Go to Allan's Page Part 1. to Gloucester Canals Home Page Part 3:. The Rochdale Canal Go to Deb's Page
View Slideshow Part 4: Home via Llangollen and Birmingham

Across the Pennines, four times

Part 2 - Gloucester and the Huddersfield Narrow Canal

In Part 1 we had visited Gloucester again and were now ready to head back up the Severn, but we had just been warned that the river was in flood. Did we wish to 'exercise our right to navigate the River' despite the warnings? Yes of course we did. The river was only 2ft 3in above its normal level at Gloucester after all, although it was rising, and the current looked manageable so we were soon on our way.

The current was about 3.5 mph, so by travelling at a steady 6.5 mph we were still able to make 3 mph upstream. There wasn't much debris floating in the river either, as is so often the case when the water is high, so we had no particular problems. We were glad we didn't want to stop at Ashleworth, where the jetty was completely submerged under the muddy waters - as was the jetty at the Coal House which is normally high above our decks; it was clear that the level was getting considerably higher as we progressed towards Tewkesbury.  Had we known the river well enough we could probably have missed out Upper Lode Lock altogether, as there was plenty of smooth flow where the weir would normally be found - but of course we didn't choose that option. Instead we went through the lock and past the mouth of the Avon to find ourselves in a magical position, where the floodwaters of the Avon were simply preventing the mighty Severn from flowing anywhere at all. Instead we found ourselves floating high enough to admire the countryside which is normally hidden from boaters by the flood-banks of the Severn, and yet in water which was completely static because it couldn't go anywhere. Just like last year's trip on the static waters of the flooded Tidal Trent we were in effect travelling up-river on a tranquil inland lake, and it was just beautiful.

 

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Waiting to enter Harecastle Tunnel
After leaving the Trent & Mersey by means of a 'flyover' aqueduct, the Macclesfield canal has the most graceful bridges of any that I know

After leaving the river at Stourport we made rapid progress up the canal to Kidsgrove, where we turned left  then sharp right on to the Macclesfield and crossed over the Trent and Mersey on an aqueduct, just like a motorway exit but 200 years older. At last we were on waters which Keeping Up had not travelled before, as we would now be for several weeks. The Macclesfield Canal is so pretty, I can't imagine why we hadn't been back here for 25 years.

The 'ruined' folly of Mow Cop castle was high above the canal as the hills began to crowd around, and the scenery became ever more spectacular as we progressed along the Macclesfield and Upper Peak Forest canals. We took our time to meet people including several of our Internet friends from the CanalWorld Forum, and to explore the towns, usually managing to avoid getting caught in the torrential but localised storms; sometimes - as at Congleton and Macclesfield - by just staying in the pub until the rain stopped. It still did not take us long to reach Whaley Bridge and Bugsworth Basin, where the canal builders decided that enough was enough and resorted to building a tramway for the rest of the route to the quarries.

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Mow Cop castle
Soon it is obvious that we are heading into the hills
A beautiful overnight mooring near Marple
The canal ends at Whaley Bridge
Moored in Bugsworth Basin

Returning to Marple, we were now on waters that were completely new to us. People had warned us that the Marple locks were deep and difficult; well they are certainly deep, but they are very pretty and we didn't find them particularly difficult. The canal then led us to Dukinfield Junction, where the Peak Forest, Ashton, and Huddersfield Narrow canals all meet. It's a good spot to moor, much prettier than we had expected but with good access into Ashton-under-Lyne, as well as a museum at Portland Basin and a very well-equipped marina.

 

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Marple Locks are very deep ...
... but also very picturesque
The river by the moorings at Dukinfield Junction
Under the bridge you turn right ...
on to the Huddersfield Narrow Canal

The Huddersfield Narrow Canal (HNC) begins as an Asda supermarket! There is a small square tunnel underneath the store, and then you are properly on the HNC and trying to work out how to open a pair of lock gates that don't have any balance beams (the hydraulic rams are a clue: there is a square shaft sticking out of a metal cabinet near the lock, and if you turn it the gates will open). One of the fascinations of both the HNC and Rochdale canals, is the variety of ingenious solutions that have been devised to open gates which are too close to a bridge to allow the usual balance-beam arrangements.

 

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But first you have to go underneath Asda ...
which has its very own tunnel!
There's a new lock in the very centre of Stalybridge
Most other locks are much more rural
Hydraulic rams open the gates of the first lock
The culvert breathers have a distinct 'pepper pot' feature on top

We looked for a countryside mooring above Stalybridge that night. Our map was rather old, which turned out to be an advantage because it showed a mooring which isn't on the latest maps, and although the mooring isn't signposted we managed to identify it and spend a good night there. For most of the way along these two Pennine canals, quiet unofficial mooring spots are hard to find because the banks are too shallow to be approached, and even the lock moorings are often too shallow to be able to put more than just the bows of the boat near enough for someone to get ashore. Some people deal with this situation in different ways; at Roaches Lock for example, a westbound boat found themselves aground in the morning and fixed the problem by draining the pound above us to raise the level. As we were heading eastwards up the locks, this action took us a couple of hours to rectify by allowing small amounts of water to run down from each of several pounds above us.

 

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After Stalybridge the canal goes right between the legs of a pylon
Apparently this roller could originally be used to pull up a giant plug to drain the canal
We were greeted at Roaches Lock by this family of a Goose and an Aylesbury duck with a Mallard chick.
The beautifully rebuilt bridge below Uppermill ...
... necessitated some intriguing gate operating gear
The church above Uppermill nestles in a small valley with a pub and the brewery

Soon we were at Uppermill. We nearly bought a house near this pretty little town a few years ago, and it seemed even more charming when we returned to it this time. We still had a couple of days before our booked passage through the tunnel, and we passed them most enjoyably in exploring the town and the local area. Once again there is a strangely-operated lock, with a rack and pinion arrangement to open the lower gate next to the widened road - and beautifully rebuilt - bridge, then there are some excellent moorings near the town centre. There is an excellent range of shops, accompanied by some excellent and very friendly pubs, and we were advised to take a walk up to the church. We were told that it was only about a mile, and that there was a good pub next door; both of these statements proved to be spectacular understatements. The mile felt as if was almost vertical, but the views were spectacular, and the sight of the church nestling in the valley was idyllic; the pub (the Church Inn, what else?) turned out to have its own brewery (Saddleworth brewery, advertised as 'purveyors of mental distortion') with a fabulous range of superb beers as well as an amazing selection of home-cooked food, all at wonderfully low prices. Definitely worth the walk up from the town!

An interesting episode happened in Uppermill. We were sitting in the lounge watching TV when suddenly we heard running footsteps on our roof, and then a teenage lad jumped down from the roof to the towpath past the lounge window. I dashed out through the front doors and yelled after him, and his three companions stopped and apologised to me for his behaviour as he had had too much to drink. We got chatting, and when the roof-runner reappeared they called him back and made him apologise to us as well. He explained that he'd always wanted to run along the roof of a boat, and he'd thought ours was unoccupied. We accepted his apology, invited the lads on board, and had a long natter about living on board before they departed as good friends. If they were representative of the youth of today, then the future looks bright enough to me!

After the weekend in Uppermill we were up early on the Monday morning to present ourselves at Dobcross, the foot of the Diggle flight. After passing under a spectacular railway viaduct, we arrived and met British Waterways as they unlocked the first lock for us. We set off up towards Diggle, but only made it as far as the third lock before we had a problem: we couldn't fill the lock because the water was running out of a lower paddle. We shut the top paddles, being careful to keep back away from the cill as the water level dropped, and phoned BW. Several people including two passers-by, the boat behind us, and the first person to arrive from BW, all tried to tell us what we were doing wrong; but soon it was obvious that there was no way of filling the lock. BW advised us to go backwards down the flight and wait below the bottom lock until a maintenance crew could come and deal with the problem. It is a strange feeling to reverse down a deep lock; with the gate close behind you as you descend, all your instincts scream at you to move forwards whereas in fact the opposite is required, you have to stay right back to make sure the bow cannot catch on the cill.

Safely moored in the mouth of the bottom lock, we repaired to the pub for an excellent lunch, then strolled back up to see how BW were getting on. By then they had drained the pound below the lock, revealing that one of the bottom paddles had come away from the lock wall together with its frame. As I watched, they hauled the pieces up to be a kit of parts on the lockside, and I felt disheartened that rebuilding was clearly going to be a major job, but with some ingenuity the maintenance crew managed to fix a wooden blanking plate across the culvert so that the remaining paddle could be used to operate the lock. By 6.30pm the lock was ready, and BW told us that if we went up the flight that evening we could moor at  the tunnel mouth overnight ready for them to lay on a special passage through the tunnel the next day (there are not usually any passages on Tuesdays).

The mooring at Diggle is stunningly beautiful, it is a great shame that BW don't allow boats to moor at Diggle before winding and returning if they wish to without going through the tunnel, as it is a fabulous spot with plenty of good mooring available. BW claim that they can't allow it because of the amount of water that it would 'waste', but I don't find that argument at all convincing, because water is cascading down the by-washes around the locks the whole time anyway so surely it could just as well be used to allow boats to use the locks instead.

 

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The spectacular railway viaduct near Uppermill
Diggle flight is unique, having both paddles on the same side
The remains of a broken paddle, after BW retrieved them from the lock
Waiting at Dobcross after reversing back down Diggle flight
The woolshed at Dobcross is now the HQ of the HNCS

For anyone who doesn't know it, Standedge Tunnel is only inches bigger than the boat in both height and width, above and below the waterline, and is raw and jagged where it was blasted out of the bare rock by 18th century mining engineers. The longest tunnel in the UK, it twists and turns its way beneath the Pennines and demands the utmost in concentration by the steerer if the boat is to emerge unscathed. In the past, BW insisted on towing the boat through the tunnel while you rode in the tug - except that you had to walk if you had dogs - and I had waited until this year for the opportunity to steer Keeping Up through it myself. As described in the article in September 2009 edition of Canal Boat magazine, that's the one with our photo on the front cover, Standedge is no ordinary tunnel; it is unique, and is certainly not just a longer version of the other tunnels on the system. I didn't take any pictures inside the tunnel, but I thoroughly recommend that you take a look at the sequence of photos on Martin Clark's excellent site about the Pennine Waterways, which truly capture the flavour of the passage.

We didn't need to make many preparations for the tunnel. I just removed the radio aerials from the roof, took the navigation lights off the sides, and angled the spotlamp slightly higher. In fact I raised the lamp too far; knowing that it would usually not be possible to see the waterline in front of the boat, I pointed the light a little way above horizontal, forgetting that the beam would strike the extremely low roof just a few feet in front of the boat. The optimum setting is almost imperceptibly above the horizontal, so that the beam can travel some distance before striking the roof. At least you don't have to worry about the beam dazzling any oncoming boats!

 

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There is a strange metal sculpture of giant tulips at the top of Diggle
Finally we have reached the portal of Standedge Tunnel
A plaque commemorates Telford's contribution
Through to the other side ...
... and back again ...
Martin Ludgate / Canal Boat magazine
... before going down the Diggle flight again
Martin Ludgate / Canal Boat magazine

Next morning we were hailed by an army of BW people, including Fred their most experienced pilot whose knowledge of the tunnel and its history is unrivalled. Donning reflective jacket, lifejacket, and protective headgear, we placed the rest of the BW safety equipment where it could be reached easily and watched with some anxiety while they measured the boat to confirm my assertion that it would fit through the tunnel. At last we were ready to go, and Debbie disappeared inside the boat with Molly and Telford while Fred joined me on the back deck. A team of BW people set off through the access tunnel which runs parallel to the canal and railway tunnels, and we were ready to go. The Pennines seemed like the roof of the world, but now we were taking a short-cut through the attic!

Fred's guidance was so helpful; it seemed as if he knew every single lump of rock in the tunnel walls, shining his torch so that I could see to avoid them, and his commentary throughout the tunnel was so interesting that the journey passed surprisingly quickly - although I was concentrating so hard that I fear my conversation must have been very dull in return. We had only touched the wall once so we were undamaged apart from about half a square inch of paint at the back of the roof and our official time for the trip was 1hr 47min, which is pretty good. We felt pretty elated as we moored outside the visitor centre, but bad news was on the way. The canal was extremely short of water all the way down to Huddersfield, a situation which had been made worse by a boater attempting to run water down against BW instructions; his ill-considered actions had drained the upper pounds, and flooded several lower pounds and some cottages. BW had tried to bring the next day's boats up from Marsden, but their attempt had damaged one of the locks and our prospects for getting to Huddersfield and back were extremely poor.

After some discussion with BW, we agreed to wind around and head back through the tunnel again the next day. We spent the afternoon walking around visitor centre and exploring the area with the dogs; soon we were joined by the other boats who would be making the tunnel passage the next day, one of whom was another of our friends from the Forum who was to be accompanied through the tunnel by a journalist. We all went up to the Tunnel End pub for the evening, and had the most fantastic home-made meal there even though they weren't serving food that night!

Not many people pass through Standedge Tunnel twice in 24 hours, but that is what we did. With the spotlamp aimed more accurately this time the return trip was relatively easy, particularly as the memory of much of the tunnel's profile was still fresh in my mind; as a result we made it back through the tunnel in just 1hr 37min, which was remarkable when you consider that we had to stop for over 5 minutes at one point because we were catching up with the boat in front of us, and I had managed to avoid the tunnel walls all the way so we were completely undamaged which was another bonus.

The weather was superb but the occasional short sharp showers filled the canal very quickly - one sunny morning it clouded over and poured an inch of rain over us within an hour - as we made our way in a leisurely fashion back down to Dukinfield. Emerging from Scout Tunnel we smelled the unmistakeable aroma of a steam train, and paused briefly to watch as it struggled up the steep hill towards Diggle. Apparently it was due to pass through the tunnel at the same time as the passenger trip boat would be making the parallel canal trip; the two tunnels have numerous interconnecting passages, so the result of meeting a steam train can be quite spectacular!

We moored again near Dukinfield Junction. After a visit to the launderette, and a pump-out at Portland Marina, we were ready for the Rochdale canal ... or maybe we weren't!

 

 

View Slideshow Part 3:. The Rochdale Canal
Go to Allan's Page Part 1. to Gloucester Canals Home Page Part 4: Home via Llangollen and Birmingham Go to Deb's Page

 

 

All pictures on this site are Allan Jones unless otherwise stated

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