Slaithwaite to the pound above Booth Lock, No. 31E, where we had to wait for BW to let us through the section from lock 32E to the summit at lock number 42E. It took us almost four hours to do this stage of nine locks in a little over a mile. Low pounds meant waiting for boats to come down the locks bringing water with them.
The next day, although we had been told that we would start going up the locks at 1 p.m., BW arrived at 11 a.m. and asked everyone to set off. Two boats went through the bottom lock before us but things soon came to a halt while a pound further up the flight was refilled. A lock with a damaged top cill caused the short pound to completely empty overnight, although this suggests that the bottom gates must have also been leaking. It took 4¾ hours to negotiate eleven locks in the last mile to the summit. We moored just before Standedge Tunnel and walked back to the Railway by the top lock, which served us a good dinner.
Quite a lot has changed around here in the past three years, not only are we now escorted up and down from the summit but the charge for using the tunnel has disappeared as has the Water's Edge tearooms that once occupied Tunnel End cottages. The visitor centre, never very impressive, seems to have been considerably scaled down and we can now go through the tunnel in the passenger module instead of being taken over the top in a taxi as we were in 2001.
Assembling the train consisting of the passenger module, tug and four boats for the journey through the tunnel took about 90 minutes. The level of boat protection has been increased at the front corners of the boats and the rubber protective sheeting is now used down the full length of the craft rather than just at the front and back.
Spending 2½ hours in a tunnel may not sound like a lot of fun but I think it was the highlight of the trip for most of the passengers. BW provided a very informative guide who pointed out various features inside Standedge and we were with a very friendly group of people, which makes a lot of difference when you are in our highest, deepest and longest canal tunnel.
On emerging into the light we found a group of boats was waiting for the return trip. We were due to go down the Diggle flight of locks after the boats had been uncovered and cratches and other items replaced. Be warned that although the thick rubber sheets can prevent damage to boats they can also cause abrasions to paint and brassware when they are put on and taken off as they pick up grit from the towpaths.
When we arrived at the bottom of the nine Diggle Locks we found the gates were locked and had to wait while a key arrived. Below the lock is a BW facilities station with a pumpout machine but make sure you have a pumpout card before you arrive as none are available locally. The tap here was very slow, we filled for over an hour and still left before the tank was full.
There are some moorings opposite the facilities but we moved down to Saddleworth where there are good moorings on both sides of the canal above Wade Lock, No. 21W, giving a view of the attractive village below. The next day we carried on to Stalybridge taking 5 hours 50 minutes to cover four miles and 13 locks as well as a passage through the 205-yard Scout Tunnel. The only real problem was one fairly long pound which was low and which we struggled to get through.
Stalybridge is another place where a new section of canal and new locks had to be built. There are moorings here on both sides of the canal near Tesco's. We did some shopping and stayed overnight. From here to Dukinfield Junction on the Ashton Canal took us just 2¼ hours for about 3 miles and 8 locks, surely our best rate of progress since leaving Huddersfield.
The Huddersfield Narrow and the Rochdale Canal both highlight one of the great problems of restoring abandoned canals - water supply. When the canals were built they were provided with reservoirs and other sources of water but when they were abandoned these valuable assets were sold or used for other purposes and are not easy to get back.
BW is trying to minimise this problem by controlling access to the summit levels but this still means water shortages at times. Leaking gates and pounds do not improve the water supply and although there has been a noticeable improvement in this area on the Huddersfield Canal there is still some way to go.
Canals restored to their 1940's standards do not match the expectations of today's pleasure boaters who think all canals should have a standard of facilities that are found on the Grand Union or the Trent & Mersey. It took over 10 years before BW seriously addressed the lack of lock landing stages on the restored Kennet & Avon Canal. It all takes a lot of time and money. There is not only a lack of public sector provided facilities, it will also take years for boatyards and for many other canalside businesses to appear on the scene.
If you ask someone about their voyage you are likely to hear of the problems rather than the hours of pleasant cruising and in that respect I am no different from most people. However, I would not like you to think we did not enjoy the trip or will not be returning.
So what is the attraction apart from one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways at Standedge? Cruising through the hills looking down into valleys and up to the peaks is a unique canal cruising experience that no river can match. It is difficult to describe in words and even photographs cannot match the reality. You may find a few problems but these serve to bring out the best in your fellow boaters and comrades in adversity.
It may not be one of the easiest canals to cruise but it certainly one of the most memorable.
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