Village digs up its Victorian past

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The Independent Online
THE industrial West Yorkshire village of Slaithwaite is be dug up to make way for a Victorian canal which has been buried deep beneath its main street for 50 years.

The work is part of the final pounds 30m push to reopen the 20-mile Huddersfield Narrow Canal, which stretches from Ashton-under-Lyne to the West Yorkshire mill town, in the next two years.

The plan has distressed many villagers who fear that Slaithwaite will become a ghost town during 18 months of excavation. The disruption of the Colne Valley settlement, they say, will keep people away too long for the small grocers, bakeries and hardware shops to survive.

Not everyone shares this pessimism. Val Todd, who has turned a narrow barge into a floating tea-shop, believes the project will turn Slaithwaite into a bustling and prosperous tourist centre built around a newly restored Huddersfield Narrow Canal.

"I know it will be hard but it will be worth it," said Miss Todd, who has invested her future in the return of the canal. She bought her narrow barge, moored on the edge of the village, six years ago after being made redundant. "I've always wanted to run my own business and I saw the restoration of the canal as an opportunity. I was lifted out of the water while this part of the canal was dredged and no one could get up here. But I'm managing, touch wood."

Jennifer Cottrell, owner of The Full Muffin, looks on to the tarmac path which, at the end of 18 months, will be an 8ft-deep channel of water. She said: "We've been here 15 months and we knew about plans for the canal. I thought it was an opportunity too good to miss.

"I know I'll have to close this entrance while the work is going on but I've got another at the back. It will mean a detour for people but it will work out. My Monday-to-Friday people will find their way and hopefully when the towpath is down so will the visitors."

But just across the main street, Ray Howard, owner of Colne Valley Motor Parts Centre and chairman of the local Chamber of Trade, is worried about the impact of the restoration work on business. "I'm not against the canal itself - it will probably enhance the village - but there is serious concern among traders and business people, not forgetting local residents, about the amount and severity of disruption to traffic through the village centre when work begins.

"It is essential that there is effective traffic management control together with a notified timetable of work and continuous consultation."

Mr Howard is concerned, too, about parking for shoppers, who might go elsewhere if there isn't a convenient spot.

Alan Stopher, who is directing the project for the Huddersfield Canal Company - a partnership between Kirklees, Oldham and Tameside councils, British Waterways and the Huddersfield Canal Society - described Slaithwaite as unique in canal terms. He explained: "Canals tend to serve the rear of business and houses but in Slaithwaite it goes through the centre of the village which is unique on any canal system. I don't know a village like it."

He will be explaining the company's intentions at this weekend's "Shaping Slaithwaite", an invitation to the village to have its say, not just about the canal but also about the impact of the television series Where the Heart Is, which is filmed on its streets and hillsides.

Mr Howard said Slaithwaite had a chance to learn from the mistakes made by nearby Holmfirth, the backdrop to the television programme Last of the Summer Wine.

"The village is suffering a backlash," he said. "It's full of craft shops for the visitors and there is nothing for the people who live there."

"Shaping Slaithwaite" has been organised by the Colne Valley Trust together with Leeds University, which has created a Slaithwaite website on the Internet as part of an experiment to improve planning consultations.