Huddersfield Narrow Canal: A full-on canal
Waterway writer, cartographer, boater and cyclist Richard Fairhust tells us why he thinks the Huddersfield Narrow Canal is one of the coutry's most 'full-on’ waterways.
It’s possibly the hardest canal on the waterway system, but for me, it’s certainly one of the finest.”
Relaxing, peaceful, a haven of contentment. None of these terms apply to the Huddersfield Narrow Canal. It’s possibly the hardest canal on the waterway system, but for me, it’s certainly one of the finest.
Flushed with success after reopening Manchester’s canals, the 1970s saw local canal enthusiasts cast their eye on the ‘Narrow’ – a 74-lock crawl across the Pennines, with a three-mile tunnel at its summit, and closed since the Second World War. One enthusiast had the temerity to write to the authorities: “Dear Sir, we would like to restore your canal.” After the guffaws had echoed around the office, a reply was despatched. One word rang out: “Impossible.”
Well, the impossible happened in 2001. You can read the superlatives in the guidebooks: longest tunnel, highest summit, and all that. But the real appeal of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal is that it’s a ‘full-on’ canal. From the moment you nudge underneath the low bridge at Huddersfield, until you emerge 20 miles and 74 locks later in East Manchester, you’re entirely immersed in the experience.
In its own unique way, this is a highly scenic waterway. The surroundings are distinctively Pennine: gritstone warehouses, gritstone mills, gritstone terraces marching up the hill. Wooded valley sides are set off by distant views of wild moorland.
Meanwhile, the narrow canal climbs inexorably to Standedge, lock-by-lock. As a boating experience, it’s gruelling: there’s no respite, no lock-free breather. But it’s exhilarating and truly rewarding: there’s no waterway I’d recommend more strongly to a party of fit 20-somethings on a week-long break. (That said, last time I cycled it, I encountered a 70-year old who’d boated the entire canal single-handed… never say never.)
Slaithwaite and Marsden
What will you see along the way? On the eastern side, there are two little gems: Slaithwaite and Marsden. Because Slaithwaite’s high street runs alongside the canal, pretty much everything is canalside: the champion pie-maker, the boutique chocolatier, the real ale brewery, the community-owned grocer. It’s that sort of place.
Marsden is one of those perfect Pennine valley settlements like Holmfirth or Hebden Bridge – but one that the tourists haven’t discovered yet. The famous canal theatre troupe, Mikron, are based in the village hall. (This being West Yorkshire, it’s not called a ‘village hall’. No, it’s the Mechanics’ Institute, built in 1861 to provide practical education.) Marsden is down-to-earth enough to have a butcher and a greengrocer, yet aspirational enough for an annual jazz festival – oh, and another brewery. This one has its own pub, the superb Riverhead Brewery Tap.
I’ve boated the Narrow twice, but cycled and walked it many more times. It’s the ideal canal for the rambler, and not just because of the pubs. There’s a railway line running parallel, so you can take a one-way walk and get the train back. Countless footpaths head off north and south to the Pennine moors. At the very least, you should walk the old boat-horse path over Standedge Tunnel, from Marsden to Diggle across National Trust-owned moorland.
Ah yes, Standedge Tunnel. This is literally the centrepiece of the canal, the means by which it crosses the crest of the Pennines. Everyone will tell you that it’s the “longest tunnel on the canals”, but that’s the least interesting thing about it. It’s an underground warren, where side-tunnels lead to three parallel railway bores. It’s an engineering curio, with sections in bare rock, brick, and modern concrete, plus metal girders to hold the roof up. At times it’s a tight, almost claustrophobic fit; then, without warning, it’ll suddenly widen into an underground basin.
When I last cruised the Narrow, your boat was hauled through the tunnel by an electric tug. The setup is more relaxed now, and you can pilot your own boat through – which, given the uneven walls, is quite a feat of steering. But the tug still runs, hauling a fortnightly passenger through-service for walkers and visitors, and short in-and-out trips every day.
I won’t pretend that boating the Narrow is for everyone. If you like your canals lazy and unhurried, head south to sleepy Shropshire and gentle Warwickshire. But visit the Huddersfield Narrow Canal anyway, on foot or by bike. Canals don’t come more exhilarating than this.
Richard Fairhurst is a waterway writer and cartographer, boater and cyclist. He’s editor-at-large of Waterways World and blogs regularly at canal.travel.