Trips By Train

Marsden & Standedge Tunnels

Marsden is a small town that sits at the upper end of the Colne Valley about seven miles west of Huddersfield in West Yorkshire. The Colne Valley provides a relatively flat route deep into the Pennine hills that separate Lancashire from Yorkshire; only three miles to the south-west lies the similar Lancashire township of Diggle at the head of its own valley. But between the two lie the high moors of Standedge (pronounced stannige) which have long been a major obstacle to trade and travel.

Up on the moors you can still find the relics of many previous crossings, ranging from a roman road through mediaeval pack horse trails to the current major road (the A62 Manchester Road) which crosses via long sweeping gradients and a deep summit cutting. However when the Huddersfield Narrow Canal arrived on the scene, it was forced to tunnel the three miles from Marsden to Diggle, creating what is still Britain's longest canal tunnel. When the railways followed, they used the same route and so now there are no less than four tunnels; the recently restored canal tunnel, two abandoned rail tunnels and the current rail tunnel. All this adds up to an interesting visit in very attractive scenery, much of which is now in the care of the National Trust as part of its Meltham Moors estate.

This trip starts by taking the train to Marsden station, and takes the form of a circular walk.

Map - Chris Wood - 29th April 2004

Here is Marsden station. As you can see, it has three different platforms with separate exits, and the trip starts slightly differently depending on which you arrive at. If you arrive at platform 3 (the leftmost), then you simply leave the platform down the short ramp onto the cobbled road to the left here, then walk towards the National Trust visitors centre housed in a stable-block just behind the camera. 

This centre is well worth a visit, with an informative display on the geology, flora and fauna of the Meltham moors, along with maps of the development of the transport routes across them.

Image dcp_2245 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

Image dcp_2246 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

If you arrive at platforms 1 or 2, as this train has, then you will need to use the steps up to the road overbridge and then use this bridge to cross both railway line and canal. Continue along the road, which bends to the left coming off the bridge, until you reach one of the two small stone bridges back over the canal seen in the foreground here.

Crossing either of these brings you onto the cobbled road seen in the picture above, and turning right will again bring you to the previously mentioned National Trust visitors centre.

Leaving the visitors centre, retrace your steps to the further west of the two canal bridges (the further from the camera in the picture above) and cross it to join the canal tow path. 

Just beyond this bridge is a lock of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, and this picture clearly shows why it has that name. The locks on this canal are 70 feet long, but only seven wide. This is the standard size for the canals of the english midlands and south-east Lancashire, but differs from those of the rest of Yorkshire which were traditionally 62 feet long and 14 feet wide. This meant most cargoes needed to be trans-shipped in Huddersfield where this canal makes an end-on junction with the Huddersfield Broad Canal.

Image dcp_2247 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

Image dcp_2249 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

This lock is Lock 42 East and it brings the canal up to its summit pound (of 645 feet above sea level) which continues up to and through the tunnel.

In the last seven miles from Huddersfield, there are 42 locks and a rise of 440 feet. It typically takes a canal boat 2 days to transit those seven miles, which gives some indication why railways took off so fast in the mid-1800s.

From lock 42 follow the towpath west under the road bridge.

Derelict and un-navigable for over 50 years, the Huddersfield Narrow Canal has been recently brought back to life with the aid of some impressive modern engineering and several diversions lower down the valley, one of which involved tunneling the canal under a warehouse.

In total the restoration ended up costing £33million.

Image dcp_2248 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

Image dcp_2256 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

As you walk along the towpath, the slope to the right is the natural slope of the valley side, with the railway line beyond invisible in a cutting. In the far distance you can see the bridge where the rail lines cross the canal.

The land on the left which now looks just as natural as that on the right is in fact made up of the spoil from the railway tunnels. Now landscaped as a park, this area was once the site of a set of rail sidings.

Passing under the railway bridge (just under the tree's boughs here), you will come to this small canal basin, overlooked by a large canal warehouse, which for the years between the opening of the canal in 1798 and the tunnel in 1811 was used to trans-ship goods between boat and packhorse for the journey over the moors.

Now the warehouse houses the Standedge visitor's centre, run by British Waterways and not to be confused with the National Trust visitors centre. At the time of writing this is closed for renovation.

In the foreground is one of the tug/barge combinations used for trips into the tunnel.

Image dcp_2277 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

Image dcp_2292 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

Here is a view of the same area from the embankment of the canal feeder reservoir which fills the valley upstream of Tunnel End.

The railway line is sweeping round to the right to enter its tunnel, in the process crossing the canal at the far side of the small basin. After passing through this basin, the canal passes under the white painted bridge. The wooded area beyond canal and railway is old spoil tips from the tunnels.

In the distance is the moorland covered Deer Hill on the southern flank of the Colne Valley.

Once under the white bridge on the picture above, the canal runs passed the appropriately named Tunnel End Cottages and plunges into the tunnel itself. Behind the cottages is the bank of the canal feeder reservoir.

Although not very apparent in this picture, the rail line crosses immediately above the canal tunnel mouth, before entering its own tunnel. High above on the hillside, the large retaining wall marks the route of the A62, the road crossing of Standedge.

Cross the white bridge, and walk down to Tunnel End Cottages.

Image dcp_2261 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

Image dcp_2271 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

This picture from the trip boat boarding point just outside Tunnel End Cottages makes the juxtaposition of canal, rail tunnel and road even more clear.

The iron bridge just above the train carries the River Colne from the canal feeder reservoir overflow over the newer rail line, whence it drops in a man made cascade into the bottom of the valley, passing under the track bed of the older abandoned rail tunnel approaches.

At this point you have the possibility of taking a boat trip into the tunnel. Actually there are two different trips you may be able to do here, depending on the day:

  • On weekends, bank holidays and school holidays from April until October, you can take a short trip lasting about half an hour. I have done this, and it is highly recommended for the atmosphere.

  • On certain weekdays, convoys of private boats are towed through the tunnel and it is possible to ride all the way through on the tug/passenger barge combination towing the convoy. This journey takes upwards of three hours, but shows you the unlined inner part of the tunnel that the short trip does not reach and comes well recommended by the trip boat crew. If you do this you will need to make your own way back, either by walking across the moors or by catching a train from Diggle station to Marsden through the rail tunnel.

For details of dates and times for both sorts of trip, see their web site .

Inside the tunnel mouth, the first section of the tunnel is fully lined with bricks. The tunnel is the same width as the locks and the trip boat and its canal barge predecessors fit with only millimeters to spare.

The trip boat is pushed by a battery-electric tug, but canal barges were always 'legged' through, a process that involved specially employed 'leggers' laying across the boat and propelling it by walking their legs along the tunnel side. In the meantime the horses which normally pulled the barges would be led over the moors above on a specially built horse path.

Image dcp_2274 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

Image dcp_2273 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

Further into the tunnel, the continuous brick lining is replaced by brick reinforcement arches, with gaps between them through which the bare rock can be seen. Even further into the tunnel the tunnel is completely unlined.

At periodic intervals, cross shafts link the canal tunnel with the first, now abandoned, rail tunnel. These were originally built so the spoil from the rail tunnel could be removed through the canal tunnel. Now they are used as an emergency evacuation route for boats passing through the tunnel, and the convoy is always shadowed by a road vehicle in the old rail tunnel.

By now I expect you are both thirsty and hungry. If so then I would suggest you take a short detour up the access road to the tunnel end complex, where you will find the excellent Tunnel End Inn.

With a very welcoming team of owners, this pub provides a good selection of food and, for the beer connoisseurs, sells the famous Black Sheep beers. The pubs lunch-time opening is limited on weekdays; so, if you are intending to visit then, do check with their web site before traveling).

Image dcp_2279 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

Image dcp_2285 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

Retrace your steps down the access road, and re-cross the white bridge.

From near this bridge there is a view back to the rail tunnel entrances. From left to right here you can see the 1871 and 1848 tunnels (both now abandoned), the canal reservoir outfall cascading down to pass under the approaches to the older rail tunnels and the current 1894 tunnel just visible under the outfall over-bridge.

From the white bridge, follow the towpath back under the railway line, but immediately after the rail bridge climb up the steps to the right.

At the top of the steps you will find yourself in this attractive wooded area, which is actually on top of the spoil dump for the first rail tunnels. Initially this area contained holding sidings for freight trains waiting to traverse the original single-track tunnel. Later it formed the junction between the main line and the Huddersfield Corporation Waterworks Railway, built for the construction of the major reservoirs in the Wessenden Valley south of Marsden.

Walk to the end of the open area seen here and turn right down a shallow depression.

Image dcp_2297 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

Image dcp_2329 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

This will bring you to the edge of the ravine in which the River Colne runs. A small path leads down to a measurement weir, and from half-way down that path you can glimpse the remains of the abutment of the bridge which once carried the waterworks railway across that ravine.

From here the waterworks railway ran on steep grades up to cross Manchester Road and curved round into Wessenden Valley. Its main cargo was clay, brought through the rail tunnel from Lancashire and used to build the reservoir embankments.

Return to the main path and continue to walk back towards Marsden.

Soon you will see the old mill dam for what was once Clough Lee Mills, the furthest west of the Colne Valley's many 'dark satanic' textile mills. Actually in the last few years it has become clear that the only reason they were dark was because no-one had bothered to clean them for a century or more.

Of course most of the buildings in this picture are new, albeit built in the same 'millstone grit' as the old mills. They clearly represent the way 'executive housing' is displacing the textile industry hereabouts.

Image dcp_2303 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

Image dcp_2330 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

Continuing along the main path will eventually bring you back onto the canal towpath, under the roadbridge and back to the station. 

You can of course finish your trip here and catch the train home. However, if you want to see more of interesting township of Marsden itself, look for a path across the road from the station and descending steeply into the valley below.

Walk down this path and continue walking towards the tower of Marsden church.

This will bring you out alongside the River Colne just opposite St. Bartholomews Church, Marsden, often referred as the 'Cathedral of the Valley'.

To reach the church you will need to cross this intriguingly narrow stone bridge across the river. This is known locally as Mellor Bridge, apparently after the vicar who insisted on it being built in order to provide a short-cut from church to vicarage.



Image dcp_2324 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

Image dcp_2306 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

Once over the bridge, turn left and follow the River Colne downstream into the centre of Marsden. You will need to cross back across the river at the next road bridge, and then follow the road down the side of the river as seen here. 

Incidentally this river does not normally contain large numbers of yellow plastic ducks. I happened to turn up here during the 'duck race' that formed part of the local 'Cuckoo Day' fair. 

In the centre of Marsden is this confluence between the River Colne, which flows in from the right and out to the left, and the Wessenden Brook, which flows in over the weir.


Image dcp_2308 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

Image dcp_2312 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004

From this confluence Peel Street, the main street of Marsden, rises up to meet Manchester Road. If the Tunnel End Inn has failed to satisfy your thirst, you may care to try the Riverhead Brewery Tap, the first building on the right here, which brews its own beer. 

The large building further up is the Marsden Mechanics Institute, founded to educate the mill workers of the area. Today it contains a public library and is the headquarters of the Mikron Theatre Company, which tours throughout the UK. 

From here make your way back up the road to Marsden station, and catch the train home from there.

Oh, and just in case you did take the canal trip all the way through the tunnel, and decided to walk back across the moors, here is what you might expect to see up top. Marsden and Tunnel End are nestled in the valley to the far left of this picture, and the tunnels run more or less directly to and under the point where this picture was taken. At this point the the canal at 645 feet above sea level is 638 feet underground.

Image dcp_2228 & dcp_2229 - Chris Wood - 24th April 2004


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Page and all images copyright Chris Wood, 2003-2004. Page last updated on 8th June 2004.