In previous instalments of this series, we have looked at two very well known tunnelling projects – the Channel Tunnel and the London Underground. This time we turn our sights towards one that is less well known but no less impressive.

The Standedge Canal Tunnel holds three records: it is the longest canal tunnel in Britain at 16,499 feet (5,029m) in length; it is the deepest canal tunnel, being 636 feet (194m) underground at its deepest point, and it is the highest canal tunnel in the country, 643 feet (196m) above sea level.

Planning for the tunnel, which was authorised in order to provide a link between Ashton-under-Lyne and Huddersfield began in 1794. Consulting engineer Benjamin Outram expected the works to be straightforward, and estimated the cost of both canal and tunnel at £178,478. However, when work began it didn’t go as smoothly as expected. Much effort was expended on constructing small tunnels to supply waterwheels to raise spoil and water from the intermediate adits, but this work was expensive and the decision was made to concentrate on working from the ends of the tunnel. Water entered the workings in greater quantities than had been expected, which further hampered construction.

Outram left the project in 1801, after work had been halted for some time, and it wasn’t until 1807, when additional finance had been acquired and the renowned civil engineer Thomas Telford was consulted, that work was able to resume. Following Telford’s detailed plan, the two ends of the tunnel finally met on the 9th June 1809 and a grand opening ceremony was able to be held on the 4th April 1811. The tunnel alone had by then cost £160,000, giving it a fourth record at the time – the most expensive canal tunnel built in Britain.

Like other canal tunnels in the country, the Standedge Tunnel was built with no towpath, so boats had to be “legged” through by boatmen lying on the cargo and pushing against the roof and walls of the tunnel with their feet. Although it has several widened points, originally designed as passing places, two-way use was found to be impractical, and it has been restricted to one way use by the simple expedient of locking a chain across one end, preventing unauthorised access to those going the wrong way.

The canal tunnel was officially closed in 1944 and quickly fell into disrepair, remaining out of use until a modern-day restoration project stabilised unsafe parts of the tunnel and allowed it to re-open in May of 2001.

Alongside the canal tunnel, there are three railway tunnels; built in 1848, 1871 and 1894, only the most recent remains open to railway traffic today, with the other two maintained to provide emergency escape routes and access for emergency vehicles. The 1894 tunnel is also quite an impressive feat of engineering, as it is the fifth longest rail tunnel in the country.

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