Monday 5 June 2023

Huddersfield Narrow Canal. Diggle to Slaithwaite.

The morning of our passage through the mighty Standedge tunnel - longest, deepest, highest, twistiest, etc. etc. - saw us, quite predictably, up bright and early. Our roof needed flattening, so the flower troughs, the bicycles, the gang planks and the contents of the big solar box had to come inside, along with our new cratch cover that we really didn’t want to get scuffed. We collapsed our two biggest storage boxes, took the solar panel off the other one, and then removed the sides from the log pallet and spread our remaining logs out. Legend’s highest fixed point is the front pigeon box, so as long as everything else is lower than that we’re at our lowest profile.

Legend in low profile mode.

By design, the back of a narrowboat sits lower in the water than the front, so in theory the most vulnerable points are the front corners of the roof. Our traditional hand rails have an advantage over the more modern integral ones by being further in, rather than right on the edge of the roof, giving us more clearance in an arched roof, but we cable-tied some pieces of yoga mat to the front of them anyway. *

At the tunnel waiting moorings, with the western portal gaping open just ahead of us, Legend was measured and assessed by the CRT volunteer chaperones and we were given a briefing. They added a big curver box of safety equipment to our already overstuffed well deck, added some big battery LED work lights to the boat and gave Dave a hard hat.

There's not a lot of room in the cabin.

Trevor, our chaperone, needed to be on the back with Dave, leaving no room on our trad stern for Ann-Marie, so with our well deck full of bicycles, waders and other gubbins off the roof, and now a safety box, she had to be inside the boat for the entire passage. With all the knocks and bangs and our noisy engine echoing off the walls it wasn’t the most pleasant place to be. With hindsight we should have made more room in the well deck, although without a cratch cover that got drenched as we went under the air shaft waterfalls, so it wouldn’t have been practical anyway. At the other end Ann-Marie said that if we do it again she will walk over the top, but to be honest, once was enough for both of us. Dave found the passage fascinating, and the guidance he had from Trevor was invaluable. After 10 years of chaperoning and many times steering the trip boat through, he knows the tunnel intimately and has even written a book about all four of the Standedge tunnels. As we made our way through, he pointed out all the places where restoration work had been done in the 1990s including many yards of sprayed concrete over stainless steel mesh to hold the rock in place, plus all the hundreds of brick arches that had been installed in the 1800s when the rail tunnels were dug and the blasting shattered the roof in the canal tunnel. He also gave Dave plenty of warning about the bends, wiggles and sticky-out bits of rock, and especially the anchor bolts poking out of the tunnel roof at perfect scalping height.

Standedge comes in many different flavours. You can have curved. 

Or square.

Or glacial. One of the sprayed concrete sections.

  Or rocky with added bolts. One of many good reasons for wearing a hard hat.

Or twisty.

The re-enforcing brick arches that were put in when blasting in the rail tunnels shattered the roof.

Part of the 'S' bend in the middle. A 25' deviation was only discovered when the two ends met.

Another CRT man kept pace with us in a van through one of the adjacent single track rail tunnels, now
re-purposed as a service tunnel. He appeared at four of the connecting addits on the way through to check on our progress. It was all quite mind blowing, but after nearly two hours of hard concentration Dave had had about enough and was really looking forward to seeing the sky again. He had to wait though; when we were about half a mile from the Marsden end and had just had another soaking from the last air shaft, a pair of headlights appeared from the other end as the trip boat came in towards us. To avoid getting the passengers all wet, the trip boat stops and reverses back just before the last air shaft, so we had to back up under it again and wait for them. It was really eerie being stopped with the engine off. We could hear the trains in the live tunnel next door and feel the waft of air from the addits as they went past. After about 15 minutes we decided that the trip boat was definitely retreating, so we set off again – with a third soaking - and followed it out.

As we emerged into the daylight again we were greeted with “Welcome to Yorkshire!” from a very friendly lock keeper. Buzzing from the experience, but feeling somewhat shell-shocked as well, we tied up briefly at the visitor centre while we handed all the safety stuff back...

...and then moved down to Marsden’s 24hr moorings where we put all our tat back up on the roof. As far as we’re concerned, all the hype about the Standedge Tunnel is completely justified. It’s the ultimate adrenaline trip and there really is nothing like it on the whole system. We find it amazing that with all the infrastructure, staff and planning that goes on, you can take your boat through it for free, and we were more than happy to put £10 into the HCS funds for a signed copy of Trevor’s book.

That evening we went to see the local operatic society perform “Black Adder Goes Forth” at Marsden church hall, which was beautifully done, combining three episodes from the series - the one with the carrier pigeon, the one with Lord Flashheart and the Royal Flying Corp, and of course Goodbyeee – which was just as moving at the end as the original, if not more-so.

Our plan for the Thursday was to get off down the locks first thing; we wanted to get moored up by lunch time so that we could go up to Carlisle to Dave’s Aunty Margot’s house. His cousin Mary from Tasmania was going to be there for one night on a whistle stop tour of the UK; the last time we’d seen Mary was on our pre-boat Oz trip when she lived in Queensland, and most of the UK Wood cousins were going to be there as well. Plus we hadn’t seen Aunty Margot since she had a stroke a couple of years ago, so we really, really needed our plans to work. At 7:30 we were ready to set off.  Ann-Marie went to set the first lock and immediately came back to report that it was padlocked. A bit of phone research told us that the flight was controlled by volunteers and we needed to give 24 hours’ notice. It looked desperate and we were very upset and annoyed. Upset because it looked like our plans were now in tatters, and annoyed because we were signed up for email notifications about stoppages and restrictions on the waterways we were heading for - specifically  to avoid situations like this - and we’d not known about it. Fortunately, very fortunately, the other two boats that had come through the tunnel behind us did know and had booked, so when the lock keepers turned up at 9:30 we were able to join in and get on our way. By then we’d calmed down a bit and the other boaters, who must have heard Ann-Marie letting off steam at half past seven, very kindly allowed us to go first.

 The lock keepers were lovely and although we mostly worked the locks ourselves, because they had half an hour before the next boat, they hovered around to give assistance if we needed it. That assistance was needed at the first lock where we got stuck and had to be flushed out. That put more water into the pound below, lifting the boat up under a pipe bridge and causing the pipe to catch the cover on the big box, tearing a small hole in it.

 It’s not serious and we’ve got some of the cratch cover material left over so it can easily be fixed.

Everything we’d heard about the top east section of the Huddersfield Narrow had been about low water and hard work, but being first to go and being careful to take our water with us gave us a really good run down to Slaithwaite, (pronounced Slawit) much quicker than we’d expected.

Find out why this lock gate has a Blue Peter badge here.

Bringing the water down the locks with us makes boating easy, but we have to be careful not to flood the towpath.

The hand wound guillotine gate at Slaithwaite

We were tied up on the lovely new moorings just after the guillotine lock in time for lunch...

...and were soon on the road, arriving in Carlisle about 5:30, where Richard and Jill piled a lovely and most welcome spread in front of us. After that we went across the road to Aunty Margot’s to join Mary, Tegan, John, Linda, Elizabeth, and Phillipa. We also met Elizabeth’s new husband Adam who is the best thing since sliced clich
és. Then followed a fabulous, happy and hug filled Wood Cousin 3 day party with a parkrun at Talkin Tarn on the Saturday, before we headed back home. Aunty Margot was doing better than we’d feared. After the stroke, Phillipa dropped her life in Wrexham and moved up to Carlisle to be Aunty Margot’s full time carer, and in our book she deserves sainthood. Margot has dementia and, as Phil says, has good days and bad days. When we got there it was a good day and she remembered Dave after a while, and occasionally Ann-Marie too. It was so good see her and all her lovely family and the time to go came far too soon. With another round of hugs and promises to stay in touch and visit again soon (as ever) we set off back down the M6.

As we were going to be passing Preston, Ann-Marie gave Sue a call to see if it would be ok to pop in for a cuppa and was shocked to receive the horrible news that Steve was in a hospice and dying. We spent an hour or so with Sue and left feeling really heartbroken. We drove the rest of the way home quite subdued and trying not to dwell on the fact that it wouldn’t be very long before we’d be making a return trip.    

On a happier note, we really like Slaithwaite; the little town had everything we needed and the people were ever so friendly. Of course the fact that summer seemed to have finally arrived obviously helped, the pubs were spilling out onto the pavements and the towpath was busy with throngs of happy people wandering up and down, many of whom complemented our boat/flowers/lifestyle. Legend was moored there for 9 nights, in which time we got the flower boxes painted...

...and Dave repositioned a few of the cratch cover ‘Lift –the-Dot’ pegs so that it fits better. He also sewed some magnets into the hem of the zip doors instead of the poppers that we’d had on the old one which had always been a pain. Time will tell of course, but so far the magnets seem to work

With little jobs getting done and summer arriving – albeit a bit late – boating life on Legend seem to be getting back to normal.
*Dave has a bee in his bonnet about integral handrails being a fashion trend promoted by boat builders in a money saving exercise. As well as making the profile of the boat physically smaller, you can tie a rope round traditional handrails and they provide a much safer hand-hold, so why would you design something that didn’t do any of those things? Dave reckons it’s because welding the corners, and then fabricating hand rails and attaching them, takes more skill and is far more time consuming than simply welding pre formed panels to the roof. Integral handrails may look neater and less cluttered, which is why the trend took off, but they are far less practical.

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