Paddle under the Pennines: longest and deepest UK canal tunnel opens for canoe trips

<span>‘Up and close to history’: Gordon McMinn hopes that the trips will become a bucket-list experience and raise much-needed funds for the trust.</span><span>Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian</span>
‘Up and close to history’: Gordon McMinn hopes that the trips will become a bucket-list experience and raise much-needed funds for the trust.Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

“You’re in a canoe, not a boat, so you are very exposed,” said Gordon McMinn as he prepared to paddle into the UK’s longest, highest and deepest canal tunnel. “You’re vulnerable, you’re under your own steam, you are up and close to history … it is quite an experience.”

McMinn, a volunteer team leader at the Canal & River Trust, has coordinated what it is hoped will become a bucket-list experience – the opportunity to paddle under the Pennines.

The guided 3.5-mile canoe trips are through Standedge Tunnel, a jaw dropping feat of engineering which is 194 metres underground and 196 metres above sea level.

The narrow canal tunnel from Marsden in West Yorkshire to Diggle in Greater Manchester opened in 1811 after 17 years of construction.

The Guardian was invited for a preview before the trips are launched in a fortnight’s time. Emergency contact details were provided – “just in case” – and McMinn sought to reassure us that the risk of the disease leptospirosis was tiny. “It’s only really if you get wet hands and start rubbing them on your face, or drinking canal water, which isn’t advisable,” he said.

If you do fall out, he added, “please try not to panic”.

We went about 600 metres before turning back. It was everything you might expect: dark, cold, grimy and not a place for claustrophobes, but a thrilling experience.

It was eerily quiet and your mind wanders to the madness of the construction, using dynamite, shovels, chisels and bare hands. About 50 men are known to have died digging the tunnel. How many others died early as a consequence of working there is another question.

Above the tunnel is Pule Hill, a popular walking spot, and Brun Clough reservoir. As you go through the tunnel you can sometimes hear and, at one spot, experience water seeping through the rock.

It has taken McMinn and his colleagues two years to coordinate the trips with mountains of planning, logistics and risk assessments.

He remembered the first time he paddled the length of the tunnel. “I was a little bit nervous, even though I’m a competent paddler, you’re going underground in the dark. There is always that what if …?”

Jack Laycock, who will also be a paddling guide, said that for him there is an extra thrill to the experience. “I grew up in Yorkshire and I now live in Lancashire so it is a symbolic journey. It’s crossing the border and to cross the border in such an intimate way is very special.”

The tunnel is used by boats on the Huddersfield narrow canal, but paddle trips are a new activity on the waterway.

The Canal & River Trust says it is increasingly having to think outside the box over income generation because of its wider financial worries.

It was informed last July that it would get less money from the government, a cut it has equated to 40%, and fears canals may have to close unless the funding gap is filled.

“Financially we face a significant challenge,” said Sean McGinley, the trust’s regional director for Yorkshire and the north-east. “If we don’t find new sources of income we are going to struggle. This alone isn’t going to solve all the problems but if we can find lots of different versions of this … why not?”

The trust has increased the cost of boat licences, to the anger and unhappiness of many canal users. “It is painful,” said McGinley.

The pressure on costs is one reason the trust is coming up with projects such as “paddle under the Pennines”, with 18 paddle trips over nine days in June, July and August.

McGinley said: “This year we’re going to have 18 trips and a few hundred people will be able to do this. In five years’ time I can see us doing it in every available gap in the calendar.”

Each trip will be one-way only, which means paddlers will have to organise their own way back, a glorious seven-mile walk over the hill. The cost of the trips is £100 for two people in a tandem canoe or £55 for a solo paddler.

The limited places are bookable at canalrivertrust.org.uk.