Wednesday 10th June; Marsden to Uppermill via the Standedge Tunnel
It’s a long post today, as a lot happened after the tunnel passage.
The CRT crews were here soon after 8 and having their cups of tea as they planned the morning and started measuring the boats to ensure they wouldn’t get stuck inside. We’d removed the cratch cover already (there is a high risk of damage) and taken the painted can off the roof and that was all we needed to do. The third boat to go had bikes, plant pots and roof boxes to cram elsewhere and used their waiting time to give their roof a good clean. Here we are, ready for the off.
The trains had been going through since much earlier of course.
Terry, our chaperone for the trip, loaded up his safety kit and gave us our briefing. The tunnel is over 3 miles long and there are stringent safety precautions. The steerer must wear a high-vis waistcoat and a lifejacket in case they are knocked overboard, and anyone who doesn’t stay tucked up inside must wear a hard hat too. Pets must be restrained inside, as the last thing they want is delay while you search for a dog overboard. Meg gets under our feet at the best of times and is always shut in for tunnels, but this time I attached her to the Desmo table leg with her harness and lead, hoping she would curl up in her bed and go to sleep (she didn’t). Terry hauled a full-size fire extinguisher on board and a crate with a first-aid kit and other items, and wore gas detectors about his person – carbon monoxide, methane and one other which I think was for oxides of nitrogen (NOx). During our passage we would need to pause four times to call in and confirm we were ok.
We set off just after 9. I’m not keen on tunnels but was determined to be outside and be positive about the experience. Exciting or what! as the young folks say. In we went through the first section which is beautifully lined with brick. Now unfortunately our pictures are pretty poor. My flash hasn’t worked for ages but Dave's camera also had a glitch so for good photos of the tunnel I suggest you visit Free Spirit and the-everards blogs. This is one of my better ones ….
As well as brick-lined sections, there are bare rock and sprayed concrete sections too. The bare rock had some very pointy bits which Terry warned about in good time but it was not possible to avoid them all unfortunately! The tunnel has some very narrow sections (you think the Harecastle is narrow? ha!) and is so low in places that you can barely see over your roof and have to look down the side to see where you are going, and even a shorty like me had to crouch. This is a higher bit of rocky ceiling, though it looks strange because my camera technique can’t compensate for a moving boat.
When the railway tunnels were built, a lot of the spoil was removed via the canal, and cross-adits were constructed for this purpose. A disused railway tunnel (there are three, only one in use now) is used as an escape route should it be necessary, and the adits are where boats stop to check in. By the first checkpoint one of Terry’s gas detectors had started shrieking at us so we had to stop the engine for the exhaust fumes to clear. It didn’t take long with the fresh air at the adit, and was fine after that. This is the other CRT chap, who comes along the escape tunnel to monitor progress and reports back to the outside via an intercom.
We saw him again at the second checkpoint. Terry kept up a fascinating commentary with information about the construction, geology and history of the tunnels. He pointed out the remains of the shot holes where the men would have worked in pairs to bash out holes (by hand, using a hammer and spike) in which they packed gunpowder to break the rock. This was pretty hazardous, as of course they only had candles for illumination. The rocky bits are mostly Millstone Grit and sandstone, but some parts, which I think are of shale, are quite crumbly and had rock bolts inserted or had been sprayed with concrete to stabilise them. (When we moored outside, I actually found a small piece of shale sitting on the gunwale, hmmm, how did that get there … ?) The sprayed-concrete parts looked almost like a passage through tree roots, like illustrations in a fairy story or some weird part of a computer game. A couple of times I heard a train rush through the neighbouring tunnel and felt the breeze it generated.
Poor Meg meanwhile was very confused. Every now and then I walked through to the bow, and she looked very glum in her hidey-hole or standing puzzled at the limit of her lead. At the third adit we just waved to the other CRT chap who then set off back to the entrance. But we paused here anyway as it was my turn to steer. You have to be stationary so that you can safely swap the kit - though I used my own lifejacket I still needed to don the high-viz waistcoat. It was the first time I had steered in a tunnel. Challenging but exciting! I was too busy to be scared and anyway Terry kept me entertained, as well as warning about the bends, sticking-out bits, and oh-so-tactfully suggesting adjustments to the steering. I don’t think I bashed the boat any more than Dave did … well not that much anyway. I was glad to hand back at the last checkpoint as I had neck-ache from crouching. It was unfortunately an extremely wet bit with water cascading down from a ventilation shaft! As we swapped, Terry got off to call back and confirm our position.
We cheered as the far end became visible, though it took a long time to reach. We emerged into brilliant sunshine.
The experience had been fabulously interesting and we were astonished that it had taken two hours to get through – it seemed much less. It had been cold and rather wet, and the hard hats were definitely not ‘Health and Safety gone mad’ – there are lots of places where you need them!
One boat (nb Donald no 9 I think) was moored waiting for their turn later this morning and of course they wanted to know all about it. We were happy to oblige while Terry got his equipment together and Meg was freed at last from her prison.
After a quick walk for Meg to stretch her legs we moved off to leave room for the boat following to drop their chaperone. The moorings further round, where another boat was waiting, looked lovely, wide open grass and trees. There were lots of strollers in the sunshine, and at lock 31W (we are on the west side now) is a cafe, so we rewarded ourselves with an ice-cream and took our time descending.
Loads of gongoozlers! which was lucky, as it’s quite hard to raise a stiff paddle when one hand is holding an ice-cream! A lovely chap not only was keen to learn how to raise a paddle, he (and little daughter) helped with the gates too. We made good progress down the locks as I got the bike out and could lock ahead. We have not seen this style of paddle stand before. It’s very handy that they are both on the towpath side.
A bit further on, I was returning from setting a lock when I realised something wasn’t right at the lock behind. Dave was kneeling on the grass with Meg and a group of worried-looking fishermen. Meg had sneaked along the opposite bank and stolen some bait – unfortunately already on the end of a line – and had been hooked. The hook was barbed (surely barbed hooks should have been banned by now!), so although we could see it in her lip there was no way we could get it out ourselves without the risk of further injury. Luckily the line had broken straight away and once people weren't trying to hold her still to look at it she didn’t seem in any discomfort so we just cracked on towards the first town, Uppermill, without stopping for lunch. At lock 23W is a magnificent viaduct, close to a cafe, so swarming with gongoozlers.
We answered loads of questions, as you do, but were keen to carry on and get moored up so we could get the laptop out and track down a vet as soon as we could. Luckily there is a good signal in Uppermill, and a vet too, but we had to travel to their Mossley practice where they had the facilities to deal with Meg. The taxi firm they suggested (lots won’t carry dogs) couldn’t come for 45 minutes so we walked into town to look for a bus stop. But a handy pet shop gave us a local taxi number and 15 minutes later we were in Mossley. The vet practice was splendid – Meg was assessed within five minutes of our arrival and they took her in straight away. We were packed off for ‘maybe up to 2 hours’.
So, Mossley. We wandered around a bit, spotting this statue, erected to commemorate the local mill girls (I think the basket contains bobbins).
A tree in the car park had been yarn-bombed.
We were looking for somewhere to go for a walk, but without a map we ended up going to the church nearby to wander round the graveyard. It was full of poignant and in some cases heartbreaking memorials; one was for a mother and baby who had died just a few days apart.
Within an hour we had a call to say we could collect Meg in 20 minutes. She was a bit sleepy, though luckily had only had a sedative, not a full-blown anaesthetic. They had removed the hook without trouble and there was no further injury, though they had given her two antibiotic injections in case of any infection. We thought £87 for such prompt and excellent service was good value – Ian McConnell vets, highly recommended.
We were back at the boat by 7, having left it soon after 4. Rather than the planned pub visit, we had an Indian take-away and a quiet evening in. Meg said she was quite well enough to help with the poppadums though!
5 miles, 10 locks, 6 hours, one tunnel and an unscheduled taxi ride.
Standedge Tunnel; the highest (643’ above sea level), deepest (636’ below ground at its deepest point) and longest (5,686 yards or nearly three and a quarter miles) canal tunnel in Britain. But no certificate! The Tunnel Inn at the Marsden end, which used to issue them, has closed.