The canal which is now restored, runs through the centre of Stalybridge. It starts at Ashton under Lyne, and finishes in Huddersfield. This completed a waterborne trade artery from Liverpool thorough the Pennines and with other canals through Yorkshire, and finally to the North Sea. It was a great advance on the roads of the period and, with both cotton mills on the western side of the Pennine hills and woollen mills on the eastern side it was assured of plenty of use. Building started in 1794 but financial and other difficulties regarding the long summit tunnel at Standedge meant that it was not finished in 1811.
The canal is 20 miles long, and due to the topography it passes through, notwithstanding that the summit level is virtually the lowest area of the Pennine hills in the area, needs 74 locks to take it through the Pennines in spite of the tunnel – that is the highest, longest and deepest canal tunnel in the country and is 5000 plus meters long. The tunnel is so narrow that when in commercial use the canal boats had to be ‘legged’ through the tunnel, by men literally walking the boats forwards against the walls of the tunnel. Even now narrow boats are taken through with a tug to pull them through in groups; they are not allowed to pass through unescorted.
It is a narrow canal that is the locks are a maximum width of 7 feet, and to ensure that the boats can travel on all narrow canals, they are built to about 6 feet 10 inches wide.
The canal now runs through ‘Armentieres Square, but this area when the canal was in use would be filled with warehouses and other commercial properties. A highly unusual sight is to be found, just past the centre of Stalybridge, by the side of an old and now removed, electric power station where a large electricity pylon is placed almost filling the old route of the canal. The power station site is now a switching station; and a narrow width section has been built past this pylon, virtually the same width as the locks.
The economic worth of the canal was made obvious when the then new railways were being promoted - the ‘Huddersfield and Manchester Railway’ later part of the London & North Western Railway, after 1923 the London Midland & Scottish Railway bought the canal and used it as a spoil carrier when building its original two single bore tunnels by the side of it, later due to heavy traffic on the railway a double track tunnel was also built. There are small cross tunnels to the canal tunnel – which is in the centre of four tunnels in this location.
The canal’s use for freight slowly reduced and by 1944 had stopped completely, though the route was now in use as a watercourse. The railways and canals were nationalized in 1948, and the canal was filled in, and culverted in parts; finally in 1974, a volunteer organization, the Huddersfield Canal Society’ web link http://www.huddersfieldcanal.com/) was formed and eventually they removed all the infilling an re-opened culverts so the canal could be used again – this time the use is for ‘leisure cruising’ with new and colourful narrow boats being able to pass through the centre of Stalybridge en route to and from the Pennines. For more information a visit to the web site is recommended. Wikipedia also have information on the Huddersfield narrow canal and also http://www.penninewaterways.co.uk/huddersfield/ .