Longest canal tunnel to reopen route through Pennines after 50 years

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They got blood out of a stone when Britain's longest canal tunnel was dug 200 years ago near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. Fifty men died as they toiled by candlelight to blast through three and a quarter miles of sheer Pennine rock using only gunpowder.

They got blood out of a stone when Britain's longest canal tunnel was dug 200 years ago near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. Fifty men died as they toiled by candlelight to blast through three and a quarter miles of sheer Pennine rock using only gunpowder.

The Standedge Tunnel, sealed for half a century, is now being reopened in a £30m British Waterways project, funded by the Millennium Commission, to restore the 20-mile trans-Pennine Huddersfield Narrow Canal. Engineers said yesterday it was proving as tough a customer as ever.

To those in canal circles, Standedge - which runs between the villages of Diggle and Marsden and stands on higher ground than any other canal tunnel in Britain - is "the impossible restoration". More than 15,000 cubic metres of silt and debris have gathered on the canal floor over those 50 years. Engineers have been working for six months to clear it, blastingsteel bolts into the walls and ceiling to ensure they do not cave in.Breathing compressed air, piped down the tunnel, the engineers scale off loose rocks and remove the silt, which is up to two metres deep. Rock-falls, at worst stretching for 40 metres, have slowed progress in four places.

The men work to the intermittent din of trains, which rush through an adjoining railway tunnel six metres away. (Side tunnels bored from the canal were used by the builders of the train tunnel.) Their faces streaked black, the engineers resembled coal miners as they surfaced for real air yesterday, but the engineers' task is not a shadow of their predecessors'. The original tunnel, opened in 1811, took 16 years to dig. There were no suction pipes to clear debris, only buckets, which had to be hauled up 178-metre shafts by hand. Most of the 50 deaths were in the shafts.

When the canal is restored in 2001, a journey through the tunnel will also be gentler than it once was. Standedge's original travellers took two and a half hours to get through by "legging it" (pushing against the walls of the tunnel with their feet) but future canal-goers may sit aboard a Perspex-topped boat with floodlights, listening to a commentary on the tunnel's history. The tunnel will open up east-west canal travel possibilities. The only trans-Pennine route now is the 127-mile Leeds and Liverpool Canal, a much more difficult journey.

"The tunnel's in amazing condition for a 200-year-old," said John Hallam, the senior project engineer. "As the M62 of its day, it took some stick."

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