The Standedge Tunnels – of which there are four - run under the Pennines for over three miles to link Yorkshire and Lancashire. The first tunnel was built for the Huddersfield Narrow Canal and is the highest, deepest and longest canal tunnel in the UK. Of the three railway tunnels that followed, two are now disused single track bores whilst the third is double track and still in service.
The Huddersfield Canal was authorised by Act of Parliament in 1794 to link Ashton under Lyme with Huddersfield. Work on the tunnel, through gritstone and shale, commenced in 1795. Some of the spoil was removed from shafts but the bulk of the excavation was executed from the two portals. After many problems, including water influx and change of both engineer and contractors, the two ends eventually met in 1809. Completion and formal opening took place in 1811 – exactly 200 years ago. The (w)hole undertaking had taken over fifteen years. The final cost of the tunnel was estimated at £160,000 making it the most expensive canal tunnel in Britain. Other impressive statistics are its length (three and a quarter miles), its depth (636 feet underground at its deepest) and its height (643 feet above sea level).
The tunnel successfully joined the rest of the canal which had been completed some thirteen years earlier. Some of the tunnel was brick lined but some remained and remains in natural rock. The tunnel was used by around 40 boats per day, each of which had to be legged through as there is no towpath. This could take up to three hours with a full cargo and although passing places were designed in, these proved impractical and one-way working was instigated.
The Huddersfield Narrow Canal was bought by the Huddersfield and Manchester Railway in 1846 and this set the seeds of its disuse and abandonment. After being taken over by the LNWR, the first parallel (‘Nicholson’) railway tunnel was completed in 1848. Ironically the canal tunnel was used to remove spoil – both negating the need for shafts and accelerating its own demise. Some of the cross-passages constructed at this time still remain. The canal tunnel is self-evidently constructed dead level and the railway tunnel was too although at a slightly higher elevation. It became the only part of the railway that was level enough to hold water troughs for replenishing the steam trains. The tunnel has displaced portals from the canal tunnel and is three miles and 57 yards long.
The single track tunnel proved to be a bottleneck and so a parallel (‘Nelson’) tunnel was excavated, opening in 1871. This is to the south of the 1848 tunnel and exactly the same length. There is a crossover between the two single bore tunnels (popularly known as the Cathedral) approximately half way through. By 1894 there was demand for yet more capacity and a double track rail tunnel was bored to the north of the canal tunnel (though the line is still to the south at the canal portals). This tunnel is still in active use.
Commercial traffic on the canal ceased in 1921 and official closure eventually followed in 1944. Occasional passage by enthusiasts followed until the ends of the canal tunnel were securely gated. Restoration of the Huddersfield Canal finally re-opened the tunnel in 2001 after de-silting and the rock-bolting and concreting of a number of unstable areas. The restoration cost of the tunnel alone was around five million pounds. For eight years, all boats were towed through by electric tugs but more recently boats have been permitted to navigate through under their own power, albeit with a British Waterways ‘pilot’.
At the same time as the canal tunnel’s reopening, a visitor centre was established at the Marsden site which as well as having displays and visiting exhibitions runs public trips into the tunnel.